25 April 2018

Why Don't More People Use Positive Reinforcement to Train Dogs?

Everyone who has a dog needs to teach them how to behave. But why do many people still use methods that have risks for animal welfare?

How can we encourage more people to use positive reinforcement in dog training - like this woman teaching her cute dog to high-five
Photo: Corey Terrill/Shutterstock

A new paper by myself (Zazie Todd) looks at the barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods by ordinary people. To understand how people make decisions about dog training, we need to understand people’s attitudes to different methods and what influences them, as well as people’s knowledge and technical ability in using those methods.

Humane dog training methods use positive reinforcement and negative punishment. They are also known as reward-based methods, positive reinforcement, or force free methods, and they basically involve giving or withholding rewards contingent on the dog’s behaviour.

There are many reasons to use humane methods rather than aversive ones (which, technically speaking, are positive punishment and negative reinforcement). The use of reward-based dog training methods is associated with better welfare, and there are some indications it may even produce better results (see the dog training research resources page if you want to delve into the literature). Some behaviour problems are due to fear or stress, but aversive methods do not resolve this (and may even make it worse). Some problems occur because the dog does not have appropriate ways to engage in normal behaviour (e.g. chew toys). And training with positive reinforcement can be a good way to provide cognitive enrichment, which is important because good animal welfare includes positive experiences.

But studies show most ordinary dog owners use a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment to train dogs – so-called ‘balanced’ dog training. From an animal welfare perspective, it’s important to understand why many people continue to use aversive methods at least some of the time – and how we can bring about change.

A dog sits for a treat. Why don't more people train dogs with positive reinforcement? Research investigates.

Many different factors will affect people’s attitudes towards training methods and the actual methods they use. The paper considers these factors, and in some cases it draws on the literature related to children and parents’ use of corporal punishment, which has been more extensively studied.

Many people (including some dog trainers) still use the idea of dominance to train dogs. Unfortunately, this frames the dog-owner relationship in antagonistic terms, and so may encourage people to use aversive methods.

There is no regulation of dog trainers, and no requirement for education. This means some people who hire a dog trainer may get out-dated advice. Some trainers may not be clear about the methods they use on their website, which may make it difficult for people to find a reward-based trainer.

Amongst dog trainers who do use reward-based methods, there are a few points of disagreement. One relates to the use of no-reward markers. This is a word or phrase (e.g. “Too bad!” or “Oops”) that signals to the dog the behaviour they did was not the one requested, and hence they didn’t earn a reward. Some dog trainers use them, and some don’t. For most people, errorful learning with prompt feedback is more successful than error-free learning (the exceptions include those with amnesia). But we simply don’t have good data on this for dogs.

Another point of disagreement relates to the use of negative punishment. Negative punishment means withholding a reward so the frequency of a behaviour goes down. One example is withholding rewards when a dog does not perform the right behaviour (which is inevitable some of the time). Another example is the use of ‘time out’. Evidence-based parenting programs teach ‘time out’ as a non-aversive way to improve children’s behaviour. We know there are some common mistakes parents make, and it seems likely dog owners make some of the same mistakes with their dog (for example, using many warning cues instead of just one before implementing the time out).

Why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs? Illustrated by this cute Siberian Husky puppy in a cardboard box
Photo: Anucha Pongpatimeth/Shutterstock

The legality or otherwise of certain methods (such as electronic shock collars, which are banned in a number of countries) will affect perceptions of whether or not it is okay to use them.

The different positions taken by professional bodies, including veterinary associations, dog training associations, animal behaviour associations, groups that train working dogs, rescues and shelters, may also affect people’s perceptions of social norms about dog training. Some organizations have clear position statements on dog training methods. But when some organizations include aversive methods as a ‘last resort’ it may give people the mistaken impression they are sometimes necessary, or that there is not a scientific consensus on the best methods to use.

There’s also an issue of competency, since technical expertise etc. may affect the success of attempts to train with positive reinforcement. We don’t know how dog trainers or owners make decisions when they think positive reinforcement isn’t working; that is, whether they take advice or find someone with more expertise, or whether they decide to use positive punishment instead.

Veterinarians also have an important role to play in referring dog owners to trainers and animal behaviourists. Advice for veterinarians stresses the importance of positive methods, but again some organizations allow for some methods to be used as a ‘last resort’.

Of course, many factors relating to dog owners themselves will also influence their choice of training methods. These include their technical skills and the reinforcement they use (which will affect their success rate), their knowledge of dog training methods, methods they have seen promoted on TV and elsewhere, people’s ability to read their dog’s body language (e.g. to recognize if the dog is fearful), and personality characteristics. Unfortunately the quality of information in dog training books is highly variable and the same likely applies to other sources of information such as TV and the internet.

All of this shows that encouraging more people to use humane dog-training methods is a complex issue. But a model from social psychology known as the reasoned action approach (and its predecessor the theory of planned behaviour) has been quite successful in predicting people’s intentions and behaviours in a wide range of topics – including parents’ attitudes to and use of corporal punishment. This would be a good fit for investigating what influences people’s choice of dog training methods.

