Journal Article: Where’s the Stress From?

Title: Comparison of behavioral and physiological responses of dogs wearing two different types of collar.

Authors: Philip Ogburn, Stephanie Crouse, Frank Martin, Katherine Houpt

Published: February 1998 in Applied Animal Behavior Science

General overview: This research compared behavioral (head position, ear position, tail position and posture) and physiological (blood pressure, pulse rate, respiratory rate and pupil diameter) responses of dogs wearing a head collar (like a Gentle Leader collar) and a buckle collar during brief obedience trials (walking, sitting and turning). The authors found that while there was no significant difference between the physiological responses of dogs to the different collars, the buckle collar resulted in more unruly behaviors (i.e. leash pulling) and the head collar resulted in more pawing at the head and ears and less eye contact with the handler.

My comments:

I noticed a major flaw with this paper right at the beginning of the Methods section: their study population was poorly defined. I believe these dogs are unowned dogs (perhaps from an animal control facility?) because the authors mention that each dog experienced identical housing, feeding, animal care personnel and exercising routines. Furthermore, the authors say that they have no history on each dogs’ previous exposure to head collars but to their knowledge, none of the dogs have worn a head collar before. So…with no history, it’s safe to assume the none of the dogs had ever worn a head collar? That seems like an unscientific conclusion to me.

The researchers’ methodology doesn’t seem awful (each dog was used as its own control: all dogs were tested with a head collar and with a buckle collar, randomly assigned to be test with either collar first). Some of the terminology in the paper seems outdated: the researchers deem a dog “subordinate” or “dominate” based on body posture at the end of testing (to my knowledge, it’s not appropriate to label a dog “subordinate” or “dominate” because those terms describe reactions to situations, not overall temperaments). The authors also reference a few ecological studies that have since been highly refuted to legitimize the way head collars work. But this paper is sixteen years old!

The biggest red flag in this paper is the combination of the findings that no physiological difference was detected between collars but an overall trend of diminishing physiological responses during the test. Since all dogs experienced the same care routines, I believe it is safe to say these dogs were being housed in a kennel situation. Kennels can be extremely stressful housing environment for dogs because they are unfamiliar (to many dogs), don’t allow for much positive human contact and involve many foreign sounds and smells. The fact that blood pressure and respiratory rate and etc. went down during the test regardless of treatment or control might be the result of the dog being removed from their kennel and having a calm interaction with a human.

I was looking forward to reading this study because while I have read papers that looked worse alternatives to buckle collars, this is the first that I’ve seen evaluate a potentially better substitute. Because of the substantially under-described study population, however, I fail to see how this paper contributes all that much besides evidence that dogs wearing head collars do indeed paw their head/nose more than those wearing buckle collars, and that buckle collar-wearing dogs pull more.

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Journal Article: Shock Collars Cause Stress and Unintended Consequences

Title:  Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects

Authors: Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Joanne A.M. van der Borg

Published: March 25, 2004 in Applied Animal Behavior Science

General overview: The authors studied video recordings of dogs in training for police or guard use to compare behavioral responses of dogs trained with remote electronic collars (e-collars) and dogs that were trained without e-collars. The authors noted that the training protocols used for all dogs included punitive techniques such as choke or prong collars, kicks and beatings. The authors found statistically significant increases in behaviors associated with stress (tongue flicking, tucked tail posture and averted ear position) in dogs trained with the e-collars than the dogs trained without the e-collars. The authors also found that dogs trained with e-collars may associate training, the training area and their trainer with stressful stimuli, which is important because it meant that the dogs were not necessarily associating the aversive stimuli of the e-collar with the behavior that the trainer was trying to prevent.

My comments:

Especially when compared to this UK study of e-collar training, this study was not as rigorous as I might have appreciated. Although the authors had a very detailed ethogram (an inventory of behaviors or actions exhibited by an animal) to catalog the study dogs’ responses, the researchers themselves reviewed the recordings. This method is clearly susceptible to bias, because the researchers would have been to tell which dogs were being trained with a bulky e-collar and without one. I wish the researchers had an independent observer score the dog training videos according to their ethogram and performed the analysis on that data. I can’t put much stock in their comparative findings because, whether intentional or not, the researchers may have noticed stress-related behaviors in the dogs they knew had e-collars on if they presumed that exposure to an e-collar might cause increased stress in the dog.

However, I do find the conclusions that dogs trained with e-collars appeared to associate their trainer, the training area and being given commands with stressful stimuli very interesting. From my understanding, e-collars work on the principal of avoidance conditioning: a subject learns a behavior to avoid a painful stimuli.

