Into the Middle of Things: Dog Training Lessons from the Best Fiction

Why dog trainers are like stalwart detectives, and how it all begins mid-scene.

Guest post by Kristi Benson CTC

What dog trainers can learn from the best fiction. Dog training begins 'in media res', in the middle of things. Illustrated by a Golden Retriever mid-play.
Photo: Anna Goroshnikova/Shutterstock

A while ago, a client got in touch asking for help with the family dog. The dog was a young and lovely Golden retriever, smart as a whip and sweet as pie. The problem? He was barking. A lot. As I packed up my bag of tricks, I grabbed a few different hand-outs to make sure I had all the usual suspects covered: boredom barking? Check. Fearful barking? Check. Guarding, alarm, attention, and play? Check, check, check. My bait bag and some treats followed the hand-outs into my bag and I was off to the races.

When a story  begins in the middle of some action, it’s called “in medias res”, which is a Latin term meaning "into the middle of things". Have you ever read a thriller that opens with the characters sitting around a table in a tense meeting of political hotshots? Or a murder mystery starting with a car chase, sirens whooping? The story starts part way in, and we, as the readers, must reconstruct what happened to get us to this place, either from the flashbacks that the author doles out, or from the story itself. It makes for some delicious reading, the fictional world opening up before us both forward and backward in time, with each turn of the page. Sometimes there are missing details that we only find out when the twisted threads of the plot are finally brought together, and sometimes there are red herrings that make us imagine we know what’s what, but are simple, or not-so-simple, redirection.

In some ways, this is a great metaphor for dog training. I’m not being arcane, I promise. A dog trainer almost always comes in part way through the story. But instead of a tense political meeting, it’s a dog who is tense around strangers, or fireworks, or at the dog park. Or maybe in the place of a car chase between the good guys and the bad guys, it’s a “dog actually chasing a car” scenario.

"As all of us who not-so-secretly enjoy formulaic fiction can tell you, there is nothing wrong with a formula that works."

When I arrived at my new client’s house, I found a dog who seemed a bit scared of me. He barked when I got in the door, his body lowered and tail tucked. I tossed him treats for a few minutes, over which he began to bark less and less. Once he had warmed to me and my treats, he acted towards me the same way he acted towards his own human family. He was waggling and climbing in my lap and all-round adorably happy. I asked the owners to let me know, in synopsis, all the contexts in which this dog barked. It quickly became clear that all of them had a single thing in common: new people.

Dog training lessons from the best fiction, illustrated by woman reading book with coffee and biscuits and white dog curled up
Photo: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock

Dog trainers get good at asking the right questions, or ‘taking history’, as we call it. Just like how an author hands out details to his readers to build a fictional backstory, our clients need to give us important details on the dog’s backstory. We’ll ask, “what causes your dog to react in this way?” We’ll ask, “what makes it better? What makes it worse?” If the dog is hard? Whom? If the dog is scared, when? A dog trainer will get the details that we need to make a diagnosis, and a plan. We’ll build the backstory, to the degree that it matters.

And that’s actually another way that fictional writing is allegorical to professional dog training: we focus on what matters. The books you read are not ten billion pages. The entire family tree of the main character back to revolutionary France is not included. You do not learn the name of their favourite childhood doll nor the brand of coffee they bought in 1987. You, curled up in an armchair with a mug of mocha and a rare evening all to yourself, learn just what you need to know to make the story work.

And so it is with dog trainers. Our clients have limited resources, and we have limited time with them. We winnow our questions to just the most relevant ones, in order to get the backstory that matters. (In fact, random and wandering, irrelevant questions may be a good indicator that a trainer is out of their league. Spending hours of your time collecting details about stuff that doesn’t relate to the behaviour issue or the training is a worrisome flag in an unregulated field. If in doubt, check for credentials).