I would love to see more research on the best ways to encourage people to use reward-based training methods, and how best to teach them.

What do you think are the main factors that influence people’s choice of dog training methods?

The full paper is available for free download via this link for a limited time. Be sure to download it before 9th June!

Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Dog Training Methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.  25C(28-34).

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

22 April 2018

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium

Two upcoming events in the BC lower mainland, featuring Chirag Patel.

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium 2018

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium will take place in Burnaby, BC, on 2nd and 3rd June 2018, featuring Chirag Patel, world-renowned behaviour and training consultant, and star of the UK TV show Nightmare Pets SOS.

As well, there will be talks from Karen van Haaften DVM, Kim Monteith, Claudia Richter DVM, Rebecca Ledger PhD - and myself.

I'm really looking forward to it!

And before that, on 31st May, the BC SPCA Pet Behaviour Speaker Series is hosting 10 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew, featuring Chirag Patel, Dr. Karen van Haaften, and Kim Monteith. This event at The Historic Theatre in Vancouver will include live dog demonstrations.

17 April 2018

Is Scent Enriching for Shelter Dogs?

Research investigates the effects of enrichment using the scent of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian.

Dogs have excellent noses, like this one belonging to a Shih Tzu dog. Researchers tested the effects of scent enrichment on shelter dogs and found  it reduced signs of stress.
Photo: chaoss/Shutterstock

Animal shelters are stressful environments for dogs, and so anything that helps them to be less stressed is beneficial. Scientists from Hartpury University Centre tested the effects of presenting scent-infused cloths to shelter dogs. The results are promising and suggest scent enrichment may work well for shelter dogs.

Study authors, John Binks and Dr Tamara Montrose, say
“In our study we found that shelter dogs showed reduced vocalisations and movement when exposed to cloths scented with ginger, coconut, vanilla and valerian. In addition, we found that dogs exposed to coconut and ginger slept more. Since excessive vocalisations and activity may indicate stress in kennelled dogs, as well as being behaviours that can be found undesirable by potential adopters, our study suggests that these odours may have application in rescue shelters to reduce stress and enhance adoption.”

Enrichment means adding things to the animal’s environment that are designed to improve welfare, for example by allowing the animal to engage in species-specific behaviour, encourage use of the environment, get more exercise, encourage learning, and decrease boredom and abnormal behaviour. Since shelter dogs spend a large part of their day in kennels, enrichment is important to improve their welfare.

Dogs have impressive noses (and vomeronasal organs) and, as we all know, they spend a lot of time smelling things. The scientists say enrichment works best if it targets an animal’s primary sense, so it is surprising there isn’t more research into scent enrichment for shelter dogs.

The experiment used the smells of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian because they are safe for dogs, easily available, and have been found to be beneficial for other animals, such as wombats, sea-lions, Javan gibbons, cats and rats (read about different scents that cats like).

15 dogs took part at a shelter in Gloucestershire, England. Most were medium-sized dogs and two were small.

The dogs were presented with scent on a cloth put in their kennel for a few hours per day. There were two control conditions: an unscented cloth (to provide a comparison for the different smells), and no cloth (to control for the effects of the presence of a new item). The unscented cloth control condition took place before the presentations of smells, and the no cloth condition took place after.

Each condition took place over three days, with a two day gap between them.

Cloths were prepared an hour in advance by adding a few drops of essential oils or fragrance oils, and then kept in a ziplock bag until they were used. The experimenter wore gloves to ensure they did not accidentally transfer any other scents to the cloths. Dogs were given half an hour to get used to the item, and then observed for a two-hour period, the latter half of which was during the shelter’s opening hours for visitors. This was in the middle of the day when feeding and exercise did not happen, so the dogs' behaviour would not be affected by waiting for the next meal.

When the scented cloths were present, dogs vocalized less. Since barking, whining etc. can be signs of stress, this suggests they were less stressed. Dogs also spent more time resting and less time moving when the scents were present. For the ginger and coconut scents, dogs spent more time sleeping.

These results suggest the scent enrichment helped the dogs be less stressed.

There was also an effect of time, in that when the shelter was open to visitors, dogs vocalized more, stood more, and spent less time resting. They were also at the front of their kennel more.

The scents were always presented in the same order. This was so that other dogs taking part would not have their scent contaminated by one of the other smells wafting in to the kennel. This means there is potential for an order effect. However, because the dogs were presented with the controls before and after the different scent conditions, it does seem that the results are due to the scents.

The scent enrichment used in this study would be easy to use at a shelter, although more research is needed with a larger number of dogs. The results are very promising, and suggest the use of these scents can help shelter dogs to be less stressed.

You can follow Dr. Tamara Montrose, one of the authors of the study, on twitter.