Here’s why I think this is interesting: the author mentions that most shocks were given to dogs when they did not obey the “let go” command. Using this command as an example, the point of shocking the dog when he (most study dogs were male) did not obey the command “let go” is that the dog learns not obeying the command results in a shock. Instead, it appears that the dogs may have learned that being near the trainer, being the training yard or being given a command results in a shock. If this is true, the e-collars were not doing what they are intended to do.

I found this article to be a fascinating read also because of its commentary on training techniques and breeding standards of guard and police dogs. The description of the “harsh” training protocols is rather horrifying: dogs are taught to bite well before they are taught to “let go”, subject to beatings and kicks and show visible signs of distress just because their trainer is present. The authors comment on the dogs bred for such jobs as purposefully selected to be highly excitable, temperamental and with low biting thresholds. It made me question the ethicalness of using dogs for police or guard work, for both the quality of life of the dog and the safety of communities within which these dogs work and reside.

This article was discussed, in great detail, on Dr. Sophia Yin’s blog.

Journal Article: Shock Collar Trainers Don’t Follow Device Instructions with Questionable Welfare Implications

Title: The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training

Authors: Jonathan J. Cooper, Nina Cracknell, Jessica Hardiman, Hannah Wright, Daniel Mills

Published: September 3, 2014 in PLOS ONE 

General overview: This article studied the welfare impacts and efficacy of remote electronic training collars (e-collars) in comparison to positive-reinforcement based training. After a preliminary study of 9 dogs to determine method feasibility, the authors compared three groups of 21 dogs each (63 dogs total): Group A (trained using e-collars), Group B (trained by the same trainers as Group A but without e-collars) and Group C (trained without e-collars by trainers who used positive reinforcement-based training protocols). Data collected from the three groups included video recordings of dog behavior, which were evaluated by an independent team of trained observers and salivary and urinary cortisol* levels. Behavioral and cortisol differences were marked between the groups in the preliminary study while behavioral differences only were significant in the larger study. Cortisol levels were elevated in the preliminary study in dogs trained with the e-collars. Stress and displacement behaviors were seen more frequently in dogs trained with the e-collars in both the preliminary and larger study.
*Cortisol is a hormone that is released in association with stress.
My comments: 
I first heard of this study on Science Daily, and it was also reported on the DogingtonPost and DogTime. The revelatory lead sentence to the Science Daily story was, “…the immediate effects of training pet dogs with an electronic collar cause behavioural signs of distress, particularly when used at high settings.” Who would have guessed that giving a dog an electric zap would cause distress? I would have thought that was common sense but I decided to read the study understand the details.
The purpose of this study was to provide evidence to support or detract from the argument that, when used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, e-collars are effective tools for avoidance conditioning (learning a behavior to avoid an aversive stimulus). Furthermore, the authors point out that there have been studies on the immediate impacts of e-collars in dog training but they have been restricted to specific populations of dogs, like police dogs or laboratory dogs, and the generalizability of those findings to the general population of dogs is questionable.
From my perspective, the methodology of this study is sound. The authors did a great job defining the study group and control groups as well as the way data was collected and evaluated. The use of the three groups controlled for differences between trainers with diverse opinions about positive vs. aversive training techniques. The use of independent observers for the recorded behavior of the test dogs avoided bias for behavioral responses. I can’t think of any potential confounding aspects of this study that weren’t addressed by the authors.
I understand that this study was novel in its study population (“regular” dogs) but I don’t think it’s particularly interesting that the authors found use of e-collars during training was associated with stress and displacement behaviors in dogs. I’ve read a few other studies about aversive training techniques and behaviors like yelping, moving away from the trainer and lowered ears all seem to be common and expected behaviors with that type of training.
I do think it was interesting that all but one trainer who used e-collars regularly did not follow the manufacturer’s instruction to use the lowest setting that the dog responded to – the majority of these trainers set the devices on the highest or nearly the highest setting right away. The oddest part about this is that the trainers were nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association. Why did these trainers ignore their own professional association’s directions?
I’m not sure why there were differences in cortisol levels during the preliminary study between e-collar exposure groups and not in the larger study. The authors noted that it may have been due to the time frame differences between the short preliminary study and the several months that the larger study took, but I don’t know enough about cortisol levels in dogs to say whether or not this is a valid argument.
The major finding of this study is that there was no difference in training efficacy between the three control groups: positive reinforcement based training was just as effective as more aversive-based training. The authors note that positive reinforcement training protocols are completely void of the questionable welfare implications of aversive training techniques like e-collars.

