Fellow Creatures: Another New Post

I have a new post at my Psychology Today blog, Fellow Creatures, about a pilot study that upturns some conventional wisdom on dogs.

Should you pet your dog before an absence? looks at a study that compared signs of stress when the dog is petted or ignored before an absence. (It's important to note the study is with dogs that do not have any separation-related issues).

A new post at Psychology Today looks at research on whether we should pet dogs, like this little dog on a sofa, before we go out
Photo: Pexels/Pixabay

Five Fun Things to Do to Make Your Dog Happy Today

Five enjoyable activities to provide enrichment for your dog (and fun for you).

Five fun things to do for your dog today. The best enrichment ideas for your dog. Illustrated by a portrait of an Australian Shepherd

Enrichment means giving your dog opportunities to engage in species-specific behaviours and to use their brain and all the senses. Environmental enrichment means making your dog’s living spaces fun and interesting so your dog does not get bored.

There are lots of ways to provide enrichment for your dog. It can involve play with toys, spending time in social activities with people or other dogs, making the environment more interesting, or training activities.

Here are five great ways to provide enrichment for your dog and make your dog happy today.

1. Go on a sniffari

We all know that dogs have amazing noses, but did you know scent is more important to dogs than sight?

In fact, as well as their nose, dogs have something called the vomeronasal organ, which detects pheromones (chemical signals). If you see your dog lick something smelly, it could be because this is one way they make molecules available to their vomeronasal organ (the other is the Flehmen response, when they chatter their teeth with what looks like a grimace on their face).

And some breeds of dog have up to a billion olfactory receptor cells at the back of their noses*.

It’s no wonder dogs want to spend so much time sniffing even a single blade of grass! They get a lot of information from sniffing the places where other dogs have peed (or even their own pee… they are dogs, after all!).

We can give dogs the chance to use their nose by taking them on a sniffari. Instead of hurrying your dog along on a walk, let them take as long as they like to sniff. And let them follow their nose, instead of taking a predetermined path (within reason, of course).

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, scientist at Barnard College and author of Being a Dog, told me that dogs “sniff first, and ask their eyes to confirm or deny. Their world is made of scents more than sights.” (see: how to make the world better for dogs).

So make time to take your dog on a sniffari and turn the walk into enrichment for your dog.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today. No 1: Go on snifair. This Dalmatian dog is enjoying a sniffari on the frosty grass
A Dalmatian on sniffari. Photo: Sergey  Fatin/Shutterstock

2. Use food toys

Food toys are another great way to provide enrichment for your dog and make your dog happy.

And there are all kinds to choose from so there is bound to be something your dog will enjoy.

You can use food toys to feed your dog’s meals (or part of them) or to provide treats.

If it’s your dog’s first time with a particular food toy, remember to make it nice and easy so they don’t get frustrated. It’s also a good idea to use some really nice treats to get your dog interested in the toy.

Over time, you can make the food toys harder.

For example, if you’re using a Kong, to begin with don’t stuff it too tight; use treats or kibble that will fall out easily. You can add a bit of peanut butter or cream cheese to make sure your dog enjoys it. As your dog gets more experienced, you can mix ingredients to stuff it with (e.g. mix cream cheese with kibble) and even freeze it before giving it to your dog.

One of my favourite dog puzzle toys is the brick treat puzzle toy by Nina Ottosson from Outward Hound. The Nina Ottosson range includes both easier and harder puzzles so you can get the level just right for your dog, and they are easily washable.

Other choices are the Kong Wobbler, the Pickle Pocket, and all kinds of balls with holes for the food to fall out of like the IQ Treat Ball.

Snuffle mats are another great idea (like the Wooly Snuffle Mat). And if you don’t have any food toys, you can also DIY your own or simply scatter pieces of food in the grass for your dog to find.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy. Enrichment ideas for your dog, like this happy brown Goldendoodle puppy

3. Play a game

Dogs love hanging out with their humans, and they love playing games with their human even more.

Play with your dog is good for animal welfare and a good way to strengthen the bond between you and your dog.

So pick a game you know your dog loves – whether it’s tug or fetch or chase or whatever – and let them play as much as they wish.

Have a dog who never tires of playing fetch? No matter! Today is their day so keep on throwing the ball.

And if they love playing tug? Be sure to let them win lots of times. (For some reason some dog trainers used to say you should never let your dog win, but that’s not true – in fact, scientific research has shown dogs who are allowed to win are more involved in the game).