Stay up to date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Binks, J., Taylor, S., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. T. (2018). The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

11 April 2018

Interview with Dr. Marc Bekoff on Canine Confidential

Dr. Marc Bekoff on dogs, emotions, citizen science and his new book, Canine Confidential.

Dr. Marc Bekoff - seen here with dog Minnie - interviewed about his book, Canine Confidential
Dr. Marc Bekoff (right) with Minnie. Photo: Tom Gordon

Dr. Marc Bekoff’s new book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do is out on 13th April. I was thrilled to interview him over email about why he wrote the book and the importance of observing dogs.

Zazie: Why did you decide to write Canine Confidential?

Marc: There are many reasons, and in reality, I've been writing this book for many, many years. I bring a unique perspective to the study of dogs in that I was trained in ethology and have done long-term field work on free-ranging dogs, wild coyotes, and various birds including Adélie penguins in Antarctica.

Among the most important reasons are: to emphasize how important it is to watch dogs and to learn as much as one can about different aspects of behavior; to emphasize that there is a good deal of individual variability among dogs so speaking about "the dog" is misleading; to stress that dogs display multiple intelligences and don't only "live in the present"; to show that dogs are not dumb-downed wolves; to provide a lot of detailed data in accessible prose to non-researchers, information that can be used to allow dogs to be dogs as much as they can be in an increasingly human-dominated world (in many ways, dogs are captive animals whose freedoms are severely restricted); to discuss how dogs sense their world via smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste, and why they should be allowed to exercise their senses and to sniff to their hearts' delight; to let their walks be for them, not for us; to dispel myths such as dogs are unconditional lovers (anyone who's rescued a dog who has been abused knows this to be so), peeing and marking are the same, growling is always aggressive, it's a bad idea to hug dogs or to play tug-of-war or to "get down and dirty" and to romp around with them (when we do it must be on their terms, of course), that dogs (and other nonhuman animals) don't display dominance (they do, but we shouldn't dominate them to get them to live in harmony with us), that they always circle before they lie down, that intense play-fighting always or usually escalates into fighting (research shows this actually only very rarely occurs); that dog parks are a bad idea across the board (they're not, but only dogs who like going to dog parks should be taken there); to provide trainers with information that can be used to enhance the dog's life when they work with their clients, canine and human, and to strongly suggest that trainers observe dogs outside of the context in which there is an issue; to strongly suggest that people select certified trainers and to choose someone as carefully as they'd choose a neurosurgeon; and to stress how important it is to allow dogs to exercise their senses, their muscles, and their hearts.

I mix in a good deal of the latest research on various aspects of dog behavior with numerous stories, and take a descriptive "anatomical" approach to naming the dogs with whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and watching. For example, readers will meet Bernie and Beatrice "the butt-ers," Tammy "the tongue," Louie "the licker," Harry and Helen "the happy jumpers," and Peter "the pecker-pecker." All names, canine and human, have been changed to protect the guilty.

I also write some about human-human interactions and how they reveal a lot about their dogs and the people themselves. It's just a coincidence that this is The Year of the Dog, and I'm thrilled that my book was published in this special time. Of course, every day should be "the day of the dog" because we are so fortunate to have them in our lives.  They should only be as fortunate to have us in their lives.

Zazie: The subtitle of the book is Why dogs do what they do, and in it you answer lots of questions about why dogs do things, like ‘what are they doing when scent marking?’ and ‘why do they roll in stuff?’ How did you pick the questions, and are there any of the topics that are particular favorites?

Marc: I selected the different topics based on many decades of studying dogs and their wild relatives, by cataloging questions that I've been repeatedly asked when talking with people at different venues, and also by paying attention to those areas that are important to understand to give dogs the very best lives possible. Among my favorites are play behavior -- how dogs are able to play fairly and have fun-on-the-run as they engage in frenetic "zoomies" and low-key play -- and topics centering on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs and other animals. I also really enjoy listening to people talk about their dogs and also other people at the dog park and their friends. Dogs can be social catalysts for bringing people together and really get people talking about things they don't typically share out of the places where they bring their dogs for exercise and to have fun with other dogs. Sometimes I'd politely excuse myself when someone was sharing TMI (too much information). 

"Among my favorites are play behavior" - Dr. Marc Bekoff on Canine Confiential and dog play, like these two Labradors with a stick
Photo: Gerald Marella/Shutterstock

Zazie: You write a lot about the emotional lives of dogs. How do we know which emotions dogs experience – and what more do we need to know?

Marc: That's a great question. There are ample detailed data from many ethological perspectives and a growing number of neuroimaging studies that clearly show that dogs are emotional beings who experience joy, happiness, sadness, grief, pain, disgust, jealousy, and likely guilt. The bibliography and the notes in Canine Confidential are lengthy and filled with up-to-date data from ethological and neurobiological studies. These data clearly show that the real question at hand is why emotions have evolved, not if they have evolved. The reason I write that it's likely dogs display guilt is because we really don't know if this is the case quite yet. An oft-repeated error in both scientific essays and the popular press goes something like, "Research has shown that dogs don't display guilt," and a study by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is cited as evidence. However, she did not show that dogs do not display guilt, only that we are not very good at reading guilt in dogs. I include an exchange with Dr. Horowitz about this point, with which she totally agrees. She wrote, "My study was decidedly NOT about whether dogs 'feel guilt' or not." Readers will be pleased and surprised to see how much we really know about the emotional lives of dogs, and I also point out where more research is needed. One can be sure that dogs are sentient beings who care about what happens to themselves, their families, and their friends.

