The loss of a great animal behavior teacher and researcher

I was deeply sorry to hear of Dr. Sophia Yin‘s passing yesterday via her website and social media presence. My sympathizes are with Dr. Yin’s family and staff during this difficult time.

Dr. Yin was a champion of science-based animal handling and training and truly bettered the world for companion animals. The numerous books, DVD lectures and free online resources that she produced are a tremendous asset for owners to become great leaders for their pets. She was an inspirational and innovative animal welfare champion and will be sorely missed.

Book review: Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves

Book:  Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves *[This is a link to the book on Amazon, but please consider buying this book from a local bookstore.]

Authors: Laurel Braitman

Price: $28.00

Summary:

The inspiration for this book was Laurel Braitmen’s dog, Oliver, who suffered from separation anxiety and a number of other mental health issues. As Braitmen searched for relief for Oliver, she began to research the history of animal psychology, psychopharmaceuticals and current research into animal emotions. The result of this research is Animal Madness, which she took over seven years to write. You can see a “cliff notes” version of this work in Braitmen’s TED talk here.

Review:

It is evident that Braitmen put a lot of research into this book. The citations at the end of the book are 72 pages long! Unfortunately, I found that this work suffered under the weight of all this information. As Braitmen jumped from anecdote to factoid to anecdote, the story became disorienting at times and there was no clear linear narrative past the first chapter.  This book would have benefited greatly from a simpler and stronger organizational structure to help the reader synthesize the vast amount of knowledge presented here.

While Braitmen’s diverse accounts of animals in all sorts of human societies were utterly engaging, I was a little unsure of the overall message of the book when I finished it. Braitmen hastily concluded her epilogue with a plea to meet our pets’ emotional needs more effectively and not support organizations that promote mental illness in animals, such as zoos and large-scale farming practices. However, there was an enormous conflict between Braitmen’s opinion of zoos and animals kept in homes for me.

Braitmen is critical of the way zoos have kept animals and dismissive of attempts to improve zoo animals’ lives as placation for our consciences. Braitmen provides many episodes to highlight failings of zoos but she is particularly critical of the use of psychopharmaceuticals. For Braitmen’s own dog, however, psychopharmaceuticals were highly valuable in managing his debilitating mental illnesses. The behavioral modification programs compiled for Oliver by a veterinary behaviorist were, in many instances, too difficult for Braitmen to consistently or effectively perform.

The correlation between Oliver’s mental illness, as well as the thousands of other companion animals that suffer from mental illnesses, and the mental illnesses endured by zoo animals is hard to ignore. As in humans, mental illnesses in animals (exotic or otherwise) likely have genetic and environmental components, both of which are profoundly impacted by humans. I was bothered by Braitmen’s cynicism towards zoos while offering her failures as a pet owner in an empathetic light.

Upon reflection, I understand the recurring theme of this book: humans have a crucial role in the mental wellbeing of animals and our increasing knowledge of animals’ brains can make us better caregivers. The reflective value of this knowledge is the concept that our emotional abilities as humans are probably only a shade or two off from the emotional abilities of animals. This could have been presented a more forthright manner throughout the book but, disregarding Braitmen’s negative attitude towards zoos, it is a fascinating read.

It Worked For Me: Bell Training

My first dog was an Australian Cattle Dog named Allie. My husband and I adopted her from the shelter where I worked when she was 8 weeks old. Cattle dogs are a herding breed that originated in Australian and if you’ve known a herding breed dog before, they like to communicate with their mouths more than their vocal chords. Allie preferred to let us know that she needed to potty by nipping at my husband and me, which we fairly expected given her breed.

Unfortunately, she also nipped us to say she was out of water, she wanted to play, the cats were ignoring her, etc. etc. We quickly realized that we needed to empower Allie with a communication tool other than her teeth because they A) hurt and B) were very non-specific. I had heard of bell training from coworkers and staff at the shelter and we decided to try it. It was a massive success. After about two months.

We had bumbled around with all of the instructions about bell training from the ASPCA, I watched YouTube videos and I plugged all my coworkers for tips. Unfortunately, Allie had already learned a way to communicate her bathroom needs to us and however irritating they were to us, they did in fact work. But fortunately, one day she just walked up the bell and rang it. And then I took her outside. The rest is glorious non-nipping history.

