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.





References
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.

Want to know even more about catnip? See what I said to Science Borealis about cats and catnip. How does your cat respond to catnip?


Love dogs, cats and science? Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology

References
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.

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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.



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