Zazie: The book is full of lovely stories about dogs, including your own dogs. As a writer, do you most enjoy writing about the scientific research or about the anecdotes, or do you prefer writing about both together?

Marc: I really prefer writing about both together, as I do in my book and in numerous essays that I write for Psychology Today about dogs and many other animals. It's always interested me that many anecdotes are supported by empirical data that are collected at a later date. I also write a good deal about the importance of "citizen science," and that's why I encourage people to become ethologists and "naturalists in the dog park" if they go there with their dog(s).

Zazie: One thing that’s clear from this book is that people tell you stories about their dogs at the dog park, or email you stories about their animals. Are there any particular topics that people tend to talk to you about the most?

Marc: Not really. What I love about the stories I'm told is how wide-ranging they are. Quite often, the questions I'm asked and the stories I'm told focus on a particular dog and their human, and the unique relationship they've formed. Once again, there not only is a good deal of within species variability among dogs, but also among their humans and in the dog-human relationships that are formed. I feel very lucky to have people share their stories with me in person and via email and the occasional letter, although sometimes when I open my email inbox I feel overwhelmed. But, that feeling disappears rapidly as I learn more and more about dogs and their humans.

Zazie: You say that even though we don’t know everything about dogs, we still know enough to be able to give them rewarding lives. What are the most important things we can do for our dogs?

Marc: Love them, respect them, meet them at least half-way, develop mutual tolerance, and learn as much as you can not only about dog behavior but about the unique individual(s) with whom you chose to share your home and your heart. And, let them be dogs as much as possible. There's no reason to be helicopter guardians, yet people say "No" or "Stop that" far more often than they say "Good dog" or "That's ok." In some ways, my books can be viewed as a field guide to freedom in which I encourage people to unleash their dog as much as possible. Choosing to live with a dog (or other animal) is a "cradle to grave" commitment and we must remember that we are their lifelines.

A dog is a "cradle to grave" commitment, says Dr. Marc Bekoff about his new book Canine Confidential. Picture shows a happy Leonberger
Photo: Shutterstock

Zazie: At the end of the book, there is a really nice appendix that teaches people what ethology is and how to do it. What can people gain from becoming ‘citizen ethologists’?

Marc: They can gain a lot. By becoming fluent in dog they not only can learn some nitty-gritty details about dog behavior, but also about how unique each dog is. It's also a lot of fun to do these informal studies, and I love it when people come to me and ask me how to become an ethologist. In the book I tell stories about how people have told me that learning to "speak dog"  and to try to think like they do has helped them not only to understand their dog, but also how this information improves their relationship with their canine companion. Learning about dog behavior and dog-human relationships is a win-win for all.

Thank you, Marc, for taking the time to answer my questions!

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do is published by Chicago University Press.

Bio: Marc is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has won many awards for his scientific research including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc has published more than 30 books and three encyclopedias, and writes regularly for Psychology Today on "all things dog" and various topics focusing on animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation. His homepage is marcbekoff.com and, with Jane Goodall, ethologicalethics.org.

Read more interviews on Companion Animal Psychology here

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

01 April 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club April 2018

"How Dogs Love Us answers the age-old question of dog lovers everywhere..."

Book Club: How Dogs Love Us. A dog on the bed with a book and marshmallows

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for April 2018  is How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain by Gregory Berns.

From the back cover,

"The powerful bond between humans and dogs is one that’s uniquely cherished. Loyal, obedient, and affectionate, they are truly “man’s best friend.” But do dogs love us the way we love them? Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns had spent decades using MRI imaging technology to study how the human brain works, but a different question still nagged at him: What is my dog thinking?

After his family adopted Callie, a shy, skinny terrier mix, Berns decided that there was only one way to answer that question—use an MRI machine to scan the dog’s brain. His colleagues dismissed the idea. Everyone knew that dogs needed to be restrained or sedated for MRI scans. But if the military could train dogs to operate calmly in some of the most challenging environments, surely there must be a way to train dogs to sit in an MRI scanner."

Will you be reading too?

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

30 March 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Turns 6

Celebrating six years of writing about the science of our relationship with pets.

The dog- and cat- science blog Companion Animal Psychology turns 6, and this dog is about to enjoy a sixth birthday cake
Photo: Kira_Yan/Shutterstock

It’s exactly six years since I started Companion Animal Psychology!

The most popular posts of the last year were people mistakenly think anxious dogs are relaxed around baby and the ultimate dog training tip, which won the Captain Haggerty Award from the Dog Writer’s Association of America.

