Fighting like cats and dogs? Research shows a different picture

Animal behaviour researchers at the University of Lincoln have discovered that the relationship between our cats and dogs may be more amicable than originally perceived.

The relationship between the species is often portrayed as fractious, however, Professor Daniel Mills, Dr Sophie Hall and Jessica Thomson at the School of Life Sciences conducted an online survey to find out what it is that makes cats and dogs harmonious.

Results showed that 80% of homeowners felt their pets were comfortable with one another and a mere 3% stated that their cats and dogs could not stand one another.

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It was found that that 50% of owners reported their cats displayed negative behaviours such as hissing and spitting at dogs, and 18% said their dogs threatened cats, less than 10% of cats and only 1% of dogs ever harmed the other animal. Domestication may play a huge part in this interaction, as dogs have been domesticated for longer than cats and are a lot easier to train.

Overall, the majority of owners perceived their cat and dog as being comfortable living under the same roof.
The idiom ‘fighting like cat and dog’ may not ring true after all!

The paper, titled ‘Evaluation of the relationship between cats and dogs living in the same home’ was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour and can be read online.

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Dogs really can recognise human emotions

 

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As a dog owner you’ve seen them smile, cuddle you when you’re not at your best, mope when you’re not around and pounce around when you’re in the best of moods, but now it’s been scientifically proven: dogs really can recognise emotions in humans.

By combining information from different senses – an ability that has never previously been observed outside of  humans, a new study published from the University of Lincoln reveals.

For the first time, researchers have shown that dogs must form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.

The findings from a team of animal behaviour experts and psychologists the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

The researchers presented 17 domestic dogs with pairings of images and sounds conveying different combinations of positive (happy or playful) and negative (angry or aggressive)  emotional expressions in humans and dogs. These distinct sources of sensory input – photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalisations (voices or barks) from unfamiliar  subjects – were played simultaneously to the animals, without any prior training.

The team found the dogs spent significantly longer looking at the facial expressions which matched the emotional state (or valence) of the vocalisation, for both human and canine subjects.

The integration of different types of sensory information in this way indicates that dogs  have mental representations of positive and negative emotional states of others.

Researcher Dr Kun Guo, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology, said: “Previous studies have indicated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions from cues such as facial expressions, but this is not the same as emotional recognition.

“Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs.  To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”

Co-author Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognise human emotions. Many dog owners report anecdotally that their pets seem highly sensitive to the moods of human family members.

“However, there is an important difference between associative behaviour, such as learning to respond appropriately  to an angry voice, and recognising a range of very different cues that go together to indicate emotional  arousal in another. Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs.

“Importantly, the dogs in our trials received no prior training or period of familiarisation with the subjects in the images or audio. This suggests that dogs’ ability to combine emotional cues may be intrinsic. As a highly social species, such a tool would have been advantageous and the detection of emotion in humans  may even have been selected for over generations of domestication by us.”

 

Study animal behaviour further with the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln

Owning a pet dog can help families of children with autism

A new study has highlighted the potential for pet dogs to reduce stress in parents of children with autism.

A team of psychologists and animal behaviour experts at the University of Lincoln, UK, in conjunction with charities Dogs for the Disabled and the National Autistic Society, discovered a significant decrease in parental stress in those families who acquired a dog.

With support from the Big Lottery Fund, the researchers have been investigating the benefits a pet dog can bring to families with a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The importance of trained assistance dogs for disabled people and autism assistance dogs, in improving the quality of life of a range of individuals with specific requirements, is well recognised. However, training these dogs requires substantial time and economical input.

In recognition of this problem charity Dogs for the Disabled developed a series of workshops and aftercare support services known as PAWS to demonstrate to parents and carers of children with autism the benefits that pet dogs may bring to their family.

Professor Daniel Mills presented the research findings, which have been published online in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, at The Research Autism Lorna Wing Conference, My Family and Autism, in London on Thursday, 21st May.

Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “These families are often living under great stress, which can bring detrimental impacts to mental and physical health. This study focussed on the potential of pet dogs to alter parenting stress levels. Previous research has suggested that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can reduce blood pressure and anxiety in a number of individuals. However, AAT typically involves short, structured sessions with a dog, without the additional burden of daily animal care. Given the added responsibility that comes with owning a dog, particularly a puppy, we wanted to assess whether parents living in stressful circumstances could still benefit from animal companionship, despite the increase in responsibilities and duties.”

The researchers used a standardised assessment of parental stress, to measure parents’ stress levels before obtaining a dog and at designated periods after that. At the same time periods, and using the same scale, the team measured parenting stress in a control group of parents with a child with autism, who did not acquire a pet dog during this time.

Significant decreases in parenting stress were observed in the families who acquired a dog and a significant number of these parents moved from clinically high levels of parental distress to within the clinically normal range.

Professor Mills added: “The results highlight the potential of pet dogs to improve parenting stress associated with caring for a child with autism. As well as improving quality of life for these parents, reductions in parenting stress could also improve problematic child behaviours, with research from other teams suggesting that levels of parental stress can determine the success of autism treatments.”

Peter Gorbing, Chief Executive of Dogs for the Disabled, said: “As a charity we constantly see the benefits that dogs bring to people’s lives, far beyond practical support. Our expertise training assistance dogs led us to believe we could also support families affected by autism with a well-trained pet dog. We have now supported more than 600 who have attended our PAWS workshops. To see evidence that pet dogs really can assist by lowering the stress of parents of children with autism is a real endorsement of the charity’s work. It’s also a great example of a low-level intervention – a key element of the UK’s national autism strategy – so this is significant encouragement for our plans to expand the PAWS service.”

Research Director at Research Autism, Richard Mills, said: “Families of children affected by autism commonly experience persistent and damaging levels of stress. This permeates all aspects of family life with serious consequences for health and wellbeing and on overall coping and quality of life. In exploring low-level, socially appropriate interventions in reducing parenting stress and promoting wellbeing, this collaborative study has clearly demonstrated the benefit of introducing a well-trained pet dog into the family.”

Carol Povey, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said: “Caring for someone with autism is not always easy, which makes it vital that parents can access a range of different support. For instance, 81% of carers tell us that they developed anxiety due to a lack of support, while 64% said this led to depression. Many parents of children with autism have told us about the benefits of having a family dog, so it’s promising to see evidence that this can significantly alleviate their stress levels. But, as the authors recognise, the individual nature of autism means that it’s unlikely that dog ownership would benefit all families in the same way. Autism can have a profound impact on families but the right support at the right time can make all the difference.”

Pets on Prozac – drug treatment can help anxious dogs

Dogs who suffer with separation anxiety become more optimistic when taking the animal equivalent of Prozac during behavioural treatment, according to the results of an innovative new study.

Led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, the research has for the first time revealed how the animals feel during the clinical treatment of behaviours associated with negative emotions.

Jess Cook signed up for the study as her dog Lexi would become so distraught when left alone in the house neighbours would complain about her howling.

For five weeks in 2013, Lexi, now seven, took two tablets a day in some butter. She also underwent behaviour management therapy, which taught her to cope better with being separated from her owner.

Miss Cook, who runs Like My Own Pet Care Services in Derbyshire and is studying for her MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at the University of Lincoln, slowly built up the amount of time Lexi was left unattended for. It proved successful and now she has come off her medication.

Canine separation-related problems – also described as separation anxiety or separation distress – are among the most common behavioural complaints of dog owners. But the issue of using psychoactive medication to help pets with behavioural problems is a widely debated one.

Treatment with psychoactive medication in parallel with a behaviour modification plan is well documented, but it is unknown if this is associated with an improvement in underlying emotion or mood, or simply an inhibition of the behaviour.