Some common signals that encourage dogs to play with you include the play bow, chasing, running away, a quick bow at the waist, tapping your chest to encourage the dog to jump up, and lunging at the dog (in a playful not scary way, of course!). Using your voice to encourage the dog to play helps too.

If you’re playing fetch, some dogs find it hard to give you the ball back so you can throw it again. In this case you need two balls so you always have one to throw. Maybe over time you can teach your dog to drop the ball in your hand, but in the meantime don’t get frustrated – just throw the other ball.

Whatever game you pick, just have fun with your dog.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today. Enrichment activities your dog will love. Illustrated by a portrait of a happy dog
Photo: Jess Wealleans/Shutterstock

4. Do some positive reinforcement training

A study a few years back found dogs prefer to solve a problem to earn a reward than just to be given the reward. The scientists called it that “Eureka” feeling.

Training with positive reinforcement is a great way to give dogs opportunities to problem solve. It may even have long-term benefits too as one study found a history of lifelong positive reinforcement training is linked to smaller declines in attention in older dogs.

Pick a level that is right for your dog. Every time they do the right thing, they get a food reward. To be like a pro dog trainer, you should aim for about 10 rewards a minute!

It doesn’t matter what you pick to train. If your dog needs to learn obedience commands, that’s fine. Pick sit or loose leash walking or whatever you want to work on.

But if your dog already knows what they need to in order to have good manners, you can work on some tricks. From spin to play dead to jumping through your arms, you’ll never run out of ideas for new things to teach.

Not sure what to use as reinforcement? See the best dog training treats.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today. Enrichment your dog will love, number 4: positive reinforcement training, like this little dog being taught to sit pretty
Training with positive reinforcement is good enrichment for your dog. Photo: leungchopan/Shutterstock

5. Go somewhere with your dog

Pick a place your dog likes to go and take them on an outing to make them happy.

This counts as enrichment too because it lets the dog experience a different environment.

There are lots of ideas for things you could do.

A hike in the forest gives your dog a chance to explore and to enjoy the natural environment.

Maybe there is a lake or beach where your dog likes to swim.

Perhaps your dog loves the dog park, in which case you could take them there.

Maybe there is a dog-friendly pub, restaurant or café in your neighbourhood where you could go and hang out with your best canine friend for a while.

Some stores allow dogs on leash so your dog could just enjoy wandering round the store with you.

Or your dog could just come for a ride-along in the car, or to visit a friend or family member who your dog likes to see.

The aim is to find something you know your dog will enjoy, so take your dog’s preferences into account – if they don’t like the dog park, don’t make them go, for example.

Five fun things to do for your dog today to provide enrichment. Number 5: Take your dog somewhere with you
Photo: Mary Rice/Shutterstock

Does my dog like it?

A great question to ask yourself for each of these five ideas is whether your dog is enjoying the enrichment.

For example, are they engaging with the food toy, and are they willing to come and train with you or did they wander off and snooze instead?

The point of each of these ideas is to give your dog happy, fun experiences. So if they aren’t engaging the way you would like, see if you can tweak something to make it more fun.

One common issue is to make food toys or training too hard. Even if you think your dog is a genius, you want to make it easy enough that your dog will enjoy it. If they have to try too hard, they might get bored or frustrated. You can gradually make the toys or training harder over time, but start out nice and simple.

Another common issue where food is involved is to use kibble as reinforcement in dog training. Maybe you are lucky and have one of those dogs who will work for kibble (they do exist), but for most people, some kind of food upgrade is required, such as little pieces of chicken or peanut butter treats. For more about why we use food in training, see the ultimate dog training tip.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy today. With enrichment, it's important to check the dog likes it and engages, like this Retriever with a tug rope
It's only enrichment if the dog actually engages with the enrichment. Photo: carolyn brule/Shutterstock

One other thing to check is that your dog is actually happy and enjoying the experience. Sometimes we think our dogs ought to like things – like trips to the dog park or swimming – but actually they don’t.

Every dog is an individual and it’s up to us to learn what they like and don’t like. If you see signs of fear in your dog figure out what you can do to help, whether it’s comforting your dog or taking them away from the situation (for more ideas, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe). So if your dog hates to go places, maybe you could cuddle on the couch instead.

Remember, the whole point of enrichment is that your dog engages with it and enjoys it.

So have fun with these five tips.

What is your dog's favourite activity?

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Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and happy cats.

*If you want to learn more about the dog's nose, I recommend Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz. On p48, Horowitz writes, "Dogs have from two hundred million to one billion receptor cells, depending on the breed, compared to the six million in our noses."