The posts on how to make the world better for dogs and how to make the world better for cats, in which experts weigh in on what would make a difference, have also been incredibly popular. In the last year I spoke to Dr. Lee Dugatkin about How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), and to Dr. Christy Hoffman about her research in Anthrozoology. And I was thrilled to publish guest posts from Kristi Benson CTC, Gina Bishopp, and Sienna Taylor MSc.

This is post number 355. Regular readers will have noticed posting frequency is down lately. This is because I am busy finishing the manuscript of my book. Look out for more news on that very soon, as well as a return to a regular blogging rhythm.

Meantime, thanks to all of you for the ongoing support. And thank you to those of you who have made use of the advertising on this site, which helps to keep it running.

It's time for coffee and cake now, and a glass of wine later. Cheers!


26 March 2018

Tips for Puppies and Puppy Love

Two recent Psychology Today posts are all about puppies.

For National Puppy Day, I wrote about the best things you can do for your puppy. The post shares three essential tips for anyone who is getting a puppy.

Photo: Spiritze / Pixabay

And in response, Marc Bekoff wrote it's National Puppy Day so give them all the love you can. In it, Bekoff writes,
"I'm a fan of all people who choose to bring a dog into their homes and hearts taking the time to become amateur ethologists and spending time becoming "fluent in dog." When we make this decision, and it should be a serious and informed choice, we become their caregivers and they assume we have their best interests in mind from "cradle to grave," the cradle beginning when we welcome them into our lives"

Why not check them out. Of course, it's really Puppy Day (and Kitten Day) every day!!

22 March 2018

The Guinea Pigs' Perspective and Humane Dog Training

A couple of news items: new post at Psychology Today, new article in press at the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

I have a new blog post at Psychology Today called Animal-Assisted Therapy: The Guinea Pigs' Perspective.

It's about a new study by Gut et al that looked at the behavioural response of guinea pigs in animal-assisted therapy sessions with and without the option of retreat. There are implications not just for animal-assisted therapy but also for anyone with pet guinea pigs.

Photo: 12071/Pixabay

In case you missed it, in February I had a post on Choosing Dogs that can Breathe.

I also have a paper in press at the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods. As soon as the final version is available, I will have an author link to give you free access for a limited time. Watch this space!

Photo: Ksenia Raykova/Shutterstock

14 March 2018

Puppy Socialization Practices - And How They Are Lacking

Almost a third of puppies are missing out on important socialization during the sensitive period.

Two puppies having fun at the beach - but almost a third of puppies miss out on important socialization during the sensitive period

A survey of puppy owners by Dr. Janet Cutler et al (University of Guelph) finds that a sizeable number of puppies are not receiving enough socialization.

Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization from 3 weeks until about 12-14 weeks. During this time, they should have lots of positive socialization experiences with other people and dogs and habituate to the kinds of environmental stimuli they will encounter as adult dogs. Without these positive experiences, they are less likely to be friendly, confident dogs.

The scientists recruited people with a puppy less than 20 weeks old. Then, when the puppy turned exactly 20 weeks, they sent an email with a link to the survey.

Almost a third of puppies were not receiving many socialization experiences, which in this study was defined as up to 10 people and 5 dogs or less per 2 week period. Lack of socialization can lead to behaviour problems such as fear and aggression, which in turn can lead to dogs being re-homed or euthanized.

The results show that half of puppy owners (49%) took their puppy to puppy class. There were differences between the people who had been to puppy class and those who hadn’t. If people had been to puppy class:

  • They exposed the puppy to more people between the ages of 10 and 20 weeks of age
  • They exposed the puppy to more dogs outside the home between the ages of 14 and 20 weeks
  • They were more likely to expose the puppy to more stimuli, including large trucks, sirens, children, people coming to the door (but there was no difference for walking on leash or going to the dog park)
  • They were more likely to reward good behaviour (93% compared to 86% of those who did not attend), use redirection, and ignore bad behaviour
  • They were less likely to use verbal corrections (82% compared to 96%)
  • They were less likely to use positive punishment, including holding the puppy on its back (21% compared to 96%) 

Of course these figures do not show causality, as although people will hopefully have learned from attending the class, at the same time certain kinds of people might be more likely to attend puppy class in the first place. The increase in exposure to stimuli could in part be due to the puppy class, as by definition there were other people and puppies there (although not enough to meet socialization needs). People were more likely to attend puppy class if they had done more research on puppies, had a higher household income, lived in a suburban rather than rural area, and did not have children.

Only 70% of the puppy classes included opportunities for puppies to play together. This is a shame because puppies learn important skills through play. The least common activities were gradual exposure to noises, trading one item for another, and teaching the puppy to go to a mat (as well as a category called 'other'), of which happened in less than half of the classes. Other research shows that up to half of adult dogs are afraid of loud noises, and gradual exposure during the sensitive period can help to prevent these fears.

