Category Archives: Comment

Animal rescues in the spotlight

Dr. Anke Franz, Senior Lecturer at CCCU discusses the regulations, or lack thereof, effecting the wellbeing of animals under the care of animal rescues and sanctuaries.

Before Christmas, BBC’s week in week out programme aired an investigation into an animal rescue in Wales, raising issues around standards and license requirements for animal rescues. “Sanctuaries […] aren’t regulated. Boarding kennels […] need a license because they are governed by the animal welfare act, so too are breeders and come to mention it circuses. As for sanctuaries, well the act doesn’t cover them, so they don’t need a license”. This isn’t a problem if they function well, and many local rescues do excellent work. However, if they don’t, there are limited powers to close them down or prosecute.

So how can we know that the local rescue that we donate money to or where we got our dog/cat/rabbit from, is a good rescue?

A good place to start is the Code of Practice written by the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes (ADCH) to be adhered to by its members.

However, are all necessary standards covered in the ADCH Code of Practice? If not, what standards should rescues adhere to? And who will benefit from inclusion or exclusion of certain standards?

Ana Fernandez, Liz Spruin, Nicole Holt and I have been working with several small independent animal rescues across Kent. As part of this work, we asked them what rescue standards animal rescues should adhere to, which of these are basic standards and which of these are Gold standards – standards rescues should strive towards beyond the basic ones.

The basic standards were:

  1. Rescues have to thoroughly assess all animals that they take on
  2. Rescues have to provide necessary vet care, including neutering/ spaying and micro-chipping
  3. Rescues have to hold a valid insurance, including 3rd party insurance
  4. Rescues have to provide a safe and suitable place to keep the animal, either in a kennel or in a foster environment
  5. Rescues have to complete home checks for all foster and adoption placements
  6. Rescues have to follow up on adoptions, ideally through follow-up visits
  7. Rescues have to offer guaranteed Rescue Back-Up for the duration of the dog’s life (this means that the dog will be taken back by the rescue at any time if the dog cannot be kept by the owner for any reason)
  8. All foster and adoption agreements have to be subject to a contract
  9. At all times, rescues have to be professional and approachable and recognize potential lack of knowledge in fosters and adopters and ensure adequate information and training is provided

The gold standards were:

  1. Rescues should provide ongoing mentoring and behavioural training and interventions to fosters and adopters
  2. Rescues should provide general advice on owning a dog, including costs and nutrition
  3. Rescues should ensure that adequate information regarding potential adopters has been received
  4. Rescues should set up a registry of unsuitable dog owners
  5. Wherever possible, rescues should provide financial and other assistance to struggling dog owners as well as adopters to ensure animals can stay within suitable home environments
  6. Rescues have to provide a high quality of life for all animals in their care, particularly for long-term or permanent residents
  7. Rescues should be transparent about their destruction policies
  8. Forums for social and long-term contact with adopters should be available and fostered.

One topic we discussed at length was euthanasia. Our partner rescues felt transparency regarding destruction policies would be useful. It would allow everybody to know where problem dogs could go without the risk of euthanasia. However, some of our partner rescues had witnessed serious backlash from other rescues regarding decisions that they had been forced to take leading to a reluctance to engage openly with this issue. This was also raised by the ADCH guidance which falls short of requiring rescue organisations to be transparent about their euthanasia policies. Yet, greater openness about realities such as these are vital for arriving at workable standards and regulations.

Generally, there is a lot of overlap between the ADCH Code of Practice and the rescue standards that our partner rescues developed, however, there are some key differences.

