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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Do Dogs Just Want To Have Fun?


Please welcome Rebecca Sommerville, today’s guest contributor. Rebecca joins us to discuss her recent review on the function and welfare of dog play with co-authors Drs. Lucy Asher and Emily O’Connor. 

Unsplash

The sight of a dog playing, whether tearing around a park after another dog, or throwing their favourite toy in the air, rarely fails to draw a smile. It seems like dogs just want to have fun. Yet all of that playing uses a lot of energy and puts them at more risk of getting hurt. There must be a good reason they play, but it’s hard to see an obvious one. In the modern world all of their needs should be provided for – food, water, shelter, companionship. So why would dogs do zoomies, if not for fun?

In our recent review paper, we explored research on animal play to help answer this question. Dogs and modern-day wolves share a common ancestor, but during the last 10,000 years, their bodies and minds have been shaped by living with us. They can live harmoniously alongside people and be very attentive to us, and their behaviour is affected by these influences, including play. Our paper looked at the main reasons why animals play and put those reasons to the test with dogs.

The first reason was playing to get stronger, or to develop ‘motor skills’. Dogs play the most when they are young, which suggests that play could strengthen their bones and tissues while they are growing. Many types of movement are seen during play, from fighting to biting, mounting to chasing and manipulating objects – which could all be practice for doing these for real as an adult. However, play is not the best practice, or the best way to get fitter, so it doesn’t make sense why it would exist for this reason alone. It is not the best practice for the muscles and bones because it is sporadic and it doesn’t truly represent the later serious behaviour, only parts of it and in different ways.

The second reason was playing to be prepared, or ‘training for the unexpected’. Play can be quite unpredictable, especially when it is social, and it could prove useful practice for future situations when dogs need to think flexibly and be able to cope. Another interesting aspect is ‘self-handicapping’, where dogs deliberately put themselves at a disadvantage during play, such as to play with a smaller dog. This gives them skills in showing flexible behaviour, for example to signal that they want to back down to avoid a fight if another dog is aggressive towards them, which is particularly important for young dogs to learn. But again, this can’t explain all types of play that dogs do.

The third reason was making friends through play, or ‘social cohesion’. Through play, dogs build their social skills and bonds with others. Dogs prefer to play with someone they know and play can also be used to get to know a new person or dog. There was quite a lot of evidence for this in dogs because the games they play, who they choose to play with, and how they play all revolve around improving their social relationships. 

The final reason was play by accident, or a ‘by-product of biological processes’. As play appears to not have a function, it could be a by-product of something else. For example, play may simply occur because the dog has too much energy, or wants something to do in boring surroundings. It may make up for a lack of contact with other dogs, which is why they play a lot when they meet up with them during walks. Play could also be a learned response, either because it feels good, or because someone taught them to do it, it happens more over time. Through selective breeding, dogs have many qualities of young animals, and play may be one of these. We were not convinced that these are the only reasons play exists though, because there are so many types of play and each dog has their own level of playfulness, which is stable over time.

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We also considered what play means for animal welfare. Most people believe that dogs have fun when they play and many scientists think that play is a sign that animals feel healthy and happy. Yet ‘play’ is not one thing. Play can be done alone, with a person, or with other dogs. 

When play is done alone, it is often with a toy or another object. This could improve their physical skills, but be caused by a lack of other stimulation in their surroundings. In some cases tail chasing, that looks like play, can be a sign that something might be wrong.

Play with other dogs is good for welfare as it improves their physical skills, social skills, and coping abilities. However, if play is one-sided, not evenly matched, or turns into aggression (owners aren’t always able to tell the difference), this would not be good for welfare. Some dog breeds are less capable of showing other dogs that they want to be playful, because they have features such as shorter legs, longer bodies, or docked tails. It’s important that dogs have access to other dogs (of various shapes and sizes) from a young age so they can learn how to communicate properly in social situations.