Product Review: FroliCat Bolt Interactive Laser Pet Toy

ProductFroliCat Bolt Interactive Laser Pet Toy by FroliCat

Cost: about $20 at online retailers and in most pet stores

Available: Chewy.com* and other online retailers; most pet stores

Length of ownership: 1+ year

Review:

[Edit 11/06/2014: Please see my response to Dr. Marty Becker’s article on the safety of laser pointer toys for cats here. Out of concern for my cats’ mental health, I am reducing the frequency of their laser pointer play time and using wand toys/jingle balls/fake mice instead.)

The Bolt Interactive Laser Pet Toy is a robotic laser toy that will whirl around a laser dot for your kitties to chase for 15 minutes (it can also be used as a regular, although bulkier, laser pointer). I found this on clearance at a pet store for $10 and purchased it impulsively. Upon reflection, I have NO idea why this item was put on clearance because it is AWESOME! I mean, it’s a pretty basic idea – entertain your cat for 15 minutes with as much effort as it takes to push a button – so what could go wrong?

The Bolt toy takes 4 AA batteries, which weren’t included but have lasted over a year for me. The robotic part of this toy works by using a rotating mirror to reflect the laser point around the room. The tilt of the mirror is adjustable, which I found useful if I put the Bolt toy on a table vs. the floor. The best results that I’ve had with this toy, however, came when I put the toy in our attic crawl space (which I converted to a secret cat lair). Because the ceiling is so low, the laser point is never out of reach for my cats, whereas in a regular room, the laser point will inevitably go somewhere the cats can’t reach. This isn’t a big problem but occasionally, my cats would become disinterested in the Bolt toy if the laser point was out of reach for too long.

As much as my old cats enjoy the Bolt toy, this toy was heaven-sent when I fostered kittens and a momma cat. The kittens were endlessly amused with this toy and I was likewise entertained with their antics. After the kittens left for adoption, the momma cat had bouts of loud nocturnal activity. I turned on the Bolt toy before we went to bed and if she woke me up in the middle of the night to wear her out so that she’d sleep when we slept.

Even though I got this toy a half-price, I think it’s definitely worth $20 for cat owners! The toy does make some noise as it rotates around but didn’t keep me awake at night or similar. I would advise keep this toy away from dogs when not in use because my dog chomped on the top, which made the mirror tilt-adjustment a little wonky. (I don’t consider this a fault of the toy – it’s obviously not meant to be a chew toy!)

The FroliCat company says that this is a “pet toy”, suggesting that it can be used with dogs and guinea pigs and etc. I don’t have a guinea pig or etc. but I avoid using this toy with my dogs. I’ve heard a couple horror stories from veterinary behaviorists of dogs who developed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behavior in association with laser pointer play. I have no idea if laser pointers cause or contribute to OCD in dogs! However, the dogs required extensive psychopharmaceuticals and behavioral therapy to overcome their OCD behaviors in these stories. Personally, I’d rather not risk it for my dogs! They have plenty of other toys anyway…

*I regularly use Chewy.com to order dog and cat food as well as other pet supplies. I’m not sponsored by this company in any way. I LOVE them because they are affordable, have great customer service and fast shipping. 

Product Review: Busy Buddy food dispensing toys – Tug-A-Jug, Kibble Nibble and Magic Mushroom

Products: Tug-A-Jug, Kibble Nibble and Magic Mushroom by Busy Buddy (parent company PetSafe)

Cost: $7 – $13 at online retailers, $13 – $20 in most pet stores

Available: Chewy.com* and other online retailers; most pet stores

Length of ownership: 1+ year

Review:

I decided to lump all these food dispensing toys into one post because although they have different pros and cons, a lot of their attributes are very similar as they are made by the same company! On a whole, these toys are primarily hard plastic with rubber details (except for the Magic Mushroom, which is just hard plastic). All of these toys come apart so they make it easy load an entire meal – my dogs eat about a cup of kibble twice a day so I appreciate not having to load the toys kibble-by-kibble (I’m looking at you, Tricky Treat Ball).

My favorite of these three toys is the Kibble Nibble by quite a stretch. It is super basic – just an egg shape that unscrews around the middle with holes on either end. There are rubber fingers around the treat-dispensing holes that you trim so your dog’s kibble size fits through fairly easily. Your dog just has to roll the egg around until her meal falls out, which takes long enough that I can make coffee, eat breakfast, etc. while my dogs are getting their meal. When your dog gets good at the Kibble Nibble, there is plenty of room inside the egg to add a ball (or two!) to make it more difficult to get the food out. It is fantastically easy to clean because it’s just rubber and plastic. I liked this one so much that I bought one for both pups!

