Companion Animal Psychology Blog publishes stories about the science of people's relationships with their cats, dogs, and other pets. Follow us to find out more about dog training, animal behaviour, behaviour problems, attachment and emotional responses to animals, and the benefits of pet ownership.
Join the pet blogging community in supporting reward-based training of dogs, cats, and other companion animals. #Train4Rewards
Are you a blogger? Do you support reward-based training for dogs and other animals? Would you like to take part in the #Train4Rewards blog party?
You are invited to write a blog post about reward-based training of dogs or other companion animals, post it on your own blog on the set date, then come and share a link to it here. Bloggers from anywhere in the world are invited to take part.
In the past, posts have covered the training of dogs, cats, horses and pigs. Posts on the training of rats, mice, ferrets, rabbits, and fish are all welcome too. Read on to find out more.
If you are not a blogger but still want to take part, you can do so by reading and sharing the posts, and sharing a photo of your own pet on social media on 16th June with the hashtag #Train4Rewards.
Here is how bloggers can take part.
On Thursday 14th or Friday 15th June: 1. Publish a post on your blog in support of the #Train4Rewards blog party. It can be words, photos, video, a podcast, or a combination, and relate to any kind of companion animal. I’ve put some suggestions below to get you started.
Double-check your post to make sure the tone is friendly and supportive to people who might not know anything about positive reinforcement training – we want to be encouraging and upbeat.
2. Include the #Train4Rewards button in your post and make it link to the blog party page (see below for more info).
3. Add your blog to the list on companionanimalpsychology.com. The list will be open from 8am PST on 14th June until 8am PST on 16th June. Don’t miss the deadline!
The small version of the button
On Saturday 16th June: 1. Check out the full list of participating blogs on companionanimalpsychology.com. Visit the other blogs, and leave comments to show support for your fellow bloggers.
2. Share your blog post on social media using the hashtag #Train4Rewards.
3. Share your favourite posts from other participating blogs on social media, also using the hashtag #Train4Rewards. You don’t have to share all the posts (unless you want to), so pick the ones you like best and share those. You can spread this out throughout the day.
4. Feel proud of your contribution to improving animal welfare. Reward yourself with a piece of cake, a bunch of flowers, a walk in the woods, or whatever makes you happy.
Ideas for posts Blog posts can be about any aspect of reward-based training and can use text, photo, podcast or video, so feel free to use your imagination.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
What you enjoy about training using positive reinforcement
How to use positive reinforcement to teach a behaviour or solve a behaviour problem
How to train your cat to go into a carrier
Reasons why training is important to cats too
A video of your dog, cat, rabbit, rat or ferret doing tricks
The key thing that made you become a crossover trainer
Photos of dogs (or other animals) enjoying a training session
The best treats to use as rewards
Recipes for training treats
An ode to your bait pouch, written by your dog
Why you love your dog trainer
The larger version of the blog party button (800 x 800 pixels)
How to get the most out of the blog party 1. Bring your best post. It’s like wearing a beautiful dress to a party. The people who got the most out of previous years’ blog parties wrote great new posts. If you must use an older post, you should update it. People are more likely to share new content.
2. Take time to edit. It’s generally best if you can set aside the first draft of your post for a day or two, and then come back to edit. Re-writing is always an important part of the writing process.
3. Use a great photo. When you add your post to the list here, you will get the chance to choose the photo that will appear as your thumbnail. Everyone will have the Train for Rewards button, so if you have your own photo it will make yours stand out. Also, photos really help with sharing on social media. You can use your own photo, find one that is available for free use or pay for a stock photo (just make sure you’re following copyright rules).
The rules What is allowed: anything that celebrates the reward-based training of companion animals.
What is not allowed: training that uses pain, including but not limited to choke and prong collars, electronic shock collars, alpha rolls, shake cans, citronella sprays, or other aversive techniques; blog posts of a commercial nature.
I reserve the right to remove posts if they are inappropriate and/or not within the spirit of the blog party. Please keep posts family-friendly. No discussions will be entered into.
If you want, you can let me know that you are planning to take part. I look forward to reading your posts!
Technical details of adding the blog party button: The button is already available on this page, and the url it should link to will be added to this page nearer the time.