Finally, most dogs prefer to play with their owner than another person. They can play with them as a play partner, or the person can move toys for the dog in a way that acts as a substitute for prey. It’s worth noting that play might not always be fun for the dog if it involves too many commands rather than being spontaneous. There are other ways play between people and dogs could improve dog welfare, such as using play as a way to positively reward training or to improve adoption from shelters by having dog play with prospective owners. Contact with dogs has been shown to make people feel better too! 

Take-aways for dog lovers:
  • There are many types of play and each type builds different skills in a dog.
  • Play is self-rewarding (fun) for dogs.
  • Play is not always a positive sign of a dog’s wellbeing. 
    • Play with other dogs and games with people build their social skills, but take care if play partners are not evenly matched.
    • Excessively playing alone or tail chasing may indicate a lack of stimulation in their surroundings or another problem. 
  • Playing with a dog is good for bonding and consider including play that does not revolve around commands.


Rebecca Sommerville
Animal Welfare Advisor

Reference 
Sommerville, R., O’Connor, E. A., & Asher, L. (2017). Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 1-8.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Early bird tickets through February 28th! Canine Science Symposium April 14-15, 2018 in San Fransisco



In its 6th year running, the Canine Science Symposium returns year after year to the San Francisco SPCA because nothing about the dog is stagnant. Not only do itty bitty puppies inevitably grow, but so does our understanding of dog behavior and cognition. This, in turn, can affect their welfare and wellbeing -- how we care for and interact with them.

As a past and present conference participant, I (this is Julie) always look forward to the Canine Science Symposium for two simple reasons: I learn from my colleagues, and I learn from audience participants. It's that simple. I can't think of a better way to serve dogs. 

Also, this year I hope to meet Officer Edith -- who I follow closely on Twitter (you should too!). She's next door at San Francisco Animal Care and Control; so many dog people in one spot!

The Canine Science Symposium was recently featured among the Top 10 Animal Behavior Conferences for 2018, and here’s why. This year’s two-day conference features 15 speakers and 2 tracks (view speakers, abstracts, and symposium agenda). Themes include dog behavior, shelter enrichment and adoption, training, working dogs, play, and the dog-human bond, and more.


More specifically, talks focus on the efficacy of clickers and other reinforcement methods, offer a constructional approach to playgroups, explore the effect of temporary fostering on shelter dog welfare, dive into K9 scent work and its applications, look into dogs in animal-assisted interventions, consider behavior-based euthanasia decisions, explore the role of neuropeptides in mammalian emotions, social behavior, and cognition, detail adoption and enrichment interventions, and take on the art and science of the shelter meet-and-greet, among other topics!

Clive Wynne and I kick off and close out the conference, respectively (we’re not giving the same talk, promise. We checked). Clive argues, “that how people care for their dogs is not keeping up with the best practices that science is developing,” and I wonder whether more research is really needed. Yes, scientific question begets scientific question, but does this suggest we’re entirely in the dark about dogs What do we know now?

Participants can receive continuing education units, and the early bird special is through Wednesday, February 28:

See you in San Francisco?

Follow on social media: #CSS2018
Conference dates: April 14-15, 2018
Conference location: 
SF SPCA's Education & Training Center
243 Alabama Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Is Your Dog a Social Butterfly?


Please welcome today’s guest contributor, Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, an Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. And check out Erica’s earlier DYBID post, Less Talk More Touch: What's Your Dog Saying to You?

Sandra Tilkeridisová, Unsplash

Hello Dog Believers! 
We dog devotees have an abundance of tales about our special relationship with our dogs. These anecdotes seem backed by the fact that dog lovers often can’t use the bathroom alone, and our dogs are incredibly excited when we come home. The good news is that science backs this up: owners do have a special relationship with their dogs. 

In my own research, I have asked dogs simple questions about their preferences. For example, I present them with two alternatives and ask, “Which do you like better?” The answer is given by the dog’s behavior—which alternative do they spend more time with, and how much more time do they spend with it? I have investigated dogs’ preferences for petting compared to food delivery, and petting compared to vocal praise. In some of this research, we observed effects of the presence of the owner, but I hadn’t looked directly into dog preference for their owners. 

To explore whether dogs display a preference for their owner, Clive Wynne and I gave dogs a similar choice: do you want petting from your owner or petting from a stranger? And does this choice differ if we ask the question in an unfamiliar setting  (an unknown laboratory room) or in a familiar setting (the dog’s home)? 

