Podcast: How can you help wildlife?

What can we do to help wildlife?

There are many ways that human activities, infrastructure, and policies impact wild animals. On this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault discuss the ways in which animal allies can speak up for wildlife.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Compassionate conservation

Chantelle: Last month we talked about farmed animals and went through their natural behaviours species by species. This month will be a little different, since we’re talking about wildlife and there are so many species.

Amy: Before we get into it, I want to touch on an important piece of background for this discussion. Conservation is a topic that comes up a lot when people talk about wild animals, but it’s often about preserving the species and maintaining biodiversity, without looking at the well-being of individual animals. The lens we’ll be using today is compassionate conservation, which includes the guiding principles:

  • First, do no harm
  • Individuals matter
  • Inclusivity
  • Peaceful coexistence between animals and humans

Throughout this episode we’ll be talking about ways you can help protect wild animals from the threats they face, and it’s important to bear in mind through all these advocacy actions that the goal is to treat wildlife with respect, justice, and compassion, and to allow them to thrive. There is a great infographic on this.

Urban wildlife

Chantelle: Absolutely, thanks so much Amy. Now that we’ve covered that, I think it makes sense to start with a brief overview of some of the ways humans interact with wild animals. When we think of most people’s day-to-day interactions with wild animals, many people living in cities, towns, or suburbs will think about urban wildlife. Urban wildlife refers to animals who have adapted to survive alongside humans and the infrastructure we’ve developed. Those adaptations can include taking advantage of new food sources, like garbage or some types of plants, or building their nests in human-made structures.

Amy: Urban wildlife may show signs of being habituated, or unafraid of, people. This happens over time as they encounter situations that feel safer and safer; alternately, they find ways to navigate in the human world that avoids people entirely. Just like with humans, wild animals will be afraid of what they don’t know, and comfortable with anything that feels familiar and safe.

Some urban wildlife are considered synanthropic species, which means they thrive in human environments. Think of adaptations like pigeons nesting in buildings and eating dropped food, squirrels living in trees from parks and gardens, rats commonly living in sewers or buildings. Some people consider these species to be “pests” because living in such close proximity can lead to human-wildlife conflict.

Other urban wildlife often live alongside humans in urban environments, but they aren’t as dependent on human activities to survive. If you think of an animal like coyotes, they’re generally considered an opportunistic species so they can exploit the resources in human environments like eating small animals, fruits and vegetables, or garbage; but they can also survive in a more natural landscape. They’re also typically more wary of humans.

Threats to urban wildlife

Chantelle: That brings us to talking about some of the threats urban wildlife can face. You mentioned human-wildlife conflict and that’s something that can have a very negative impact on animals. Generally, conflict arises when animals are causing damage like chewing walls, making messes like knocking over garbage bins, or if they’re posing a threat or perceived threat to human or pet safety, such as skunks nesting below a shed and the people who live in the home being afraid of their dog being sprayed. In those situations, the outcome for the animal is usually very negative or even deadly. Often animals are killed—two issues that have been really top of mind over the past year are rodent poisons and culls.

Amy: I can speak more to the poison issue. Rodenticides, or rodent poisons cause a great deal of suffering to animals. There are a few different categories of poisons which we spoke about in our wildlife episode with Erin Ryan last year, so please listen to that episode if you’d like more details.

Essentially, poisons don’t work immediately and cause animals to die slowly and painfully. Anticoagulant rodenticides work by thinning the blood so animals die by bleeding out or hemorrhaging. Those are the poisons most often used in Canada.

There are also other poisons like neurotoxins, which cause the nervous system to shut down so animals can experience symptoms painful and scary symptoms like weakness, loss of coordination, convulsions, and respiratory distress.

We’ve had some progress here in B.C. with permanent restrictions on second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs), which are some of the most dangerous poisons and also some of the most likely to cause secondary poisoning to predator or scavenger animals, like owls or eagles, who eat poisoned rodents; but there are still exceptions where those poisons can be used.

First-generation anticoagulants and other poisons are also still allowed.

Chantelle: Several municipalities have taken the compassionate step of banning all rodenticides on the city or town property. A great way to advocate for animals harmed by poisons is to ask your Council or the building manager where you live or work to commit to poison-free methods.

