Consider the (Caregiver) Placebo Effect

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “placebo effect”, the perception of improved health while unknowingly receiving a sham (placebo) treatment that in reality should have no benefit at all. Growing up, my mother referred to this as “giving someone a sugar pill”. The assumption is that because we believe that we are receiving an actual treatment, our mind tells us that we should feel a bit better. Then amazingly, we do feel better. We notice a reduction in symptoms and ultimately conclude that the “medicine” must be working. The irony is that placebos actually can be powerful medicine (or something), at least for some people, for some diseases, some of the time.

placebo-comic

Placebos and Us: The effects of placebos in human medicine are well-documented and are described with human diseases of almost every type. The highest level of placebo effect is seen with diseases that have subjective symptoms that are patient-reported and difficult to measure directly, that tend to fluctuate in severity, and that occur over long periods of time (i.e. are chronic). Examples include depression, anxiety-related disorders, gastric ulcer, asthma, and chronic pain. In medical research, an average placebo response rate of 35 percent is reported, with rates as high as 90 percent for some health conditions. By any standard, that is a whole lot of sugar pill response going on.

placebo

Placebo Control Groups: Although the reasons that we respond to placebos are not completely understood, medical researchers universally accept the importance of considering them when studying new treatments. Studies of new drugs or medical interventions include placebos as control groups to allow unbiased comparisons with the treatment or intervention that is being evaluated. Any effect that the placebo group shows is subtracted from the effect measured in subjects who are receiving the actual medication. The difference between the two is considered to be the degree of response attributable to the treatment. If a placebo control group was not included, it would be impossible to differentiate between a perceived response (placebo) and a real response to the treatment. Today, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are considered to be the Gold Standard of study designs by medical researchers. The “double-blind” part refers to the fact that in addition to having both a placebo group and a treatment group, neither the researchers nor the subjects know which subjects are getting the treatment and which are getting the placebo. (For more information about double-blind research trials with dogs, see “Thyroid on Trial“).

What about Dogs? Can a placebo effect occur with dogs? Possibly, but things work a bit differently where our dogs are concerned. Most obviously, while highly communicative in many ways, dogs cannot specifically tell us what part of their body is in pain, how intense that pain is, if it is abating, or by how much. Rather, we use our knowledge of a dog’s behavior and body language to determine how he is feeling. As their caregivers, we are the recorders and the reporters of our dogs’ health, symptoms, and response to treatments. Similar to human studies, this is most relevant when the symptoms are things that are not easily measured using medical tests and that are more subjective in nature.

A second important difference is that dogs are basically always blinded to treatments. Although they may understand that something different is being done to them (or that there is a strange pill buried in that piece of cheese), most people will agree that dogs do not have an understanding that they are being medicated for a particular health problem or are on the receiving end of a new behavior modification approach. As a result, unlike human patients, dogs lack the specific expectations and beliefs about health interventions that may be necessary for a placebo effect to occur directly. However, because it is the owner who reports many symptoms and changes in health to their veterinarian and also who conveys subjective information regarding the dog’s response to a given treatment, a different type of placebo effect may be in action with dogs. This is called a “caregiver placebo effect”. As with human maladies, the conditions for which this type of placebo effect has been described in dogs are those that involve subjective measures of health (pain, activity level, appetite) and that have a tendency to fluctuate in severity.

Let’s look at two examples – the caregiver placebo effect in dogs with osteoarthritis and in dogs with epilepsy.

Does Your Dog Hurt Less? Osteoarthritis is a painful and progressive health problem that can seriously impact a dog’s quality of life. A variety of medical and nutritional treatments are available today for afflicted dogs. These range from NSAIDS (ex. deracoxib, meloxicam), nutrient supplements (ex. glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate) to alternative medicine approaches (acupuncture, cold laser therapy). Researchers who have studied these treatments use subjective measures of lameness in which dogs’ owners and veterinarians numerically rate their dog’s degree of pain, mobility, and interest in daily activities in response to treatment. Some, but not all, studies also include objective measurements of arthritis that quantify the amount of weight-bearing in the affected legs and weight distribution in the body.

