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: Does the Owner/Dog Bond Facilitate Canine Learning?

Title: Learning and owner–stranger effects on interspecific communication in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)

Authors: Angel M. Elgier, Adriana Jakovcevic, Alba E. Mustaca, Mariana Bentosela

Published: December 2008 in Behavioural Processes

General overview:

These researchers were interested in how a dog’s relationship to its owner (which has been described in previous studies as a bond attachment that is similar to that of infant and parental figure. Specifically, the authors were interested in how the processes of extinction (the disappearance of a learned behavior) and reversal learning (learning to do the opposite of a human social cue) would be affected by an owner’s presence or absence. The 13 dogs that were enrolled in the study were randomly assigned an experiment (extinction or reversal) and whether the experiment would be conducted by the owner or a stranger (owner group or stranger group). Then, the authors trained 13 dogs in their lab to seek a treat that was hidden in one of two identical opaque containers that was pointed at by a human standing in the middle of the two containers. After this “acquisition phase”, the dogs were then given their predetermined experiment. In the extinction experiment, neither container had a treat and a “success” for an extinction experiment achieved when the dog did not seek either container within 15 seconds of the point cue. In the reversal experiment, the treat was in the container that was not being pointed at by the human experimenter and a “success” for this experiment was achieved when the dog immediately chose the container that was not being pointed.

The authors found that owner group dogs were much slower to “learn” in the extinction experiment than the stranger group dogs, and that owner group dogs learned the reversal behavior faster than dogs tested with the stranger group dogs. In explanation for the relative poor performance of the owner group dogs in the extinction experiment, the authors hypothesized that the owner group dogs might be more obedient to owners or likely have experienced intermittent reinforcement to their owner’s social cues (resulting in a much more reliable behavior that took longer to “unlearn”). In regards to the better performance of the owner group dogs in the reversal experiment, the researchers hypothesized that an owner’s presence may facilitate learning on the dog’s behalf due to reduced stress. Obviously, however, none of these hypotheses fully explains the results of this experiment.

My comments:

Let’s start off with what I thought was well done in this paper. The data presentation was great: there was a table with demographic information about the dogs (although it did not feature spay/neuter status) as well as a table listing which dog was assigned to which treatment groups and the number of trials each dog took to achieve extinction/reversal learning. The authors also supplied a bar chart of results, which neatly described their findings.

One quibble I do have with this paper is that it is probably the most poorly written research article that I have ever read. All of the authors are from organizations in Argentina and I suspect that the paper was originally written in Spanish and translated very poorly. For example, there were several instances of “to verb” rather than just “verb“, as well as some vocabulary that doesn’t make sense to me (specifically, the use of the word “ontogeny”, which refers to the fetal development of an organism). But as I’m not in the field of applied animal behavior, perhaps I just don’t understand the use of the term in this context.

Unfortunately, I also have some major concerns with the actual experiment procedures. First of all, all of the dogs assigned to the extinction got 25-30 correct trials out of 30 possible trials in the acquisition phase, while every single dog in the reversal group got only 4 correct trials in this phase. This hardly seems to be possible by coincidence but the authors don’t offer an explanation of why the dogs were divided this way. (And I can’t think of one either!)

The researchers also stated that at the beginning of all training (both the acquisition phase and the experiment), the person performing the point cue attempted to gain eye contact with the dog and looked at the dog for the entirety of the training. I’m confused why this was done because staring at a dog can be threatening and stressful to the dog, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this could impact the stranger/owner effect since a staring stranger may be substantially more scary than a staring owner.

The other significant concern I had was the use of “correction” in the reversal learning experiment. If the dog chose the container towards which the human was pointing, the handler would jerk the dog’s leash and say “No,” and just verbally reprimand the dog after two leash jerk/verbal corrections. This type of correction is positive punishment and it’s a very ineffective and inefficient way to get a dog to learn. In fact, the average number of trials needed by dogs in this reversal group (both the owner group and the stranger group dogs) were higher than the average number of trials needed by dogs in the extinction group. Obviously, this could be a function of the task difficulty (perhaps extinction is easier to “learn” than reversal) but the higher number of trials could also have been the result of this confusing, inefficient training methodology.