Dog training lessons from the best fiction. Dog trainers need to know the dog's back story, just to the degree that it matters. Illustrated by mysterious photo of woman and dog on an island in the fog
Photo: audrey_l/Shutterstock

As a dog trainer works with a dog, new details about the dog’s behaviour invariably crop up. Each step in a training plan is like a page turned. We expect the dog to react to men with beards, but in fact, men with hats are more problematic. We expect the dog to jump on guests at the door, but in fact, the dog jumps up in the kitchen. Each detail is added to the dog’s story, and the training plan changes or not, as needed. A plot twist here, a new character there.

This isn’t to say that the training plan we use for most dogs isn’t somewhat formulaic. Many, many dogs share a diagnosis and treatment protocol, because all dogs are...well, dogs, and because issues crop up in relatively predictable spots. Issues reliably crop up when dogs are scared or worried, when dogs are ill, and when dogs are exuberantly joyful in a way that doesn’t fit with their human families. But as all of us who not-so-secretly enjoy formulaic fiction can tell you, there is nothing wrong with a formula that works. Helping dogs and their owners is our primary concern, not post-modern creativity.

"You, curled up in an armchair with a mug of mocha and a rare evening all to yourself, learn just what you need to know to make the story work."

Quite happily for dogs ’round the globe, just as we almost always get resolution in a good book (or at least, we do in the good books I read...see formulaic, above), we almost always get resolution with the dogs we train, too. The lovely young Golden got a standard protocol to reduce his fearfulness around new people, by preventing exposure outside of training, and using desensitization and counterconditioning to change his underlying emotional state when he did come across strangers. And quite predictably, when he was no longer feeling threatened, the fearful barking went away all by itself.

As dog trainers we hop into the middle of a dog’s story, in medias res: the problem started before we got there, and we land on two feet, right into the middle of it. We fill out the backstory by asking questions and by observing the dog for ourselves. And like the most stalwart detective, we work our way through the dog’s story as we train, getting new information from how they respond to the training we propose. Finally, we reach the end of the book: the problem has resolved, or the owner is ready to take the pencil into their own hands and finish the story themselves. Another client, and another story, awaits.

Also by Kristi Benson:
Did we evolve to love dogs?
Digging into our common ground with dogs

About Kristi Benson CTC

Kristi Benson on dog training lessons from the best fiction. Photo shows Kristi Benson outside with dogs

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC).  She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba Canada, where she teaches dog obedience classes and helps dog owners in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog problems, from basic obedience to aggressive behaviour. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, and for fun she runs them with a dog-powered scooter and on skis.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

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Cats Trained to Use Their Carriers Find Vet Visits Less Stressful

Training cats to go in their carrier and for a short car ride leads to less stressful visits to the vet, study shows.

Training cats to go in their carrier and for a short car ride leads to less stressful visits to the vet, according to science. Photo shows a British grey cat in their carrier

When it’s time for cats to go to the vet, many owners struggle. It can be almost impossible to get the cat in the carrier (or even locate them if they flee at the sight of it). And this stress is a bad start to a vet visit that will likely be stressful in itself.

But research by Dr. Lydia Pratsch and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna shows there is something that can be done: Train the cat to use their carrier.

In a blinded, randomized controlled trial, 11 cats were trained to use the cat carrier, while 11 cats were in a control group that was not trained. All 22 cats had a mock visit to the vet. The results showed cat carrier training reduces stress.

The scientists write,
“Training proved to be effective in reducing stress during the car ride and led to a shorter veterinary examination. Owners should be encouraged and instructed to carrier train their cats to reduce stress around veterinary visits.”

The cats live at the University of Vienna and a realistic pretend veterinary clinic (complete with the smells of disinfectant and other animals) was set up for the purposes of the study. One of the researchers acted as the owner of the cat, while another was the driver and vet.

Each cat had 28 training sessions which (on average) lasted 8 mins each and involved the cat getting 4 treats a minute. A range of treats were used as positive reinforcement depending on the cat’s taste, including tuna, meat sticks, and various cat biscuits.

