Many of you probably watched the Channel 4 documentary – Dogs: Their Secret Lives – last Tuesday. How many of you, like me, were not actually very surprised at the large number of dogs in the study that were found to be less than totally comfortable with being ‘home alone’ day after day?
After all, unlike cats, dogs are social animals and would rarely be found living alone naturally. Also, unlike cats, dogs do not normally spend at least 16 out of every 24 hours sleeping so, for us to expect our dogs to sleep all night while we do, and then to sleep all day while we go out to work, is a little unrealistic!
There was some great advice on how to prevent and/or help dogs overcome separation anxiety, but I was amazed nothing was said about how much exercise these dogs were – or were not – getting before they were left alone. After all, a tired dog is much more likely to settle down to rest than one which is so full of pent up energy that he’s already bouncing off the walls before the owners are even out the door!
If the majority of the dogs in this study were only being left for 3-4 hours per day, I suspect they are actually among the luckier ones. I am pretty sure that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs that are regularly left for 8 or more hours day after day, often with little more than a quick run down the garden or walk round the block before they are left. No wonder so many of our dogs are going stir crazy!
Finally, what do people feel about the idea of selectively breeding dogs that are better able to cope with being left for hours? On the face of it, that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, no one likes to think of their poor dog pacing and howling for hours on end so, if anything can be done to breed dogs that are less anxious generally, that has to be a good thing, right? Then I got to thinking that surely one of the things we love about our dogs is how much they seem to love being with us too? Is it possible that, if we were to deliberately breed for dogs that didn’t mind being left alone, we might actually eventually lose part of what makes a dog a dog? After all, if you want a pet that really doesn’t mind whether you have to go out to work all day or not, you can always get a cat!
Autism in humans is recognised as a developmental disability that normally becomes apparent during the first two years of a child’s life and affects how that child communicates with, and relates to, other people, as well as how he/she makes sense of the world.
Although those with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some are able to live relatively independent lives while others may have accompanying learning disabilities as well as experiencing over or under-sensitivity to sound, touch, taste, smell, light and colours. The cause or causes of autism are still open to debate, with both genetic and environmental factors suspected of contributing.
The question as to whether or not dogs can suffer from autism has still to be fully answered. While it is not thought that a dog can become autistic, some do suspect a puppy whose parent(s) have been exposed to various toxins, including excess vaccines, could be born with the condition.
The main symptoms of canine autism might include:
- Dysfunctional interaction with other dogs and/or humans.
- Restricted behaviour including avoiding new activities.
- Repetitive actions. Dogs with autism may prefer to stick to a routine.
- Apathy and lack of activity even if the breed is a high energy dog.
- Bizarre ‘organising’ of toys and objects according to size or colour etc.
Typically, symptoms of autism would be present from early puppyhood and the puppy may not interact properly with the rest of his siblings or parents. A puppy suffering from autism may also show lack of interest in food and/or games.
If you suspect that your dog may be autistic you should discuss his condition with your vet in order to rule out any other possible causes for his behaviour. It will be important to try and keep to a routine as any changes are likely to create additional stress. Even simple things like moving furniture around in your home or taking a different route on a walk may trigger insecurity or panic. You should also ensure your dog has his own quiet place – eg a crate – where he can feel comfortable and safe at all times and make sure everyone around him gives him the space he needs, as well as avoiding direct eye contact if that upsets him.
Positive reinforcement is a good thing and all punishment is wrong, right? Eh, well no, positive punishment is out, but negative punishment is OK. In fact, negative punishment goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement, but not with negative reinforcement. Confused? Who isn’t?
Many years ago when I trained as a teacher I remember being taught that all these terms are part of what is known as operant conditioning, which is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments and is nothing new. In fact operant conditioning was first described in the 1950′s by a psychologist called B.F. Skinner.
So what is all the hype about? Well, in simple terms, positive means to add something and negative means to take something away. So, for example:
- Giving a dog praise, food, or even a game, for doing something we want is positive reinforcement.
- Using a deterrent such as a leash pop or a verbal command eg ‘no’ when a dog does something we don’t want is positive punishment.
- Turning our back and ignoring a dog that is jumping up is negative punishment because we are taking away our attention/affection until he stops the unwanted behaviour.
- Removing something the dog doesn’t like once he complies with your request is negative reinforcement. For example, using physical manipulation to make a dog sit by putting pressure on his rear end, which is removed as soon as he does so.
Actually, I think it’s a pity these expressions have become so commonplace in the dog training world because, apart from totally confusing some people, they also serve to fuel endless debates between opposing camps and methodologies, with one side seen as too soft and bribing their dogs with treats (the so-called PR+ group) and the other seen as over-punitive or even cruel (the so-called pack leader group).
It’s not like we really need to know these terms either is it? After all, before we buy our kids a treat for doing well on a test, or nag them until they tidy their bedrooms, we don’t have to stop and think if we are using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, do we? In theory, we’d probably all say we prefer rewards to punishments but, in practice, most of us have probably used all these techniques at one time or another, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, so far as our dogs are concerned, any action on our part – positive or negative – also needs to be immediate. A child might understand he’s getting an ice cream because he scored 10 out of 10 on a spelling test last week, but a dog will not associate a new toy with the fact he came back when he was called in the park yesterday or that he’s been shut out in the garden as a punishment for chewing up your best shoe while you were shopping!