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Fellow Creatures: A New Post

I have a new post at my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures on how we can help overweight dogs.

Typically when dogs are overweight, changes are made to the diet, but perhaps the owner is an important part of the equation too. For overweight dogs, owner behavior matters looks at a review of the literature on interventions designed to change owner behavior. The results show they can be an effective way to improve the body condition of pet dogs.

Photo: danbar44/Pixabay

Survey Shows Changes as Dogs Age (and How You Can Help Your Dog)

A study of dogs across the adult lifespan has important lessons for owners of dogs of any age. They range from tooth-brushing, training, and helping dogs cope with traumatic events.

Survey shows changes as dogs age, and lots of ways you can help your own dog. The lessons range from tooth-brushing, training, and helping dogs cope with traumatic events
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

As dogs get older, they undergo changes similar to those that happen to humans as they age. This means dogs may be a good model for human aging, but also that those of us with older dogs could use more information about how to help them age well. The Senior Family Dog Project is looking at cognitive aging in dogs by combining behavioural, genetic and neuroscientific approaches.

A new paper from the team, first-authored by Dr. Lisa Wallis and published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, looks at the demographics of dogs across the lifespan.

Perhaps the most poignant finding is that dogs in the oldest age group (over 12) know fewer commands, take part in either one or no dog training activities, and spend less than 30 minutes a day engaged in play or other activities with the owner. Of course, older dogs may no longer ‘need’ obedience training as they are likely well-adjusted to family life, but these results suggest people could do more to engage senior dogs in fun activities.

It’s not known why the oldest dogs know fewer commands, as it could be the dogs had previously had less training, had less training at the time (causing them to forget commands they previously knew), or memory issues.

Dogs in the oldest age group also had less than 30 minutes a day of off-leash activities, which may reflect changes in their need and interest in exercise.

Older dogs were more likely to be unhealthy, have joint problems, tooth problems, and sensory decline. Loss of hearing and/or vision was significantly greater in dogs over 12 years compared to the 10-12 year age group.

In the youngest age group (1-3 years), 49% of the dogs were described as healthy, falling to only 5% of dogs aged over 12 years.

Changes dogs age (and how to help your senior dog). Training, tooth-brushing, and helping dogs cope with traumatic events are all  important

Overweight and obesity in pet dogs

Being overweight or obese is linked to many health risks for pet dogs, including a shorter life span and a greater risk of diabetes mellitus, urinary incontinence, and osteoarthritis.

In this study, dogs aged 3-6 or 8-10 years were more likely to be rated as unhealthy and/or to have sensory problems if they were overweight or obese. Being underweight was not linked to being unhealthy.

As dogs got older, they were more likely to be overweight.

Do mixed breeds live longer than purebreds?

The oldest age group in the study contained more mixed breeds and fewer purebreds, although it’s important to remember this is cross-sectional data and did not follow dogs through the lifespan. For example this may mean mixed breeds live longer, but it is also possible it reflects sampling issues or trends in breed popularity over time.

Purebred dogs were said to be unhealthy at a younger age than mixed breed dogs, suggesting that (at least for this sample) mixed breed dogs are healthier.

The effects of trauma on canine behaviour

One of the most interesting results of this study relates to the role of trauma in shaping a dog’s behaviour. Dog owners were asked if their dog had ever experienced trauma (which the researchers called "trauma status"). They were also asked if they thought their dog's behaviour had changed following a traumatic event.

Dog owners were more likely to say the dog’s behaviour had been affected by trauma if the dog had experienced one or more traumatic events. This was especially the case if the dog had experienced two or more traumatic events.

Traumatic events included changes in owner, time spent at a shelter, being lost for more than a day, changes in the family (such as the birth of a child or people moving out), and a traumatic injury, long-term disease or surgery. 43% of the dogs had experienced at least one such event.

The scientists write,
“Indeed, two or more of such events experienced in the dog’s lifetime resulted in a significant increase in the likelihood of dogs being allocated a “trauma” status. Moreover, since having a “trauma” status was associated with an increased likelihood of health problems/sensory loss, our study contributes to the growing evidence that chronic stress can have negative effects on health and lifespan in the domestic dog. The stress caused by traumatic events results in compromised welfare, and therefore interventions to prevent or alleviate the consequences of trauma should be implemented to improve quality of life in pet dogs.”

Dogs that had experienced a traumatic event were more likely to be unhealthy.