The training plan had seven stages, starting from teaching the cat to go into the bottom part of the carrier and building up to going in the carrier for a very short car ride of 50-90 seconds.

Each cat progressed from one stage of training to the next if they had achieved the goal of that stage or if they had had 6 training sessions.

Only three of the cats completed the training. Six cats reached the seventh stage but did not complete it, and two cats reached the sixth stage but did not complete it.

Vet visits are less stressful for the cat if they have been trained to go in their carrier and for a short car ride before hand, according to research. Photo shows African-American woman vet holding a cat.
Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock

Before and after the training period, all cats (both control and training group) had a mock visit to the vet. This started with the cat being put into their carrier and being fed treats during a 10-minute car ride (unless they kept not eating them, in which case treat delivery stopped). Then the cat had a vet exam that included checking the eyes and ears, listening to the heart and lungs, and taking the temperature rectally.

Rectal temperature-taking was the part of the exam cats appeared to dislike the most, and was the only reason why some cats in the study had to have their vet exam stop early.

Video of the cats in the basket, in the mock waiting room, and during the exam was analysed for signs of stress or relaxation. The scientists then calculated differences between the two visits.

The scientists looked at Cat Stress Scores (scores on a standardized scale), behaviour during the car ride, and how well the cat complied with getting in the carrier and being examined at the mock veterinary clinic. As well, they took the cat’s ear temperature, and looked for signs of stress like vomiting, urination, and how fast the cat was breathing.

The cats who took part in the training showed fewer signs of stress than the cats in the control group. Cats who had had the training did not hide or pant in the car ride.

During the first vet visit, the majority of cats in both groups did not eat during the car ride. However, at the second visit, eight cats in the training group ate compared to four in the control group.

The scientists took care to use a style of cat carrier that is especially suitable because, as well as the opening at the front, it has a hole in the top which cats can go through. As well, the top and the base of the carrier can be separated, which means the top can simply be removed for the exam.

Training cats to use their carrier makes them less stressed during vet exams, science shows. Look for a carrier with a hole in the top, like this one, and which lets you remove the top (the base can be a safe place)
Cat carrier with an opening in the top. Photo: Monkey Business Images

During the vet exam, most cats went to the bottom of the carrier, suggesting that this was a ‘safe’ place for them. The scientists say,
“Our findings should encourage veterinary personnel to work “slowly” with cats and to provide them with a safe place to retreat.”

Cats in the training group had to move on to the next stage of training at a set point, even if they had not completed that stage. This means they might have been fearful during later stages of training. This is recognized at stage 7, where the cat was either rewarded for good behaviour or counter-conditioned with food. (See more on desensitization and counter-conditioning).

It seems likely that a more individualized training plan that allowed the cat to complete a stage before moving on to the next would be even more effective. This would be nice to see in future research.

It would also be nice to see research on how best to teach owners to train their cats to like the carrier, as no doubt many owners have tried and not succeeded.

If you would like to train your cat to use their carrier, there is a set of videos by Dr. Sarah Ellis (co-author of The Trainable Cat).

As well, I have a blog post with links to resources for less stressful vet visits for cats and dogs.

You might also like: Enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss) and the best way to train cats is with food.

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

Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 206, 64-74.

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Companion Animal Psychology News February 2019

Dog training standards, the puppy brain, and the crow that called for food… the latest Companion Animal Psychology news.

The latest science news about dogs and other animals from Companion Animal Psychology

Favourites from around the web this month

These are my favourite articles, photos and podcasts about animals this month. As usual, I've included links to people's Twitter accounts so you can easily follow them.

"A new training program from Canada's BC SPCA is a model for all to follow.” At Psychology TodayDr. Marc Bekoff interviews Dr. Karen van Haaften and Dr. Sara Dubois of the BC SPCA about their new AnimalKind accreditation scheme for dog trainers in BC.