Arthritis Studies: In virtually all placebo-controlled studies of this type, a substantial proportion of owners and veterinarians have reported improvement in the placebo-treated dogs. However, when measured using weight-bearing techniques, the dogs in the placebo group showed no change in or a worsening of disease. Michael Conzemius and Richard Evans at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine decided to quantify the actual magnitude of the placebo effect in this type of experimental trial (1). They analyzed the data from 58 dogs who were in the placebo control group of a large clinical trial that was testing the effectiveness of a new NSAID. All of the enrolled dogs had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and had clinical signs of pain and changes in gait and mobility. This was a multi-centered design, which means that each dog’s own veterinarian conducted the bi-weekly evaluations of gait and lameness. Both owners and veterinarians completed questionnaires that measured whether the dog showed improvement, no change, or worsening of arthritis signs over a 6-week period. Neither the owners nor the veterinarians knew if their dog was receiving the placebo or the new drug.

Results: Half of the owners (50 percent) stated that their dog’s lameness decreased during the study, 40 percent reported no change, and 10 percent said that their dog’s pain had worsened. When these reports were compared with actual change as measured by force platform gait analysis, the caregiver placebo effect, (i.e. thinking that improvement occurred when there was either no change or an actual worsening of signs), occurred in 40 percent of owners. The veterinarians performed no better. A placebo effect occurred 40 to 45 percent of the time when veterinarians were evaluating dogs for changes in gait or pain. This means that not only were the owners strongly invested in seeing a positive outcome, so too were their veterinarians. This effect occurred despite the fact that all of the human participants were aware that their dog had a 50 percent chance of being in the placebo group or the drug group, and that there was no way to be certain which group their dog was in.

Seizure Study: This study used an approach called a “meta-analysis” which means that the researchers pooled and then reexamined data collected from several previous clinical trials (2). Veterinarians from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Minnesota reviewed three placebo-controlled clinical trials that examined the use of novel, adjunct treatments for canine epilepsy. During the treatment period owners were asked to record all seizure activity, including the length of the seizure, its intensity, and the dog’s behavior before and immediately following the seizure. The pooled results showed that the majority of owners of dogs in the placebo group (79 %) reported a reduction in seizure frequency in their dog over the 6-week study period. Almost a third of the owners (29 %) said that there was a decrease of more than 50 percent, the level that was classified in the study protocols as indicative of a positive response to treatment.

What’s Going On? Well, several things, it appears. The most obvious explanation of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs is owner expectations of a positive response when they assume an actual treatment is being administered to the dog. Whenever we introduce a new medication or diet or training method and anticipate seeing an improvement in our dog’s health, nutritional well-being or behavior, we naturally tilt toward seeing positive results and away from seeing no change (or worse – a negative effect). This is a form of confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see and that confirms our preexisting beliefs. In fact, an early study of the caregiver placebo effect in dogs found that when owners were asked to guess which group their dog was in, the owners who said that they were certain that their dog was in the treatment group (but was actually in the placebo group) demonstrated the strongest placebo effect (3).

Such expectations may be an especially strong motivator when we are dealing with maladies that have affected our dog for a long time, infringes upon the dog’s ability to enjoy life, and for which we feel that we are running out of options. Osteoarthritis and seizure disorders were the health conditions studied in these papers, but I can think of several other problems with our dogs for which we may easily succumb to the power of the placebo effect. These include chronic allergies, adverse reactions to food ingredients, anxiety-related behavior problems and even cancer.

Cognitive Dissonance: Another factor that may contribute to the caregiver placebo effect is finding oneself in a state of contradiction. When we invest time and money (and hope) into a new treatment for our dogs, it follows that we will naturally have high expectations that the treatment will work. Indeed if it does not, we may experience cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradicting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. For example, “I was told that giving my dog dehydrated gooseberry rinds would cure his chronic itching; these rinds are expensive and hard to find. He does not seem any better…… Uh oh. This is not a good feeling….”