This year, I am not using a photo hosting site because the cost is prohibitive. Instead, you can download the photo by right-clicking on it and saving it to your computer. Add it to your post where you would like it to appear.
You should make the blog button link to the blog party; if you prefer, you can include a text link as well or instead.
Please make sure the link to the blog party is a nofollow link. Google does not like it if people use follow links in blog parties and can apply penalties, which no-one wants. Typically, to make a link you just click the ‘nofollow’ button when you add it.
Technical details of adding the link to your blog post to the blog party: You need to post the specific permalink to your blog post, not the main url of your blog.
If you have several pictures in your post, you will have a choice of thumbnails. Choose the one you want to display in the link-up.
If you make a mistake or want to choose a different thumbnail, you can delete it and start again, any time up to the deadline.
Blog posts will be displayed in a random order, so you do not have to be the first to add your link – just don’t miss the deadline of 8am Pacific time on Saturday 16th June.
A user-friendly guide to understanding negative reinforcement in dog training – and the alternatives.
Photo: Angyalosi Beata /Shutterstock
If you are new to dog training, or want to understand some of the language of dog training, this article is for you. It covers the technical definition of negative reinforcement in dog training, examples of how it is used, what research tells us about negative reinforcement, and alternatives that you can use instead (along with some common mistakes people make, so you know how to get it right).
What is negative reinforcement? Negative reinforcement is one way to train dogs (and other animals).
Negative reinforcement means taking something away that increases or maintains the frequency of a behaviour.
The ‘negative’ part refers to something being removed, and ‘reinforcement’ means the behaviour went up in frequency. (If it instead occurred less often, it wouldn’t be reinforcement).
So what kind of thing can you take away to make a behaviour more likely to happen? Something that is unpleasant and which the dog does not like.
Examples of negative reinforcement in dog training One example of negative reinforcement is when the dog’s bottom is pushed to force the dog into a sit, and then released once the dog is in a sit. Assuming the behaviour of sitting goes up in frequency, the behaviour was negatively reinforced by the removal of the pressure on the dog’s rear end.
Another example of negative reinforcement involves applying an electronic dog training collar until the dog does the behaviour you want – let’s say it’s ‘sit’ again. As soon as the dog sits, the shock is turned off. The thing that is removed is the unpleasant sensation from the shock collar, and the behaviour of ‘sit’ is more likely to happen and hence has been reinforced. (Note that not all electronic collars allow for this type of training. Some models will apply the shock for a fixed time of 11 seconds after the button is pressed; read more about shock collars).
Another example of negative reinforcement is sometimes used when working with a dog that is afraid, e.g. of other dogs. When another dog is close by, the handler waits until the dog offers a particular behaviour (such as looking at the handler) before allowing the dog to move away. Here, the behaviour of looking at the handler after seeing another dog is being reinforced by taking away the scary situation of being too close to another dog.
I’m not suggesting these are good ways to train your dog. In fact we’ll get to some alternatives in a moment.
Research shows risks with negative reinforcement in dog training In order to use negative reinforcement, something aversive has to be applied first so that it can then be removed contingent on the dog doing the behaviour you are teaching.
Let’s say you’re teaching sit. Typically what happens is that whatever behaviour the dog was doing before the sit – let’s say, standing – goes down in frequency and is replaced by the sit. Technically speaking, in this scenario the behaviour of standing is positively punished (read more about positive punishment).
Most of the research on dog training methods has focussed on comparing reward-based methods to aversive methods. For example, in a 2014 study of aggression in dogs, the use of positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement was associated with an increased risk of aggression of 2.9 times for aggression towards family members, and 2.2 times towards unfamiliar people outside of the house (Casey et al 2014). In this study, barking, lunging, growling and biting were all considered to be aggression.
Photo: alexei_tm / Shutterstock
But there is one study that looked specifically at the use of negative reinforcement in dog training (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).
Negative reinforcement was used to teach loose leash walking by tugging on the leash while the dog was at a distance from the owner, and stopping tugging when the dog was close by. Sit was taught by both pulling the leash up and pushing the dog’s bottom down and only releasing when the dog was in the sit position. At the other school, positive reinforcement was used to reward the dog for doing the right behaviour.