In very cold temperatures, does dog urine do what boiling water does? Find out in, What happens when it’s 30 below and the dog’s gotta go? By Karin Brulliard at The Washington Post.

“The puppy brain still has a lot of developing to do after birth, and understanding that process is important to raising confident, well-adjusted dogs.” Fear, stress, and puppy brain development: what to know by Linda Lombardi at Fear Free Happy Homes.

“Like many breakthroughs in science, Dmitri Belyaev’s silver fox domestication experiment began with a thunderbolt: one simple, powerful, new idea.” The foxes that came in from the cold by Dr. Lee Dugatkin at Undark.

“In discussing breed-associated disorders, veterinarians may appear to be critical of the very features that clients find most endearing about their companion animals” Vets can do more to reduce the suffering of flat-faced dog breeds by Prof. Paul McGreevy and Dr. Anne Fawcett at The Conversation.

 “For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.” Scientists are totally re-thinking animal cognition by Ross Andersen looks at the conscious experience of crows, fish, and wasps for The Atlantic.

“Now that cannabis has been legalized, Canadians don’t have to hide their stash. But dog owners need to be aware of the dangers that cannabis can pose to their pooches.” Cannabis is not a dog’s best friend by Dr. Ainslie Butler at Science Borealis.

“They have the right to go be themselves and piss around town and sniff ass where they please.  People saying their pets are their family but keeping them in a yard is somewhat funny to me.” The rez dogs are alright by Abby Hartman.

“So if both the “getting cheese” and the “getting shocked” type of consequences work to change behaviour, and both are sadly still legal, how is a dog owner (or a dog rescue) to tell if a dog trainer uses one style or the other, or both?” Philosophy matters in dog training by Kristi Benson.

Cat ladders: a creative solution for felines in flats [apartments]. The Guardian has photos of some of the cat ladders in Bern, Switzerland.

Inside the mind of a dog. In this podcast, Aspen Ideas to Go speaks to Dr. Alexandra Horowitz and Dr. Brian Hare about what dogs know, understand, and believe.

Animal Book Club

This month, the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.

The Animal Book Club is reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz in February 2019

This book, “causes one’s dog-loving heart to flutter with astonishment and gratitude,” according to a review in the New York Times.

You can find a list of all the books we've read on the book club page or in my Amazon store:

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Here at Companion Animal Psychology

So far it has been a cold and snowy month for this part of the world. Here is Bodger enjoying the first of what turned out to be many snowy days.

Companion Animal Psychology News 2019, the latest science news about dogs and other animals. Photo shows my Australian Shepherd in the snow
Photo copyright Zazie Todd

This month. Renée Erdman interviewed me about my article on barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods for her Bravo Dog Knowledge podcast.

I was interviewed for this piece on should you ignore your dog when leaving the house? by  Linda Lombardi at Fear Free Happy Homes.

My post on the best cat scratching posts (from a cat’s point of view) is quoted by Allison Hunter-Frederick in Lincoln Pet Culture’s how to keep your cat from destructive scratching.

Over at Psychology Today, I wrote about Dr. Taryn Graham’s research on the important of dogs for millennials who rent (and the corresponding challenges), in millennials pet dogs: an anchor to an adult world. This post was included in the latest Science Borealis newsletter.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology, a post about the benefits of nosework for dogs, finding hidden food in nosework increases dogs’ optimism, has proved very popular. Dr. Marc Bekoff also wrote about this research (and linked back to my post) in allowing dogs to sniff helps them think positively.

New study identifies our different ethical beliefs about animals looks at some research that finds four main ways that people think about how it is ethical to use animals, and some surprising ways they link to our behaviour. And if you want to follow up on this, Dr. Marc Bekoff interviewed the scientists who did the research.

America’s changing relationship with the pet dog looks at how dogs have moved from being allowed to roam the streets to sleeping in their owners beds, with corresponding changes in the proportion of dogs that are re-homed or euthanized at animal shelters.