Psychologists tell us that our brain reduces this discomfort for us (without our conscious awareness, by the way) by simply changing our perceptions. “Oh look! I am sure that the dehydrated gooseberry rinds ARE finally working. It just too some time – several months in fact. Still the effect MUST be the gooseberry rinds. YAY!”  In this case, convincing oneself that the dog does seem a bit less itchy, her coat is a bit healthier and overall, she does really seem to be feeling better, immediately solves this problem for the brain and for our comfort level.

cognitive-dissonance

The Hawthorne Effect: Finally, a related phenomenon that is common enough to have earned its own name is the Hawthorne Effect, also called observation bias. This is the tendency to change one’s behavior (or in our case how one reports their dog’s behavior) simply as a result of being observed. The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people whose dogs are enrolled in an experimental trial may behave differently with the dog because they know they are enrolled in a trial that is measuring many aspects of the dog’s life. In the case of the arthritis studies, owners may have altered how regularly they exercised their dogs, avoided behaviors that worsened the dog’s arthritic pain, or began to pay more attention to the dog’s diet and weight.

The point is that when people are enrolled in a research trial or are starting a new medical treatment, diet, or training program and are being monitored, they will be inclined to change other aspects of how they live with and care for the dog as well. These changes could be as important (or more important) than the actual treatment (or placebo). This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and is another reason why we always need control groups, but the occurrence of the Hawthorne Effect emphasizes the importance of recognizing that the thing that we think is working for our dog may not actually be the thing that is doing the trick.

Take Away for Dog Folks: When trying something new with our dogs, might we, at least some of the time, in some situations, be inclined to see improvement when it does not truly exist? When interpreting our dog’s response to a novel therapy or supplement or training technique are we susceptible to falling for the sugar pill? It seems probable, given the science. It is reasonable to at least consider the possibility that a placebo effect may be influencing our perceptions of our dog’s response to a new food, a new supplement, a new training technique or a novel treatment. This is especially true if the approach that we are trying has not been thoroughly vetted by research through double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. While the development of new medications and foods and training methods is exciting and important, we must avoid the tendency to see improvement from something that is novel simply because we expect and desire it to be so.

CITED STUDIES:

  1. Conzemium MG, Evans RB. Caregiver placebo effect of dogs with lameness from osteoarthritis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2012; 241:1314-1319.
  2. Munana KR, Zhang D, Patterson EE. Placebo effect in canine epilepsy trials. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 2010; 24:166-170.
  3. Jaeger GT, Larsen S, Moe L. Stratification, blinding and placebo effect in a randomized, double blind placebo-controlled clinical trial of gold bead implantation in dogs with hip dysplasia. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2005; 46:57-68.

Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact and Fiction” (2015).

Beware Straw Man Cover

Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge)

Happy New Year from The Science Dog!

To start the year off, I am participating for the first time in The Pet Blogger Challenge that is organized by the travel site, Go Pet Friendly. Many thanks to my friend Eileen Anderson for alerting me to this annual event. Below are this year’s queries and my responses. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about The Science Dog!

  1. When did you start your blog and, for anyone who is just seeing it for first time, please provide a description of your site. Would you say your blog focuses more on sharing stories with your readers, or providing a resource for your audience? Answer: I created The Science Dog in September of 2013, shortly before the publication of my fifth book, “Dog Food Logic“. The purpose of The Science Dog is to provide up-to-date, evidence-based information to dog folks and pet professionals about dog training, behavior and nutrition. My focus is primarily on original scientific research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals. I try to find studies whose results are relevant to trainers and dog owners and then summarize these in what I hope is a “user-friendly” style. Oh, and yeah, sometimes I editorialize a bit.

    soapbox

    GETTIN’ UP ON THE OL’ BOX

  2. What was your proudest blogging moment of 2016? Answer: I published the second Science Dog book in July of 2016, entitled “Only Have Eyes for You“. Both writing and promoting it has been a lot of fun! My husband Mike designed the cover for the book (as he did for “Beware the Straw Man“), and I was especially tickled that he used a photo of four of our dogs, posed in our garden. The oldest girl, Cadie, has since passed away, so this photo is very near and dear to my heart.

