How do you build resilience in dogs?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or even significant sources of stress. This process is obviously seen in humans, but what does it have to do with dogs?

The ASPCA and other animal welfare professionals are concerned about resilience in dogs because, for some dogs that end up at a shelter, a lack of resilience is a major obstacle to successfully rehoming the dog. Despite shelters’ best effort to mitigate the stress of being in a shelter, the stress of being in a shelter can lead to some dogs developing pretty depressing and challenging behavior, such shutting down, becoming frantic, or even defensive aggression.

Recently, ASPCA Professional hosted a webinar called “Building Resilience in Dogs” by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (If you’d like to see the whole webinar, follow that last link – you can register to receive the recording of the webinar!)

I amimg_4819 personally interested in resilience in dogs because my younger dog, Luna, is the least resilient dog in the world. OKAY – that may be a slight exaggeration! However: Luna’s recovery time from a single stimulating event (which includes things such as: playing with a toy, going on a walk, someone coming to the house, etc.) is hours if not days.  Since I have organized Luna’s routine to accommodate adequate recovery time, many of Luna less-than-desirable behaviors (including becoming frantic and inappropriate defensive aggression) all but disappear.

This can be tricky though, if we have to have a handy man over to the house and then Luna unexpectedly needs to go to the vet – or a hundred other eventualities that I’m sure you can imagine! Hence my interest in building resilience in dogs: if I can build up Luna’s resilience, maybe I won’t have to be quite as vigilant about guarding Luna’s recovery time.

A dog’s resilience seems to depend on her genetics, early life experiences, and current environment. By the time a dog enters shelter, there typically isn’t much that can be done about those first two factors. Fortunately, Dr. McConnell, the ASPCA, and other animal welfare professionals have identified five ways we can set up a dog’s current environment to help foster resilience.

Dr. McConnell talks extensively in the webinar about the following strategies in the context of a shelter environment (so really, check out the webinar recording!!). Here, I am going to illustrate these strategies with things that I have tried, am trying, or would like to try in my own home for my own un-resilient dog!

1. Sense of safety and security. In general, dogs take in a lot for stimuli than us humans and it can be overwhelming, especially for a dog that is already feeling low on resilience due to a stressful event. Think rock concert + strobing light show + an entire perfume department: you might want a break too! Additionally, for a dog suffering from a lack of resiliency, knowing that it’s safe to sleep, when the next meal is coming, where and when she can go to the bathroom, etc. can be sensibly comforting. How can you create a sense of safety and security? Two main ways: avoid sensory overload and create predictability.

  • Avoid sensory overload
    • Give the dog a seclude “quiet spot”, like a crate or a room that is out of the way of household traffic and let everyone in the home know that the dog is “off-limits” when she is in her quite spot. Encourage or enforce your dog’s use of the quiet spot both during down time at home and when things are a little hectic.
      • Maybe even cover the dog’s crate with a blanket (not for dogs who chew and/or eat cloth, obviously!).
    • Train your dog to wear a ThunderCap, which reduces visual stimuli.
  • Create predictability
    • Create (and stick to!) a routine. Meals, exercise, playtime, and down time should all occur at roughly the same time every day.
    • Teach your dog cues to indicate something is going to happen. For example, Luna gets worked up over treats (she is a lab) so I say her name before I give her a treat and I say my other dog’s name when I am about to give my other dog a treat. Luna does not have to guess who is getting the treat!
    • Other times cues can be useful: nail trims, taking a turn or stopping during a walk, baths, meal times, end of playing (“all done!”), hitting a bump while in the car, etc.
    • Classical music adds to the calming predictability of home (or just the dog’s quiet spot) by adding predictable sounds (and maybe even blocking out some unpredictable sounds!)

3. Social support. Dogs tend to like other dogs – they just speak the same language! So it can be helpful to provide the company of dogs on the way to a resilient recovery…but it might not. Dogs that have not grown up around other dogs or who have had bad experience with another dog in the past may prefer the company of humans. Regardless, dogs are social creatures who (generally) enjoy social interactions.

  • Spend time with your dog in a way she img_4863appreciates (i.e. snuggles with a dog who likes that, quiet time (or read aloud!) with a dog who is not so touchy-feely).
  • Arrange for one-on-one play with another friendly dog or visit a well-maintained dog park.
  • Arrange a walking club. For dogs that may not be comfortable with off-leash play, introducing a dog friend as a walking buddy (when both dogs are leashed and kept at a comfortable distance) may be helpful.