For 10 minutes each dog was free to interact with either owner or stranger (both of whom were seated), or neither. Dogs spent about 80% of the session near a person, but with whom they spent the most time differed by location: in an unfamiliar location, dogs spent significantly more time with their owner (by a 4 to 1 advantage), but in the familiar setting, they spent more time with the stranger (by a 2 to 1 advantage). Interestingly, dogs tested in the familiar location (the home) still approached their owners first—nearly 70% of the time—before then going to chill with the stranger for the rest of the session. And dogs tested in the unfamiliar location approached their owner first at an even higher rate! 


These results points to two takeaways: first, in a stressful situation—like being in a new, unfamiliar place—you are likely a comfort for your dog, and your dog would prefer to be with you over a stranger or anywhere else in the new place. Second, your dog, while certainly having a special relationship with you, is still a social butterfly and interested in meeting new people, particularly when in a comfortable setting. The suggestion of dogs’ social butterfly-ness aligns with other recent research by vonHoldt and colleagues (2017) which suggests dogs are hypersocial and that this has a genetic component.

But what about shelter dogs who don’t have an owner? Are dogs in shelters equal opportunists, splitting their time evenly between two strangers? Or, do they prefer one stranger over another? We investigated this too! Shelter dogs did show a preference for one stranger over another, and even more interestingly, the degree to which they preferred that stranger was similar in magnitude to the preference that owned dogs had showed for their owners in an unfamiliar setting! Other research has demonstrated that shelter dogs start to show attachment behaviors toward a stranger after spending just three, short 10-minute sessions together. Our data suggest this attachment might start to form even faster than that. We also tested owned dogs with two strangers and they behaved just like shelter dogs. 

Here's Sugar in the shelter at the beginning of the session... 



and Sugar later in the session...



In these experiments, we did not explore on what basis dogs made their choice. Why did dogs prefer one stranger over another? Now that we know how quickly dogs can show a preference for one person over another we can start to explore why—is their preference based on olfactory, tactile, or physical characteristics of the person? 

It’s also useful to remember that we tested socialized dogs. The shelter dogs were up for adoption, and the owned dogs were, we hoped, not dogs likely to aggress towards a stranger. We don’t know whether these results apply to dogs with more stranger-directed issues. 

In the end, though, our results bring up a few points: You do have a special relationship with your dog. This is especially evident when the dog is stressed. Understanding this has potential welfare implications for some of our practices, such as taking the dog in the back at veterinary clinics and separating the dog from the owner. Is this useful or harmful to the dog? Or are the effects of these separations owner- and dog-dependent? But we ought to start asking these questions for our dogs’ sakes. Our results also demonstrate dog hypersociability and that dogs’ can be quite socially fluid, forming many different human-dog relationships. So whether you are on the more introverted side, like yours truly, remember that you might just have to up your social game to keep up with your dog. 

Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare
Virginia Polytechnic and State University 


Reference
Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2017). Dogs don't always prefer their owners and can quickly form strong preferences for certain strangers over others. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 108(3), 305–317.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The owner’s behavior: The elusive puzzle piece in dog-human relationships

Please welcome today’s guest contributor, Giulia Cimarelli, a researcher at the Unit of Comparative Cognition and at the Wolf Science Center of the Messerli Research Institute (Vienna, Austria).

Adam Griffith, Unsplash
When considering the dog-human bond, it’s pretty easy to agree that how we behave can influence dogs. We influence how they perceive and respond to situations and this can inform what they might expect from us in the future. This, of course, goes both ways. For example, if a dog is supported by an owner during a stressful situation, the dog could feel less stressed in a similar situation in the future. 

But of course, social relationships are complicated. Many factors are involved, like the personality and upbringing of both individuals and the social context in which the relationship develops. For decades, scientists from different disciplines have tried to understand and describe the relationships that humans and non-human animals build with one another. Today, there is general agreement that both parties influence one another.

