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!)

Dog pheromones: do they work?


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

To follow up from my post about the efficacy of cat pheromones, I wanted to delve into the scientific literature looking into the effects of pheromonotherapy (the therapeutic application of pheromones to treat behavior problems) on dogs.

What is pheromonotherapy?

Scientists have demonstrated that many animals utilize pheromones (chemical communication signals emitted by animals) for a purposes as varied as sexual receptivity to spatial orientation to appeasement of infant animals. The idea behind pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. While no side effects or toxicity to synthetic pheromones are known, the application of pheromonotherapy is complicated by the fact that animals do not passively intake pheromones (as far as scientists and veterinarians understand) – rather, animals must actively suck in pheromones through a specialized organ in the nasal cavity called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). Unfortunately, there are typically environmental or behavior signals that induce an animal to engage the VNO and these signals may or may not be present when synthetic pheromones are applied. Synthetic pheromones are available from many pet retailers in the form of plug in diffusers, impregnated collars, sprays, and wipes.

What can pheromones do for dogs?

The only dog pheromone that I have found on the market is Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), which is supposed to be a synthetic copycat of the pheromone mother dogs produce to enhance attachment and promote emotional stabilization in her puppies. The common application for this pheromone is, unsurprisingly, to mitigate a undesirable dog behavior resulting from stressors  such as loud noises, being left alone, meeting/living with another animal, going to a veterinary office, etc.

So…do pheromones work for dogs?

I separated studies that I found in my literature review of pheromonotherapy efficacy in dogs into two broad categories: those considering dogs in “social” situations (i.e. where many other animals are present: shelters, veterinary clinics, or training classes) and those looking at dogs in a more private home setting. My motivation for this division is the probable increase in the engagement of the VNO in social situations vs. when dogs are just sitting in their familiar environment.

Interestingly, the general consensus is: YES, pheromones are very effective in reducing anxiety and displacement behaviors (barking, panting, avoidance behaviors, destruction, excessive licking, etc.) while promoting relaxed and social behaviors (social greetings of strangers, laying down, normal appetite, etc.) in dogs. In social settings, results have been reported in as little as 4-7 days, while the treatment period for dogs in home settings is typically longer (4+ weeks). One study even found that DAP application had comparable results to an antidepressant medication, clomipramine, on reducing anxious behaviors.  That’s pretty impressive, considering that DAP has no side effects while clomipramine can have serious side effects including GI upset, elevation of liver enzymes, convulsions, and confusion.

Nearly every study that I read included the stern limitation that more research is needed to confirm these positive results. Furthermore, serious canine behavior problems are unlikely to be fully ameliorated by pheromonotherapy alone: behavior modification programs and psychopharmaceutical drugs should be applied as determined by a veterinarian and/or behaviorist.


Photo credit: Bekathwia via Remodel Blog / CC BY-SA

What does the manufacturer have to say about pheromone efficacy in dogs?

I contacted Ceva Animal Health, the company that produces a popular dog pheromone, Adaptil because their products/website purport to have data on file about the effectiveness of Adaptil. A veterinary technician in their customer service section got back to me with three pieces of literature: one was an actual study of pheromonotherapy and socialization in puppies [1], one was a well-referenced summary of pheromonotherapy studies [2], and the final piece was (probably?) a selection from a book that had no references and a single author [3]. Since I expected some data generated internally from Ceva or at least a Ceva-funded study, I was pretty disappointed in this response – all of this information is available publicly, so what’s with the “data on file” statement? I suspect that Ceva (and other animal product manufacturers) are not all that interested in selling an effective product – they just want to sell any product.

TL;DR

Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is pretty well established as an effective treatment for stress-induced behavior problems in dogs. Pheromonotherapy has been demonstrated to reduce anxious behaviors and increase relaxed behaviors in dogs in especially short timeframes (4-7 days) in situations where other animals are present, which appears to hold up in more private home settings over longer periods (4+ weeks). Dogs with serious behavior problems should be evaluated by a veterinarian and/or dog behaviorist because pheromonotherapy is likely only one piece of the behavior modification and treatment program that the dog will need.