And I took part in the 2019 pet blogger challenge which is a chance for pet bloggers to reflect on their blog and where it is going.

Pets in Art

In last month’s newsletter I shared with you a drawing of a cat by Isoda Koryusai. So I thought this month you would like to see this drawing of a dog by the same artist.

Black Dog by Isoda Koryusai, this month's pet in art in the Companion Animal Psychology newsletter, with the latest science news about dogs, cats and other animals
Black Dog by Isoda Koryusai. Part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection.

It is called Black Dog and dates from 1767-1785.

It is from the Art Institute of Chicago collection and in the public domain.

Breed Specific Legislation Had No Effect on Dog Bites in Odense, Denmark

In 2010, Denmark banned 13 breeds of dog. It made no difference to hospitalizations for dog bites.

Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) made no difference to dog bite injuries in Odense, Denmark. One of the banned breeds was the American Staffordshire Terrier, like this happy AmStaff pictured.
Photo: sanjagrujic/Shutterstock

One approach that some countries or municipalities take to attempt to reduce injuries from dog bites is to ban certain breeds, known as Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). A new study by Dr. Finn Nilson  (Karlstad University) et al investigates the effects of BSL in Denmark’s third-largest city, Odense. The results show that it had no effect on hospitalizations for dog bites.

In 2010, Denmark banned the ownership, breeding and import of 13 breeds of dog, including the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasiliero and American Bulldog.

Two of those breeds, the Pitbull Terrier and the Tosa Inu, had to be euthanized.

Any existing pets of the remaining 11 breeds could be kept, but they had to be muzzled and leashed in public.

Dr. Finn Nilson told me in an email,
“The findings in our article largely support previous studies on the subject of whether banning certain breeds of dog will lead to less individuals requiring emergency care for dog bites. In similarity to other studies we can show that banning certain breeds in Denmark did not reduce the number of dog bites being seen at a large regional hospital. Due to the Danish ban being slightly different to previous bans, we could use considerably more advanced methods. Put simply, we could test both the long-term effect of banning certain breeds as well as the short-term legislation on muzzles in public spaces on the same breeds. Neither seem to have an effect. The results reiterate the problem of identifying so-called dangerous breeds in the attempts to reduce dog bites.”

The study looked at data on people visiting the emergency department in Odense from 1st January 2002 and 31st June 2015. During this time, there were 2622 dog bite injuries.

There are some problems with simply looking at the number of dog bites before and after a ban. For one thing, in cases like this where some breeds are euthanized, the total number of dogs has gone down, which means any change could simply be because there are fewer dogs overall.

As well, it is possible there would be other changes over the time period. One such change mentioned in the paper is that the number of injuries tends to go down anyway (although I note that this is not always the case – in the UK, which also has BSL, hospitalizations for dog bites have gone up).

The scientists used some sophisticated statistical techniques, called Monte Carlo models, to get round these issues.

And they paid attention to whether dog bites happened in public or private spaces.

Breed Specific Legislation did not effect dog bite injuries in Odense. 13 breeds were banned, including the American Staffordshire Terrier. An AmStaff puppy is  pictured.
Photo: Grigorita Ko/Shutterstock

Since 11 of the banned breeds had to be muzzled and leashed in public, you would expect an immediate difference in public dog bites if BSL was effective. Whereas you would expect a more gradual difference in dog bites in private spaces as the number of pet dogs of these breeds slowly went down.

But that’s not what happened.

The results showed no effect of Breed Specific Legislation on hospitalizations for dog bites.

They did show something else very interesting: Of the 2622 dog bites, 874 occurred in public spaces. In other words, the majority of dog bite injuries (67%) occurred in a private space such as someone’s home.

This shows that programs to reduce dog bites need to target private places, not just focus on what happens in public.

"Put simply, we could test both the long-term effect of banning certain breeds as well as the short-term legislation on muzzles in public spaces on the same breeds. Neither seem to have an effect."