It’s worth noting that moving house, becoming pregnant or being mated, spending more or less time alone, having a change in the dogs in the household, or being neutered, did not contribute towards this trauma status.

The Survey

The survey of Hungarian dog owners looked at 1,207 adult dogs across six age groups: 1-3 (early adulthood), 3-6 years, 6-8, 8-10, 10-12, and 12 and above. Depending on the breed/size, dogs become seniors between 6 and 10 years of age, as large dogs tend to have a lower lifespan.

34.5% of the dogs were mixed breed and the remainder were purebreds. The most common breeds in the study were Labrador Retrievers, Hungarian Viszla, Golden Retrievers, Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, German Shepherds, Bichon Havanese, Border Collies and Beagles.

Although the sample is not representative, it does seem likely the results will apply to senior dogs quite broadly.

Overall, the mixed breed and purebred dogs had roughly the same average weight and height (important because size of dog is linked to longevity), but there was greater variation in the purebred group.

65% of dogs were said to be of normal weight, but since this is based on owner's ratings it is possible the rates of overweight and obesity are an underestimate, as found in other studies (Rohlf et al 2010).

It’s also worth noting that, unlike some other research, the neuter status of the dogs was not linked to health.

Implications for Dog Owners

This research has a number of important implications for dog owners.

One is to keep your dog to a healthy weight, because overweight and obesity cause health problems just as they do for humans. This includes adjusting the diet, as senior dogs need fewer calories and a different food composition.

And because health problems are more common in old dogs, it’s important to see your veterinarian to treat the problems and troubleshoot ways to help your dog be more comfortable (such as mobility aids).

Another implication for dogs of all ages is to do what you can to help them cope with stressful or traumatic situations. Changes in family composition cannot be helped, but even if this is a stressful time for the humans, they need to help the dog adjust too, for example by helping the dog prepare for the arrival of a new baby and being kind if the dog seems to be grieving for someone who has passed away. If your dog is fearful, see 8 tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

To help avoid the dog being lost for more than a day, you can teach a great recall and ensure your dog always has up-to-date identification including a microchip.

If your dog has a traumatic medical issue such as major surgery or injury, make sure you speak to your veterinarian about what can be done to help your dog whilst recovering at home. The book No walks? No worries!: Maintaining wellbeing in dogs on restricted exercise by Sian Ryan and Helen Zulch has some great ideas for dogs who are unable to take walks e.g. because of recent surgery.

Earlier research found a history of lifelong positive reinforcement training protects dogs against cognitive decline as they age. It seems like a good idea to keep up such training as an enrichment activity throughout the dog’s life. If the dog is already perfectly well-behaved, you can always teach tricks or do other activities using positive reinforcement.

Regular tooth-brushing will help to reduce tooth issues that are more often found in senior dogs (and is also good for health).

Finally, continue to involve older dogs in walks, family life and fun activities.


This is an interesting study that tells us more not just about older dogs but also about the deleterious effects of trauma and stress.

The results show older dogs have less time spent training, less activities with the owner, and less off-leash time. They also show guidance is needed on how to care for senior dogs, as well as on helping dogs to stay a healthy weight.

Research by the team is ongoing, so we can look forward to more findings in due course.

If you happen to have what the Senior Family Dog Project calls a ‘Methusaleh dog’ – one who weighs over 20kg and is aged 16 years or more, or who is under 20kg in weight and 20 years old or more – they would be grateful for a sample of your dog’s DNA for their research. You can read more about it here.

The paper itself is open access if you want to read it in full, and the authors have also put up a blog post about their research

Wallis, L. J., Szabó, D., Erdélyi-Belle, B., & Kubinyi, E. (2018). Demographic change across the lifespan of pet dogs and their impact on health status. Frontiers in veterinary science, 5, 200. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00200
Rohlf, V. I., Toukhsati, S., Coleman, G. J., & Bennett, P. C. (2010). Dog obesity: can dog caregivers'(owners') feeding and exercise intentions and behaviors be predicted from attitudes?. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 13(3), 213-236.  https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2010.483871

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Companion Animal Psychology News September 2018

Newborn kittens, a puppy searching for owls, and clever raccoons - the latest news from Companion Animal Psychology.

The latest newsletter from Companion Animal Psychology September 2018

Some of my favourites from around the web this month

 “in a last-ditch conservation effort, a crack team of Canberra researchers plan to harness Zorro's superior canine nose to help find and monitor Tasmania's masked owl.” Scientists want to train this puppy to save endangered owls.

