August 02, 2016

Companion Animal Symposium summary


By: Lucy Schroeder, ASAS Communications Intern

August 4, 2016 – Over 7 million dogs and cats in the United States are relinquished to shelters every year. Many owners cite poor behavior as a reason for relinquishing their pet, however many issues are fixable by training and education. The speakers at the Joint Annual Meeting Companion Animal Symposium: Behavior and the Human-Animal Bond seek to reduce the number of pets relinquished to shelters through developing a deeper understanding of the animals’ behavior and psychology. The speaker line up included Dr. Bill Milgram (CanCog Technologies), Dr. Ragen McGowan (Nestle Purina Research), Dr. Candace Croney (Purdue University), and Dr. Cheryl Morris (Iowa State University).

Dr. Milgram’s research is focused on assessing the cognitive abilities of companion animals—specifically dogs. He and his team developed a set of tests to study the different domains of cognition in dogs. They devised a test for object discrimination, in which one of two objects are associated with reward, reversal learning in which the reward object was changed, an egocentric learning task, in which the dogs had to locate the object with reward in relation to its relative position to their body, and a working memory task in which the dogs had to remember the location of an object initially presented to them, then respond to it in a new position after a delay. Dr. Milgram’s team found that older dogs made more errors than younger dogs.

Dr. McGowan is focused on finding scientific ways to evaluate the happiness of dogs and connecting what a pet is communicating with what is happening inside their bodies. Dr. McGowan and her team found that a dogs underlying mood may affect how they react to certain stimuli. She also found that dogs go through a mood cycle when receiving treats, and are more likely to react to a treat stimulus if they have not just eaten. Dr. McGowan also tested dogs’ emotional response to problem solving. She found that dogs experience happiness from being able to successfully learn something. Dr. McGowan and her team also studied dogs in different situations that could cause anxiety and measured cardiac activity, tympanic temperature, thermal imaging, and salivary cortisol along with monitoring their behavior. She found that the more variability in the heart rate was correlated with a positive emotional state.

Dr. Croney researches the welfare of companion animals, specifically to ensure the behavioral well-being of animals and reduce nuisance behaviors. She has established a set of field-ready metrics that can be easily used by veterinarians and other animal welfare workers. To establish this, she studied cats in simulated “shelter” conditions and observed their behavior in the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. She found that she could place the coping behavior of each cat in three different categories—bold, shy, and intermediate. Additionally, Dr. Croney examined the well-being of breeder dogs in various Amish breeding facilities around Indiana. While most dogs were physically healthy, they had varied behavior responses to being approached. Dr. Croney established metrics for response to approach. A red category indicates fight or flight behavior, yellow indicates ambivalent behavior, and green indicates affiliative. She believes these metrics could help improve adoptability for companion animals.

Dr. Morris spoke about the importance of animal training in various settings. She contends that animal training is a key discipline that is missing from animal science. In companion animals, training is important as it reduces behavior problems that lead to relinquished pets and strengthens the owner attachment to their pet. However, not enough owners have a basic understanding of how to train their pets. Furthermore, training is especially critical in zoos. Dr. Morris contends that contemporary zoo keepers must also be presenters, which means that they need to have a solid background in animal training and learning. By training the zoo animals, management of the animal can be improved by reducing handling stress and allowing the trainer to do basic medical and health procedures. While training is important for both companion and zoo animals, it is important to remember that zoo animals are much less domestic and therefore the training should be approached differently. Dr. Morris believes that consistency is key to making training successful.