The results showed that dogs in the negative reinforcement group:
Rarely looked at their owners when walking on leash, compared to those taught with positive reinforcement. This is unfortunate because trainers want the dog’s attention
Showed more mouth licks and yawns when practicing the ‘sit’ command, and were more likely to have a low body posture, all signs of stress
The study concludes that training dogs with positive reinforcement is better for the human-canine relationship than using negative reinforcement.
As mentioned above, negative reinforcement is sometimes used when the dog is afraid of something. Unfortunately in this case negative reinforcement involves keeping the dog in a situation where they are afraid until they have done the required behaviour. There is a risk of sensitization (making the dog more afraid) or flooding which can cause learned helplessness (in everyday language we might describe this as being “shut down”).
Besides which, it violates the principle that the first priority with a scared dog is to help them feel safe. There is no need to put your dog in a situation where they feel fear in order to train them.
So what are the alternatives to negative reinforcement? There is more than one alternative to negative reinforcement, depending on the situation.
The best alternative to negative reinforcement for obedience behaviours As you can guess from the previous section, one of the alternatives to using negative reinforcement is to train with positive reinforcement instead. This is a great choice for teaching obedience behaviours like sit, lie down, and loose leash walking.
A common mistake is to use something the trainer thinks will be reinforcing but which the dog doesn’t particularly care about, like praise. That’s why I suggest to anyone new to dog training to use food to train their dogs (for more information, read the ultimate dog training tip).
Photo: Nina Buday / Shutterstock
When teaching loose leash walking with positive reinforcement, you may also find it helpful to use a no-pull harness. This is a harness with a clip on the front designed to prevent pulling (note that some harnesses have a clip on the back and are designed to facilitate pulling instead – don’t accidentally get the wrong kind!). A no-pull harness is not harmful and does not compromise dogs’ welfare (Grainger et al 2016). (Some dogs with body handling issues may need a gradual introduction to having the harness put on and lots of yummy treats to help them learn to like it).
Alternatives to negative reinforcement when the dog is afraid But what about when we’re not teaching basic obedience? You may remember one of the examples above relates to using negative reinforcement when the dog is afraid, and the aversive stimulus is the thing the dog is scared of.
If the dog is afraid, then you have two great options: positive reinforcement to teach a different behaviour (which dog trainers call DRI, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour); or counter-conditioning with or without desensitization.
Let’s stick with the example of a dog that is afraid of other dogs. In the negative reinforcement case, the dog was being asked to look at the handler before being allowed to move away from the other dog.
If we use positive reinforcement instead, we would not get close enough to the other dog for our dog to be scared; instead, we would stay at a safe distance (from the dog’s perspective, even if that’s an inconveniently long way away). We could still use the behaviour of looking at the handler; every time the dog sees another dog, you encourage him to look at you and reinforce with some good food.
Over time, the cue could be seeing the other dog so that any time your dog sees another dog, he will look to you for his piece of food. If, every single time he sees another dog, you ask him to look at you and then reinforce that behaviour, what will happen over time is that your dog will begin to learn that seeing another dog is a good thing, and this is actually a classical conditioning side effect.
So now let’s look at the counter-conditioning option. Counter-conditioning is a type of classical conditioning. You would not get close enough to the other dog for your dog to be scared, but would deliberately stay at a safe distance where your dog is happy and comfortable. Every time another dog is in sight, you would give your dog yummy food. He doesn’t have to do anything in order to get the food, just realize that the other dog is there. What you are trying to do is change the association, so that your dog learns other dogs are a good thing because they predict yummy food.
Photo: PH888 / Shutterstock
Even though one of these is operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) and the other is classical conditioning (in this case, counter-conditioning) there are some similarities.
In both cases you’re hoping eventually to change the dog’s feelings about something scary, it's just that one method focuses on this aim while with the other method it's a side-effect.
In both cases it is important to keep your dog at a safe distance where they don’t feel scared, otherwise you risk undermining your training (and perhaps accidentally using negative reinforcement).
And in both cases, your dog will get food (or another great reward such as a quick game of tug). It’s just that in the positive reinforcement option they will have to do something to earn the food, and in counter-conditioning they don't have to do anything; the food happens because another dog appeared.
Some Common Mistakes A common mistake is to push things too fast and to accidentally go ‘over threshold’ – in other words, put the dog in a situation where they are in fact scared. If this happens, move quickly back to a safe distance, and resolve not to let it happen again.