There are also government sanctioned culls of animals. The Vancouver Park Board recently approved a plan that includes the option of killing geese to control their populations, which is inhumane and unnecessary. Evidence shows that habitat modification is a more effective long-term method. There was also the coyote cull in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 2021 that happened after people reported coyotes approaching and biting them. In total, 13 coyotes were killed. This could have been prevented if better methods were implemented to prevent the feeding of animals in the park and remove attractants like garbage that draw coyotes toward human areas.

How you can help urban wildlife

Amy: Prevention is the best and most effective method of dealing with conflict with wildlife. You can prevent animals like rodents from entering buildings by sealing up access points and removing or sealing away food and other attractants.

The most important thing we can do is to make sure wildlife continue to be afraid of anything that might hurt them. This is why it is so crucial to not feed wildlife. If you feed wildlife, they start to see people as a source of food. They also can become dependent on the food being provided and then if it is removed, they can become aggressive. We would do the same if we were fed regularly and then suddenly all the food was gone, with nothing available to us… I have been around some pretty “hangry” people and I imagine it can get pretty bad when an animal feels truly desperate from their hunger.

Chantelle: Absolutely. Another way people deal with wildlife conflict is by trapping and relocating animals. This method still isn’t perfect because it causes stress to animals and can introduce new risks to animals if their social structures are disrupted, if they come into conflict over territory or if they have difficulty finding resources in their new environment.

Amy: Other threats that are more common for urban wildlife include animals being hit by vehicles, urban development infringing on their habitats and resources, and noise and light pollution which can disrupt their natural behaviours and communication.

Native wildlife

Threats to native wildlife in British Columbia and beyond

Amy: Wild animals, including those outside cities are also impacted by climate change which can affect their habitat, temperature regulation, resources like food and water, and behaviours like migration patterns.

Chantelle: One thing that a lot of Canada has been dealing with is forest fires. Temperatures are rising and precipitation patterns are changing, which means we’re seeing an increase in both fire-prone conditions and flooding at different times and in different areas. Forest fires and floods directly cause the deaths of animals who are caught in them. They also destroy habitats and displace animals, making it more difficult for them to survive and maintain their social dynamics.

Amy: Speaking of habitat destruction, there is natural habitat destruction, and there is also human-caused destruction of habitats like deforestation.

Logging is a major industry here in B.C. Although some considerations are in place for a few protected species, many animals like squirrels and birds end up losing their homes.

Logging roads that haven’t been decommissioned after use also make prey animals more vulnerable to predators.

Particularly, caribou have been significantly affected by the destruction of forests and the creation of logging roads because it provides wolves easier access to the caribou, leading to declines in caribou populations. Rather than addressing the root issue, which is habitat destruction, the B.C. government has been carrying out a wolf cull since 2015 that involves shooting wolves from helicopters. So now we have a situation where both caribou and wolves are suffering.

We know that both caribou and wolves have complex dynamics, including unique family structures. When wolves are killed it impacts their entire family. Just like humans, they have the ability to feel loss and must grieve these sudden deaths as they struggle to survive.

How you can help native wildlife

Amy: To be an active ally for the caribou and the wolves, you can:

  • Advocate for stronger wildlife protection laws, including the decommissioning of forestry roads and better forest restoration management
  • Share about the importance of compassionate conservation, recognizing that well-being isn’t just about biodiversity, but about the well-being of the individual animal and their communities.
  • Avoid having fires during fire bans, and carefully dispose of any cigarettes and be careful in the backcountry using machinery that causes sparks


Chantelle: We can’t talk about wildlife behaviour without talking about the ocean’s most populous wildlife – fishes! You can check out our podcast just about fishes, but there are a few key points I’d like to touch on here. Fishes demonstrate many different behaviours, the same way that species on land do. Some live in schools, but others are solitary. There are even some interspecies friendships of fishes that are mutually beneficial. Fishes, just like mammals, end up having lice and benefit from grooming. Some fish travel long distances, while others exist in small habitats and focus on protecting their homes. There are more than 33,000 different types of fish species.