4. Sense of autonomy.  Autonomy means, for a dog, having a choice. And let’s face it, the dogs in our lives do not have many choices: we decide the what, where, and when of her eating, going to the bathroom, playing, sleeping, going on a walk, visiting the vet, and so on. Providing opportunities for a dog to choose what they want to do, when they want to do it.

  • Use the basic principles of no force. A no brainer if ever there was one – never, ever force your dog to do something she does not want to do.
  • Teach behaviors that the dog can initiate herself, such as ringing a bell to go outside or going to a quiet spot.
  • Teach the dog tricks. This gives the dog appropriate behavior options to offer to you and also, when you ask the dog to perform a trick, you’re setting up a situation where the dog really does have a choice to perform the trick or not (with no negative repercussions).

5. Healthy and Balanced Internal Physiology. Just like humans, it is hard for dogs to behave well when they are feeling bad. And beyond veterinary care and good food, dogs need mental and physical exercise to be at their best.

  • Time outdoors. Given her own experience and the results of many research studies in humans, Dr. McConnell feels that time outdoors can be profoundly therapeutic to dogs. While I do agree, this is something that Luna struggles with because A) squirrels, B) sticks, C) people walking down the sidewalk, D) noises…you get the picture.
  • Regular exercise. This is so critical for so many dogs. A tired dog is a happy dog, some say – although really, it should be, “a satiated dog is a happy dog”. Overworked and overwhelmed dogs are tired, yes, but happy? Nope.
  • Mental games, like teaching and performing tricks and using puzzle toys. Luna is so helped by mentally taxing work, especially scent work. Sometimes she is not able to go on our near-daily walks, but she is always able to play “sniffy boxes”. If you have an anxious dog, I highly recommend finding a trainer who does scent work.

Have you tried any of these strategies with an anxious or un-resilient dog? Do you have any suggestions for building resilience in dogs?

 

 

The Trouble with Shock Collars: A Real World Example


Photo credit: Schill via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

A family in my neighborhood welcomed a Great Dane puppy into their lives last fall. The once-gangly, now-100+-lb grey dog regularly greets me and my dog while we walk by his yard with booming barks. This situation has apparently become unacceptable for his owners: this week we have not been regaled with the hound’s vocalizations and he is sporting a shiny shock collar high on his neck.

The training method that shock collars, and all punitive training methods, rely on the operant conditioning strategy of positive punishment. The principal is simple: the dog does something the owner does not like and receives the shock – thereby decreasing the likelihood of the dog to repeat that undesired behavior in order to avoid the aversive consequence. For operant conditioning to be successful, two criteria must be met: timing and persuasiveness. These two criteria are precisely why punitive training methods like shock collars are fraught with trouble – and I’ll tell you why:

Shock collars are not smart.  When using operant conditioning, the trainer’s timing must be impeccable in order to link the correct behavior to the correct consequence, because animals do not possess the mental capacity to link consequences of behaviors that are more than a few seconds apart. Is my neighbor’s dog linking the shock with his barking behavior – or the appearance of another dog? Or a squirrel that just happened to be running down the street at the same time? Or the truck that just drove by?

All types of operant conditioning always involves a little trial and error on the animal’s part. Using aversive consequences for training causes stress in dogs and can likely contribute to the development anxiety disorders, aggression, and a host of other behavioral problems.

Shock collars are not safe. The other vital criteria for successful operant condition is that the consequence of the animal’s behavior must be compelling enough to actually change the animal’s behavior. This is why many dog trainers instruct owners to turn up their dog’s shock collar, despite contrary instructions from the manufacturer.

So what if my neighbor’s dog is connecting the significant shocks to the appearance of me and/or my dog? Well, if human +/- dog = pain, it will behoove the dog to prevent humans and/or dogs from getting near to him – so he will become aggressive towards walkers and their dogs.

Shock collars are not necessary. While I’m having to re-route my walking path due to my safety concerns about my neighbor’s dog (which is actually quite the ordeal for my OCD-anxiety dog), I must admit that I am frustrated by my neighbor’s numerous decisions leading up to this point:

  1. They purchased a dog too large to be adequately contained in their yard
  2. They leave him outside unattended
  3. They are upset that a dog bred specifically for its guarding skills barks at strangers
  4. They chose to install a shock collar on him rather than safely train him to tolerate walkers

Any one of these decisions could have been made differently and our whole neighborhood would be safer! Of course, the welfare of the dog is also a significant concern on mine so I would prefer that my neighbors would train their dog not to bark in a manner that will not cause pain and anxiety.