You may also need to brush up on your skills at reading canine body language, which is nothing to be ashamed of as it takes time and experience. We all keep on learning from the dogs we spend time with. See the website iSpeakDog; and there is also a great book called Canine Behaviour: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman. You might also like to read about the role of experience in recognizing fear in dogs.
Another common mistake with the DRI option is to make it too hard. You actually need to make it really easy for your dog because you want them to earn the treat every time so as to start getting a classical conditioning side effect. The behaviour doesn’t have to be 'watch me', it could be 'leave it' or 'sit' or a nose-touch or something else instead. Just make sure to keep it nice and easy (which may include practicing at home first).
Another common mistake is not being ready to give the food fast enough. If you’re using the DRI option, you should feed as soon as the dog has done the behaviour requested. If you’re doing classical conditioning, you should feed as soon as your dog sees the other dog. Either way, you need to have your treats ready, hidden on your person (in a pocket or bait bag), and be paying attention, so you get your timing right.
Whichever approach you are using, use food rewards that your dog really likes, and don’t be stingy, because that would be another mistake.
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Which is the best approach, DRI or classical conditioning? Which of these two techniques works best? We don’t know. Both approaches work! I don’t know of any research which investigated which is the best option in a real-life dog training situation.
With both techniques, it is important to go at the dog’s pace, so the speed of learning is the one that the dog is comfortable with.
With the DRI option, the dog learns a new behaviour and gets a classical conditioning side effect. With the classical conditioning option, often you will find that the dog learns a new behaviour too (called a superstitious behaviour), such as looking at your bait bag after seeing the other dog, because they have learned that seeing the other dog predicts food and that’s where the food will come from.
One reason you might choose desensitization and counter-conditioning over a DRI is when you don't have control over the scary thing, whatever it is. In our example, if other dogs are popping up all over the place (which is a common problem), you might find your DRI keeps being too hard, which means your dog is not able to earn the treats in the presence of all the other dogs, undermining your classical conditioning side-effect. In this case, you could find somewhere else to train where things are a lot more predictable, or just decide to start with counter-conditioning instead.
Another reason you might choose desensitization and counter-conditioning is if your dog is actually very afraid, rather than a mild fear. In this case, it's probably better to concentrate your efforts on gradually developing a positive conditioned emotional response (counter-conditioning).
If your dog is fearful and you are concerned, see your veterinarian in case medication and/or referral to a veterinary behaviourist is advised.
I find that some people seem to have a natural preference for either operant or classical conditioning, so if this applies to you and both approaches seem suitable, then you can let your own preference guide you to the approach you prefer.
Working with a reactive dog can be tricky. If you need some help, check out the web page CARE for reactive dogs, which clearly explains how to use desensitization, counter-conditioning and positive reinforcement when working with a reactive dog. If you have a fearful dog, you might like the website fearfuldogs.com. The associated Facebook group is a friendly place to ask questions about helping your dog.
And if you need help, find a good dog trainer to work with you and your dog. And look out for for some more relevant posts coming here soon.
Further Reading The following books are useful guides to dog training and understanding your dog: It's Me or the Dog by Victoria Stilwell. The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller. Culture Clash and Train Your Dog Like a Pro by Jean Donaldson. The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell. Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. Canine Behaviour: A Photo-Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman. From Fearful to Fear Free by Marty Becker, Lisa Radosta, Mikkel Becker and Wailani Sung, edited by Kim Campbell Thornton.
ReferencesCasey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. J., & Blackwell, E. J. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63. Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(2), 58-65. Grainger, J., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 60-64 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.002
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Research investigates people's preferences for cats with normal, squashed or long head shapes.
A Persian cat. Photo: Ewa Studio/Shutterstock
Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about brachycephalic dogs and the health issues they can have as a result of having a squashed face, which include breathing difficulties and eye issues (read about why people choose brachycephalic dogs).
But what about cats? Some breeds of cat also have squashed faces. A new study by Dr. Mark Farnworth (Nottingham Trent University) et al set out to investigate people’s preferences by asking them to rate photos of different types of cat.