    Cadie Chip Vinny Cooper May 2013

    CHIPPY, VINNY, CADIE AND COOPER

  3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? (Please include a link.) Answer: I enjoyed writing all of the posts, especially the nutrition essays, as I had focused the first two years of the blog on topics related to behavior and training. In 2015, I started to include more essays about nutrition and feeding practices. However, my personal favorite of 2016 has to be “The Perfect Dog“, because it reviews two recent papers that provide some insight into the gap between what people think a dog should be versus who dogs actually are (and also, to some degree, places the responsibility for this exactly where it lies).       Unrealistic Expectations
  4. Year after year, one goal that we all seem to share is that we want to reach more people. What one tool did you use or action did you take this year that had the most impact on increasing traffic to your blog? Answer: I use FaceBook quite a bit, and have a FB Science Dog page that gives dog folks access to the blog and allows readers to chat and to contact me directly. I love to hear from readers, especially when they have ideas for new science-based topics for the blog! (hint-hint).
  5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? (Please include a link.) Have you noticed any themes across your most popular posts? Answer: The essay that received the largest number of hits (~ 18,000) was “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it“. Catchy  little title aside, I think that it resonated with shelter professionals because it presents a set of research studies conducted by Alexandra Protopopova’s team that both challenged a prevailing belief about training and adoption rates and presented some unique solutions that may be more effective as predictors of dogs’ chances for adoption.   Sit Ubu
  6. What blog do you find most inspirational and how has it influenced your blog? (Please include a link.) Answer: There are a number of dog-related blogs that I follow regularly and enjoy. Two that are among the best are Eileen Anderson’s not-to-be-missed essays about dog training at EileenandDogs and Julie Hecht’s excellent research summaries at Dog Spies.
  7. What is one thing your readers don’t know about you or your pets that would surprise them? Answer: What my readers may not know (but all of my friends do) is that while I hold a Masters Degree in Canine/Feline Nutrition, I cannot cook a human food meal to save my life. I started volunteering two years ago at our local soup kitchen, The Daily Bread, and the other volunteers quickly learned this little secret. I am now a designated dish-washer and happily report that I excel at that particular task, keeping everyone safe (and well fed).

    daily-bread-people-2

    SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SOUP KITCHEN! 

  8. What is something you’ve learned this year that could help other bloggers? Answer: Not to point any political fingers (interpret this as you like), but my advice to other writers (and citizens) is: Don’t lie and stick to the facts that have evidence to support them.    just-the-facts-maam-2
  9. What would you like to accomplish on your blog in 2017? Answer: The biggest challenge that I may have in 2017 is finding enough time to work on all of the writing and dog training projects that I am excited about. I am currently writing a new dog training book that presents evidence-based training and the applications that we use at our training school, AutumnGold, plus developing a few new training courses with several of AutumnGold’s instructors and writing essays for The Science Dog (many of which will appear, in some form, in the new book). Add in training and enjoying time with my own dogs, and it looks like it will be a busy and fun year!

    Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms

    PLATFORM TRAINING AT AUTUMNGOLD!

  10. Now it’s your turn! You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there a question you’d like answered, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Answer: Thanks to GoPetFriendly for sponsoring this blog challenge and hop! This is a Blog Hop!

If Sit Doesn’t Matter, What Does?

My last Science Dog blog. “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it” reviewed a series of studies showing that training shelter dogs to sit on command is not as predictive of future adoption as was once assumed. Those results should not be interpreted as an argument against the benefits of training programs, but rather as evidence that there may be other factors involving shelter dogs, potential adopters and the shelter environment that may be more important to consider when looking at adoption rates and how to increase them.

Following the “sit” studies, Alexandra Protopopova and her research team set out to discover what, if anything, about dog-human visits might consistently predict adoption outcomes for dogs. They asked the question: “If sit doesn’t matter, what does?”.

What Matters: The researchers first studied 250 out-of-kennel visits between adoptable dogs and potential adopters at a municipal shelter in Florida (1). After selecting a dog to meet, shelter visitors interacted with dogs in either a small outdoor area, a larger, grassy outdoor area or a small indoor room. Multiple factors were examined during the interactions, including the dog’s appearance/breed/age, the dog’s behavior, and the visiting environment.  Results: Overall, three factors stood out as significant predictors of an individual dog’s likelihood of adoption following these visits. These were:

  1. Willingness to play: A negative relationship was found between not playing and adoption. Those dogs who ignored play initiation by visitors were less likely to be adopted than those who did not ignore the adopter’s invitation to play. The converse of this is that dogs who wanted to play with the potential adopters were more likely to be adopted after the interaction.
  2. Lying close: Dogs who voluntarily laid down close to the human visitor were much more likely to be adopted than those who did not. (14 times as likely, in fact!)
  3. Visiting space: Visits that took place in the small, outdoor area were more likely to lead to successful adoptions than were those that occurred in the large, enclosed grass area or in the indoor room.

lying-at-feet tug-of-war-with-person  LYING AT FEET AND ENGAGING IN PLAY ARE SIGNIFICANT PREDICTORS OF ADOPTION

What to do with this information? Here is where things get really cool. The researchers used the results from this study to design a simple program that could be used by shelters to improve adoption rates (2). And then, they tested the program to see if it  actually worked.  Science at its best.