Cat pheromones: do they work?

I can’t speak for all pet owners but pet pheromone products have been pushed at me from all quarters – pet shop associates, veterinarians, trainers, and even other pet owners! I was initially recommended pheromone products due to car- and moving-induced stress in my pets but if you pick up any brand pheromone dispenser and you will discover a  multitude of potential applications. (Urine marking, inappropriate scratching, multicat tension, excessive barking, hiding, etc.) These products cost a pretty penny too – around $30 for a diffuser or spray, $15 for a pheromone-infused collar. So it begs the question: do pheromone products work?

Photo credit: Trish Hamme via Foter.com / CC B

What are pheromones anyway?

Pheromones are a means of chemical communication. Although not completely understood, it is thought that animals perceive pheromones through a specialized receptor in roof animal’s snouts called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). The VNO does not always pick up pheromones, however – it has to be activated by the animal. Have you ever seen a cat, intrigued by a new smell or etc., open her mouth and “pant” with her tongue out? That behavior is called “flehmen” and it’s function is to suck pheromones into the VNO.

Animals use pheromones to communicate a wide array of messages: territorial marking, sexual receptivity, spatial orientation and emotional stabilization, assertion of social status, alarm marking during fear reactions, appeasement of infant animals – and those are just the pheromones that scientists understand (and there are loads whose functions are unknown).

Scientists and pet product companies have developed synthetic pheromones that can be purchased at many pet stores and veterinary offices. Several types of pheromone dispensation products are available: passive diffusers that are plugged into a wall outlet, pheromone-infused collars, pheromone-infused wipes, and pheromone sprays.

What could pheromones do for cats?


Photo credit: Sander van der Wel via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Considering that our pets live in a world full of smells, veterinarians and behaviorists have  been exploring the application of pheromones to treat animal behavior problems because, when used correctly, they are completely non-toxic, have no side effects, and involve little effort on the part of owner or pet. The therapeutic use of pheromones to treat behavior problems in pets is called pheromonotherapy.

The principle of pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. Many behavior problems are the result of fear and anxiety in pets, so using a pheromone with an emotional stabilization function – like the pheromone cats release when they rub their chin on something to distinguish it as “known”. Reduction of feline spraying has been a target of numerous pheromonotheray studies – no doubt because this is a common and extremely aggravating behavior problem for cat owners. Scientists have also evaluated cat pheromones in calming cats during transport, prior to intravenous catheterization, in preventing stress-induced anorexia, and facilitating the peaceful introduction of unsocialized cats.

So…do pheromones work?

There are real barriers to the success of pheromonotherapy. First, animals generally do not communicate by pheromones alone. Usually there would be a multitude of body signals or vocalizations that would accompany (and emphasize) the pheromone message and open up the VNO so that the animal perceives the message.  Secondly, pheromones may “prime” an animal’s emotional state to be receptive to a behavior modification program but it is unlikely that pheromones alone will completely address behavior problems.

Thus the importance of the scientific evaluation of pheromonotherapy! All of the studies that I read about the use of pheromones for emotional stabilization, i.e. for behavior problems like urine marking, inter-act aggression, transport-induced stress, stress-induced anorexia (see Sources below), were all suggestive of a positive effect. The general consensus is that the longer pheromones were used (4+ weeks), the better the effect. Additionally, many cats maintained improved behavior after pheromones were removed.

I did find a very critical meta-analysis, which is a study of studies. This meta-analysis looked at all available pheromone studies and found that most studies had significant problems with design and/or analysis, such as small sample size, the absence of blinding or randomization, and the lack of a control sample. These problems prevented the authors from agreeing with the positive findings of the individual studies. However…I had problems with the meta-analysis’s problems! The principles of “robust” clinical research aren’t always ethical – especially in a situation where, say, you’ve got an owner whose cat is spraying all over the house and euthanasia is seriously on the table. Furthermore, the funding opportunities for these studies don’t seem to be abundant so gathering huge sample sizes may not be possible. I did not find any study over stating its findings and hopefully the examination of pheromonotherapy will continue to provide additional information.


Photo credit: jenny downing via Foter.com / CC BY

TL;DR

We have reasonable evidence to suggest human-applied pheromones (or pheromonotherapy) can be helpful as part of a behavior modification program for a cat displaying certain behavior problems, especially urine marking and inter-cat aggression. Best results have been seen in prolonged use (4+ weeks) of pheromonotherapy.