One limitation to the research is that it only considers data for 4.5 years after the introduction of BSL. However, the legislation would have been expected to have an effect in this time, which was not found.

This study joins a number of others in finding that Breed Specific Legislation does not work. If you want to know more, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a summary of the available research on BSL.

Unfortunately BSL means that well-behaved dogs have to be muzzled or euthanized when they have not done anything wrong.

The alternative to BSL is to encourage responsible dog ownership and enforce it with strong laws or bylaws.

Dog bites are a complex problem, and this study adds to the evidence that breed specific legislation is not the solution. As well, it shows that we need to pay attention to the context in which bites occur.

The paper is open access and you can read it via the link below.

You might also like: Stereotypes and breeds of dog and the effects of owner experience and housing on Argentine Dogos.

Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritsen, J., & Bonander, C. (2018). The effect of breed-specific dog legislation on hospital treated dog bites in Odense, Denmark—A time series intervention study. PLoS one, 13(12), e0208393.

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New Study Identifies our Different Ethical Beliefs about Animals

New research finds four ethical orientations towards animals, and some surprising links to cat and dog ownership and to other behaviours such as eating “welfare-friendly” meat.

There are four animal ethics orientations, including anthropocentrism and animal rights, according to  new study. Photo shows collage of dog, fox, horse and cat

We all have different views about what we think are ethical ways to treat animals. New research by Dr. Thomas Bøker Lund et al. (University of Copenhagen), published today in PLOS ONE, finds four different ethical orientations that are commonly held by the general public.

The results show just how complicated our ethical beliefs about animals are – and include some surprising results.

Two of the different orientations will probably be familiar:

Anthropocentrism – the idea that “human beings matter most”. This view may stem from religious beliefs or from beliefs that humans and animals are different, with humans being considered rational and more important than non-human animals.

Animal rights – this approach values all animals and argues that as sentient beings, animals also have rights and should be treated accordingly. This is the opposite view to anthropocentrism.

The other two ethical orientations are not academic but more likely reflect the views of ordinary people:

Animal protection – this means animals are seen as needing protection, but may be used so long as they are treated humanely and do not suffer. This view can be seen in regulations to protect the welfare of farmed animals, for example.

Lay utilitarianism – the idea that animals can be used so long as the benefits to humans outweigh any suffering by the animals. For example, according to this approach, the use of animals in medical research (even if the animals suffer) is considered acceptable so long as there are benefits to people.

The scientists conducted a series of three studies. In the first, they developed a questionnaire to investigate these four approaches, and tested it on Danish university students. This confirmed the questionnaire worked the way they expected.

Then they tested it on three groups of people: ordinary Danes from a range of backgrounds; Danes who tend towards veganism or vegetarianism; and Danes who work in some way in the meat industry.

These results confirmed the results of the previous study, with the exception of one question that was removed (more on this later).

“It is a remarkable and ironic finding… that a stronger animal protection orientation does not make people more likely to consume animal welfare-friendly meat.”

Finally, they gave the questionnaire to a large sample of Danes along with some other questions about their behaviour towards animals, such as whether they own a dog or cat, and how often they visit the zoo. This sample was intended to be representative, and since it was in some ways but not others (like level of education) they used some sophisticated statistics for the analysis.

And here’s where it gets really interesting.

Dog owners are less likely to be anthropocentric in their views. Is this because anthropocentric people are less likely to get dogs, or is there something about having a dog that makes people be less anthropocentric? This is a question for future research.

Cat owners are less likely to have the animal protection or lay utilitarian views. Why are cat owners less likely to be in what could be considered the middle ground? This is puzzling, and the researchers do not have an explanation for it.

Another finding is that the results are in line with something called the “underdog” effect that has previously been found in an American study. Women and those with lower levels of education were more likely to value an animal rights approach. It has been suggested that members of groups with less power in society are more likely to sympathize with animals.

One surprising finding relates to eating “welfare-friendly” meat.