Sit, down, and coming when called were the most popular commands, being taught in over 80% of classes. Body handling was taught in just over half of the classes. It would be better if more classes taught this, as body handling exercises at this age can help puppies learn to accept veterinary examinations without being afraid.

Owners who used punishment were more likely to say their puppy was fearful. 4% of owners said they would force the puppy to face its fears, something which risks making the fear even worse. Puppies who had attended class were less likely to be afraid of noises such as the vacuum cleaner.

There were 296 participants. It was a convenience sample so they are not representative of the general population (if anything, they are likely to be more educated about dogs, given they were recruited via a mix of email and online sites including some related to professional organizations and humane societies).

The authors say it would be nice to have research on how much socialization is needed, in order to give dog owners clearer advice. A recent study with Guide Dog puppies suggests more socialization is better.

But the most important finding from this study, in my view, is that a sizeable minority of puppies are not getting enough socialization. The authors refer to the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour position statement on puppy socialization, which says that socialization should begin before the final vaccines are given. Only 51-65% of vets discuss behaviour with new puppy and kitten owners, but this would be a good time to educate people about socialization and training.

The scientists write,
“Owners who attended classes with their puppies provided those puppies with more socialization opportunities than owners who did not attend and also indicated more favorable responses to managing signs of fear in their puppies and to disciplining them. This highlights the need for veterinarians and other animal care professionals to educate puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization, socialization classes, and positive reinforcement–based training and assist puppy owners in accessing reliable resources for this information.”
These results show that, although many people are getting a lot of things right, there is still room for improvement when it comes to socialization and training of puppies.

If you are looking for a puppy class, make sure that you find a good dog trainer who will only use reward-based training methods. (See here for more information on the risks of using punishment).

Did you take your puppy to puppy class?

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Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415-1423. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

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04 March 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club March 2018

"...award-winning journalist David Grimm explores the rich and surprising history of our favourite companion animals."

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for March is Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs by David Grimm.

From the inside cover,
"Dogs are getting lawyers. Cats are getting kidney transplants. Could they one day be fellow citizens? 
Cats and dogs were once wild animals. Today, they are family members and surrogate children. A little over a century ago, pets didn't warrant the meager legal status of property. Now, they have more rights and protections than any other animal in the country. Some say they're even on the verge of becoming legal persons. 
How did we get here—and what happens next? 
In this fascinating exploration of the changing status of dogs and cats in society, pet lover and award-winning journalist David Grimm explores the rich and surprising history of our favorite companion animals."

Are you reading Citizen Canine too? Please leave your thoughts on the book in the comments.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

28 February 2018

To gesture or not to gesture in dog training?

Are visual cues more effective than verbal cues in dog training?

Guest post by Sienna Taylor, MSc (Hartpury University Centre).

A Havanese dog fetches a ball. Science investigates whether visual or verbal cues work best
Photo: Dorottya Mathe (Shutterstock)

A new study by Anna Scandurra (University of Naples) et al. investigates whether visual cues as opposed to verbal cues are more effective when dogs are trained to fetch an item under four conditions: using only hand cues, using only verbal cues, using both hand and verbal cues and using contradictory hand and verbal cues.

It turns out that dogs responded better to visual hand gestures than verbal cues although speed of response was quicker when both hand and verbal cues were used together.

Many pet owners teach their dogs to respond to both visual and verbal cues, for example, an owner might ask their dog to lie on the floor by simply using the verbal command “Lie Down” or alternatively using a hand gesture such as pointing or perhaps a combination of both!  Whilst dogs do use vocalisations to communicate (such as attracting attention, with vocalisations usually being context specific) (Serpell, 2017), they communicate largely through the use of discrete body postures (Landsberg et al. 2013), both intra-specifically (dog-dog) and inter-specifically (human-dog).

Dogs are adept at responding to our gaze or if we nod (Kaminski and Nitzschner, 2013) or point towards a particular object (Lakatos et al. 2012).  Sometimes we find that when we ask a dog to verbally “Lie Down” the response is a blank look or an altogether different response!  Yet if we use a hand gesture such as point to the floor or use a combination of both verbal and visual cues the dog instantly lies down.  This more immediate response to a visual cue, even when in combination with a verbal cue, has often puzzled owners and begs the question are visual cues more effective in dog training than verbal cues or should we be using both?

The study by Scandurra et al. (2018) set out to test whether 13 pet dogs responded better to their owners using either visual or verbal cues alone (unimodal) or both visual and verbal cues (bimodal) which took into account both the dogs acute visual and auditory capabilities.

Dogs were trained to ensure they responded equally well to both verbal cues and visual hand gestures and were asked to perform a pre-test fetch task. Objects included a piece of wood, a plastic bottle and a pencil case.

Twenty four trials took place in the pre-test phase, eight trials used verbal cues only (spoken in Italian, with the voice command directing the dog to retrieve one of two items), followed by eight trials using hand gestures only (where the owner directed the dog by pointing to one of two items). A further eight trials used both verbal and visual cues (the owner directed the dog to one of the two items through the use of both verbal and visual cues at the same time).