 

 

Sources

  1. Frank, Diane, Guy Beauchamp, and Clara Palestrini. “Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236.12 (2010): 1308-1316.
  2. Mills, Daniel S., Sarah E. Redgate, and Gary M. Landsberg. “A meta-analysis of studies of treatments for feline urine spraying.” PloS one 6.4 (2011): e18448.
  3. Griffith, Cerissa A., Elizabeth S. Steigerwald, and CA Tony Buffington. “Effects of a synthetic facial pheromone on behavior of cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217.8 (2000): 1154-1156.
  4. Mills, D. S., and C. B. Mills. “Evaluation of a novel method for delivering a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone to control urine spraying by cats.” RIVISTA DI ZOOTECNIA E VETERINARIA 30.1 (2002): 50-51.
  5. Kronen, Peter W., et al. “A synthetic fraction of feline facial pheromones calms but does not reduce struggling in cats before venous catheterization1.”Veterinary anaesthesia and analgesia 33.4 (2006): 258-265.
  6. Gunn-Moore, D. A., and M. E. Cameron. “A pilot study using synthetic feline facial pheromone for the management of feline idiopathic cystitis.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery 6.3 (2004): 133-138.
  7. Frank, D. F., H. N. Erb, and K. A. Houpt. “Urine spraying in cats: presence of concurrent disease and effects of a pheromone treatment.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 61.3 (1999): 263-272.
  8. Pageat, Patrick, and Emmanuel Gaultier. “Current research in canine and feline pheromones.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 33.2 (2003): 187-211.

Journal Article: Are Shelter Dogs More Aggressive? and “Perfectly Safe” vs. “Vicious”

Title:  Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors

Authors: Rachel A. Casey, Bethany Loftus, Christine Bolster, Gemma J. Richards, Emily J. Blackwell

Published: December 11, 2013 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

General overview:

These researchers distributed 14,566 surveys and received 3897 completed, legible responses (26.6% response rate). The surveys assessed owner demographics, basic info about the owner’s youngest dog (origin, age, breed, neuter status) as well as training methods (grouped into positive reinforcement/negative punishment or positive punishment/negative reinforcement) and instances of human directed aggression or avoidance of humans in multiple contexts. The researchers used their survey results to create three multivariate models for aggression directed towards family members, towards unfamiliar people entering the home and towards unfamiliar people outside of the home.

[Brief explanation of multivariate models: In this case, this means that the authors took all of the questions they asked about in the surveys and entered them into a statistical model as variables, such as “breed type”, “age”, “neuter status”, etc. These variables were assessed for their ability to predict an outcome variable, which were the aggressive responses in various contexts from the surveys for this research. Using exclusion criteria, variables are eliminated if they didn’t predict the outcome variable very well. The final model contains only those variables that, in combination, predict the outcome variable “well”, according to various statistical standards. For more information, see this NIH article on multivariate analysis.]

The model with the outcome variable of aggression directed towards family members included owner age, dog age and neuter status, training method, attendance to training classes (except puppy classes), breed type and origin of dog. The model with aggression directed at unfamiliar humans entering the household included owner gender, owner age, dog age and neuter status, attendance to puppy classes and breed type. Finally, the model with aggression directed at unfamiliar humans outside the household included dog age and neuter status, puppy classes, ring craft classes, training category and breed type.

My comments:

Let’s start with my complaints about this article. I felt “aggression”, as assessed through the surveys, was again poorly defined. The authors briefly acknowledged that there may be discrepancies between owner interpretation of dog behavior but seemed to feel that differences might be gender based. I’m not sure how substantiated this theory is, but this issue could be circumvented by clearly defining “aggressive” behaviors in a certain way. Obviously, recall (a respondent’s imperfect memory)  and reporting (a respondent’s voluntary suppression of information) biases will still exist but these are issues inherent with surveys.

Although the authors clearly define their study population as a convenience sample, I didn’t think this was appropriately included in the interpretation of the results. Half of the respondents had received this survey at a dog show or dog-related event, which is very unrepresentative of the general dog-owning population in my personal experience. I’m not sure if wide-scale dog owner demographics are available but I feel like the inclusion of so many people who were motivated to attend a dog show makes the generalizability of this study to the general population of dogs and owners is questionable.