Even though I have substantial qualms with the protocols of this research, because all dogs were treated similarly, I do think that this research provides evidence that the bond to an owner influences learning in some way. I thought the authors’ focus on an encompassing explanation of why owner group dogs learned extinction slower but reversal faster was perhaps misguided. It makes a lot of sense to me that dogs would have a very strong behavioral habit of going where their owner pointed due to the intermittent reinforcement previously theorized. I would hypothesize that owner group dogs learned reversal faster because it was a totally novel behavior and the owner/dog attachment facilitated that learning. I would be very interested to see this research question addressed by another group of researchers with more veterinary behaviorist oversight to see if these results can be replicated.

Journal Article: How Did Dogs Get to Understanding Humans?

Title: The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs

Authors: Brian Hare, Michelle Brown, Christina Williamson, Michael Tomasello

Published: November 2002 in Science

General overview:
These authors conducted four experiments to explore three hypotheses about how domestic dogs may have acquired their adept skill at using human social cues: 1) canids (wolves, foxes, coyotes, dogs and etc.) are adept at exploiting the behavior of both conspecifics (members of the same species) and other species due to hunting requirements of their diet. This hypothesis predicts that many canids would perform as well as dogs on tasks involving social cues from humans. 2) Domestic dogs have much more experience with humans and their social cues due to dogs/humans’ relative closeness from a very young age. This hypothesis would indicate that dog puppies of advancing age would performing increasingly well at tasks involving human social cues due to their cumulative knowledge of living with humans longer. 3) Dogs have undergone a selection pressure during domestication for specific skills involved with using human social cues. This hypothesis predicts that dogs and puppies (over a certain age) would perform equally well on tasks requiring human social cues and would outperform their nearest relative, wolves.

The authors conducted four experiments to explore canid skills in exploiting human social cues for food rewards (with control experiments to address olfactory food detection). In the first experiment, the researchers tested 11 dogs and 11 apes on the ability to correctly choose a container that was gazed at, pointed at and had a small marker placed atop. Dogs were significantly more skilled at this task, demonstrating that dogs are better at exploiting human social cues than humans’ nearest relative.

In the second experiment, 7 dogs and 7 human-reared wolves were tested on the ability to correctly choose a container with a single or combination of the following human social cues: gaze, point and/or tap. Dogs generally outperformed wolves, although the wolves did appear to understand a combination of the cues.

In the third experiment, 5 dogs and 5 human-reared wolves were individually shown food being hidden in a container and then later had to pick the container from memory. Dogs and wolves performed equally well in this experiment.

In the fourth and final experiment, the authors tested 32 dog puppies between the ages of 9 and 26 weeks. The puppies were tested on their ability to pick out a container based on a gaze and point or just a gaze by a human. Some puppies had been reared from a young age by humans while others had been raised in a kennel situation with limited human exposure. There was no difference between age or rearing type on either cue.

From the last three experiments, the authors conclude that their results suggest that dogs’ ability to exploit human social cues was due to selective pressure during the domestication process (hypothesis 3). Because puppies of all ages and human exposure type performed well on tasks using human social cues and while dogs and wolves performed well in the memory task (experiment 3), dogs outperformed wolves at social tasks, the authors found a significant social-cognitive difference between wolves and dogs that suggests an evolutionary explanation rather than the general social skill of canids (hypothesis 1) or a human exposure source (hypothesis 2).

My comments:

As you may have been able to tell, this article was chock full of interesting experiments and results. Science is a very prestigious journal with one of the highest impact factors of all academic journals. In other words, you don’t get published in Science unless you’ve done some pretty fascinating work!

Although their sample sizes are small (10 to 32 test subjects), these authors make a compelling argument to support the domestication theory of dogs’ ability to read human social skills. Of course, in order for this theory to be fully accepted, these experiments will need to be reproduced (and likely already have, since this research is 12 years old). Unfortunately, given the number of experiments these authors were explaining and the limited word count of Science, not a lot of space was given to elucidating the experimental conditions or even the subjects (except for the puppy experiment where ages were given, the only thing I know about the animals tested was their species). Of course, future researchers can always contact the corresponding author for this information if they’d like to replicate the science.