References

  1. Denenberg, Sagi, and Gary M. Landsberg. “Effects of dog-appeasing pheromones on anxiety and fear in puppies during training and on long-term socialization.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 233.12 (2008): 1874-1882.
  2. Landsberg, Gary. “Why Practitioners Should Feel Comfortable with Pheromones – The Evidence to Support Pheromone Use.” Presented at The North American Veterinary Conference. (2006)
  3. Mills, Daniel S. “Pheromones and Pheromonatherapy.” The Henston Small Animal Veterinary Vade Mecum. Part IV: 316-323
  4. 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.
  5. Tod, Elaine, Donna Brander, and Natalie Waran. “Efficacy of dog appeasing pheromone in reducing stress and fear related behaviour in shelter dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 93.3 (2005): 295-308.
  6. Kim, Young-Mee, et al. “Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs.” Canadian Veterinary Journal 51.4 (2010): 380.
  7. Gaultier, E., et al. “Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs.” Veterinary Record-English Edition 156.17 (2005): 533-537.
  8. Mills, Daniel Simon, et al. “A triple blind placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behaviour of problem dogs in the veterinary clinic.” Applied animal behaviour science 98.1 (2006): 114-126.
  9. Sheppard, G., and D. S. Mills. “Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks.” Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association 152.14 (2003).

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!

 

 

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 Train vs. How to Teach

Title: Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare

Authors: EF Hiby, NJ Rooney and JWS Bradshaw

Published: 2004 in Animal Welfare

General overview:

These authors distributed 600 surveys total in two counties in the UK in rural and urban dog-walking areas and veterinary facilities, and 326 were returned completed correctly and used for analysis. The surveys asked questions relating to information about the owner and the dog in addition to dog performance on seven basic obedience tasks, training methods used and undesirable behaviors. The use of punishment was associated with problematic behaviors like over-excitement and separation-related problems while the use of positive reinforcement only was associated with higher reported obedience. The authors note that while the relationship between problematic behaviors and the use on punishment is not precisely known, this work demonstrates that the use of punishment does not result in an obedient dog.

My comments:

This paper is, by far, one of the best written that I’ve come across so far. They authors did an excellent job describing their survey aims, how the analyses were performed and their results (both the basic demographic representations in their data and the interactions between training methods/obedience/problematic behaviors). In my opinion, the best part of this research was the limited scope of the question that the authors asked (and how they stated it explicitly in the article): “The aim of the current study is to document the use of training methods by the pet-owning community and investigate how these methods interact with both obedience and problematic behaviours.”

For me, some of the most interesting findings in this study were the types of behaviors that more owners reported using punishment or rewards only to tackle. For instance, owners 79% of owners reported using punishment when a dog chewed a household item while 79% of owners used positive reinforcement to train “come when called”. Few (12%) of owners used punishment during toilet training with their dog but “heel” training was more split (26% used punishment and 45% used rewards). I wonder if these proportions suggest that there are trends in how owners think to train certain behaviors. This is interesting because it may suggest that owners could benefit from a paradigm shift of “how to train sit/come when called/heel” to “how dogs learn”. (With the idea that learning how dogs learn would result in greater use of positive-reinforcement based training because it is the most effective way to teach dogs, per the current literature.)

The other significant finding that these authors presented was that owners who reported using punishment of any kind resulted in more separation-related problematic behaviors. It should be noted that the authors’ included any destruction/noise/elimination behaviors when left alone as “separation-related behaviors” because these behaviors are not necessarily separation anxiety. Problem behaviors that occur when owners are away can be attributed to many potential causes. The authors hypothesize the association between punishment and separation-related behaviors may result from that the fact that most owners aren’t animal behavior experts: incorrectly applied punishment could create an environment of uncertainty and confusion for a dog, exacerbating anxiety and conflict that are known causes for separation anxiety.

 

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!