Our partner rescues, usually smaller rescues, often run completely by volunteers and frequently relying on foster homes, focused on procedures targeted at increasing success in adoptions, such as conducting home visits for all potential dogs, with dogs often only being rehomed within small geographical areas. In the ADCH guidance home visits are seen as useful but not essential. For many larger dog rescue centres that, for example, take in stray dogs for the council, the reality of euthanising dogs for a variety of reasons is very tangible. This was highlighted by the Sun newspaper in January 2016, when it revealed the numerous dogs being euthanised by large animal rescue organisations such as Battersea, Blue Cross and the RSPCA https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/74549/sun-investigation-we-expose-charities-killing-1000s-of-healthy-dogs-for-growling-too-much/. Rehoming dogs to people living further afield and even on occasion in a different country can equate to having to destroy one dog less, even though the chance of the adoption being successful is decreased.

In addition, the responsibility of a rescue to take back animals at any time when things don’t work out was non-negotiable for our partner rescues while the ADCH strongly encouraged this, but did not enforce it.

If regulations were to be introduced, it should certainly be done in a way that does not penalise good rescues, small or large, and that takes account of the diverse workings of different rescues. While larger, more structured rescues could help smaller rescues to put in place legal structures and auditing procedures, small rescues and sanctuaries can often offer a lifeline to animals that larger rescues might not be able to work with due to problem behaviour, including aggression. They also often have well-functioning informal networks helping them find expert rescue and sanctuary places for difficult or specialised animals needing a second chance.

There are plenty of excellent rescues of all shapes and sizes, including many small local ones, and it is important that they are able to continue their work, especially in an environment where the sheer number of animals requiring rescue places means that rescues have to refuse many more animals than they can help.

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Dogs in the Courtroom?

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. A horror movie come true. You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world turns upside down; your body trembles in fear, your mind stunned with fright. Physically, mentally and wholeheartedly overwhelmed, you drop to the floor and cry out ‘Why me?’ Whilst the shock of the ordeal is still in the forefront of your mind and your whole body still imprisoned by terrorized fear, you are asked by prosecutors to relive the experience that completely paralyses your core; even worse, you are asked to recount the event in a courtroom of strangers. Emotionally destroyed, you look over and see your attacker staring at you, the defence counsel pressuring you to hurry up your testimony. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, as you are asked by prosecutors to provide a detailed account of your nightmare, a special dog rests at your feet in the courtroom. The same dog waited with you outside the courtroom as you prepared to testify – walked by your side as you made your way to the witness stand – stands beside you when the jury makes their verdict – and accompanies you when the court hands down their sentence. At each stage of the ordeal you look down at your four-legged friend, stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. You feel calm knowing that your friend is there for you, providing you the strength to get through your nightmare.

Whilst this scenario is merely an example of what could happen if the UK court system allowed the use of trained dogs in the courtroom, it opens up the potential for alternative forms of support in courtrooms around the country. This idea may be new to the UK but it has been successfully implemented in a number of States across America.

Advocates from the Courthouse Dogs Foundation (2015) in America proclaim that when a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place, so involving dogs to support these victims during this ordeal is a type of therapeutic jurisprudence that helps to calm and support many victims. Stephens (2011) pointed out that, typically, the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head, which often provides comfort. Uncontestably, studies (e.g., Sandoval, 2010) have confirmed that animate touch (e.g., holding a dogs leash or petting a dog while testifying) often leads to a psychological sense of well being, decreased anxiety, lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions, and heightened mental clarity.

Along with supporters arguing that the use of service dogs in the courtroom can be very useful in helping reduce stress to emotionally traumatized witnesses. More recently, it has been contended that the use of dogs in the courtroom can further aid in securing more witness testimony, as victims who may otherwise refuse to testify due to the stress of the ordeal are being provided with more support and comfort than before. This could ultimately lead to a boom in the criminal justice system, as more criminals could be brought to justice (Dellinger, 2009).

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. The question as to why remains uncertain to me. In my opinion, if dogs have been shown to provide comfort to victims, reduce their stress and make them calmer in a legal system that is a direct descended of the English courts, then surly this is something we should consider within our own courts. Sure, opponents could argue that the presence of a dog assisting a witness in court prejudices the jury’s perception of the witness. The use of a dog may signal that the witness is frail and weak and result in undue jury sympathy that then interferes with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But courts could counter argue that historically witnesses have always been entitled to comfort items when providing evidence, from blankets and dolls to relatives and support advocates. A dog in the courtroom can simply be viewed as another comfort item.