Threats to fishes

Amy: Some of the threats faced by fishes include fish farms, where diseases from captive fish populations can get into wild species. Fish farms are often densely packed, which don’t allow fish to swim and forage the way they would naturally.

Fishes are also threatened by pollution. While the physical pollution is a problem, such as plastics, some of the biggest harms include the waste product that runs off of intensive agriculture, such as keeping cows and pigs. This can cause harmful algae blooms in the water, which is often called ‘red tide’ for the different tone it gives the water. In areas with red tide, fish are poisoned and die. Animals like turkey vultures can be impacted as well as they eat the fish that have died from the harmful algae blooms.

How you can help fishes

Chantelle: The best and biggest impact that we as individuals can make is to take fishes and other animals off our plates. Consumption of animals for food is driving these complex issues that are causing significant physical suffering to both individual fishes and entire species.

Wild and exotic animals kept in captivity

Amy: The behaviour of animals that are kept in captivity varies from enriched and engaged, to, most commonly, bored and repetitive. Just like we seek out ways for indoor cats to have full enjoyment of their spaces, including building catios and providing different toys, treats, and play, wild animals need access to spaces and activities that make their lives worthwhile.

While the best thing is for wild animals to be free, sometimes they end up in captivity and don’t have the skills or capacity to care for themselves in the wild. Unfortunately, facilities that house wildlife in captivity often lack the staffing and capital resources to provide spaces for animals that ensure their needs are met. For example, some animals are not provided the opportunity to hide from public view, or the temperatures in their outdoor enclosure are too cold for their normal body temperature. Incidents regularly occur of people getting bitten, or animals becoming depressed and dying at ages far younger than their wild counterparts.

If you have observed animals in captivity, you know it can be a strange experience. Seeing the animals themselves can provide a sense of beauty, but juxtaposed against barren enclosures, cages, and pacing, bar licking, and other maladaptive behaviours, these spaces can feel downright uncomfortable. I once visited a facility where the bears were made to perform; that facility is still running today. Last year, when a bear died after 19 years of performing, the facility claimed that the bear loved making people laugh and was happiest in front of a crowd. It is common for facilities to anthropomorphize wild animal behaviours in order to make people feel at ease and buy into the experience they are seeking.

Chantelle: It’s so sad to think about and it’s easy for people to forget, because usually visitors to places like this will only be seeing the animal for a few minutes but this is the animal’s entire life day in and day out. I find it wild that animals are still being kept for use in entertainment, particularly the film and tv industry! I would have thought that would be phased out with the amazing technology we have. There have been a few really major films that came out recently where animals played a large role but thankfully they were all computer generated. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and animals kept for performing are often kept in small cages and deal with frequent travel. Their lives are akin to that of research animals in terms of the degree of confinement, but even more stressful because their environment is constantly changing and they are around unfamiliar people.

Mobile exotic animal petting zoos are similar. The animals have to deal with frequent transportation, being kept in small cages, and being handled. Despite the risks around salmonella, reptiles are a popular choice for this because they are slow to get away. However, for them, it can be quite uncomfortable to be handled. Not only might it be uncomfortable, but it’s also very important for reptiles to regulate their own temperature; and the conditions they are kept and handled in do not allow them to do that.

Amy: While we know that it isn’t ideal to keep animals in captivity, the solutions are complicated. Zoos and aquariums try to argue in favour of letting animals breed as a way to exhibit natural behaviours, but then the off-spring often die or are forced into a life of captivity. Since such a sparse patchwork of laws exists for animals in captivity, their ability to express natural behaviours outside of breeding is equally sparse. Laws around wildlife in captivity are made at the provincial and local level. Advocating for these beautiful animals can include asking the provincial government to better protect them through limiting captive breeding, putting an end to using wild animals for any kind of entertainment, and asking the federal government to put very strict limitations on the importation of exotic wildlife.

Chantelle: Yeah, that’s an interesting argument because it feels very convenient that zoos will argue in favour of animals expressing their natural behaviours when it’s about breeding, which is something that allows them to draw in more people to see the new animals and keep making money, but not when it’s about moving the animals to a climate that’s more appropriate for them. It’s very important to look at those arguments critically and see how they’re being used to maintain the status quo and make more money rather than do what’s best for the long-term well-being of the animals.