Nine dogs met the requirements of the pre-test phase and were selected to take part in the final eight trials where a combination of both cues were used. However, this time the cues contradicted one another, for example when asking the dog to retrieve, the owner pointed at one object but named another.

Dogs were found to respond equally well to both verbal and visual cues when used on their own although, when both verbal and visual cues were given together, dogs were found to respond significantly more quickly to the task.  When dogs were given contradictory information, 78% of dogs (7 out of 9 dogs) chose the hand gesture. The remaining two dogs performed at a chance level and randomly chose to retrieve the verbally indicated or the object visually pointed at equally often.  What’s interesting is that none of the dogs preferred the verbal cue over the hand gesture.  This leads us to further question the importance of verbal cues to dogs.

How we use verbal communication (e.g. quality of spoken word) and also level of eye contact has been found to impact level of responsiveness in the dog. Fukuzawa et al. (2005) found that when a dog was asked to sit with the command played through a tape recorder, there was a significant decline in performance. It also took the dog longer to learn the command in the absence of lip or facial movements.  Similarly, when the person obscured their eyes by wearing sunglasses and the command was played through the tape, the dog’s responsiveness to the command also reduced.  However, when sunglasses were worn and a spoken verbal command was given no reduction in responsiveness was evident.  The authors concluded that eye contact is important to dogs but not in all contexts.  Fukuzawa et al. (2005) also found that effectiveness of command was reduced when a person’s back was turned.  This implies that body postures appear to be important to the dog in understanding signals as part of human-dog communication but may be context dependent.

Next time you use a cue, if the dog does not respond it is worth following up with a hand gesture to see if you get a better response!
About Sienna Taylor:

Sienna Taylor training her dog Bailey

Sienna Taylor FdSc, BSc (Hons), MSc, FHEA, is a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Hartpury University Centre, Gloucestershire.  Her research interests include human-animal interactions and the use of olfactory enrichment in companion animals.  Sienna enjoys training her two year old Labrador Bailey and they are currently working towards their Grade 3 Gundog Test.

You can follow Sienna Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor5Sienna.

Fukuzawa, M., Mills, D.S. and Cooper, J.J. (2005) More than just a word: non-semantic command variables affect obedience in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 91(1), pp.129-141.
Kaminski, J. and Nitzschner, M. (2013) Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability. Learning and Motivation. 44, pp. 294-302. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lmot.2013.05.001
Lakatos, G., Gácsi, M., Topál, J. and Miklósi, Á. (2012) Comprehension and utilization of pointing gestures and gazing in dog-human communication in relatively complex situations. Animal Cognition. 15, pp. 201-213.
Landsberg, G.M., Hunthausen, W.L. and Ackerman, L.J. (2012) Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, 3e.Oxford: Elsevier Health Sciences.
Scandurra, A., Alterisio, A., Aria, M., Vernese, R. and D’Aniello, B. (2018) Should I fetch one or the other? A study on dogs on the object choice in the bimodal contrasting paradigm. Animal Cognition. pp. 1-8.
Serpell, J. (2016) The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

14 February 2018

Do Some Cats Respond Quietly to Catnip?

Young kittens don't have an active response to catnip. But if you think your cat does not respond to catnip, maybe it's just a quiet response, according to a recent study.

Not all cats have an active response to catnip, but study suggests other cats adopt the Sphinx position, like this tabby cat
Photo: Prasom Boonpong / Shutterstock

It is widely believed some cats respond to catnip and some cats don’t. A recent study throws that into question by suggesting almost all cats respond to catnip – it’s just that some of them do so in a quiet manner. While more research is needed, the study also finds young kittens (less than 3 months) do not have the active response to catnip.

The classic catnip response is an active one that typically involves rolling around, rubbing the chin or cheek on the catnip, sniffing or licking the catnip, shaking the head from side to side, drooling, bunny-kicking and/or rippling skin on the back. This response to catnip is seen in about two thirds of cats. It is inherited – and it is also seen in some other feline species such as Bobcats.

A 2017 study by Luz Teresa Espín-Iturbe (Universidad Veracruzana) et al suggests that all cats respond to catnip. But instead of the active response, some cats have a passive response that involves a decrease in activity and assuming the Sphinx position.

60 cats at a shelter in Veracruz, Mexico, took part in the study. They were divided into 3 age groups: young (less than 3 months old), juvenile (3 to 6 months) and adult (6 months or older).

Within each age group, there were equal numbers of male and female cats, and equal numbers of those were either sexually intact or had an early spay/neuter at 6 weeks. The spay/neuter surgery was conducted at the shelter, and afterwards cats had 2 weeks to recover before taking part in the study.

For the study itself, cats were put into a cylindrical chamber from which they could not see out. Over 3 days, they had 10 minutes in the chamber each day to let them get used to it. Then on the fourth day, they had 5 minutes in the chamber, then catnip was put inside and they spent a further 5 minutes in the chamber with the catnip.