The scientists say,
“It is a remarkable and ironic finding… that a stronger animal protection orientation does not make people more likely to consume animal welfare-friendly meat.”

Since they had expected the opposite to be the case, they did a bit more analysis. It turns out the most important reason is a lack of concern about animal welfare. Feeling that existing laws were good enough, and so the extra protections of “welfare-friendly” meat weren’t needed, was also part of the reason.

As for the one question that turned out not to fit in the second study, it related to the statement, “It is acceptable for humans to put animals down if it is done painlessly.” This suggests that attitudes to this are separate from the four main orientations considered here.

"Dog owners are less likely to be anthropocentric in their views."

Psychologists have known for a long time that attitudes do not necessarily predict behaviour, and the new scale highlights these tensions when it comes to our treatment of non-human animals.

Prof. Peter Sandøe, one of the authors of the study, told me in an email,
“Based on three studies conducted in Denmark, the four orientations were successfully identified and although not exhaustive, they represent distinctive accounts of the ways that animals matter. At one end of the spectrum, the anthropocentric orientation stresses that humans are the centre of the moral universe. At the other end of the spectrum, the animal rights orientation claims that sentient animals are entitled to the same rights as humans. The animal protection orientation is interpreted as a mainstream sentiment emphasizing that the welfare of animals is important in its own right, and that animals must be treated humanely and without unnecessary suffering while lay utilitarianism offers a more cynical take on animal welfare: all forms of animal use are in principle acceptable as long as the human benefits outweigh the disadvantages for the animals involved.

We argue that the developed measure can help detect the ethical orientations that have an impact on various types of behaviours that include animals, thus drive a more nuanced understanding about the attitudinal sources and justifications of different forms of animal use.”

This is fascinating research that captures the complexity of people’s beliefs about ethics and animals. It will enable future studies to explore the reasons behind differences between what people believe in and what people actually do when it comes to their ethical beliefs about animals.

The full paper is open access and can be read at the link below. Update: Dr. Marc Bekoff has interviewed the authors of the study and it is well worth a read to find out what they think of the results, what it means for animal welfare, and how this research can be used in future.

Which of the four ethical orientations most closely reflects your own beliefs about the treatment of animals?

Lund, T.B., Kondrup, S.R., and Sandøe, P. (2019) A multidimensional measure of animal ethics orientation – Developed and applied to a representative sample of the Danish public, PLoS ONE,

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Finding Hidden Food in Nosework Increases Dogs' Optimism

Opportunities to use the nose and make choices in nosework are good for dogs’ welfare.

For dogs, opportunities to use the nose and be autonomous in nosework are good for dogs' welfare.  Photo shows a grey Siberian Husky sniffing
Photo: KM-Photography/Shutterstock

We all know that dogs like to sniff. Is it possible that providing opportunities to find food in nosework can improve dogs’ wellbeing?

New scientific research by Dr. Charlotte Duranton (Ethodog) and Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (Barnard College) finds that dogs who participate in nose work have increased optimism compared to dogs that took part in heelwork instead.

Importantly, both activities involved perambulation, as well as food rewards as positive reinforcement. The difference is that in nosework the dog has the opportunity to use their nose and to exercise choice in what they are doing.

The study used a test of optimism – also known as cognitive bias – in which dogs were first trained that a bowl in one location would always contain food, whereas a bowl in another location never did. Then the test involved an empty bowl placed in an ambiguous location, equidistant from the other two places.

The idea is that the length of time taken to get to the bowl reflects the dog’s optimism that it would contain a piece of chicken.

20 adult dogs of various breeds took part in the study, including Australian Shepherds, Huskies, Cocker Spaniels, and other breeds/mixes.

Half of the dogs took part in a nosework activity with their owner, while the other half did heelwork.

The dogs took part in a group class with their owner (either nosework or heelwork), then the owner practised at home with them once a day for a week.  Then there was a second class, followed by a second week of practice at home.