My final critique is the interpretation of owner gender, owner age, dog gender/neuter status and dog breed variables in the final multivariate models. The authors did a nice job of comparing their results with previous studies but for these variables in particular, the discussion got confusing. It basically came down to the fact that previous studies have both agreed and disagreed with the results from this research for these particular factors. So do these variables contribute to a dog’s risk of human direct aggression, and why is that? The authors just sort of shrugged in answer. I’m all for being open and honest about your findings, but…really? That’s about half of the final variables in all three models! If there really isn’t anything you can conclude from these variables except that more research needs to be conducted into each of these variables, why were they included to begin with?

Finally, the interesting bits of the study. First, there was the origin of the dog. Compared to dogs obtained from breeders, dogs from rescue groups had a 2.6 times increased risk of aggression towards humans and dogs obtained from an “other” source (pet stores, internet sites, etc.) had a 1.8 times increased risk. Are shelter dogs at greater risk of human directed aggression? There are two potential explanations to this apparent finding:

1. Yes, shelter dogs have an increased risk of human directed aggression because A) human-aggressive dogs are more likely to surrendered to a shelter and/or B) being in a shelter could somehow make a dog more aggressive towards humans.

2. No, shelter dogs are not actually more likely to exhibit human directed aggression but it appeared in this study as the result of owners of dogs from rescue centers being more likely to report human directed aggression because A) they may feel less “responsible” for the dog’s behavior since (in most cases) they aren’t the first owner (i.e. less reporting bias than owners who obtained their dogs from a breeder) and/or B) they may be more attuned to their dog’s behavior because of its unknown background (i.e. less recall bias than owners who obtained their dogs from a breeder).

So which is it? I have no idea – I suspect it’s a combination – and I wish the authors’ had delved into this finding a little more. Or maybe someone could pay me to do that!

Next, the authors found that dogs that were aggressive in one context were not likely to show aggression in another context. This is really interesting finding because it supports what all those behaviorists have been harping about (that dogs exhibit aggressive behavior in response to certain perceived threats in certain contexts) and goes against the popular theory that some dogs are “vicious” while other dogs are “perfectly safe.” These researchers furthermore added that their finding that pit bull-type breeds (Staffordshire Bull terriers, other bull breeds and mastiff breeds) that are frequently deemed vicious by popular culture and breed-specific legislation did not have an increased risk of human directed aggression compared to the baseline group (cross breeds).

Attendance to training classes (except puppy classes) was associated with an increased risk of human directed aggression in this study. The authors concluded that this could be because A) these classes somehow increased dogs’ aggressive behavior or that B) owners with dogs who exhibited human directed aggression were more likely to take them to training classes. Additionally, I think there could be an increased awareness of dog behavior in owners who have been instructed by a qualified dog trainer.

In a somewhat related vein, this study also found that certain training methods were associated with an increased risk of human directed aggression. Dogs of owners who reported using any kind of positive punishment or negative reinforcement had a 2.2 increased risk of aggression direct at unfamiliar people outside the household and a 2.9 increased risk of family directed aggression. The relationship of factors is unknown: A) do owners with aggressive dogs “resort to” punitive training methods more often or B) do dogs trained with punitive measures develop aggressive behaviors more often?


 

A small note of my own personal opinion: it would be useful to know if shelter dogs are actually more likely to demonstrate human directed aggression. Why?

  1. Human directed aggression from dogs puts the humans around them at risk of being bitten, which could result in psychological trauma, serious injury or even death.
  2. Aggressive dogs aren’t happy dogs. Behaviorists tend to think that dogs exhibiting aggressive behavior are fearful and anxious.
  3. If aggressive behaviors are being exhibited in a limited number of contexts, they could possibly be resolved with fairly minimal behavior modification* or management. Small(ish) effort = happier dog + safer humans. That seems like a good deal to me!
  4. Rescue groups try their darnedest to send their adopters home with as much information as they need to succeed with their new family addition. If dogs from shelters really are more likely to demonstrate human directed aggression, adopters ought to be prepared for it!
  5. If dogs from rescue centers really aren’t more likely to exhibit human directed aggression and it’s really that owners who got their dogs from breeders are unaware of or unwilling to admit to their dog’s aggressive behavior, this also needs to be addressed. Reading a dog’s warning signals can keep dogs happier and humans safer!

*Owners of dogs exhibiting any kind of aggressive, territorial or otherwise concerning behaviors should seek the help of a trained veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist before attempting any kind of behavioral modification!