Meanwhile, sniffing out error in detection dog data looks at the issues that can cause dogs to identify the wrong kind of poop. You will learn something new about coprophagy (poop-eating).

How kittens go from clueless to cute. A fun article (with lots of pictures) on Kitten Central, newborn kittens, and a new project by Dr. Mikel Delgado that is looking at whether incubators can help orphaned kittens.

“As the floodgates of genomic information open, society will often find itself grappling with the question of how to clearly and accurately present that information to the public.” Jessica Hekman on the unkept promises of pet genetic testing.

Eileen Anderson has put together a super resource on the fall-out from the use of aversive methods in dog training. It is in two parts: a list of the potential types of fallout (with references) and a list of scientific studies on dog training methods. Thanks to Eileen for including my JVB paper in the list and links to some of my blog posts!

Puppy socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel at Your Family Dog.  Colleen Pelar and Julie Fudge Smith speak to veterinary behaviourist Dr. Christopher Pachel about puppy socialization and the things that can go wrong. It’s the first of two parts (podcast).

The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. The Guardian shares some of the photos from finalists and they will surely make you smile.

Toronto built a better green bin and – oops - maybe a smarter raccoon. Is it possible for clever raccoons to get into the new raccoon-resistant bins? Amy Dempsey reports, and this story has the video proof too.

We met the world's first domesticated foxes. This Youtube video from Verge Science looks at the domesticated fox, investigates how friendly they are, and speaks to Clive Wynne and Anna Kukekova about the science behind the Russian fox experiment.

Support Companion Animal Psychology 

Companion Animal Psychology brings you evidence-based ways to have happy dogs and cats, and reports the latest science on companion animals. It takes me a long time to prepare and write each post, and I would love to have the time to write more.

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. (Ko-fi does not charge fees).

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has supported me so far. It makes my day when I get a message that someone has bought me a coffee on Ko-fi!

Animal Book Club

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey. Full of the history of this much-maligned breed, it’s an important read for dog lovers, however you feel about pit bulls. It takes a close look at the societal factors that led to moral panic about pit bulls.

A heads-up for newsletter readers: The book club will be accepting a few new members at the end of the month, in time for next month's book The Dog: A Natural History. If you're hoping to join, keep an eye on the book club page for the announcement, and respond promptly when you see it as places are limited.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

My latest post at Psychology Today looks at a new study from Mexico that finds well-behaved dogs have happier owners. Although the study itself shows correlational data and not causality, it's a good reminder that we can do something to resolve canine behavioral issues and it can benefit both human and dog.

I took a bit of time off in August, and published a summer reading list full of the books I was looking forward to reading. Well, I’ve read a lot of them but I’m still working my way through the list.

I looked at whether an “ease of care” labelling scheme might help the welfare of exotic pets by designating them as easy, moderate, difficult or extreme.

And this week’s post on shock collars, regulation and education on the alternatives looks at a study in France that finds electronic collars are not as effective as many people think. It’s another scientific paper that calls for a ban.

This month's post from the archives is can dog training books be trusted? What do you think, and which dog training books are your favourites?

A Better World for Dogs and Cats

These are the latest images from the series about a better world for dogs and a better world for cats.

A better world for dogs: Become aware of the problems with how we breed dogs

A better world for cats - they need outlets for the expression of normal feline behaviours

A better world for dogs - off-leash walks every day

A better world for cats - if people knew how to train them

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Shock collars, Regulation, and Education on the Alternatives

Shock collars should be banned, according to a survey of the use of electronic collars to train dogs in France.

Study shows support for regulation of shock collars, but a need for more information on the alternatives
Photo: SebiTian/Shutterstock

Recently, I reported on a study by veterinary behaviourists in Europe that concluded by calling for a ban on all three types of electronic collar across Europe (remote-controlled, boundary, and bark-activated collars). Another paper by Dr. Sylvia Masson et al, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, investigates the use of shock collars in France, and some of the results are surprising.

For one thing, they show that even amongst people who use shock collars there is a lot of support for regulating them.

But they also show a sizeable minority – even amongst people who do not use shock collars – that say they are the most effective way to resolve behaviour issues. This shows a need to get the message out that positive reinforcement is an effective way to train dogs (see seven reasons to use reward-based training methods and literature review recommends reward-based training).