Immediately before and after the two weeks of the activity, each dog took part in the cognitive bias training and test.

Each activity was structured so there was some development from the beginning to the end. For example, in the first heelwork class the dog was initially rewarded with a treat for taking two paces with the owner, building up to ten paces. In the second week, changes of direction were included.

Similarly, in the first nosework class, dogs began by finding a hide (i.e. treat) in a box, then in one of three boxes. When they found it, additional treats were added to the box. In the second week, boxes were put on chairs and/or further apart to make it more challenging.

Prior to the activities, there were no differences between the two groups of dogs in the cognitive bias test.

For dogs, the opportunities to use the nose and make choices in nosework are good for their welfare. Photo shows a dalmatian sniffing grass with a dusting of snow
Photo: Sergey Fatin/Shutterstock

At the end of the two weeks, the latency for dogs in the nosework group to reach the bowl was significantly shorter. However, for dogs in the heelwork group, it was no different than in the previous test.

These results suggest that dogs in the nosework group were more optimistic.

Dogs in both groups had the chance to earn food rewards, so why the difference?

One reason could be that in nosework, dogs have a lot of choice in what they are doing, because they can move around the room and the boxes as they wish. In doing so, they are problem-solving, and successful problem-solving makes dogs happy too.

Another reason could be because of the opportunities to use their nose. Smell is the most important sense for dogs, and it is important to provide environmental enrichment that gives animals opportunities to use the most important sense and express normal behaviours.

The scientists explain there are some other possible explanations, although they do not think they are likely. For example, the dogs that did nosework were trained to search with their nose (but remember, the food bowl was empty in the cognitive bias task).

I think another difference between the conditions is the manner of reward delivery – one reward per set of steps in heelwork versus several rewards at once on finding the box containing food in nosework. This is consistent with how these are normally taught. It is possible dogs preferred receiving a 'jackpot' like in the nosework. However, other research shows dogs don't run faster for increased quantity of food, so this is not a likely explanation.

This is a fascinating study and it's great that scientists are looking at what kinds of activities are good for dogs' welfare.

This research shows it is important to give our pet dogs choices, opportunities to make their own decisions, and chances to use their nose. Doing so is good for their welfare, which is likely why the nosework training led to better results than heelwork.

If you are interested in trying nosework with your dog, you can find a list of Certified Nose Work Instructors here. See five fun things to do to make your dog happy today and six ways to entertain your dog indoors for more enrichment ideas.

What opportunities do you give your dog to use their nose and make choices?

Duranton, C., & Horowitz, A. (2018). Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club February 2019

This month's choice by the book club is a favourite about dogs that "...causes one's dog-loving heart to flutter with astonishment and gratitude..." according to the New York Times.

Animal Book Club: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. Photo shows montage of animals and books

This month the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club is reading the best-selling Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.

From the cover,
"The answers will surprise and delight you as Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, explains how dogs perceive their daily worlds, each other, and that other quirky animal, the human. Horowitz introduces the reader to dogs’ perceptual and cognitive abilities and then draws a picture of what it might be like to be a dog. What’s it like to be able to smell not just every bit of open food in the house but also to smell sadness in humans, or even the passage of time? How does a tiny dog manage to play successfully with a Great Dane? What is it like to hear the bodily vibrations of insects or the hum of a fluorescent light? Why must a person on a bicycle be chased? What’s it like to use your mouth as a hand? In short, what is it like for a dog to experience life from two feet off the ground, amidst the smells of the sidewalk, gazing at our ankles or knees? 
Inside of a Dog explains these things and much more. The answers can be surprising—once we set aside our natural inclination to anthropomorphize dogs. Inside of a Dog also contains up-to-the-minute research—on dogs’ detection of disease, the secrets of their tails, and their skill at reading our attention—that Horowitz puts into useful context."

Learn more about the  Companion Animal Psychology Book Club (and how to join) or visit the Animal Book Club store on Amazon.

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