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What Do Young Children Learn From Pets?

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Is a better understanding of biology something children can learn from dogs and cats? Photo: elista/Shutterstock By Zazie Todd, PhD Young children are very interested in animals. One study even found children aged 11 – 40 months would prefer to look at an animal behind a glass screen ( even if the animal is fast asleep ) rather than play with a toy (LoBue et al 2013). Now researchers are asking whether this interest in animals means that children with a cat or dog know more about biology than those without. The study, by Megan Geerdts (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) et al, was in two parts. First of all, the scientists needed to know how preschool children actually interact with cats and dogs. Although this is observed by parents every day, it seems it hasn’t been recorded in enough detail for science. So the researchers observed 24 preschool children in a free-play session with their pet, and asked their parents to complete a questionnaire about their

Why Do People Take Part in Dog Sports?

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Is it for themselves, for the dog - or a bit of both? Photo: Reddogs/Shutterstock By Zazie Todd, PhD People can participate in dog sports (like agility) at any level, from local classes to national and international events. A study by Joey Farrell ( Lakehead University ) et al investigates what motivates people to take part in dog sports, and why some compete much more often than others.  They recruited people at events where at least two different sports were taking place, from a list of agility, rally, field, obedience and conformation (showing pedigree dogs). Although there is a chance to win titles, it turns out this isn’t the main reason why people take part. Feeling immersed in the activity and the chance to meet like-minded people are both important to competitors. The scientists say that “people who are frequently active in dog sports tend to participate with a high level of self-determined motivation, which is related to personal satisfaction. Open-ended s

Unanticipated Animals: What Happens When Pets Appear in Research Interviews?

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A new study finds pets are often written out of research reports. Photo: Dirk Ott/Shutterstock By Zazie Todd, PhD We all know the saying “ never work with children or animals ”. Normally it applies to actors. But what happens when a researcher goes to interview someone and a pet is there too? A new paper by Sara Ryan and Sue Ziebland ( University of Oxford ) says that health scientists are not paying enough attention to the importance of pets in people’s lives. Their analysis shows that pets are often ignored or are seen as an interruption in interviews. In one case, someone talks about how their diagnosis with a serious health condition was difficult, especially because they did not feel the doctor listened to them as a patient. The researcher’s response: “Can I shut that cat up?” (Fortunately the video of the interview showed this was a friendly interaction). Although this is the most striking example given in the paper, Ryan and Ziebland say that in general the

A Conversation with Mia Cobb

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On Wednesday I covered Mia Cobb’s new paper on working dogs and canine performance science . Mia's research has the potential to have a big impact on the lives of working dogs. She kindly agreed to talk to me about working dogs, animal welfare, and her new puppy Rudy. By Zazie Todd, PhD How can we improve the training of working dogs? One of the key things that would help to improve the success rates of trainee working dogs would be wider recognition of the sum of all the parts that make a successful working dog. It’s not just the training methods used, it’s not just the genetics, it’s also the socialization and puppy raising process, the diet and health management, it’s the way dogs are housed, the human and canine company they keep, the opportunities they have for rest and play as well as learn, that is relevant to a successful working dog.  It can be easy for both scientists and practitioners to focus on just one element of the process – like breeding for soun

How Can We Improve Working Dog Programs?

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A new paper suggests ways to develop the welfare and performance of working canines. A search-and-rescue dog takes part in a training exercise. Photo: deepspacedave/Shutterstock By Zazie Todd, PhD Have you ever stopped to think about the amazing variety of jobs that dogs do: herding sheep, chasing criminals, sniffing out cancer, assisting people with disabilities, supporting the military in the field, detecting explosives or narcotics, visiting sick people in hospital, pulling sleds, search and rescue, and so on. They bring a wide variety of skills, and work in diverse locations from cities to forests, mountains and farms. Yet there is no one body that investigates and evaluates the training and welfare of working dogs. A new paper by Mia Cobb ( Monash University ) et al examines the role of working dogs and proposes a new canine performance science. Just as human athletes benefit from performance science, the same could be true for our canine friends. There’s a financ

Do Dogs Prefer Petting or Praise?

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A new study asks dogs to make the choice. Photo: Felix Rohan/Shutterstock By Zazie Todd, PhD A lot of people like to think they can reinforce their dog with verbal praise such as “Good girl!” But does it mean anything to the dog? We know that, given a choice, dogs prefer food over petting or praise ( Feuerbacher and Wynne 2012 ; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013; Okamoto et al 2009 ), and this is why food is so useful in dog training . A new study by Erica Feuerbacher ( Carroll College ) and Clive Wynne ( Arizona State University ) takes food out of the equation and investigates whether dogs prefer petting or verbal praise. In a series of two experiments, shelter dogs and owned dogs were given a choice between petting and praise. The results showed that dogs prefer petting. Now before you say this is not surprising, remember we just said many owners expect their dog to be obedient in exchange for a simple “Good boy!” It doesn’t sound like such a good deal from the dog’s po

Do Hand-Reared Wolves get Attached to their Humans?

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Researchers test the bond between captive wolf pups and the humans who rear them. Photo: Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com By Zazie Todd, PhD We all think our dogs form attachments to us, but previous studies with wolf pups have suggested they don’t attach to their caregiver in the same way. While a 16-week old puppy is already attached to its owner, scientists found the same is not true of a 16-week old wolf. However, the way the wolf pup is raised and the age of testing may have an effect. New research by Nathaniel Hall (University of Florida) et al investigates. The results show wolf pups can form attachments to humans after all. Ten wolf pups from two litters took part in the study (although one pup was ill and not able to take part in all of the tests). From the age of 10 days old, the wolves were raised by two humans who were with them round the clock until 1.5 – 2 months. After this, the caregivers were present 16 hours a day. The research took place at Wolf Pa