Archive for July, 2009

What Comes Around

Goes around…


Audie greets Lucy under Clover’s watchful eye.


Are you lookin’ at me?


Later that day – Clover spots an opportunity…


To strike – and defend his Lucy’s honor


Hey – that hurt!

July 23, 2009 at 7:49 pm 2 comments

Feed the Need


Understanding the psychology underlying our pet feeding habits may help us stem the epidemic of pet obesity in America today.

Studies suggest that pets given unrestricted access to nutritionally complete diets will often self-regulate their food intake to maintain a healthy weight. So… if cats and dogs have an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake at healthy levels, why is there an epidemic of pet obesity?

A recent study proposes that in some cases our pets may manipulate us to control the type and quantity of food we offer them. A comment by David Hemming from Hand Picked And Carefully Sorted on this post pointed me to an article by Day, Kergoat and Kotrschal about some interesting factors that affect what we feed our pets. Day et al.’s thesis is unique in that it doesn’t consider our pets’ feeding habits as the result of a simple one-way process. They propose that our pets have the ability to manipulate what, when and how much we feed them.  Like most parts of social relationships – the way pets and pet owners relate to food and feeding rituals isn’t simple. 

The objective of this paper is to review information that may provide a better understanding how owners are influenced by the feeding behaviour of their pets. The thesis of our review is that pets are able to influence both the type and quantity of food offered to them by their owners and that their degree of success will be determined by their owner’s personality and attitudes

It has been demonstrated that strong parallels exist in both animal–animal and infant–human dyads that offer insights into the social control of food intake in the pet–human dyad. In particular, it seems that begging behaviour and finicky eating habits may be powerful tools that pets could use to control ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they are fed. This has been described as a push–pull relationship where the personality of both the neonate and caregiver may exert an influence.

Push-Pull theory relates to a sort of relational inertia. Many problems in our relationships don’t start because we become attracted to new circumstances, they arise because we feel we are being pushed out of a comfortable, familiar situation.  Change is stressful, and when we perceive a potential threat to the status quo, we become insecure and needy. Our needy behavior can then push our partner out of their comfort zone and trigger a cascade of dysfunctional push-pull dynamics in the relationship.

In social alticial species, feeding rituals help establish and maintain social bonds. So when your grandmother urges you to have seconds (or thirds) you stuff yourself, even when you don’t want to.  We give food to those we care about as a show of affection. We accept food offered to acknowledge bonds shared with friends and family.  And while food itself doesn’t create social bonds – it’s an important part of the cement that holds many of them together. A bit of cement that can become unglued when push-pull dynamics arise.

I don’t find it surprising that some dogs elicit their owners’ over-feeding, I want to know why they do it?  Day et al. note in passing that push-pull relationships “may exert an influence” on our pets’ feeding and begging behavior. I suspect that for most obese pets (and their owners) push-pull dynamics are the root of the problem. Dysfunctional relationships feed this unhealthy behavior.

While some pets may be masters of manipulation, we humans certainly can’t lay all – or even most  – of the blame for the obesity epidemic on them. After all, we control the keys to the food cabinet and we’re supposed to be the ones with the big brains. Can we learn to engage those brains before we dispense food on cue?

July 22, 2009 at 5:27 am 4 comments

Because Sometimes…

A dog’s just gotta do what he’s gotta do


From British Pathe. Click for video.

Note that this farm collie, filmed in 1946, looks (and works) more like an English Shepherd than a modern show collie.

July 20, 2009 at 9:20 pm 2 comments

Nobody Argues With Leo

Because when sixteen stone (224 pounds) of dog wants something – he gets it!


Click picture for video.

From British Pathe via our friends at PetConnection

July 20, 2009 at 1:09 am Leave a comment

Brilliant use of Indirect Pressure

This week Newsweek reported on activist Bill Smith’s campaign to end the suffering of dogs kept in squalid conditions by high volume breeders in Pennsylvania.  Smith noticed that some of the farms that produce large numbers of dogs also produce organic dairy products.  And he recognized that affluent consumers would be horrified to discover that their organic milk and yogurt were produced at the same places that kept dogs in terrible conditions.

Smith found that one mill—B&R Puppies, which had been cited by authorities as recently as a year ago for housing dogs in squalid cages and failing to vaccinate them—was also supplying milk to Horizon Organics. Horizon is a major presence in markets like Whole Foods, where animal welfare is paramount.