Dr. Farnworth told me in an email,
“There has been quite a change in the companion animal population with more and more consumer desire for extreme conformations. Although these extremes are not yet mainstream (shown by the reduced desirability of cats with skulls that deviate from ‘normal’), people who own the extremes (e.g. Persians or Siamese) show increased preference for cats with similar skull shapes. We could equate this to a form of ‘brand loyalty’
“The problem is that cats with brachycephalia (squashed faces) are also much more likely to have substantial health issues. In this way ‘brand loyalty’ within cat breeds can perpetuate ill-health within large numbers of cats and possibly drive the breeding of even greater extremes. This means that, despite owners unquestionably loving their cats, ultimately the cats pay the health costs of our choices.”
The study asked people to say how much they liked particular cats on a scale from 1 – 10. Some of the cats were brachycephalic, some dolicocephalic, and some mesocephalic. What does this mean?
Brachycephalic means a short, flattened skull and squashed face. Breeds of cat that are brachycephalic are the Exotic Shorthair, British Shorthair, Persian (pictured above), and Scottish Fold.
Brachycephalic breeds are more likely to make noises when they breathe and to suffer from respiratory problems than breeds that are not brachycephalic (Farnworth 2016). They are also more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Brachycephalic cat breeds can also be susceptible to eye problems, neurological issues, and dental issues due to their head shape, all of which can affect quality of life.
Dolicocephalic cats have a relatively long skull. The Abyssinian (pictured below), Siamese, and Sphynx cat breeds are dolicocephalic. At the moment, relatively little is known about the health consequences for cats that have this kind of skull shape.
An Abyssinian cat. Photo: Alla Lla/Shutterstock.
The scientists say that six of the top 10 most popular breeds of cat in the US are either brachycephalic or dolicocephalic.
Mesocephalic basically means a normal skull shape. If you have a moggy, chances are your cat is mesocephalic.
While extreme skull shapes may cause health issues, there's not necessarily an effect on lifespan in cats. The paper says the average non-pedigree cat lives 14 years, Persians for 14.1 years, and Abyssinians for 10 years.
Before the cat photos were used in the questionnaire, a number of vets gave their opinion as to the skull shape of each cat, from brachycephalic through mesocephalic to dolicocephalic, with ratings from extreme to mild.
There were two versions of the questionnaire conducted at slightly different time points. The first version was available in English and translated into Mandarin for cat owners in China. 9 cat photos were used. The second version had an additional set of photos to make 15 in total. As well as the English version it was translated into Spanish for cat owners in Latin America.
The questionnaire also assessed people’s preferences for coat length, eye colour, and coat colour, which in this study was blue/grey, ginger, tabby, or white/pale/point. (No black cats were included).
So what was the most preferred type of cat? In general, people preferred:
Cats with a mesocephalic or mild dolicocephalic skull shape. Brachycephalic cats and cats with moderate or extreme dolicocephaly were the least popular
Cats with a medium or long coat rather than short-haired cats
Cats with green or blue eyes rather than orange or brown eyes
Cats with blue/grey, ginger or tabby coloured coats
People who worked in an animal care field were the least likely to like brachycephalic cats, perhaps because they had some experience of the health issues that can affect these breeds. But this kind of work was not linked to being more or less likely to like the dolicocephalic cats.
People who owned a brachycephalic cat were, not surprisingly, more likely to like this kind of cat. And people who owned a dolicocephalic cat were more likely to like the dolicocephalic cats in the survey.
Small variations either side of the norm (towards brachycephaly or dolicocephaly) were not really preferred. The scientists suggest this may be why people began to breed for bigger variations.
There was a geographical effect too, as people in Asia were more likely to like brachycephalic cats and also dolicocephalic cats.
1239 cat owners completed the survey, of which 92% were female. The researchers tried to recruit some respondents who had a professional involvement in pet care, and almost 19% of participants fell into this category.
64% of the cat owners had a moggy (non-purebred cat).
Although this study relied on a relatively small number of headshots of different types of cats, rather than a larger set (or even videos), it’s a valuable contribution to the literature. It’s important to understand why people are drawn to particular types of cat. Just as with dogs, there are conversations to be had about the breeding of cats and how to take good health into account.
The full paper is open access and includes the photos of the cats, if you want to take a look.
Scientists test the use of a clicker-plus-food versus the use of food only in a positive reinforcement tricks training course for novice dogs, and find both work equally well.