The law is not and should not be static. The proof is always in the pudding and in this instance it is clear that court service dogs provide important benefits to both the prosecution and defence. The courts in America have already recognised this and its time that the UK, at the very least, explore the benefits of allowing the use of service dogs for emotionally traumatized witnesses.

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Music and Memorisation

Whether concert soloist or conductor, artists often perform astonishing feats of memory. Yesterday afternoon’s prom (no 22), by the increasingly prominent Aurora Orchestra brought a new perspective to both programming and memorisation.

Under the baton of Nicholas Collon, Aurora embraced a bizarre choice of programming. The afternoon was topped and tailed with two Pastorals, Brett Dean’s (2000) and Beethoven’s (1808). The former was an astonishing work that almost forced the listener into visualising musical ideas through Dean’s clever use of electronics and sampling of real world sounds. It brought to the fore the terrifying, frightening, and raw beauty found in the natural and manmade world. Whereas the latter is a symphony that even the newbie classical listener would recognise. In between was one of the most perfectly poised and tailored renditions of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto (as you’d expect of soloist Francesco Piemontesi), and Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler.

The sub-theme running through this prom was memorisation. Meredith’s Smatter Hauler was a piece intentionally composed to aid memorisation – although an interesting idea I would question the value of composing for memorisation. Meredith appeared to chunk both the physical stage space occupied by the musicians and the musical text into groups. The concept of chunking is a core part of psych 101 – psychology and memory – how is it that we retain information in our short term (STM) and long term memory (LTM)?

Miller (1956) suggested our STM could hold approximately seven pieces of information at any one time. For example, instead of trying to memorise CRAHEDUPPNEWKOO (which is pretty tough) we could chunk it into smaller groups: CRA HED UPP NEW KOO. If we then encoded that information as a mnemonic, by making up a poem or a rhyme that sets the chunk into a linked context ‘the CRAnial nerve HEDs….’, or by taking the first letter of each group (C H U N K), we would be able to remember the groups of information and how they linked to each other.

So how do musicians memorise music? It is initially easier to memorise tonal rather than atonal music, because atonal music often lacks the aural structure and so needs to be memorised by rote rather than relying on previously learnt patterns or expectations. Beethoven’s pastoral is of course tonal. It helps if the piece is not new because this will remove some of the initial difficulty in memorisation as the musician will have a context for learning, and, yes, many of these musicians will have played it, as some movements were the staple musical food of youth orchestras. It takes time, and a lot of practice, and some good strategies to commit a piece to memory.

However, there is not only the auditory memory to consider, but muscle memory to consider too. This is the sense that when one performs action X then action Y will follow, and although we call it muscle memory it is not so much just the action of the fingers of a violinist but the training of their motor cortex.

Once you’ve learnt your part then there will be the social and musical cues to follow too: when you hear the horns play a particular chord, you know you must come in with your entry, or the conductor may cue you (and you’d better recall where you are)! Add to this the pressure of performing in a sold out Albert Hall, the need for perfect memorisation of your part which you may or may not be playing with your colleagues (violins will play the same as those around them, whereas the woodwind and brass are usually one to a part), and that they played standing up (changing the effort required to sustain notes for any woodwind or brass player).

Beethoven’s pastoral is, of course, tonal, and for many it won’t be the first time they have played it. Yet it is still an incredible feat by every single member of that band. It is a task which will have required many hours of dedicated practice, a process which no fully established band could afford to pay their musicians to do. (Many orchestral, West End, and session musicians will have little time to practice together before a gig, let alone to memorise entire symphonies).