This is where Newsweek reporter Suzanne Smalley got involved.  Smalley contacted Horizon and Whole Foods and told them that she would be publishing a piece revealing that their organic milk came from a farmer who had been cited for mistreating dogs.

Smith demanded that Whole Foods send several hundred vendors a letter warning of repercussions for inhumane dog breeding. In mid-May, the grocery chain issued a stern request that ven-dors “not supply any products to our stores that have been sourced from farmers…who breed or raise dogs inhumanely.” Smith says the Whole Foods letter was a “huge step” forward because “consumers have always had the power to close these facilities.”

Horizon sent an inspector to B&R the next day and found dogs living in filth. The company suspended the farmer, John Stoltzfus, who has since dismantled his dog-breeding operation, according to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture records. That allowed him to resume supplying Horizon, which he began doing earlier this month.

I applaud the efforts of Smith, Smalley and the folks at Whole Foods.  This sounds like a win-win-win-win-win situation but… I’d like to know what happened to Stolzfus’ dogs.  Were they shot or drowned like barn rats euthanized?  Sold to another high volume breeder rehomed?  Or just dumped by the roadside set free?  The New Jersey Companion Animal Protection Society’s website notes that late last week farm owner John Stoltzfus told NEWSWEEK he’d already found new homes for the dogs, but no details are provided.

Stoltzfus’ dogs deserve a chance at a better life and I really hope they find their way to loving homes.

July 16, 2009 at 2:04 am 5 comments

Vague Scientist

“Ever tried to impress your friends with half remembered science stuff you’ve read in the newspaper? In Vague Scientist you’ll all the latest developments handily explained in the confused, conversational way in which you’ll inevitably end up regurgitating them down the pub.”


Now we know where main stream media hacks get their science fix!

From Coelacanth Diaires – click for big.  Be sure to click the link and scroll down – there’s some great stuff there.

July 16, 2009 at 1:24 am 2 comments

Cats as Masters of Negative Reinforcement

I’m not a cat person. I’ve owned several cats — and even liked a few of them, but for the most part cats just strike me as terribly annoying creatures. Now research from the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research validates my suspicion. ScienceBlog reports:

The rather crafty felines motivate people to fill their food dishes by sending something of a mixed signal: an urgent cry or meowing sound embedded within an otherwise pleasant purr. The result is a call that humans generally find annoyingly difficult to ignore.

“The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response,” said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. “Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom.” She suggests that this form of cat communication sends a subliminal sort of message, tapping into an inherent sensitivity that humans and other mammals have to cues relevant in the context of nurturing their offspring.

In a nutshell McComb is saying that cats employ a calculating form of negative reinforcement to train humans. They repeat an annoying sound that we find it difficult to ignore until we feed them, pet them, let them in/out or otherwise bend to their will.  This represents a classic – and highly effective – form of negative reinforcement training.

Negative reinforcement is a tool vilified – and misunderstood – by many dog trainers. According to Negative Reinforcement University:

The concept of Negative Reinforcement is difficult to teach and learn because of the word negative. Negative Reinforcement is often confused with Punishment. They are very different, however.

Negative Reinforcement strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior.

Punishment, on the other hand, weakens a behavior because a negative condition is introduced or experienced as a consequence of the behavior.

Animals have an innate understaing of negative reinforcement. They use it with each other all the time to establish and protect territory, maintain individual space, protect food resources and to teach their young.  Negative reinforcement teaches your dog to lay in the shade instead of the sun on a hot day. And if you’re luck, it’s the tool your puppy’s mother and littermates used to teach him bite inhibition. Animals are masters in the subtle, effective use of negative reinforcement – and cats are obviously no exception.

“We found that the crucial factor determining the urgency and pleasantness ratings that purrs received was an unusual high-frequency element — reminiscent of a cry or meow — embedded within the naturally low-pitched purr,” McComb said. “Human participants in our experiments judged purrs with high levels of this element to be particularly urgent and unpleasant.” When the team re-synthesised the recorded purrs to remove the embedded cry, leaving all else unchanged, the urgency ratings for those calls decreased significantly.

The key to cats’ success in training humans is their ability to combine high and low frequency tones together in a way that annoys us just enough to want to make it go away – but not quite to much that we want to make them go away.

July 14, 2009 at 7:14 pm 4 comments

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