The new study, published in the peer-reviewed veterinary science journal BMC Veterinary Research, has thrown new light on the topic with researchers devising a method to evaluate animals’ emotional state when treated with fluoxetine – the active ingredient in Prozac for humans and Reconcile for pets. Prozac, the trade name for fluoxetine, is typically used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety in humans.

The researchers recruited dogs showing signs of separation anxiety, such as barking, howling, destruction of property and toileting when alone, and used a special behaviour test to determine if they were feeling ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’.

In the test, dogs were taught that when a food bowl was placed in one location it contained food, but when placed in another location that it was empty. The bowl was then placed in ambiguous locations, and the dogs’ response was assessed to determine whether they expected food (i.e. ‘optimistic’) or not (i.e. ‘pessimistic’).

The results indicated that when dogs were treated for separation problems using both a behaviour modification programme combined with fluoxetine treatment that they did become more optimistic, and as their mood improved so did the behaviour problem. The same results were not recorded for the control group.

Research lead Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “For quite a while, I, like many others, have been concerned as to whether drugs such as Reconcile simply inhibit the behaviour and perhaps had no effect on the animal’s mood. With the advent of new methods to assess animal welfare, we were able to answer this question and were pleased to see that, when the drug is used within normal therapeutic ranges, the dogs do indeed seem better.

“However, it is important to emphasise that animals were treated with both the drug and a behaviour modification programme – with both being essential for effective treatment. Using the drug does seem to bring about a rapid improvement in mood while the animal responds to the training programme. The reality is, whether we like it or not, there are animals who are suffering and we need to take measures to both prevent the problem but also manage it as effectively as possible when it arises.”

Celebrity dog trainer to speak at dog bite prevention conference

Renowned dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, from Channel 4’s It’s Me or the Dog, will be joined by some of the UK’s top animal-related professionals at the National Dog Bite Prevention and Behaviour Conference at the University of Lincoln, UK.

Stilwell founded the conference as well as the UK’s first National Dog Bite Prevention Week, which runs from 7th-14th June, to highlight the need for education and awareness with regard to the largely preventable problem of people being bitten by dogs.

The TV personality and best-selling author will be appearing alongside the University of Lincoln’s clinical animal behaviour specialist Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Forensic Psychology Todd Hogue and Professor in Developmental Psychology, Kerstin Meints.

Since 1998 hospital admissions from dog bites have increased by approximately 50 per cent in the UK and more people, including children, are being bitten by dogs. The tragedy, says Stilwell, is that in most of these cases and others, such bites are preventable.

The conference aims to find practical and workable solutions to this universal problem through education and heightened awareness for those most at risk.

Stillwell said: “I am devastated each time I hear about someone being bitten, mauled or killed, especially when most of these incidences could have been prevented. Education is key, not just for parents and kids, but for professionals and educators who must all work together to spread awareness and encourage responsible pet ownership.”

The National Dog Bite Prevention and Behaviour Conference is open to all animal industry professionals, child educators, shelter workers, medical professionals, emergency personnel, dog wardens, delivery personnel, trainers and dog lovers.

The two-day seminar features dynamic presentations from Stilwell, Professor Mills and other leading canine behavioural experts including certified pet dog trainer Nando Brown, certified clinical animal behaviourist David Ryan, veterinary surgeon and clinical animal behaviourist Kendal Shepherd, dog law specialist Trevor Cooper and vice chair of the Canine Massage Guild Louise Swindlehurst. Topics include: the role of fear in aggression, recognising and interpreting canine body language, the link between pain and aggressive behaviour, safe-handling of aggressive dogs and dog bite investigations.

Following the conference, Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT) is partnering with other organisations such as Wood Green Animal Shelter, Dogs Helping Kids and The Kennel Club’s Safe and Sound Scheme for the UK’s first National Dog Bite Prevention Week. This is a week-long media event which aims to use media and social media to spread the word about responsible and safe pet guardianship as well as promoting a better understanding of all dogs.

Register for the conference or find out more event details here.