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.