Solutions for Cat & Dog Behaviour Problems

Canine Behavioural Research at O.V.C.


Animal Behaviorist Dorothy Litwin BA Hon. specializes in the treatment of canine and feline behaviour problems and offers professional help from the comfort of your own home! Click here for information about Dorothy Litwin or scroll down to read about canine behavioural research conducted at the Ontario Veterinary College.

For information on canine aggression please click here.

Canine Aggression Toward Children: Are Simulations Valid Tools?

By: Pamela J. Reid & Nathan J. Penny

Epidemiology of dog bites to children Canine aggression toward children is a serious public health concern. Approximately one million dog bites occur yearly in the United States - 60-70% of those involve children (Mathews & Lattal, 1994). In fact, as many as 20-45% of all children are bitten at least once in their lives; boys are bitten significantly more often than girls (Mathews & Lattal, 1994). Seventy-eight percent of dog bites are to the extremities of children aged 5-9 years; children under four years of age are commonly bitten in the head, face, and neck (Chun et al., 1982). Of dog-bite fatalities reported by Sacks et al. (1989), 70% occurred to children under ten years of age. Of these, 22% of the children were younger than one year of age and 7% were sleeping infants. Approximately one third of all biting dogs are owned by the victim's family (Greenhalgh et al., 1991) and bites are most likely to occur near the victim's home (Pinckley & Kennedy, 1982). Beck et al. (1975) report that 87% of biting dogs are male and the majority of those are reproductively intact.

Motivation for Aggression toward Children

Aggression displayed toward children by dogs can result from numerous underlying motivations, including predation, territorial defense, fear, dominance, and the guarding of resources (Voith & Borchelt, 1982). Borchelt et al. (1983) and Wright and Lockwood (1987) recount details of fatal attacks in which the dogs were observed hunting just prior to the unfortunate episode, and it was hypothesized that the dogs transferred predatory behavior onto the children. It is commonly held that certain characteristics of young children, especially their high-pitched vocalizations, rapid jerky movements, and small stature may trigger predatory responses from dogs (Landsberg et al., 1997). The child's naivety when it comes to interpreting dog behavior may also contribute to dogs reacting fearfully to children.

Assessing Aggressive Propensities

Dogs that display aggression toward children are often relinquished to animal shelter or rescue organizations. Owners are typically reluctant to reveal details of their pets' behavioral concerns and shelter personnel are left with the responsibility of assessing the animal's suitability for placement. Shelters often develop and implement "temperament" tests that are rarely evaluated for reliability or validity. One such temperament test for evaluating shelter dogs was reported by Van der Borg et al. (1991). One of the test items involved exposing the dog to a realistic life-size doll. The researchers go on to report on a Boxer that growled at the doll when tested prior to adoption and the dog was returned shortly after adoption because it growled at a child. Wright & Lockwood (1987) also used a doll when conducting a behavioral evaluation of dogs involved in a fatal attack of a child. They observed differential reactions toward the doll by the implicated dogs when compared to a similar group of dogs with no history of aggression toward children. In a study designed to validate a test for aggressive behavior in dogs, Netto and Planta (1997) determined that an adult-sized doll elicited significantly more aggressive behavior from dogs with a history of aggression than from dogs lacking such a history.

Doll Simulation

The objective of a recent study conducted at the University of Guelph was to establish how dogs respond to two different child-like dolls. Two populations of dogs were recruited. One group of dogs typically displayed friendly behavior toward children, the other group typically displayed aggressive behavior toward children. Assignment to the groups was based on owner reports of their dog's behavior. The dogs were exposed to three test stimuli in random order. Test stimulus 1 was a custom-made, toddler-sized doll mounted on a remote-controlled car to enable rapid movement. A tape recorder hidden under the doll's clothing played vocalizations recorded from a child greeting a dog. The doll clothing was impregnated with "baby" odor. Test stimulus 2 was a commercially available infant-sized doll, called an Oopsy Daisy doll. The doll crawls, cries for "Momma", and falls, flailing its limbs about. Test stimulus 3 was a "control" object, consisting of a psychedelic-patterned, poster-board triangle mounted on a remote-controlled car. A tape recorder inside the triangle played a radio news report. Each dog was exposed to a test stimulus for five minutes, with 10 minutes between each stimulus exposure. An experimenter, naive to the group assignment of the dogs, viewed videotapes of each dog's session and scored the time taken to approach, the time spent by owner, the number of barks, growls, and sniffs. Only one dog attempted to bite the test stimuli. Data analysis revealed that dogs with a history of aggression toward children do respond differently to the test stimuli than did dogs with a history of friendly behavior. Such stimuli may be useful tools for evaluating a dog's propensity for aggression toward children.

Assessing Temperament in Young Puppies

By: Pamela J. Reid & Nathan J. Penny

Discord between owner and dog is often the result of a fundamental mismatch between the lifestyle of the human and the behavioural tendencies of the dog. Attempts to avoid mismatches have led to the development of puppy tests, purported to assess the basic personality of the puppy, and predict how it will behave as an adult. The goal of our study was to standardize the popular Puppy Aptitude Test and correlate the results with both breeder assessments of the puppies, as well as with owner reports of the puppies' behaviour during the first year following adoption. We ran 46 litters (279 puppies in total), each at 49 days of age, through a battery of tests designed to assess their sociability to humans and their reactivity to stimuli. The results correlated moderately well with the breeder assessments but did not predict how the puppies would behave in their permanent homes. We conclude that a standardized test is able to generate an accurate picture of puppy temperament, but the changing milieu during development and the influence of learning prevent the reliable prediction of future behaviour.

Comparing the Frequency of Canine Play Behaviour, Vocalization, & Ear Positioning, Between Basic Obedience Training Classes with Different Training Methods

By: Nathan J. Penny

The processes of learning and memory are critical for enabling animals to display adaptive and flexible behaviour in response to a changing environment. Expression of adaptive behaviour is a function of many complex influences, including physiological and emotive states. Numerous studies have demonstrated that stress can have a detrimental effect upon learning and memory. Predictability and controllability of a stressor may also be factors that modify the impact of stress. Companion dogs may encounter stress during the acquisition of responses, such as sit, stay, come, or heel. Although most dogs acquire these responses in the context of structured obedience classes, the classes often differ in the procedures employed by the instructors. The objective of this study was to determine if dogs behave differently when exposed to training classes with different training methods. The training methods used were reward-based, a combination of reward-based and correction-based, and correction-based. Subjects were privately owned companion animals attending one of three different dog obedience-training schools. The primary measure for comparison in this study was observable behaviour. The behaviour compared between training classes was: play behaviour, vocalization, and drawn back ears. Dogs exposed to different obedience-training methods behaved differently during obedience training classes. Play and vocalization occurred most often at the reward-based school and least often at the correction-based school, while drawn back ears were observed most often at the correction-based school, and least often at the reward-based school. Based upon these results, it is probable that dogs exposed to aversive contingencies experienced negative emotional states (such as stress or fear) more often. Owners in the correction-based school scored their dogs significantly less happy during classes than in real life,while owners in both schools indicated no change in their personal emotional state during training classes, and no differences were found regarding overall owner satisfaction between the schools.

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