From Fear to Confidence (for your dog)

A local dog training non-profit organization, Your Dog’s Friend, hosted a lecture called, “From Fear to Confidence”, a few weeks ago. It was given by Tonya Wilhem of Raising Your Pets Natural, a behavior professional from Toledo, Ohio. It was a very interesting talk with lots of food for thought, so I thought I’d share my notes!

    1. Bringing a young dog into your home is an opportunity to prevent fearful and anxious behaviors through positive reinforcement of which you should take advantage! Tonya gave the example of lavishly rewarding her puppy for calm behavior during thunderstorms (for years!), before he started developing storm anxiety. I’d note that it’s probably never too late to use positive reinforcement to prevent undesirable behaviors – so give your dog a treat for being good pupper whenever!!
    2. It is an owner’s responsibility to prevent (and if necessary, manage) situations that will put their dog over threshold. “Threshold” is a term meaning the point at which a stimulus will provoke a reaction. So my Luna can see a squirrel down the street and not react, but if a squirrel pops out of a few feet from us, you better believe she’s going after said squirrel. Thus, Luna’s squirrel threshold is somewhere between “down the street” and “a few feet from us”. For a dog that is suffering from anxiety, it is vitally important to keep the dog under threshold and that may mean the owner has to determine some areas and activities are off-limits. A dog-reactive dog just should not be walked in an area frequented by other dogs, and a stranger-reactive dog should likewise not be walked where loads of people will be.

      It’s worth noting that “reactive” and “anxious/fearful” can be synonymous for some dogs. A dog may be reactive (i.e. barking, lunging, and generally carrying on) for many reasons: frustration, fear, excitement, etc. You have to know your dog and your dog’s body language to tell the difference!

    3. Know your dog’s body language. How do you identify your dog’s threshold, prior to doggo becoming a lunging, barking mess? The dog’s body language! It is unfortunately true that some proportion of dog owners misinterpret canine body language so it’s a good idea for any owner to brush up on their canine body language in general and to carefully study their dog’s body language in a variety of situations. This piece on dog body language from the ASPCA is a good place to start but remember that every dog may be a little different.
    4. Use counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response to fear-inducing stimuli while your dog is under threshold. Counterconditioning is the process of pairing a stimuli that elicits an undesirable response with something positive with the goal of changing the dog’s immediate response to that stimuli. The key here is to use counterconditioning when the dog is well under her threshold! So I’ve used counterconditioning extensively with Luna – one example is with the neighbor whose yard abuts ours. For whatever reason (I’ll withhold my non-charitable thoughts about how this guy has never even said, “Hi!”, to me despite my perfectly friendly overtures), Luna has decided that she does not like him and will be barking at him at any given opportunity, thank you very much. To counter-condition Luna’s reaction to him, I kept her on leash (to keep her below threshold) and as we walked around our backyard at some distance from the neighbor, she would get treats for looking at him and not barking. Over many weeks, we slowly closed the distance between the fence and Luna, and now she (mostly) does not bark at him. Counterconditioning win!
    5. Appropriate tools and products are helpful, but they will only get you and your dog so far. Some pet products on the market will definitely make life harder for you and your anxious dog, because anything aversive -or force-based, like shock and prong collars, loud noise canisters, etc., will likely induce further fear and anxiety and undesirable behaviors. Great tools that will help you manage an anxious dog safely are widely available, such as front and back-clip and front-clip harnesses (Freedom Harness, Easy Walk, etc.) and head halters (Halti, Gentle Leader, etc.). In the way of counterconditioning, there are also products designed to help you deliver that special positive counterconditioning treat on the go, like treat pouches, LeanLix, Treat Toobs (fill with yogurt/pureed pumpkin/peanut butter/etc.), a really special toy, etc. And that’s just to name a few, and not including appropriate veterinary care, supplements, food, psychopharmaceuticals, and other products that may be helpful to an anxious dog.

      The bottom line is that a holistic approach to a dog’s anxiety is the only way to move your dog from fear to confidence!

If you enjoyed this entry, please give it a, “Like” and leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your experience with an anxious or reactive dog.

If you’re in the DMV (that’d be DC-Maryland-Virginia area for you non-locals!), check out Your Dog’s Friend for other FREE dog behavior seminars like the one describe here (and great opportunities for fee-based classes too!)

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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?

 

 

In the Pet News Lately, Vol. 1


Photo credit: marco monetti via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce releases a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, Run, Spot, Run: the Ethics of Keeping Pets. Pierce takes a critical look at the oft-repeated “pets are family” mantra, according to this book review on National Public Radio (NPR). Examining everything from the pet industry’s push to make pet ownership seem fun and easy to the welfare of indoor cats to the “manufacturing” of amphibians and reptiles to be sold at pet stores – I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

Public Radio International does story on paw-ternity leave (paid time off to care for a furry family member) offered by some companies in the U.K.  On the topic of pets as family members, PRI did a story recently about the trend in some small U.K. businesses to offer its employees paid time off to take care of a new or ill pet. Full disclosure: I have actually taken time off work several times to care for a pet undergoing surgery or seriously ill (think projectile vomiting). Have ever taken time off work to due to your pet’s needs?

Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal releases a new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, about the evolution of animal cognition science. I was first introduced to de Waal from his TED talk, Do Animals Have Morals?, a fascinating look at apparently moralistic behavior in (mostly) primates. I am about 1/3 of the way through this new publication about how animal cognition has been viewed historically, ranging from the idea that animals are unfeeling automatons to our much more complex understanding of how animal brains work today. I am so excited to finish this book – look for a review soon!

Inaugural publication of a new journal on animal sentience and cognition, Animal Sentience. Speak of animal cognition…Cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad has launched this new journal on animal sentience as a venue for the emerging research on “what, why, and how organisms feel.” The first issue is focused on the question of if fish feel pain. I am looking forward to perusing this and future issues!

Companion Animal Psychology blog posts about the importance of science to pet welfare and owner happiness.  Psychologist Zazie Todd muses, “[w]e wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids…”, in this post exploring the importance of understanding our pets’ needs and abilities through scientific exploration. A superb and succinct article that encompasses my entire motivation for this blog!

 

 

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: How to Not be a D#@% to Your Cat

IMG_2540Have you ever considered that cats, creatures that we commonly deem to call “owned”,  are a totally different species to ours?  Because cats are relatively common aspects of our households, the fact that their needs to totally unrelated to our own frequently goes overlooked. Dr. Meghan Herron and Dr. Tony Buffington published recommendations for cat owners to provide good health and welfare for their feline friends. Furthermore, ensuring good health and welfare can pre-empt or ameliorate many cat behavior problems! The authors divide their advice into five systems in a cat’s world: physical resources, nutrition, elimination, social, and behavior. My summary of these experts’ recommendations for each system is below!

  • Physical Resource System (Home!)
    • Indoor cats benefit from secure, seclusive “microenvironments”. These are spaces that a cat can go to be away from loud noises, other home inhabitants (both four- and two-legged), and removed from other things that may stress the cat.
    • Multi-cat households may experience a range of cat-on-cat sociality. Cats may prefer a social distant from other cats in the home of between 1 to 3 meters, which includes both horizontal as well as vertical distance!
    • Introducing something new to the cat – food, litter, etc. – should be offered near to the current whatever is being replaced so the cat can choose the preferred item.
  • Nutritional System (Nom noms)
    • Cats are solitary hunters of small prey, so offering food in puzzles that must be manipulated by the cat to release food away from other animals in the household may mimic cats’ natural feeding habits.
    • Cats that are “finicky” about their food may be responding to a perceived threat in their environment.
    • Offering multiple sources of water, including running water from a pet fountain, may benefit cats.
  • Elimination System (When you gotta go…)
    • Multi-cat households should have at least one litter box per cat, plus one additional, kept out of sight of other littler boxes.
    • Covered, self-cleaning, or too small litter boxes may disrupt a cat’s normal elimination behavior routine, which may cause inappropriate elimination (i.e., going outside the box)
    • Cats seem to prefer clumping litter, which should be scooped daily, the entire contents should be dumped weekly, and cleaned with mild soap and water monthly.
  • Social System (You talkin’ to me?)
    • Other living creatures in cats’ environments basically fall into three categories: threats (dogs, humans); competitors (other cats); and prey (birds, fish, pocket pets).
    • Having a perception of control can decrease stress for cats: let cats determine the timing and location of interactions with other species (as safety permits).
    • Multi-cat households may experience inter-cat aggression to due a multitude of reasons: health problems, inadequate resources/space, social status conflicts due to other animals inside or outside the home, etc.
    • Cats may prefer avoidance (silent conflict) to aggression (open conflict).
    • Cats that experience conflict may never be best friends but can usually learn to live together tolerably, sometimes with the help of a certified behaviorist.
  • Behavioral System (A cat’s gotta do…what a cat’s gotta do)
    • Cats must be permitted to display normal behavior to ensure adequate welfare but many normal cat behaviors can be “undesirable” to owners, including scratching, chewing and playing.
    • Directing otherwise “undesirable” towards desirable outlets provides an enriched environment, which can be accomplished by providing outlets that appeal to the cat’s natural behavior.
    • Cats prefer to scratch things after rest and that allow them to hook their claws into it. Poles covered in sisal rope or real wood logs may be good options, placed near common sleeping areas.
    • Cats can be enticed to chew on cat-designated plants (such as live catnip) by rubbing the plants with tuna or wet cat food, and likewise discouraged from chewing non-cat-designated plants by spraying them bitter sprays from pet stores. Pet toxic plants should be removed from cats’ access!
    • Providing a rotating variety of toys (wand toys, stuffed toys, battery-operated self-propelling toys, balls, cat-nip filled toys, laser toys, etc.) will encourage normal cat behaviors like pouncing, stalking, chasing, and biting of said toys (and discourage those same behaviors direct toward the owner’s hands/feet/etc!).