The effectiveness, as reported by the electronic collar users, was not particularly high (51.1% of those who used remote-controlled collars, and 25.5% who used bark-activated collars, said it had worked and they could stop using it). As well, users of remote-controlled collars and bark-activated collars reported more abnormal behaviours in their dog than those who did not use them.

The paper concludes,
“based on this survey, it appears that in a real-life setting, ECs’ [electronic collars] ability to modify behaviors is limited. Thus, and as expected, the risks associated with their use are increased. Consequently, EC should not be used in everyday life without regulation. 
However, answers in this questionnaire show that some owners still think that EC can solve behavioral issues better than any other existing method. Considering the high use revealed by our results, a huge communication work toward the public has to be done. In the current survey, 78% of questioned owners ask for a better regulation of ECs. This seems to be a much needed and achievable goal that would restrict the access to devices (e.g. through the internet).”

Most people who used a shock collar did so after trying 2 or fewer alternatives (75%) and without taking professional advice (71.8%). 12.7% of shock collar users did not try any alternative prior to using the collar.

The most common alternatives that were tried before using the shock collar were “group training in a club” and looking on the internet. The next most common alternatives included books, advice from a veterinarian, a private trainer, and ‘none’.

People’s use of shock collars was associated with having a bigger dog (more than 40kg), the dog not being spayed or neutered, and the dog being used for protection or hunting. It is not known if the dog's sexual status is linked to behaviour issues, and/or to the owner's different treatment of the dog. The authors note that some disciplines may use electronic collars by tradition, as those who did agility or obedience training were less likely to use them.

“Based on this survey, it appears that in a real-life setting, electronic collars' ability to modify behaviors is limited"

Electronic collars were more likely to be used on dogs less than 2 years old. As well, users of electronic collars were more likely to say their dog showed excitement and aggression.

There are some interesting differences between those who did not use electronic collars and those who did. People who did not use them were less likely to have tried group training in a club, and more likely to have read dog training books or used the internet.

95.2% of those who did not use electronic collars and 77.9% of those who did thought their use should be regulated. 60% of non-users and 14% of users thought there should be an outright ban on electronic collars.

According to the electronic collar users’ ratings, although a majority (58%) said they would recommend them, in fact they were not particularly effective. The bark-activated collars, which were more often used on small dogs (weighing less than 10kg), were the least effective and had the highest rate of reported injuries (burns from the collar) at almost 11%.

But boundary collars and remote-controlled collars also were not reported to work as well as might be expected. This suggests real-life training use is not as effective as when the collars are used by trained professionals in controlled settings.

Not surprisingly, the main reason people gave for using bark-activated collars was due to barking. Boundary fences were typically used because of lack of a physical fence, but an American study found dogs escape from electronic fences at a much higher rate than from a physical fence.

The most common reason given for using a remote-controlled shock collar was for recall (coming when called). However, it’s worth noting that an experimental study using professional trainers found that positive reinforcement is just as effective as shock collars for teaching recall, but that there are risks with the use of shock collars.

The survey asked 1251 dog owners in France about their use of electronic collars. It’s important to note this is not a representative sample, so the results may not reflect the beliefs of French people as a whole. In particular, those who completed the survey were more likely than the general population to have a pedigree rather than a mixed-breed dog, and more likely to have a dog that weighs more than 10kg.

The use of shock collars in this study is much higher (26%) than found by Blackwell et al in their study of shock collar use in the UK (3.3%). Since neither is a nationally representative sample we can’t draw conclusions about the relative use of electronic collars in each country (but note that the British government recently announced a ban on two of the three types of shock collars in England).

The paper concludes that bark-activated collars and remote-controlled shock collars should be banned. In this study, few people used boundary fences, but the authors note they could also be banned as physical fences and reward-based training methods are a good alternative.

This is an interesting study that shows substantial support for the regulation of shock collars in France. At the same time, it shows there is much work to be done to teach people how to effectively train dogs and deal with behaviour problems using reward-based methods.

For the full set of results, see the paper (link below). If you’re interested in the wider research on dog training methods, my dog training research resources page has a list of articles along with places where you can read about them.

Stay up to date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

Masson, S., Nigron, I., & Gaultier, E. (2018). Questionnaire Survey on The Use Of Different E-Collar Types in France in Everyday Life With A View To Providing Recommendations for Possible Future Regulations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.05.004

You might also like:

The ultimate dog training tip
The ultimate dog training tip

Can dog training books be trusted?
Can dog training books be trusted?

The best dog training treats
The best dog training treats

Tips for fearful dogs
Eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

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Can an "Ease of Care" Labeling Scheme Help Exotic Pets?