Here is what they did:

Structured Interactions: The study included two experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers developed a play/toy preference assessment test and then used it to test the play preferences of 20 dogs. The dogs were retested several times over a period of three weeks to validate the accuracy of the tool. The second  experiment used a modified version of the play preferences assessment to identify the toy preferences of a larger group of dogs at the shelter. Following their play preference testing, the dogs were assigned to two groups: (1) A structured interaction group in which potential adopters interacted with the dog with his/her preferred toy and then engaged in petting while an experimenter encouraged (lured) the dog to lie quietly at the visitors feet or (2) A control group in which the dog’s play preferences were not revealed and whose interactions with the potential adopter were unstructured. (Details of the play preference test and the structure interactions format are included in the paper).  Data were collected on a total of 160 dog-adopter interactions.

Results: In the first experiment, play preference as measured by toy selection (tennis ball, nylon squeaky toy, cotton plush toy or flannel rope toy) was validated. This means that dogs who showed a preferred toy during the initial, short assessment continued to show the same preference when retested multiple times. However, it is significant to note that about one-third of the dogs (35 %) were not interested in playing with toys at all. (This is a point that the experimenters return to and address later). The import of this test lies more in the observation that simply asking dogs what type of toy that they preferred was helpful during future interactions, as found in the results of the second experiment. When the Structured Interaction group was compared with the Control group, striking differences emerged:

  1. Dogs in the structured interactions group (offered their preferred toy, encouraged to lie down at the visitor’s feet) spent less time ignoring the visitor’s invitations to play and more time in close proximity to the visitor.
  2. Dogs  in the structured interactions group were also significantly more likely (2.5 times more likely, in fact!) to be adopted than were the control dogs.
  3. The duration of the interactions did not differ between the two groups, suggesting that using structured interactions did not take additional staff or volunteer time than traditional visits. In addition, results of a post-interaction questionnaire revealed that the visitors did not find the format of the structured interaction to be intrusive or to interfere with their ability to visit with the dog.

good-science2

Take Away for Dog Folks

There are numerous ways in which this new information may be used to help shelter dogs. The initial set of studies showed that contrary to popular belief, teaching a dog to sit does not increase his or her chance for adoption (though it very well may have other benefits). Additionally, while multiple studies have shown that a dog’s appearance is one of the strongest factors that people use when initially selecting a dog (even though people tend to deny this when asked), appearance was not found to be important during subsequent out-of-kennel visits. Rather, during the actual visit with the dog, potential adopters react more to the dog’s play behavior and tendency to stay in close proximity (lying at feet) when making their adoption decision.

Let’s first look at play behavior: The use of the play preference test in this study is in-line with our increasing understanding of the welfare and emotional health benefits seen when we allow dogs to demonstrate their preferences and even better, to have a choice. This has become a bit of a buzz-word among trainers, but hyperbole and anecdotes aside, there is really nothing not to love about a shelter dog being allowed to choose his or her favorite toy and then carrying that toy into meet-and-greet areas for play with a new visitor.

Of course, nothing will be 100 percent effective or helpful. One of the caveats of the toy preference work was the finding that not all of the dogs in the shelter were interested in playing with toys. (I am sure this is not news to shelter staff). Of the dogs tested in the 2016 study,  only about 2/3 could be easily enticed to play with a toy, regardless of the toy type. This finding is consistent with previous shelter dog studies that reported that only a minority of dogs played with toys and that object-play is often of very short duration. This may occur because of the stress of the shelter environment, an individual dog’s previous history (i.e. never having had toys or opportunities to learn to play) or a combination of factors.