Photo: Corey Terrill / Shutterstock
The study, by Lynna Feng et al (La Trobe University), used a randomized design in which dogs were assigned to one of three groups: a group that was taught with a clicker and food rewards (clicker training), a group that was taught with just food rewards, and a group that was wait-listed for the course to act as a control.
Dog trainers have a range of beliefs about the value of a clicker in dog training. Some trainers say the benefits include more efficient training, more fun, and a better human-animal bond. On the other hand, some trainers say the clicker is awkward for novice dog trainers to learn to use and that clicker training leads to more excitable and impulsive dogs.
The current study builds on prior research by testing pet dogs that took part in a six-week trick training course. All of the tricks were taught with positive reinforcement, using a combination of capturing, luring, and shaping.
The results show no specific benefits or disadvantages to using a clicker in dog training in terms of the dog’s impulsivity and problem-solving skills or the relationship between owner and dog. Essentially, both methods work, and people in both groups found the training fun and also challenging. There was a specific benefit to the clicker-plus-food over food-only for just one of the tricks taught, nose-targeting an object.
I asked Lynna Feng, lead author of the study, what dog owners should know about these results. She told me in an email,
“I think there are a few main points. First, if you find that the clicker training is too difficult, for you or your dog or the two of you together, and you're just looking for a well behaved pet, toss the clicker and just use food.
Second, primarily interesting for those who teach puppy classes or general manners, even when first starting out with clicker training, the extra steps don't seem to discourage most people from training and having fun with their dogs.
Finally, we found initial evidence that clickers helped owners feel that the training was less challenging for one of the more complex tricks.
Although we saw little functional difference between clicker training and just using food rewards in our study training a novice population of dogs and owners, this may not hold true for individuals engaging in training at a competitive or working level.”
There were 15 dogs in each group. The trick training took place at the dog’s own home or at another location suggested by the owner where the dog would feel comfortable. The first session included an introduction to reward-based training. After that, the trainer began to teach the dog a trick, before teaching the owner how to teach it, and setting homework.
Every subsequent session began with a review of the previous week’s trick, followed by the introduction of a new trick. The tricks were nose targeting a hand, nose targeting an object, spin, chin target on the ground, play dead, and stay on a mat. The course lasted 6 weeks, which is a typical length for a dog training class.
Before and after the training, all three groups (including the control) took part in a battery of tests at the university. After the second test, the dogs who had been wait-listed were given the 6-week course so they did not miss out on learning the tricks. After that, all three groups of dogs came back to the university for a third and final set of tests.
The tests included measures of the dog-owner relationship, the dog’s impulsivity, the owner’s training technique and teamwork between human and dog. As well, questionnaires completed by owners after every training session assessed how they found the experience.
At the start of the tests, the owners completed a version of the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale and a dog impulsivity questionnaire, then did a reaction time test, while the dog had time to wander round and get used to the room. Then the owner helped the dog do an obstacle course that included a stay on a platform, weaving between cones, jumping through a hoop, and walking along a plank. Finally, the dog did two problem-solving tasks that measure impulsivity.
The tests were conducted and assessed by experimenters who were blind to the condition the dog was in.
In the lab and in all training sessions, food was used as a reward. Owners were asked to have food rewards the dog would like, but the scientists were also prepared with a mix of treats including pieces of chicken, cheese, and hot dog, to ensure the dog would get a food reward they liked.
Perhaps surprisingly, there were no differences between any of the three groups on changes in the tests between the first and second visits to the lab. There were improvements in the dog’s abilities to do the tricks that were taught, and this was maintained (but not improved) six weeks after the course ended. There were no improvements in other tasks as compared to the control group (e.g. shake paw, loose leash walking), suggesting owners were not applying the skills they learned to other areas of the dog’s life.
There were no differences between the clicker-plus-food and the food-only group in terms of the relationship between owner and dog, the owner’s technical training abilities, how well the dog-owner team did on the obstacle course, or measures of the dog’s impulsivity or results of the problem-solving task.
People in both training groups rated the training as fun, and as challenging. As well, there were no differences in the amount of practice people did. In fact, about a third of the participants in the clicker-plus-food and food-only groups practiced 5 times in between sessions. This shows both groups of participants had a strong commitment to the training. However, they did not tend to do other kinds of training in between sessions.