The scientists studied video of the cat’s behaviour before and after the catnip was added. A sample of the catnip was tested in a laboratory to confirm that it was indeed catnip (Nepeta cataria).

The active catnip response (rolling around etc.) was seen in 45% of the adult cats and in 25% of the juvenile cats. But it was not seen at all in the young kittens (less than 3 months old).

The Sphinx position was also most often seen in adult cats. Amongst juveniles, it was seen more often in males than in female cats. Male cats were less likely to groom, miaow, and to show reduced activity, and spent more time in the Sphinx position, than female cats.

Cats that had early spay/neuter had less activity after the presentation of catnip than cats that were still entire/intact. However, the frequency of rolling over was not affected by spay/neuter status.

The scientists suggest the active response to catnip is therefore not affected by sex hormones (in line with earlier research), but by maturation of the brain, which means young kittens have not matured enough to have an active response. They also propose the idea that different chemicals within the catnip are responsible for these differing responses – nepetalactone for the active response, and actinidine for the passive response. Further research is needed to test this hypothesis.

One drawback to the study is that no control was used. Although the scientists write that this is not a limitation because of the behaviours they observed (e.g. the active catnip response and adopting the Sphinx position), it would have been helpful to show the reduced activity responses were due to catnip and not to other factors (such as anxiety at or interest in a change in the environment).

In Neil Todd's classic research on the catnip response, tea leaves were used as a control. More recently, researchers have used a catnip-impregnated cloth or put it in a sock. This has the advantage that the control looks exactly the same as the catnip-infused item, which means observers coding the cat's behaviour can be blind to the condition. Cats can respond to a control because it is a novel item.

For example, in Ellis and Wells (2010) study of five different types of olfactory stimulation including a control (an unscented cloth), cats still spent a little time investigating the unscented cloth. In this study, even though cats were not pre-tested for the catnip response, in general cats spent more time interacting with the catnip-scented-cloth than the other scents, were more likely to have a playful response to it (consistent with an active catnip response) and also spent less time grooming and more time sleeping compared to the presentation of the control (unscented) cloth. So it’s interesting the new study also found reduced activity as a response.

Catnip is not the only plant that cats can respond to. According to research by Sebastiaan Bol et al, many cats also respond to silver vine, valerian and Tatarian honeysuckle.

Scent is very important to cats, and providing scents can be a good enrichment activity. So whether or not you think your cat enjoys catnip, it is worth trying some of these other plants too. Some cat toys contain both catnip and silver vine. Silver vine (also known as matatabi) is available separately as both a powder and a stick. Valerian can be found in some cat toys, and Tatarian honeysuckle is available from the Cat House in Calgary. Remember to always give your cat a choice of whether or not to interact with new scents/items.

Although more research is needed, this study suggests cats may enjoy catnip even if they don't actively respond by rolling around.

How does your cat respond to catnip?

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Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., Schulz, S. & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Veterinary Research, 13(1), 70.  Open access.
Ellis, S. L., & Wells, D. L. (2010). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(1), 56-62.
Espín-Iturbe, L. T., Yañez, B. A. L., García, A. C., Canseco-Sedano, R., Vázquez-Hernández, M., & Coria-Avila, G. A. (2017). Active and passive responses to catnip (Nepeta cataria) are affected by age, sex and early gonadectomy in male and female cats. Behavioural processes, 142, 110-115.
Todd, N. B. (1962). Inheritance of the catnip response in domestic cats. Journal of Heredity, 53(2), 54-56.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

07 February 2018

Think Dog and the Role of Food

The latest in the 'better world' series about dogs and cats.

Think Dog! A Golden Retriever by the sea with a tip for how to make a better world for dogs

These are the latest images in the series about how to make the world better for dogs and how to make the world better for cats.

You can read the full quotes on those posts. I'm working through each expert answer in random order, so stay tuned for more!

A cat by its food bowl - understand the role of food for a better relationship with your cat

04 February 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club February 2018

"...Bradshaw explains how an affinity for animals drove human evolution and how now, without animals around us, we risk losing an essential part of ourselves."

A boy reading a book to his dog, to illustrate the book choice for February: The Animals Among Us

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for February 2018 is The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human by John Bradshaw. In the UK, the title is The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology.

From the inside cover,
"In The Animals Among Us, anthrozoologist John Bradshaw argues that pet-keeping is nothing less than an intrinsic part of human nature. Throughout history, empathy for animals has increased our ability to survive. As our relationship with animals evolved, from the earliest domestication of wild animals thousands of years ago to the ubiquity of modern household pets, this connection grew ever stronger. Today, we can no more set aside the attachment that many of us feel for animals than we can ignore our sweet tooth. 
Drawing on the latest research in biology and psychology, Bradshaw explains how an affinity for animals drove human evolution and how now, without animals around us, we risk losing an essential part of ourselves."

Will you be reading the book too? Leave your thoughts on it in the comments below.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

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