For those of us who live with toy (and play) maniacs, this might be surprising to learn.

chip-with-toys

LIKE ALL OF MY DOGS, CHIPPY LOVES HIS TOYS

Still, it is very helpful information. Knowing that dogs who willingly play with visitors are more often adopted and that a substantial number of shelter dogs may be reluctant to play with toys can lead shelters to develop their own innovative programs to encourage play behaviors in dogs. This may include different types of toys such as food puzzles or encouraging more “people-oriented” types of play (more about this in the next blog piece).

Second, lying in proximity:  In the structured interactions group, the researchers placed the dog on lead and then used a food lure to encourage the dog to stay close and/or to lie down near the visitor. While one could argue that this behavior was not voluntary and might not reflect a truly calm dog, helping a dog to focus on relaxing and to enjoy petting would allow the visitor to experience the dog while he or she is calm and quiet in a setting that is often not conducive to calm behavior in shelter dogs. In addition, this type of relaxation training is common in many dog training programs (including my own) and can be used as a way to classically condition dogs to remain calm and enjoy handling and petting. For shelters with training programs, this information suggests that training dogs to “lie at feet in a natural environment” might be an especially important exercise to emphasize.

Last, what I personally love best about this research is that it shows science working in the very best way that it can work – first to discover new knowledge, second to create a new approach or program from that knowledge, and third to test (and in this case confirm) the validity of the new program. In my view, a win-win for everyone involved – dogs, adopters and shelter professionals.

Cited References:

  1. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2014; 157:109 – 116.
  2. Protopopova A, Brandifino M, Wynne CDL. Preference assessments and structured potential adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2016;176:87-95.

 

 

When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond

SITS ARE GREAT, BUT EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THEY DO NOT ENHANCE ADOPTION RATES

Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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Pretty in Pink

Our youngest dog, Ally, has a ‘bestie”. Her name is Colbie and she belongs to our friend Amanda, a trainer who also works as an instructor at AutumnGold. Ally is a Golden Retriever. Colbie is a Pit Bull Terrier, adopted from our local shelter while Amanda was on staff there.

Ally and Colbie Chasing

ALLY AND HER BEST FRIEND, COLBIE HAVE A PLAY DATE

Being young girls, both Ally and Colbie wear pink collars, Gentle Leaders and harnesses. For Ally, this is simply a fashion statement. For Colbie, given her breed and the breed-stereotypes that she may encounter, it means a bit more. Amanda purposefully dresses Colbie in pink hoping that such feminine attire will present Colbie as the sweetheart that she is. (Being color-blind, Colbie has no opinion).

Ally and Colbie in Pink

PRETTY IN PINK

Although Ally does not care about Colbie’s genetic heritage (or that she wears pink), many people do. Breed stereotypes are pervasive and impact local and state breed-specific legislation (BSL), rental property regulations, and shelter decisions regarding adoption and euthanasia. BSLs in the US and UK specifically target Pit Bull Terriers and other bully-type breeds, and either ban ownership of these breeds outright or impose strict restrictions upon ownership. These laws are based upon the assumption that targeted breeds are inherently dangerous and that individuals of the breeds can be reliably identified. There is much controversy (and no consensus) regarding the first assumption and is a topic for another time. In this article, we look at the second assumption regarding reliable breed identification. Is there supporting evidence? It turns out that there is quite a bit of science on this topic – and the results are quite illuminating.

Pit Bull or something else? Prior to the development of reliable DNA testing, the only method available for identifying the breed of a dog whose heritage was unknown was visual assessment. A shelter worker, veterinarian or animal control officer would examine the dog and assign a breed designation based upon physical appearance and conformation. Even with widespread availability of reliable DNA tests, most shelters and rescue groups continue to rely upon visual identification to assign breed labels to the dogs in their care. Given the life or death import of these decisions for some dogs, it is odd that the question of the reliability of these evaluations has not been questioned.

Until recently.