In my view, this research has very interesting implications for canine welfare. In many areas of the U.S., dogs are legally protected as property, with the exception that owners must provide adequate shelter, food, water and veterinary care. Basically, in our legal system, a dog is a box*.

However, if dogs are cognizant of human social skills, is it humane to treat a dog as a box*? After all, if you scream at a box, no harm is done. If you scream at a box*(i.e. a dog), and the dog feels stress from that social cue, has harm been done? Where and how does a creature’s cognitive abilities play into its welfare requirements?

(*that you can’t outright neglect or abuse)

These findings are super applicable for training purposes. Many common dog training methods involve pairing a human-given hand or verbal cue with a behavior (i.e. a sit) from the dog. This research suggests that this type of training is only possible through the selective pressure that gave dogs skilled at exploiting human social cues an evolutionary edge. Consider that in contrast to training a cat: the same hand/verbal cues may not be as meaningful to felines (who by all accounts never underwent the same domestication process as dogs) than our canines!

Journal Article: Can you measure stress in dogs?

Title: Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs

Authors: Bonne Beerda, Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Jan. A.R.A.M. van Hooff, Hans W. de Vries

Published: 1997 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

General overview:

The researchers sought to review the behavioral, physiological and immunological stress reactions that had been previously published and add to that knowledge base with their own researcher. The authors applied auditory stimuli to 6 beagle dogs (3 “test” dogs and 3 “control” dogs) in a variety of intensities and length. Additionally, the authors used 10 beagle dogs to test for stress reactions during 50 minutes of transport and in an unfamiliar environment. The dogs had behavioral and physiological measurements taken throughout travel to the testing facility or during the auditory stress or control situations. The authors found a wide range of physiological responses to supposed stressful events. The researchers suggested that more research into stress parameters for various behavioral, physiological and immunological reactions is needed. Furthermore, the authors recommend recording a variety of stress reactions in order to reduce differences between individuals, breeds, age, gender or previous life experiences when attempting to quantify the welfare of animals exposed to stress.

My comments:

Because this paper was about 50% literature review and 50% novel data, and because it was relatively old (17 years), I found this to be a highly, erm, fascinating read. Behavior researchers used to do some pretty sadistic things to dogs (i.e. shocking a dog with such a high voltage that the dog would, “urinate, defecate, scramble rapidly and vigorously around the compartment, emit high-pitched screeches, salivate profusely and roll their eyes rapidly with dilated pupils…”)! However flawed our currently animal research welfare laws are, they really are an improvement over…you know, no animal research welfare laws.

The literature review of this piece explained the historical efforts of animal behavior researchers to define which behaviors, physiological and immunological reactions in dogs were associated with stress. This research was probably fueled by the desire to define “stress” in dogs without any anthropomorphic influences. I thought it really highlighted the importance of “baby steps” in research: if you want to study stress in dogs, you must first define stress, determine how stress in manifested in the general population of dogs, and define measurable parameters of stress. Furthermore, if you want to say that stress is bad for dogs, you must first determine whether or not stress decreases the welfare of a dog! While these components might seem maddeningly insignificant, they are a requirement of understandable, reproducible, rigorous science.

The actual findings of novel research from this paper were not altogether interesting – which isn’t entirely surprising on account of the incredibly small sample sizes (6 and 10 dogs, respectively). The authors found a great variety in potential stress behaviors in these dogs, so they’re able to determine ranges for stress responses in any of the behaviors or physiological samples they measured. The authors also did not provide information about the dogs in regards to age, gender, neuter status, previous life experiences, etc., which could have offered some potential explanations for the variable stress reactions. It does highlight the need for more research into how individual differences between dogs could impact stress reactions and its welfare implications, I suppose.

