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Interactions between shelter dogs: some new research

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By Zazie Todd, PhD

Some animal shelters house dogs in pairs or small groups. This can enrich their lives, but it could also potentially be a source of stress if the dogs are not well-matched. A new paper by Irena Petak, of the University of Zagreb, Croatia, examines the communication patterns between dogs housed in groups.

At the Dogs Trust in Salisbury, England, there is a sanctuary for long-term residents.There is a ‘mountain area’ with an artificial mountain and three kennels, and a tree area with grass and trees. There is also a small introductory pen for new dogs who are coming in to the sanctuary. The sanctuary is enriched with a sand box, tunnels through the mountain, ramps and toys for the dogs to play with. During the day, the dogs are allowed to run free in the enclosure, and at night the dogs can choose one of the three kennels to go into. 
At the time of the study, there were twelve dogs in the sanctuary and two in the introductory pen. All of these dogs were neutered male…

Dogs can haz brainscanz and EEG?

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Dogs have been trained to take part in non-invasive EEG and fMRI studies, with no sedation or restraint, just the power of positive reinforcement.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Canine cognition is a hot topic these days, using experiments and brain imaging as research tools. The trouble with brain imaging work is that it is invasive, to the extent that animals may have to be sedated or anaesthetized for the study. All that changed with the amazing work of Gregory Berns et al and the first-ever fMRI study on awake, unrestrained dogs last year. Now Miiamaaria Kujala et al in Finland have shown that it is also possible to do a non-invasive EEG with dogs.
An EEG measures brain activity by placing electrodes across the scalp. These pick up oscillations in electrical activity, which can be measured for changes. One common use of EEG is in assessing epilepsy in dogs (and people). We aren’t talking about veterinary EEGs here, however, but those designed to learn something about how a healthy brain works…

Why do people surrender dogs to animal shelters?

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Dogs surrendered to a shelter are more likely to have behaviour problems, and their owners to have a low attachment to them, study shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Five to seven million companion animals arrive at animal shelters in the US each year, and about half of these are animals being surrendered by their owners. Why do people surrender their pets? To find out, a new study by Jennifer Kwan and Melissa Bain compared dogs being relinquished at three Sacramento animal shelters to those dogs that were there simply to receive their vaccinations.

The experimenter spent time at the shelters during the hours when relinquishments could take place, and when vaccination clinics were available. She approached people to ask them to complete the questionnaires, which were available in English or Spanish. A total of 129 people took part; 80 relinquishing owners, and 49 continuing owners. 
Some people were not approached to take part because their dogs seemed to be aggressive, and the experimenter wou…

On Puppies, Pet Stores, and Behaviour Problems

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Research finds puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behaviour problems than those from non-commercial breeders.



By Zazie Todd, PhD

If you buy a puppy from a pet store, could you be getting more than you bargained for? It has long been thought that puppies from pet shops might have behavioural problems. A new study by Franklin D. McMillan et al investigates this by comparing puppies from pet stores to those from non-commercial breeders.

The puppies that are for sale in pet shops originate from commercial breeding establishments, also known as puppy mills or puppy farms. These are large establishments that breed puppies for profit.

The ASPCA says they “usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. To minimize waste cleanup, dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is n…

Describing Dog Training: Weasel words or clear descriptions?

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By Zazie Todd, PhD

Dog training is an unlicensed profession. Sometimes it surprises people to learn there is a science to training, the origins of which can be traced back to Pavlov and Skinner. When studying how ordinary people train their dogs, scientists have to map between technical terms and everyday language. How do they do this?


You’ve probably heard the phrase that “dogs do what works”, as explained by Jean Donaldson in her wonderful book Culture Clash. What this means is, the behaviours that are rewarded get repeated, and the ones that don’t get rewards tend to disappear (this is called extinction).

Our knowledge of operant conditioning has its roots in the work of B.F. Skinner, who coined the phrase in 1937, but applied behaviour analysis is still an active field today; for example, it is used to help children and adults with autism.
Operant conditioning relies on punishments and reinforcements. Reinforcement makes a behaviour increase, whereas punishment makes a behaviour g…

Discussion of Dogs’ Behavioural Problems at the Vet

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Behavioural issues are often not mentioned at the vet, even when they are a problem.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Surprisingly little is known about where people seek advice when their dog has a behavioural problem such as aggression, soiling in the house, or fear of fireworks. One place to try might be the vet, but do veterinarians talk to their clients about behavioural problems during the annual consultation for vaccinations?


A study published in the Veterinary Record by Roshier and McBride recorded vet consultations and transcribed the conversations for analysis. The study was conducted at a vet’s in Nottingham where six veterinarians took part. The receptionists identified people who met the criteria for the study, and directed them to the researcher who was waiting in the waiting room. Of twenty-one people who were asked to take part, seventeen agreed. After the consultation, participants completed a questionnaire about themselves, their dog, and their relationship with their vet.

The cons…

Do Dogs Try to Hide Theft of Food?

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Will your dog steal food even if you can see or hear the theft take place? Two new studies investigate whether dogs can take a human’s perspective in deciding whether to take a piece of forbidden food.


By Zazie Todd, PhD

Earlier work has shown that dogs and other animals seem to have an awareness of human visual attention. For example, Gácsi et al (2004) found that dogs were more likely to beg from an attentive rather than an inattentive human. However, it is not known if dogs understand what a human can see or hear.

One way to test this is to see how dogs respond to different light levels. Juliane Kaminski of Portsmouth University designed three experiments that took place in a room with the windows blacked out. Dogs wore a reflective collar to make it easier to see them, and an infrared camera recorded what happened. The dogs first had to pass a pre-test in which they were taught to leave a piece of food on the ground for sixty seconds. 

The experimenter put food on the ground and to…