The Tug-A-Jug was a contender for quite a while. The dog has to work with the rope without pulling the rope too far, which blocks the treat-dispensing hole – it is super tricky! My lab developed a method of tipping the Tug-A-Jug and wiggling the rope to get the kibble out, while my cattle dog would pick up the Tug-A-Jug by the rope and throw it around until kibble came out. (Which was fine, except that she hit me in the head with it once because I was sitting on the floor – OUCH!) Unfortunately, because the rope is just a regular rope – a bundle of fabric strings – I never quite figured out how to properly clean this one. The rope was actually the demise of this toy for me because after leaving the Tug-A-Jug in our closet over the weekend, I discovered the rope had molded the following Monday. I couldn’t get it satisfactorily clean (even after running it through the dishwasher), so the Tug-A-Jug sadly went into the trash.

The Magic Mushroom – who in the world named this? – was the least satisfactory of these three Busy Buddy products. The pup is supposed to roll this toy end-for-end, making the treats fall out of the body of the toy and dispense under the mushroom cap. However, my pups weren’t able to roll this effectively on hardwood. The toy worked okay on carpet but I prefer to feed my dogs in rooms that just happen to have non-carpeted floors. But I didn’t want to change my entire feeding routine (trust me, it would have been an ordeal) just to use this toy the way it was meant! Because the toy didn’t work well in the rooms where I feed my dogs, my cattle dog started picking up the toy and tossing it, which worked okay for about a week until the cap of the mushroom broke off. I didn’t even try to fix it because I’m sure it would have broken again in another week.

These aren’t the only food dispensing toys on the market so look for more reviews on this type of product down the road. Have you tried any of these toys with your pups? What were your experiences with them like? Let me know in the comments below!

*I regularly use Chewy.com to order dog and cat food as well as other pet supplies. I’m not sponsored by this company in any way. I LOVE them because they are affordable, have great customer service and fast shipping. 

Product Review: PetSafe Manners Minder Treat & Train Remote Reward Behavior Dog Trainer

Product: Treat & Train by PetSafe

Cost: $90-110, depending on where you purchase it

Available: Chewy.com* and other online retailers

Length of ownership: 4 months

Review:

The Treat & Train (T&T ) is a remote-controlled treat dispensing tool that was designed to help owners teach dogs a down-stay behavior, particularly for when the owner needs to answer the door. The development of this tool has been published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science under the title, “Efficacy of a remote-controlled, positive-reinforcement, dog-training system for modifying problem behaviors exhibited when people arrive at the door.”

TheT&T comes with the actual food dispensing robot, a cue wand and stand, the remote control, an instructional guide, a quick-start guide and a DVD. It comes with a battery but you will need to purchase or already have a “down-stay” mat/bed that is only brought out for training exercises. I perused the instructional guide and quick-start guide but the DVD was most helpful for me. The DVD went through, in a 1990’s PSA style, all the steps of training with the T&T and, critically, common mistakes at each step of the way. The DVD also included a very helpful section about how to tell if your dog is overweight in the bonus material!

I bought the T&T because my husband was working 10-12 hour shifts and I was finding it difficult to work with both of our dogs on training activities. Although both Luna and Allie have pretty good “stay”s, it wasn’t very much fun to have one dog sit still while I worked with the other and someone usually got bored by these exercises. And Luna has mildly poor manners when people come to the door!

I started Luna, our 2 year old lab, with the T&T because impulse control does not come naturally for her. Before I talk about its functionality, I am super pleased with the T&T’s durability. Luna really gave that thing a lashing before she mastered the idea that she only received kibble from the T&T for sitting quietly (which is addressed in the DVD and instructional guide). I also have dropped the T&T on occasion and it has stood up admirably.

Luna and I completed the incremental steps that the first step of the T&T instructions required and I am still astounded by the results. With the T&T, Luna went from barely being able to sit still for 3 seconds to sitting patiently in front of the T&T for over 120 seconds for multiple sessions. As evidenced by Dr. Yin’s publication in Applied Animal Behavior Science, the T&T protocol absolutely works.

Because I am not diligently following the T&T protocol currently, Luna and I are still working on her down-stay with distractions with the T&T. If I had stuck to the T&T protocol, I have no doubt that Luna would be completely trained to down-stay while I answered the door, whatever distractions were present. The progress she has made with impulse control because of the T&T simply amazes me. I view the T&T as a having a personal dog trainer that I can pull out of my closet at my convenience and I couldn’t be more pleased with it.

On a separate note, the T&T can be used for many more fun games besides “down-stay” at the door. The instructional booklet has some ideas for training behaviors at a distance and using the targeting behavior of the T&T protocol for exercise and mental stimulation. As long as you understand the positive reinforcement concepts behind the T&T protocol, the limit for its use is probably just your imagination.

*I regularly use Chewy.com to order dog and cat food as well as other pet supplies. I’m not sponsored by this company in any way. I LOVE them because they are affordable, have great customer service and fast shipping.