Currently, schools tend to focus almost exclusively on positive reinforcement so, if a child is misbehaving, the other children will be rewarded with praise, gold stars etc in the hope the ‘naughty’ child will want to receive those positive things too and therefore ‘fall into line’. I know some teachers who worry that this just encourages a ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude and who would prefer a more balanced approach. All in all, I find I have to agree with them. Too much of anything is usually a mistake and a balanced, well-adjusted child, or dog, is more likely to result from a calm and balanced approach. At times, we all have to do things that we don’t want to, just because ‘those are the rules’. Why should this be any different for our kids, or our dogs?
We read and hear quite a lot about fearful dogs and how best to deal with them, but not so much about cats. However, cats can become fearful too, often for many of the same reasons as our canine friends. It is important that owners not only know how to recognise fear in cats, but also understand how to deal with it so as not to make things worse.
If a cat feels scared of or threatened by something or someone, he will either run away, freeze or, sometimes, attack whatever it is that is scaring him. Often, he may try one option and then, if that doesn’t resolve the issue, move on to another. For example, if a cat meets a strange dog his first response may be to arch his back and puff out his fur to make himself look big and fearful. He may also hiss and spit at the dog. However, if the dog doesn’t take the hint, the cat may then choose to run away and hide until the threat has gone.
Of course, it’s normal for a cat to feel insecure or frightened in a new environment, for example, so a cat moving to a new home will often skulk around on stiff legs with his stomach close to the floor as he explores the new area. He may also find a ‘bolt hole’ where he will hide away for a while too. Sometimes a traumatic experience like a visit to the vet, or a new person or animal joining the household, will also trigger the desire to hide away for a while to take stock.
If you cat has gone into hiding, initially it’s often best to leave him to it rather than trying to force him out. Just make sure he has easy access to food, water and a litter tray and try to keep the routines in the house as normal as possible. However, if the situation doesn’t resolve itself within a few days, it may be time to take further action. Not only is it upsetting to have your cat hiding away in the back of the closet, he may eventually actually become physically ill as a result of the constant anxiety and stress he is experiencing. For instance, stress can aggravate bladder inflammation (cystitis) in some cats.
If you know what it is that is frightening your cat, try to work out how near or far away he has to be from whatever it is to feel safe. If possible, gradually, offer the cat treats and praise while moving the stimulus slightly closer until his fear subsides. You must work at his pace and never force him into a situation where his fear is increased. Never get angry or punish your cat for fearful behaviour either. Not only is this unlikely to help him to overcome his fear, it is also quite possible that he will just become fearful of you as well.
If your cat is acting aggressively towards you or whatever is frightening him, you may need to confine him to an area of the house where all interactions can be kept to a minimum and are supervised by a responsible adult. You may also need to get help from a professional animal behaviour specialist if he becomes too panicked and/or aggressive to control. See our list of Trainers & Behaviourists in Berkshire Local. Those marked with an asterisk deal with cats as well as dogs.
Finally, if you cat is exhibiting extreme fear or anxiety about something, especially if it is not immediately apparent what it is that is upsetting him, it is wise to take him for a check up by a vet to rule out any medical condition that could be causing his discomfort.
Did any of you see the recent Horizon programme in which 50 cats from a village in Surrey were tagged with GPS collars and then monitored, day and night, while they hunted in their backyards and patrolled the fences and hedgerows of their home village?
It was really amazing the way the cats were repeatedly found to be prowling around certain areas over and over as if on guard duty. However, for me, the most fascinating part was the mechanisms the cats had seemingly put in place for timesharing their space to avoid conflicts, and the almost universal agreement for tolerating some food sharing in each other’s houses!
The whole experiment really made me think too because, it’s one thing knowing our cats have a secret life away from the cuddles, kisses and kitten-like games at home with us, but quite another to actually see it. It’s a really good reminder that, no matter how much we pamper and fuss our fluffy ‘babies’, an adult cat is a complex, competent and independent animal in its own right – with its own intricate way of life and social structure that is totally alien to us.
This issue was even more apparent in the Little cat Diaries follow up episode which took a closer look at a few of the cats who had stood out in the Horizon documentary:Horizon Little Cat Diaries
Particularly interesting was the experiment with toddlers, dogs and cats, where toddler and dog showed dependence on and the need for the comforting presence of a parent/owner but the cats did not. It would be interesting to see this experiment repeated with cats that are never allowed outside to find out if this makes them more dependent on their human owners.
The reason I suggest this is because, I have to say, having watched these programmes, I do now find myself again asking the question, is it really fair to keep cats permanently shut indoors, forever cut off from this ‘secret’ life? Let us know what you think.
By a JRT!
During a recent Sunday morning stroll through Swinley Forest, Kodi and I stopped off for him to swim in the little lake. Several other dogs were also enjoying an early morning dip, which resulted in a short spell of excited chasing and splashing.
Gradually, some of the others left, until it was just Kodi and a bouncy Jack Russell. His owner had also walked off and disappeared down a nearby path, but the little dog decided to remain behind, barking excitedly from the bank while Kodi swam out to retrieve his tennis ball. Kodi brought the ball back two or three times for me to throw again, while the JRT ran up and down the bank, barking, and I urged him to follow after his owner before he became lost. Finally, seeing that his barking was not getting Kodi’s attention, the little Terrier jumped in and swam out to join him. Kodi grabbed the tennis ball and the two of them paddled, side by side, back to shore.
As Kodi stood up near the edge of the lake, with the water streaming down his body, the little Jack Russell swam determinedly under his tummy and between his front legs. Kodi opened his mouth and dropped the tennis ball and, quick as a flash, the little Terrier grabbed it and shot out of the water, up the bank and off after his owner! It all happened so fast that I don’t think Kodi even saw what happened. When I looked back, he was casting around in the water, searching in vain for the missing tennis ball, and definitely looking a little bemused! Bol!