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Why Science Matters to Our Pets

Science — and science writing — can help animal welfare in important ways.

By Zazie Todd


Barack Obama greets his dog Bo outside the Oval Office of the White House on March 15, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

We wish our companion animals to lead a charmed life and always be happy. We want our dogs and cats to have a wonderful relationship with us. But we can’t achieve this if we don’t know what they need and how we should interact with them.

Last year, some readers took part in a survey of who reads science blogs. The preliminary results are out, and they have me thinking about why science — and science blogging — matters for our companion animals.

One of the findings of Dr. Paige Jarreau’s study is that, in general (and regardless of level of education, gender, age, and consumption of other online science information), people who consistently read science blogs were better able to answer the knowledge questions about science that were included in the survey.

“This finding is a promising indicator that science blogs may be promoting greater scientific knowledge or science literacy — at least for some readers,” Jarreau writes.

I find this encouraging because there are many ways in which science (and social science) can improve animal welfare and our relationship with our companion animals.

Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs.

In order to help our animals be happy, we need to understand their needs — and also how well their guardians understand those needs. Cats, for example, benefit from environmental enrichment. But although guardians are good at providing some of these (playtime, feline-friendly spaces like windows, and scratching posts), they miss other important aspects such as providing water separately from their food bowl, using scents, and — a surprising omission, since it’s easy to fix — the use of food toys that make the cat work for their food. Discovering gaps in people’s knowledge and communicating easy ways to make things better is one thing science blogs can do well. (If you’re a dog person, there are some tips on canine enrichment too).

Another example of how science matters comes from dog training. Because dog training is unlicensed, sometimes all the education a dog trainer has (apart from high school) is that they grew up with dogs. We wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids; we would expect them to get a qualification and experience. This lack of education partly explains the fact some people still use outdated, antiquated training based on the metaphor of wolf packs applied to dogs. There are also many wonderful dog trainers with education and expertise; people need to choose carefully so as to get the right kind.

The problem is that using aversive dog training techniques has risks, and positive reinforcement is a better choice. Dogs trained using negative reinforcement (teaching them how to sit by pulling the leash and pushing the dog’s bottom down, only stopping when the dog sits, for example) gaze less at their owner and are more likely to show signs of stress. Dogs taught recall using electronic shock collars show signs of stress and don’t perform any better than those taught with positive reinforcement. A higher frequency of punishment correlates with higher aggression and excitability. For dogs with behavior problems, the use of aversive techniques can sometimes lead to aggression, while rewards-based training has a positive effect. People who use only positive reinforcement report better trained dogs. Plus, dogs like to work for rewards.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that using aversive methods can have unwanted consequences. We’ve known for some time that it’s not a good idea to use physical punishment with children. Earlier this year, a new study looking at 50 years of research found spanking children is linked to many detrimental outcomes. “The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children,” professor Andrew Grogan-Kaylor told UT News. “Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

Dogs are not children, and the scientific literature on dogs and training methods is nowhere near as vast or sophisticated as that on children and parenting strategies, but there are some parallels.

One thing we know about people’s knowledge of dog training is that it often comes from themselves. Hopefully science blogging can help to increase awareness, as people read and share articles that promote positive reinforcement in dog training. Here, the bad news from Jarreau’s study is that many readers of science blogs do not share the articles they read. If we want people to pay attention to science-based dog training, we need to share information about it.

Another way science can help companion animals relates to work that shows how much pets can mean to people. Research shows, for example, that homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without but that having a pet on the street brings disadvantages, too, such as the problem of finding a shelter that will take pets. Knowing about the importance of pets and the difficulties their homeless owners face can lead to policy decisions that will ultimately help both pet and human.

The main reasons people gave for reading science blogs were “because it stimulates my curiosity,” “as an educational tool,” and “for information I don’t find in traditional news media.” Jarreau also writes that “there appears to be a small but avid cluster of science blog readers who read blogs to feel involved in an online community.”