These results confirm that reward-based training in which food is the reward is fun for the owner, and owners also perceive it as fun for their dog. For the tasks used in this study, clicker training works - and so does positive reinforcement training without a clicker.
This is a well-designed and thorough study on a topic that will be of interest to many dog trainers and owners. Although the results may not apply to training at higher levels (e.g. competition), they suggest that for novice dogs (and trainers), a clicker does not have the advantages or disadvantages that are sometimes claimed. Essentially, whether you use it or not is your choice.
Further research can investigate the use of a clicker versus verbal marker for those kinds of training tasks where a marker is expected to be particularly beneficial.
You can follow the first author of the research, Lynna Feng, on Twitter.
"Straight from the experts comes the Fear Free™ program, a positive-reinforcement plan with proven results in helping fearful, anxious, and stressed dogs. From the knowledge and experience of 'America's veterinarian' - Dr. Marty Becker - and an esteemed group of pioneers in veterinary medicine and behavior, From Fearful to Fear Free™ addresses fear, anxiety, and stress, issues that dog owners frequently encounter but seldom understand. Filled with anecdotes from their own practices, detailed techniques, and helpful resources, this information-filled volume can be a lifesaver for concerned owners and their fearful dogs."
Will you be reading it too? Leave your thoughts on the book in the comments.
Why does it matter? Because giving pets a choice can help them to feel in control and less stressed, which is good for their welfare. And there’s the added benefit of making them less likely to bite or scratch us, because we are not forcing them into a situation where we do things they don’t like.
Does your dog or cat want to be petted?
For many of us, one of the things we love about our companion animals is the fact we can pet them.
It’s relaxing to sit and stroke a cat or dog. But do they always enjoy it?
One way to find out is to see if your dog or cat will come to you to be petted. Put your hand down and see if they come over. You can also call them if you like.
It may help if you get down to their level, especially with a dog or cat that is fearful. And don't stare at them, because that may be perceived as threatening. You can even turn sideways and take care not to look directly at them.
If your cat comes over, sniffs your hand, and then walks away again, unfortunately they do not want to be petted at this time. But if they rub their head or even their whole body on you, it probably means they would like to be petted, so you can begin to stroke them with your hand. (Why do they rub their head on you? They are depositing pheromones, which are an important communication signal for cats. Read more on what your cat’s nose knows).
Similarly, if your dog has a sniff of your hand and then walks away, they don’t want to be petted either. But if they hang around, and even nuzzle or nudge your hand, you can begin to stroke them.
Where to pet cats and dogs
Animals have preferences about where they prefer to be petted.
Cats generally prefer to be petted on the face near to the scent glands. Cats have scent glands on the chin and cheek, between the eyes and ears where there is less fur, and around the lips. They may also like to be petted under the chin. Cats generally don’t like to be petted near the tail. (For more information, see where do cats like to be stroked).
If you’ve made the mistake of trying to pet a cat on the tummy, you will probably have learned the hard way that when they stretch out and show their tummy, they are not asking you to pet it.
Although every cat is different, the majority of cats do not like to be petted on the belly, especially by someone they don’t know.
Dogs also have preferences about where to be petted. Generally, they prefer to be petted on the side of the chest or on the shoulders, or at the top of the chest under the chin, but aren’t so keen when people reach to pet them on the top of the head. Try not to lean over their head when petting them. They also typically don't like to be petted or held on the muzzle, or have the collar held. We know this from a study that looked at dogs’ body language when petted by people who were either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog.
And sometimes dogs are not asking you to pet their belly when they roll over and show it to you, either. Again, every dog is different so pay attention to the one you’ve got in front of you to see what they want.
With both dogs and cats, stroke them in the direction of the fur, not against it.
Once you’ve already initiated petting you can do a consent test. Simply stop petting and see what happens. If the dog or cat gets up and wanders away, you have to assume they’ve had enough.
On the other hand, if they paw at you or nuzzle you for more it’s a good sign they would like you to pet them more.
If they lean on you, that’s another sign they were enjoying the petting and would like you to resume. In that case, go ahead and keep petting.
Pay attention to body language when petting your cat or dog
Another way to check if your pet is enjoying being stroked is to pay attention to their body language.
With both dogs and cats, if they are leaning in to the petting it’s a good sign they are enjoying it.