Sources Cited 

Herron ME, Buffington CAT. Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats.Compendium (Yardley, PA). 2010;32(12):E4.

Journal Article: Hand Movements Are Mightier Than The Clicker?

Title: Clicker increases resistance to extinction but does not decrease training time of a simple operant task in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)

Authors: Shawn M. Smith, Ellen S. Davis

Published: 2008 Applied Animal Behaviour Science

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General overview:

These researchers studied the effects of using a clicker during dog training, as these devices are popular with dog owners but have not been scientifically evaluated. The authors identified three possible mechanisms that clickers may serve in the dog training process (definitions found here):

  1. A conditioned/secondary reinforcer: A neutral stimulus paired with a primary reinforcer until the neutral stimulus takes on the reinforcing properties of the primary.
  2. A marking signal: A signal used to mark desired behavior at the instant it occurs.
  3. A bridging stimulus: An event marker that identifies the desired response and “bridges” the time between the response and the delivery of the primary reinforcer.

In order to investigation the mechanism of clicker training, the authors recruited 35 basenji dogs that had never been exposed to a clicker. Eighteen dogs were assigned to the clicker group and the remaining 17 were assigned to a control group. The authors used a trainer to condition the clicker group dogs that the click was associated with food delivery in a nearby bowl, while the control group dogs were simply given rewards in the bowl with no click. Then the trainer taught the dogs a behavior (nose touch a cone) and conducted strengthening trials to reinforce the behavior where the dogs were intermittently rewarded for correct responses to the nose touch cue. These trials were followed by extinction trials in which the dogs were given the nose touch cue but not rewarded.

The authors found that there were no differences between the clicker and the control groups in the number of trials or the time needed to learn the nose touch cue, which suggested that the clicker did not serve as a marker or bridging stimulus. It did, however, the clicker group dogs significantly longer to achieve extinction – that is, to stop nose touching the cone after the nose touch cue was no longer reinforced with food. This suggested that the clicker did serve as conditioned/secondary reinforcer, possibly because the clicker dogs were facing “double extinction”: they had to unlearn both that the clicker did not result in a reward and that the nose touch did not result in a reward.

The authors noted that dogs in both groups were obviously responding to hand movements from the trainer that were associated with delivering food to the bowl, which may have interfered with the dog’s ability to associate the clicker with the food delivery instead. The authors also had a significant difference between the age of dogs and the time/number of trials needed to learn the nose touch behavior: younger dogs were faster than older dogs.

My comments

This was an interesting study because, as the authors noted, it is one of the few that scientifically evaluates the mechanism by which a clicker may facilitate learning in dogs. (How do dogs learn?Check out Crash Course Psychology Episode 11 and Episode 12.) However, I had some concerns about how the authors chose to evaluate the clicker in the context of owner-dog training.

First, the protocol that the trainer used to teach the dogs a nose touch behavior involved the reward being delivered in a dish rather than directly from the trainer. Why?? The authors did not explain this adequately. I wonder if this may have impacted the dogs’ learning based on the information I have read from Dr. Yin about the importance of timing and posture during treat delivery when training dogs. The authors even noted that the dogs were apparently watching the trainer for hand movements that indicated treat delivery to the bowl, which aligns with Dr. Yin’s assertion that treat delivery is highly influential to a dog’s learning experience. Furthermore, I have never heard of an owner training their dog in this manner – therefore, the validity of applying the results from this study to a typical owner training their dog is questionable.

Secondly, if the goal of this study was to evaluate the utility of a clicker in training by the average owner, using a professional dog trainer likely produced results that are not valid outside of that context. A dog trainer will likely have skills that the average owner does not, such as effectively applying cue-reward protocols where a regular owner may have faulty or incorrect application simply because of experience. Because owners may be less accurate during the cue-reward process of training than dog trainers, it is possible that dogs could pick up on the clicker as a marker or bridging stimulus in the absence of other effective instructions. Additionally, other researchers have found that dogs are more attuned to their owner’s social cues vs. a stranger’s behavior. If the purpose of this study was to evaluate clicker’s use for dog owners, the dog’s actual owner should have been used in the training process.

In summary, I agree with the authors that the mechanism of clickers in dog training is an interesting and useful avenue of study. Clickers may be a useful tool in promoting humane, effective dog training for the average owner but incorrect usage of the devices may frustrate owners. Understanding how clickers help (or don’t help) dogs learn could aid behaviorists and trainers to advocate effective and safe training methods to owners. While I do not believe this study’s findings can be applied to a owner/dog training scenario, it is an interesting contribution to the understanding of how clickers impact canine learning.