We got our second dog, a lab named Luna, when she was 10 weeks old from the same shelter. She learned to ring the bell to go outside in about three days. I think there are two reasons for her accelerated pace of acquiring this skills relative to Allie and neither of them have to do with her being smarter than Allie, because she’s not. (Sorry, Luna, but I’ve seen you run into the fence like a dozen times.) First, the bell was the first potty communication method that was available to Luna. Since we already had it hanging on the door, we circumvented her learning a different way to tell us she needed to go to the bathroom.

Secondly, before we adopted Luna we had moved into a duplex with a much more open floor plan than our previous apartment. Dogs can be potty trained because they are hard-wired to not go the bathroom where they live. I think it was much easier for Luna to see that our entire living space was her home because it was so open. In the previous apartment, our bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen were separated by full/partial walls or furniture. Allie almost never had accidents in our bedroom, which I believe was because she viewed that are as “home” and the other parts of our apartment as “not home”.

The bell on the door enabled us to potty train Luna in about a week even though, as we eventually found out, she had chronic urinary tract infections. (She’s all better now, thank goodness!) Bell training worked for me because it provided a tool for my dogs to communicate with me in a manner that we all found agreeable. We used the bell training in conjunction with all these other house training instructions from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Journal Article: Pet Owners Lack Basic Knowledge of Pets; Young, Intact Pets at Risk for Shelter Surrender

Title: Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared With Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning HouseholdsTitle:

Authors: John C. New, Jr., M.D. Salman, Mike King, Janet M. Scarlett, Philip H. Kass, Jennifer M. Hutchison

Published: 2000 in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science

General overview: The authors wanted to better understand the risk factors for relinquishing a cat or a dog to an animal shelter. Using interview data from a sample of people who relinquished dogs and cats in 12 shelters in four regions and a sample of U.S. households with companion animals, the investigators compared animal characteristics and human characteristics between the relinquished and owned animals and their owners. The authors found that relinquished animals were more likely to be intact (not spayed for neutered), younger, mixed breed and owned for a shorter duration of time. People who relinquished animals tended to be men under the age of 35. This study was sponsored by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

My comments: 

Interview data issues

There are some pretty basic issues with interview data, which fall into the categories reliability, fairness and validity.

  1. Reliability in interview data focuses on whether an interviewer will score similar observations the same (intra-interviewer reliability) or different interviewers will score similar observations the same (inter-interviewer reliability). This study avoids much of this issue because they use a standardized questionnaire without, as far as I can tell, open-ended questions.
  2. Fairness issues with interview data have to deal with the representativeness of the subset of the general population (also known as the sample population) that was offered the questionnaire and the makeup of people who did fill out the questionnaire. I’m not sure this study has done quite a good job at addressing this one.
    • The shelters used as study sites for this research were located in California, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York. There is no explanation for the selection of this shelters, leaving me to assume that they were convenient shelters to sample based on the researchers’ locations. (The first author is from the University of Tennessee, the second is from Colorado State University, etc.) This is probably not fair as a standalone issue but especially because of the regional differences that may exist throughout the United States in animal sheltering trends, which are not addressed in this paper.
      • The authors contend that the use of shelters across the U.S. aids the paper’s generalizability in the conclusions. However, I think the only real way to achieve a generalizable conclusion would have been if the shelters were equally representative of major geographic areas in the U.S. (both urban and rural, as well as north/south/east/west).
  3. The last major concern with interview data is validity, which I also this study fails to adequately address. The households that were sampled to achieve data on owned animals to compare to relinquished animals contained households that had relinquished animals to a shelter within the past year, which the authors acknowledge may not represent the general population of animal-owning households and may impact the interpretation of the findings.
    • In plain English, this means that the comparison population overlapped with the study population. So, when interpretation of the findings, I guess it would just be best not to compare these two populations at all because they are not clearly distinct populations.

Interesting Findings

Based on the methods section, I’m not comfortable with the comparison between the “owned” pet households and the relinquished pet individuals so I’m just going to highlight some of the findings the authors presented without the comparison.

Knowledge deficiency

I think one of the most interesting findings of this piece is the knowledge deficit displayed by survey respondents. Many people felt that female animals were better off having one litter before being spayed (WHY?), had fundamental misunderstandings of normal animal behavior, such as play behavior, and did not know “appropriate methods” of training. (The authors do not detail what they mean by “appropriate methods”.)