Cats will often purr while you pet them. One of the lovely things about living with a cat is getting to hear the soft rumble of a happy cat purring away.
Another sign that your cat is enjoying the petting is if they close or half-close their eyes.
Photo: AnastasiaNess / Shutterstock
But keep an eye on the tail, because if it starts to twitch it may be a sign they are getting over-excited or finding the petting too much, and you should stop. Other signs to look for include dilated pupils, twitching skin, pushing your hand away with a paw, getting the claws out or trying to scratch you, or looking at your hand and fixating on it.
With dogs, look for a relaxed, happy open mouth and a nice loose tail wag. They might be leaning in to the petting, or move their body to put the part they want stroking nearer to you.
Signs the dog is not enjoying it include panting, looking away, licking the nose or lips, yawning, sniffing the ground, freezing, and of course a growl. Also keep an eye on the tail – if it is low or even tucked, they are not very happy – and if they are leaning away from you.
If you notice any of these signs, stop petting them. (And don’t punish them if they growl – this is their way of letting you know they are unhappy and it’s an important warning).
Keep the intensity low
Most pets would prefer petting sessions to be low intensity.
“Sadly the social behaviour of cats, and especially their interactions with people, is very misunderstood. Most cats typically want high frequency but lower intensity interactions whereas many people want fewer interactions but for a longer period of time. This mismatch can lead to defensive aggression in cats with some being labelled as grumpy or spiteful. Having more realistic expectations around the interactions which cats appreciate; frequent but short, will avoid unnecessary stress, fear and worry and will help strengthen the bond between cat and owner.”
So it’s best to pet your cat often but only for a short time each time.
Dogs also prefer lower-intensity interactions. For example, most dogs and cats prefer not to be hugged. A hug is quite intense and it’s hard to move away from. So don’t envelope your dog in your arms; make sure they still have the freedom to move away.
Kisses are also quite intense (and often involve holding the dog or cat tightly) and are also best avoided.
Dogs generally prefer to be next to you rather than embraced by you. And some cats will prefer to sit beside you on the settee, rather than on your lap. That's okay – it's up to them.
Can children pet pets?
Take special care when children are petting dogs and cats. Young children are still learning motor control and may accidentally be too rough. Children also tend to like quite intense interactions (like hugs) which cats and dogs will not appreciate.
Interactions between children and pets should always be closely supervised. With very small children, you should guide their hand to help them learn to be gentle.
Instead, help your child call the dog to them, and teach them that if the dog does not come, they have that choice and should be left alone. And if they do come, you have to be ready to intervene if needed.
Unfortunately many people make the mistake of thinking a dog is relaxed in an interaction with a child when this is not the case. People are also more likely to let their guard down when a dog is familiar. Remember to supervise carefully and be ready to intervene; if this is not the case, you can use pet gates to keep a dog and child separate, but they can still be in visual contact with each other.
If it's not your pet If it's not your dog or cat, then you should ask the owner if it is okay to stroke the animal. They will let you know if their pet likes this kind of interaction with strangers.
Just as with your own pet, try to ensure they have the opportunity to move away if they wish.
And never try to pet a dog that is on a chain or behind a fence.
Remember that every dog and cat is an individual. They will have their own preferences about where and how they like to be stroked. And some are more tolerant than others.
Maybe some of you are even thinking, ‘but my cat likes to be rubbed on the tummy’ or ‘but my dog loves hugs.’ Maybe they do!
But remember to pay close attention to your dog or cat’s body language. Don’t assume they will like something. Look out for signs of stress or contentment and let that guide you as to what they like.
And any time you are not sure, do a consent test: stop petting and wait for them to let you know if they want more or not.
This will help you to have a better relationship with your dog or cat.
The relationship with the person is also a factor in what each animal likes. Just as most of us wouldn’t like a complete stranger coming up and giving us a bear hug but we might not mind if it was our best friend, dogs and cats have preferences too.
I’ve written before about the importance of paying attention to our dogs and cats. Learning to read a dog or cat’s body language comes with experience and it pays dividends in improving our interactions with animals.
How to pet cats and dogs
So remember, give your cat or dog a choice, aim for a low intensity interaction, stroke them in the places they like best, and keep an eye on their body language throughout.