Experts don’t agree: In 2013, Victoria Voith and her co-researchers asked over 900 pet professionals to assign a breed (or mix of breeds) to 20 dogs that they viewed on one-minute video clips. Each of the dogs underwent DNA testing prior to the study, which allowed the researchers to test both the accuracy of visual breed-identification and the degree of agreement among the dog experts. Results: Poor agreement was found between visual breed assignments and DNA results in  14 of the 20 dogs (70 %). Moreover, there was low inter-rater reliability, meaning that the dog experts did not show a high level of agreement regarding breed assignments to the 20 dogs. More than half of the evaluators agreed on the predominant breed in only 7 of the 20 dogs (35 %). Although Pit Bull Terriers were not specifically examined in this study, these results provide evidence that physical appearance is not a reliable method for breed identification.

You say Pit Bull, I say Boxer: The following year, researchers in the US and the UK collaborated and examined the consistency with which shelter workers assigned breed labels to the dogs in their care (2). A group of 416 shelter workers in the US and 54 in the UK were asked to assign a breed or mix of breeds to photographs of 20 dogs. They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to list the specific features that they used in their determination. Of the 20 dogs that were used in this study, more than 3/4 had a bully-breed appearance. (Note: An important difference between  the UK and the US is that all UK shelters are subject to the country’s Dangerous Dog Act, a law that bans the ownership of Pit Bulls. While such bans exist in the US, there is no universal law. Rather, select municipalities or states have various forms of BSL). Results: Perhaps not surprisingly, UK shelter workers were much less likely to identify a dog with a “bully appearance” as a Pit Bull Terrier than were US shelter workers. Instead, the UK shelter workers tended to label these dogs as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a breed that is allowed in the UK, rather than as a Pit Bull, a breed that is universally banned. Despite this difference, results corroborated Voith’s study in that the researchers found a great deal of variation among shelter workers in their assignments of breed and there was a lack of consensus regarding which of the 20 dogs were identifiable as Pit Bull Terriers.

DNA vs. shelter staff: A 2015 study surveyed experienced shelter staff members at several Florida animal shelters (3). At each of four sites, four staff members were asked to assign breed designations to 30 adoptable dogs who were housed at their shelter. Collectively, 120 dogs were evaluated by 16 staff members. DNA testing was conducted on all of the dogs. A primary objective of this study was to examine the reliability of shelter staff’s ability to identify Pit Bull Terriers and dogs with Pit Bull heritage and to compare their assessments with DNA results. (Note: The DNA signatures that are used to identify Pit Bull Terriers are those of the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terriers, two breeds that are considered to be genetically identical to the Pit Bull Terrier). Results: Approximately one-third of the dogs who were identified as a pit bull-type breed by one or more shelter staff lacked any DNA evidence of bully breeds in his/her heritage. When inter-rater reliability was examined, agreement among shelter staff was moderate, but still included a relatively large number of disagreements. What this means in practical terms is that a substantial number of dogs in this study were labeled as pit bulls or pit bull types and yet had no such genetic background. Even if the shelter staff agreed on a particular dog’s identification, this would be rather a moot point (for the dog) if they both happened to be wrong.

But she doesn’t look like a Chow Chow: How can this be? How is it possible that a dog who appears to have the characteristic “pittie-type” head shape,  muscular body and other distinctive features tests negative for Pit Bull heritage? The conclusion that many people make from these discrepancies is that DNA testing must be unreliable, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. However, the fact is that it is not uncommon for the results of DNA tests of dogs who have mixed heritage to identify a set of primary ancestor breeds that look nothing like the dog in question.  This occurs because purebred crosses, particularly after the first generation, can result in unique combinations of genes that produce a wide range of features. When several different breeds are involved, some of these features may not be apparent in any of the ancestral breeds.

This occurs for two reasons. First, many of the breeds that we know today were originally created by crossing two or more existing breeds and then selecting for a small set of physically unique traits in subsequent generations. However, the dogs of these breeds still carry genes for a much wider variety of traits, even though the genes are not being “expressed” in the dog’s appearance. When these dogs are then bred to dogs of other breeds the hidden traits may become evident in their puppies. A second reason is that less than 1 percent of the canine genome encodes for breed-specific traits such ear shape, coat type and color, and head shape. So, a dog could be a large part (genetically) of a certain breed, while not showing all of the breeds physical traits, which may have been rapidly lost during cross-breeding with other breeds.