For me, musically memorising and standing up completely changed the feel and sense of the piece; somehow there was more energy in the maidens I imagined skipping through the fields, and although at times the rendition felt looser than a piece from score with seated instrumentalists, there was a sense of new energy about the work.

On hearing the audience reaction—‘Wow, that raises the bar!’—I’m left thinking maybe it does, or maybe it is a fabulous audience experience, a heart-pounding musical task, a fabulous applied experiment in group memorisation and communication.

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Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters!

This summer, I’m looking forward to putting together a new module for 2014/15 on artificial intelligence. What happens when we try to model the mind? Is it even possible to model the mind? These questions, and others, are fascinating, and I can’t wait to discuss them with students.

Meantime, I’ve been discussing them with journalists at the Kent on Sunday about the new Channel 4 drama
Humans. As a psychologist, I’m slightly more interested in operational aspects of AI, i.e. how models can be implemented and what they tell us about the mind, but that won’t stop me flapping my gums about the wider issues.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dominique Chu from the University of Kent, who is quoted as saying:

There will always be so many short-comings with artificial intelligence at a human level. That is because the brain is so complex, we still don’t understand how it all works. Until that has been done, we won’t be able to program robots to that level…I have to ask if really want to go that far.

The human mind is a complex beast, and maybe it can be modelled – but should it be?

That’s the question asked by Humans. I suspect the answer, in good science fiction tradition, is “Probably not”.

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Young children using technology

Has a toddler got your iPad?

Touchscreen technology has become ever-present in our daily lives. As adults, our smartphones and tablets are constant companions that we use for communicating with others, accessing information, organising our commitments and, of course, having fun and relaxing. The [digital] world is literally at our fingertips.

Touchscreens are also very appealing to young children. Toddlers and pre-schoolers can find traditional technologies frustrating and difficult to use. For example, using a mouse and keyboard requires an understanding of cause and effect; that an action initiated in one place (e.g., on keyboard) causes an effect to take place in another (on screen). This type of understanding, or mental representation, is lacking in children under the age of about 2 or 3 years old.

In comparison, touchscreen interaction does not require this same level of understanding; the effect of one’s action can be seen in the same location it takes place. There is an immediate action-feedback sequence – arguably the same type of feedback children get when playing with real objects.

So, if a toddler you know won’t give up your iPad it is likely because they are experiencing a sense of mastery within the digital world. After all, one of the primary ways in which infants learn about the world around them is through sensory exploration – in this case using touch to explore their surroundings.

But how does this affect development?

Of course just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Understanding why young children enjoy using touchscreen technology is interesting, but perhaps a more important question is what effect does ‘screentime’ have on longer term development?

An article published last month in the journal Pediatrics undertook a review of all published research which addressed this question. In particular, the authors examined the effects of using interactive media on young children’s educational, social and emotional development. Although the article resulted in some sensational reporting (see Telegraph and Guardian articles) the overwhelming conclusion was that there simply isn’t enough research to provide definitive answers. In fact the article only cited seven published studies in the area and urgently called for more research.

Current research at Christ Church

My own research here at Christ Church is addressing some of these very issues. I have been working in collaboration with CBeebies Interactive looking at how children under the age of 3 years use touchscreens and in particular what effect touchscreen play might have on focused attention. I measured children’s attention span before and after they played with a touchscreen tablet, and also before and after they played with toys and then compared this to a baseline measure of attention. Children were divided into two groups; one group played with the tablet first and the other played with toys first.

Across 18 children (aged 10 months to 3 years old) there was no immediate difference in the attention shown between the two groups (tablet versus toy play). In other words, playing with interactive media on iPads did not have a negative effect on immediate focused attention within this sample of children.

Alone we cannot draw too many conclusions from just a single study; larger scale research is needed. Also, this study looked at the immediate effect straight after playing with iPads or toys; future research is needed to look at the possible long-term effects. However, it is a first step in gathering evidence that can begin to address the question of the effects of interactive media on young children’s development.

Follow @CCCUPsych for further updates on this research.

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