Stress is an unavoidable part of canine life. If we can reduce stress on dogs, does this make their lives and thus welfare better off? This paper focused on the importance of linking stress to welfare implications. I am interested to read more about measurable stress reactions in companion animals!

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!

Journal Article: Skip the Training Classes?

Title: The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs

Authors: Emily J. Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A. Casey

Published: September-October 2008 in Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

General overview:

The researchers handed out 250 surveys to people walking their dogs or visiting veterinary facilities in several locations in the U.K, and 192 completed surveys were returned. The surveys asked for demographic information about the household as well as dog training methods that the owners used and potentially undesirable behaviors that their dog(s) displayed. The researchers found no significant association between attendance in formal training classes and total number of undesirable behaviors reported by the owner. This study also found that type of training method was significantly related to undesirable behavior scores, while the breed, sex of the dog, number of children in the home and previous experience of the owner was not associated with the number of reported undesirable behaviors.

My comments:

Overall, I thought that this research was fascinating but the presentation of the methods and findings was messy at times. I know there is always a word count limit in academic journals but that’s no excuse to pump so much information into an article that you can’t fully explain what you’re presenting – just split it into two papers!

Okay, getting past my troubles with the writing, I thought the survey seemed fairly well done. There was a high response rate and the authors acknowledged potential issues with their sampling techniques. Within the survey, the authors listed out all potentially undesirable behaviors they could think of (which were grouped into the following categories: Control, Separation, Aggression, Fear/Avoidance, Attention-seeking, Compulsive and Reactions to the following: other dogs in and outside the home, unfamiliar and familiar people, and being “told off”). The authors then asked which behaviors the owners actually felt were undesirable, which allowed for differences in owners’ perceptions of “bad” dog behavior.

I will complain that the authors did not define what they meant by “aggression” in the paper, which could be problematic if they also did not define what consisted “aggression” in their survey. “Aggression” can be subjective: when your dog barks at another dog, do you feel your dog is being aggressive or fearful or trying to get attention or something else entirely?

Despite these issues (which essentially all surveys are wont to have), the results are super interesting. The authors highlight the lack of correlation between attendance to formal training lessons and total number of undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog, and that nearly all owners did some sort of training with their dog. The authors felt that this may have been because of the availability of dog-training help in books or online. This finding didn’t hold true for puppy socialization classes, as dogs who experienced puppy classes were far less likely to be reactive to dogs outside the home.

Very few (18%) owners sought help for undesirable behaviors while 98% of dogs exhibited some type of problematic behavior. Now, the majority of the owners surveyed had previous experience with a dog, so perhaps they had sought outside help with another dog in the past. Regardless, this finding really highlights the lack of conversation between veterinarians, animal behaviorists and trainers about behavior problems that could lead to a dog being euthanized or surrendered to a shelter.

The super concerning finding (to me) was that nearly 3/4 of all owners used some type of positive punishment. If you’ve read my post on science-based vs. dominance-based training, you’ll know that behaviorists and researchers are increasingly in agreement that positive punishment (such as yelling, hitting, electric collars, noise distractions like cans of pennies, etc.) have no place in humane, effective dog training. If more owners sought outside help for behavior concerns, perhaps fewer owners would resort to ineffective, inhumane training methods. 

The authors found that owners who used positive punishment reported more undesirable behaviors from their dogs and, conversely, owners who used positive reinforcement only reported significantly less undesirable behaviors. This could be explained by several different causes: 1) as the authors speculate, perhaps owners with dogs that exhibit a large number of undesirable behaviors “resort to” positive punishment more often; 2) dogs who are subjected to positive punishment develop more undesirable behaviors for the reasons I talked about in this post; 3) a large proportion of the survey sample reported using positive punishment, so it could be a mere sampling issue.

So, overall, I’d say DON’T SKIP THE FORMAL TRAINING CLASSESEthical, well-informed dog trainers can help eliminate the use of positive punishment, which will increase training effectiveness as well as the quality of life for the dog, and decrease aggression, fear and other undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog. Furthermore, having a relationship with a certified animal behaviorist is, in my opinion, as important as having a relationship with a veterinarian.

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.