What this means for dogs: These three studies provide valuable evidence that the use of visual assessments to assign breed or breed-mixes to dogs is inaccurate and unreliable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this information is of more than just casual interest for dogs like Colbie because Pit Bull Terriers and other “bully breeds” are most frequently stigmatized by breed stereotypes and impacted by BSL and shelter policies that require automatic euthanasia. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that identifying an individual dog as a Pit Bull may be a matter of life or death for that dog.

It is not an exaggeration because we now have evidence.

Researchers ask, “What’ in a Name”? A recent paper published by researchers in Clive Wynne’s dog lab at the University of Arizona describes an ambitious series of experiments in which they examined the impact of breed labels on the perceptions of potential adopters and on the eventual outcome for the dog (4). The studies were carried out online and at animal shelters in Florida and Arizona. Participants were asked to rate photographs, videotapes, or live dogs in their kennels. In some conditions the dogs were provided with a breed label and in others they were not. Results: Two major findings came out of these studies. The first showed that stereotypes about Pit Bulls are alive and well and the second showed how this stigmatization ultimately affects dogs:

  1. People rated an image of a “pit-bull-type” dog as less approachable, friendly and intelligent and as more aggressive when compared to an image of either a Labrador Retriever and a Border Collie. In another experiment, labeling a dog as a Pit Bull negatively influenced the perceptions that people had about the dog. When visitors rated a dog who was labeled as a Pit Bull, the dogs were found to be less attractive in terms of perceived approachability, friendliness, intelligence, aggressiveness and adoptability compared with when the same dog was not so labeled.
  2. Dogs who had been labeled as Pit Bulls had  length of stays in the Florida shelter prior to adoption that were over three times as long as the stays of dogs who were matched in appearance, but had been labeled as another breed or breed-mix. When breed labels were removed from the profile cards of dogs offered for adoption, adoption rates for Pit Bulls increased significantly, length of stays prior to adoption in the shelter decreased, as did euthanasia rates. Interestingly, not only pit-bull-type dogs benefited from removing breed labels from the kennel cards. Dogs from working breeds who were available for adoption, in particular Boxers, Dobermans and Mastiffs also showed an increase in adoption rate.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There is a lot to ponder here. We have learned that breed identification using a dog’s physical appearance, even when conducted by experienced dog experts, is flawed in two distinctive ways. First, experts cannot agree consistently about how to label an individual dog. One person’s Boxer-mix is another’s Pit Bull and is yet another’s Bulldog/Lab mix. Second, DNA tests do not consistently confirm breed assignments that were based upon physical appearance. Labeling breeds for purposes of shelter retention, adoption and euthanasia is a highly dubious process, and one that is most critical for Pit Bull Terriers and other bully breeds.

We have also learned that potential adopters react to a Pit Bull label in ways that may adversely affect the outcome for the dog.  Labeling a dog as Pit Bull may increase her length of stay in the shelter, reduce her chances of adoption and increase her risk of being killed – simply because she was assigned a (possibly incorrect) label that changed the perceptions of potential adopters. And last, we have evidence that removing breed labels from the cage cards of adoptable pit-bull-type dogs (and many other dogs) increases their chance of adoption, reduces the length of their stay in the shelter, and increases their chance of simply staying alive.

Pretty in Pink for sure. But, I say, it is time that wearing pink becomes a simple fashion statement for Colbie, just as it is for her pal Ally.

Colbie Play Bow

Cited Studies:

  1. Voith VL, Trevejo R, Dowling-Guyer S, Chadik C, Marder A, Johnson V, Irizarry K. Comparison of visual and DNA breed identification of dogs and inter-observer reliability. American Journal of Sociological Research 2013; 3:17-29.
  2. Hoffman CL, Harrison N, Wolff L, Westgarty C. Is that dog a Pit Bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter works regarding breed identification. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2014; 17:322-339.
  3. Olson KR, Levy JK, Borby B, Crandall MM, Broadhurst JE, Jacks S, Barton RC, Zimmerman MS. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal 2015; 206:197-202.
  4. Gunter LM, Barber RT, Wynne CDL. What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions & labeling on attractiveness, adoptions & length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PLoS ONE  2016; 11:e0146857.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146857.

NEW BOOK! This essay is excerpted from my newest Science Dog book, “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog“.

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CLICK FOR MORE INFORMATION!

 

 

New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

coversnip