Could a standardized grading scheme that rates pets from “easy” to “extreme” improve the welfare of exotic pets?

A standardized scheme that rates exotic pets from "easy" to "extreme" could improve animal welfare. This leopard gecko, often marketed as a beginner pet, is not easy to care for well
A leopard gecko. Photo: Gaschwald / Shutterstock

Exotic pets face many welfare issues, according to a new paper in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior by Clifford Warwick et al. The paper suggests a standardized scheme for rating the difficulty of caring for exotic pets that it is hoped will make people think twice about keeping pets with hard-to-meet environmental needs.

What is an exotic pet?

Exotic pets are unusual pets. Essentially they are animals that are not native to a particular area, and are not domesticated (or only semi-domesticated).

Another definition of an exotic pet is anything that is not a cat or dog. That’s the approach taken by the Calgary Humane Society, for example.

Whichever definition we choose, it means there are many exotic pets in North America. For example, most of the fish that are kept as pets are not native to Canada or the USA, which means they are exotic species.

The same applies to small animals kept as pets, such as hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, hedgehogs, ferrets, and chinchillas. Common birds that are kept as exotic pets include canaries, lovebirds, and parrots. Ownership of reptiles is believed to be increasing, and common reptile and amphibian pets include lizards, frogs and snakes.

It is not clear how many households keep exotic animals as pets. In the United States in 2016 there were estimated to be 9.4 million reptiles kept as pets, 158 million fish, 20.3 million birds and 14 million small animals (according to the American Pet Products Association).

Although exact numbers are not known, globally it is estimated that for some types of exotic pet, up to 44% are animals that have been captured and taken from the wild. Some of them are then sold as ‘captive bred’.

What are the concerning issues with exotic pets?

The report identifies three main issues with the keeping of exotic pets.

In terms of animal welfare, the report says “many animals suffer at all points in the chain from point of capture/breeding to sales/housing.”

There are big issues to do with conservation, since many species are taken from the wild. Not only does this deplete the habitat of that species, it may have knock-on effects on other species in the area, since species are inter-connected in many ways. In addition, if exotic pets are released into the wild, they can become invasive.

Finally, there are public health issues due to the risks of infection from these pets (many of which carry salmonella, for example) and the risk of bites or scratches given they are not domesticated.

Welfare issues with exotic pets

The fact that many exotic pets are simply caught in the wild and then sold as pets is obviously a big concern. The report estimates that around the world there are more than 13 million species that are kept as pets. They say that a quick search of online pet sales in the US and UK found 550 species of reptile and more than 170 species of amphibian for sale. (You can read about animals being smuggled into Canada for the pet trade here).

For some species, even scientists do not know the needs of the animal, making it impossible to provide good welfare in captivity.

Another issue is that many species are described as easy to keep or suitable for beginners when this is not really the case. As well, some items for pets (such as tanks to keep them in) are sold as if they are suitable for particular species, when in fact they are too small to provide good welfare.

Poor information online and in other sources is another factor that makes it hard to care for these pets.

The scientists write,
“The prospects for exotic species in domestic environments without the relative benefits of professional management and facilities are highly concerning, and several studies demonstrate that poor husbandry is commonplace even for commonly traded and kept species.”

A real turtle vs a soft toy turtle

The paper illustrates some of the issues with exotic pets by comparing a pet turtle to a soft toy turtle.

The toy turtle has to meet certain standards so that it is not a hazard to children who play with it. For example, the eyes must be stitched in properly so they cannot be removed and swallowed, and it is made of washable, fire-resistant material. It does not have sharp edges that could injure a child. It has a label that conveys information about how it meets standards.

In contrast, the real live pet turtle does not come with any guarantees or standards. The person who buys it does not know how it was sourced (captive-bred or wild-caught). They are not necessarily given information on how to care for it, and for some turtles this information may not even be known to scientists. It is not washable and is a hazard in a number of ways, such as bacteria on it, its poop, and the ability to scratch and bite. The scientists say consumers' lack of knowledge of these issues raises questions about their ability to have "informed consent" when purchasing an exotic pet.

The proposed scheme for describing exotic pets

The paper says some European countries and parts of Canada have adopted or are considering the idea of a “positive list”, a list of the species that are appropriate to be kept as pets. The idea is that this would reduce the trade and keeping of species that are not on the list. Positive lists don't need updating as often as negative lists.