This highlights a real animal welfare issue and a substantial area for interventions. It’s an animal welfare issue because one of the five freedoms expounded by animal welfare advocates is the freedom to express normal behavior. If owners don’t understand what normal behavior is, an animal may not be permitted to express that behavior out of the owner’s preference. This finding emphasizes the need for increased humane education for pet owners to advance pets’ quality of life and possibly reduce the number of unwanted pets.

Young, intact animals are at risk for relinquishment

The authors found that young, intact animals were overrepresented in the relinquished animals population. The term “overrepresent” in the context of a survey means that a certain selection of a population appeared more frequently that its actual distribution in the general population, so I’m not sure how the authors determined this – you’d have to know the age/neuter status of the all pets in the U.S., which a quick Google search tells me are not known quantities. What can certainly be stated is that there were a lot of unaltered and young animals in the relinquished animals population. I worked at an animal shelter previously and this aligns with my personal experience as well. I wonder if this may relate to the knowledge deficit of normal animal behavior since young, intact animals are generally more active and untrained/disobedient than older animals.

I wish the authors had included a question about maturity level in pets because one area of knowledge deficiency that I identified during my employment at a shelter was the age at which animals should be considered as “adults”. Dogs and cats really aren’t socially/intellectually mature until around age two. I saw a number of one-year-old dogs dropped off at the shelter possibly because their families did not understand that they were dealing with an adolescent dog that would soon grow out of the unruly, moody temperament she currently exhibited.

Many pet owners could benefit from pet training and management education

The authors try to make a case for length of ownership being correlated with owner attachment, but since this directly involves comparison with the “owned” pet households, I can’t really commit myself to this finding. The authors note that behavior factors (notably house-soiling and biting) may play a role in the relinquishment of animals but they did find that behavior problems existed in the “owned” animal population as well. I’m not really sure what conclusions you can draw from this when you consider the lack of distinction between these two populations but I do agree that the existence of these behaviors indicates improper training or management practices and an area of needed improvement for both the pet’s quality of life and the owner’s.

Conclusion

So, in all, I think this research identified several areas of animal ownership that could be focused on for animal welfare and public health interventions as well as areas for future research. I don’t agree with the analysis the authors made between the study population and the comparison population but some interesting findings are still elucidated by the publication.

Product Review: Thundershirt (for dogs)

Product: Thudershirt by Thunderworks

Cost: $39.99

Available: at every pet store that I’ve ever been in and online

Length of ownership: 1+ year

Review:

I bought a Thundershirt for our lab, Luna, because her over-stimulated antics during social outings was making me choose to leave her at home more than I wanted to. Basically, I wanted to be able to take Luna into a pet store without her having a total meltdown (jumping, lunging and barking nonstop). I took a while to purchase the Thundershirt because it’s not advertised for this purpose – it’s marketed towards dogs with noise-induced anxiety. However, I realized that the Thundershirt may help Luna after I attended a talk by veterinary behaviorist Christopher Pachel at the 2014 Midwest Veterinary Conference. One of Dr. Pachel’s suggestions for low-stress handling in veterinary clinics was using a pressure wrap, like a Thundershirt or an ace bandage, to induce calm in veterinary patients. Maybe the Thundershirt could induce calm in Luna during pet store visits!

I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. I had been trying to counter-condition Luna’s overstimulation in pet stores by using treats and distracting her from things she fixated on (usually people). However, without the Thundershirt, I was only getting about 10-40% of her attention even with the highest value treats. With the Thundershirt on, Luna was calmer from the start and able to return her attention to me faster when she did get distracted by something (or rather, someone). I have since used it for veterinary visits and at home when Luna gets overstimulated or overly worked up, usually in conjunction with a frozen Kong. I was helpfully advised by an associate at the pet store where I bought the Thundershirt to put the Thundershirt on Luna during non-stressful events so that she didn’t begin to associate the Thundershirt with stress and thereby inducing stress just by seeing the Thundershirt, which i think was vital in the Thundershirt’s success for Luna.

In summary, Luna is not a noise-phobic dog in the least so I can’t attest to the Thundershirt’s ability to calm down dogs during thunderstorms or fireworks or etc. The Thundershirt was extremely effective for Luna in lowering her stress or overstimulation during pet store or vet visits as well as at home if she gets overly worked up about something. Because her stress/overstimulation level was decreased, I am able to work on desensitizing and counter-conditioning Luna to the things that stress her.

The Thundershirt did not “cure” Luna’s stress and overstimulation tendencies but enabled her to be under an emotional threshold where she could still pay attention and learn during stimulating events. Two thumbs up!