When I first became interested in how human behavior influences dogs, I found that most existing research was based on questionnaires. Being an ethologist (a scientist who studies animal behavior), I wanted to examine owner behavior as I saw it, not just as people reported it. Professionals who work with dogs and their people probably know that people are not always aware of how they behave with their dogs, even though most people seem aware that dogs can respond to subtle human behaviors.
Giulia and dog friend

To understand how owners influence their dogs, we need to see what owners really do. And not only during training sessions. Life is so much more than training! I wanted to see how owners interact with their dogs in everyday situations, both positive and possibly negative. 

With this aim in mind, my colleagues and I at the Clever Dog Lab (Vienna, Austria) invited owners and their pet dogs to our lab to participate in a test that we called the “Owner Interaction Style test”. The experiment consisted of 8 different scenarios where we let the owner and their dog interact with one another. These scenarios were meant to recreate real life situations, but in a controlled environment. For example, we asked owners to leave the dog alone for a few minutes, and then we analyzed how they would greet their dog when they returned. We also asked owners to play “fetch” and “tug-of-war” with their dog, to teach them how to open a bin to retrieve food, and to perform basic obedience behaviors (i.e. sit, lay down, and stay) while an unfamiliar person attempted to distract the dog (i.e. by pretending to look for something in a box full of crumbled newspapers). We also saw how owners behaved when their dog was dealing with a potentially stressful situation (i.e. if the dog’s movements were restricted like during a vet examination). 

In each test we kept track of how many times the owner gave commands, praised, petted, clapped, or whistled to the dog. We also assessed how warm, enthusiastic, and supportive owners were, or if they were cold, authoritarian, or avoidant when interacting with their dog.

We found that owner behavior varies across 3 factors: 1) warmth in positive situations like play, teaching, and greeting, 2) social support in potentially stressful situations, and 3) behavioral control. 

Interestingly, these factors are very similar to those observed in human psychology studies when describing how parents interact with their children, possibly because humans have a general way of interacting with individuals they are caring for. 

Below is a short video of the study in action.


We also wanted to see if the way owners generally behaved with their dog would influence their dog's behavior in a stressful situation. Would dogs behave similar to children? Research has shown that when the parent is helpful and supportive, the child will trust and seek help and support from the parent in the future.

To answer to this question, we conducted a test that you should NOT try at home: owner and dog participants were approached by an unfamiliar person in a threatening way (i.e. stepping slowly toward the dog, with the upper torso bent forward, and staring into the dog’s eyes). In this test, the owner was told not to interact with their dog so that the dog’s reaction would not be influenced by the owner’s current response. Instead, we wanted to see whether the dog’s reaction related to how the owner had previously interacted with the dog, as analyzed in the previous study (warmth, social support, or control). We assumed that because of previous experiences, dogs will know how their owner will behave.

Indeed, we found that dogs’ reactions, either approaching the unfamiliar person independently or remaining close to their owner, depended on how warm the owner had been during the interaction style test described earlier. In particular, dogs who stayed close to their owner had warmer owners than those dogs who reacted more independently. 

Our study suggests that dogs are influenced by how their owner interacts with them outside of training situations. How enthusiastic, warm, and present we are in the everyday lives of our dogs can influence how our four-legged companions rely on us in stressful situations. 

This is important because sometimes people focus too much on training and forget that everything we do can matter. Whenever we interact with our dogs, we are telling them who we are, what we are for them, and whether they can count on us.  

Giulia Cimarelli, researcher at the Unit of Comparative Cognition and at the Wolf Science Center of the Messerli Research Institute (Vienna, Austria).
E-mail: giulia.cimarelli@vetmeduni.ac.at

References
Cimarelli, G., Turcsán, B., Bánlaki, Z., Range, F., and Virányi, Z. (2016). Dog Owners’ Interaction Styles: Their Components and Associations with Reactions of Pet Dogs to a Social Threat. Front. Psychol. 7, 1979.

Cimarelli, G., Turcsán, B., Range, F., and Virányi, Z. (2017). The Other End of the Leash: An Experimental Test to Analyze How Owners Interact with Their Pet Dogs. J. Vis. Exp., 1–11.