The paper suggests that a scheme called EMODE be used to describe exotic pets. EMODE groups animals as “easy”, “moderate”, “difficult” or “extreme” and is designed to be easy for ordinary people to understand.

EMODE assigns points to each animal according to the class it is in (e.g. amphibians, cats and dogs, fish), and according to yes/no answers to six questions. Five of the questions relate to the animal, while the sixth asks whether anyone in the household is immunocompromised (including children under 5 and seniors). EMODE is described as a standardized system for assessing the difficulty of keeping each animal.

Some of the authors of the paper were involved in the development of EMODE, althouh they do not receive any financial benefit from it as it is free to use.

EMODE is based on animal welfare (the Five Freedoms) and public health (the risk of disease/injury and the availability of professional advice on how to mitigate those risks) (Warwick et al 2014).

EMODE does not take into account whether or not an animal could potentially be an invasive species or what its conservation status is; it focusses only on pet-keeping.

Certain classes of animals are never considered “easy”, including birds and reptiles.

The “easy” category includes some (not all) invertebrates, fishes, domesticated animals and dogs and cats. The label “easy” does not mean no work is needed to care for the animal, as some responsibility is always required.

As examples from Warwick et al's earlier (2014) paper, goldfish are rated “easy” to “moderate”, budgerigars are considered “difficult” and African Grey Parrots “extreme”. Small mixed-breed dogs are considered “easy” to “moderate”, while a German Shepherd is considered “moderate” to “difficult”.

Summary and conclusion

The paper highlights many shocking issues with the welfare of exotic pets, from trade in wild-caught animals that may be endangered, to lack of knowledge of how to care for these animals, to poor information being available to the general public.

The EMODE scheme sounds like a good way to describe exotic pets that takes account of both animal welfare and the risks to the public of infection or injury due to the pet. The scheme would allow people to seek out pets that are suitable for their level of experience and expertise. And it could help with selecting animals for positive lists that can be kept as pets.

Although the scheme says it is standardized, this seems to underestimate the difficulty of assessing the quality of information on particular pets, or the risks of zoonoses/injuries. Nonetheless for common pets this is probably relatively easy to assess.

I am not sure how helpful the toy turtle vs pet turtle comparison is since people have different expectations of toys and pets.

The German Shepherd is an interesting example. If a German Shepherd is rated as moderate to difficult - basically 2 and 3 on a 4-point scale - then, to me, extreme (i.e. 4) does not seem adequate to describe some of the animals that basically should not be kept as a pet. It overlaps with a spider monkey which, according to Warwick et al 2014, is rated as difficult to extreme. It is illegal to keep spider monkeys as pets here in BC.

It remains to be seen whether prospective pet owners would use such a scheme. People who want to acquire certain kinds of pets, like reptiles, may not be put off by the fact none of them are considered "easy" pets. To be effective, the scheme would also need to be accompanied by good quality information about how to care for these animals.

The paper is open access so you can read it in full (reference below).

What do you think would improve the welfare of exotic pets?

P.S. The leopard gecko that illustrates this story is often marketed as a suitable beginner pet, but lizards have complex needs, including an environment with gradients of heat and ultraviolet light, as well as hiding places and branches and rocks for climbing. Read the RSPCA’s advice on how to care for leopard geckos. The RSPCA also has helpful care guides for other common exotic pets.

You might also like:

What is the best enrichment for your ferret?

Enrichment for goldfish

Going for a song: The price of pet birds

Warwick, C., Steedman, C., Jessop, M., Arena, P., Pilny, A., & Nicholas, E. (2018). Exotic pet suitability: understanding some problems and utilizing a labeling system to aid animal welfare, environment, and consumer protection. Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Warwick, C., Steedman, C., Jessop, M., Toland, E., & Lindley, S. (2014). Assigning degrees of ease or difficulty for pet animal maintenance: the EMODE system concept. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 27(1), 87-101. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-013-9455-x (also open access)

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club September 2018

"The controversial story of one infamous breed of dog."

Animal Book Club. Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon is the book for September 2018

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for September 2018 is Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey.

From the back cover,
"When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed—beloved by Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller—come to be known as a brutal fighter? Dickey’s search for answers takes her from nineteenth-century New York dogfighting pits to early twentieth‑century movie sets, from the battlefields of Gettysburg to struggling urban neighborhoods. In this illuminating story of how a popular breed became demonized--and what role humans have played in the transformation--Dickey offers us an insightful view of Americans' relationship with their dogs"

Are you reading too? Let me know your thoughts on the book!

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