How to help wildlife

Amy: We typically end these episodes on the question of what you can do in your own advocacy work to help animals. We’ve certainly touched on a lot of actions throughout the episode, but here are some of the biggest takeaways.

  • Help wild animals stay wild by not feeding them
  • When law changes around wild animals come up, speak with your representatives like your MP or your MLA about compassionate conservation and the importance of considering individual animals’ well-being
  • Support and share ways of learning about animals that don’t involve keeping wild animals in captivity

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss the Vancouver Humane Society’s findings on the attitudes and benefits around plant-based eating!


Calling for an end to inhumane rodeo events and government rodeo funding

The VHS and nearly 2,500 advocates raised concerns with B.C.’s Minister of Tourism regarding recently announced government funding for rodeo events. This year, close to $800,000 is allocated to events with rodeos across B.C. The use of taxpayer dollars to support inhumane rodeo events, including roping, bucking, wrestling and mutton busting (children riding sheep), is a disturbing outcome of these newly available funds.

Read the article in the Langley Advance Times: Langley rodeo grant draws criticism from Vancouver Humane Society

Public polling shows that the majority of British Columbians oppose the use of animals in rodeo. These events rely on the use of fear, discomfort and stress caused by aversive stimuli (e.g. flank straps, spurs, painful bits) and rough handling to make animals perform for public entertainment.

Footage taken by the VHS at the Chilliwack and Langley rodeos last year showed frightened and stressed animals being deliberately agitated into fleeing and bucking.

What happened at this year’s Chilliwack and Langley rodeos

The return of the Chilliwack rodeo this year, along with a controversial new rodeo held in Langley Township, has raised concerns about the well-being and welfare of animals made to perform in rodeo events. Video footage taken at both rodeos this summer shows stressed and frightened animals being roughly handled and deliberately agitated into fleeing and bucking.

Animals used in rodeo events are also put at unnecessary risk of injury, such as broken bones, neck injuries, and internal damage.

The handling of animals used in rodeos contradicts industry requirements and best practices for the same species of animals on farms, which require that quiet handling techniques be used.

Take action for animals used in rodeo!

Use the VHS’s quick action tool to call on your city council to follow the lead of the City of Vancouver, District of North Vancouver, and most recently, Port Moody, by prohibiting inhumane rodeo events and practices in your community.

Take quick action
Media Release

Incident at this past weekend’s Princeton Rodeo illustrates animal welfare concerns

Horse leaps over barrier and lands dangerously at Princeton Rodeo

A video from a rodeo in Princeton shows a horse jumping over the arena barrier and landing dangerously on their head.

VANCOUVER, June 15, 2023 – The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is raising concerns around an incident that occurred at a rodeo held in Princeton over the weekend. A video released by the VHS shows a horse jumping over the arena barrier and landing dangerously on their head. The incident took place during a bucking event. 

The video has also been shared with the BC SPCA. 

“Rodeo events, like bareback riding, are accidents waiting to happen and that’s exactly what occurred here”, says VHS Campaign Director, Emily Pickett. “These events rely on the use of fear, discomfort and stress to make animals flee and buck. This puts them at unnecessary risk of injury and death for the sake of public entertainment.” 

The VHS cites public polling that shows a majority of British Columbians are opposed to the use of animals in rodeos. The organization and concerned B.C. residents have been advocating for municipal bylaws that prohibit inhumane rodeo events and practices. The City of Vancouver and District of North Vancouver already have bylaws in place and just last month the City of Port Moody also followed suit, unanimously passing a similar bylaw.  

The VHS says this recent incident at the Princeton Rodeo, along with concerning video footage taken at rodeo events in Chilliwack and Langley last year, reiterates the importance of bylaws that protect animals from inhumane treatment and suffering in rodeos. 

“There are no shortage of alternative events and activities that can bring communities together to celebrate, without putting animals in harm’s way,” says Pickett. 

– ends –   

SOURCE Vancouver Humane Society  

For more information, contact Emily Pickett: 604-416-2903,

Media Release

Eating more plants could save you 14% on groceries, says new report 

VANCOUVER, May 30, 2023 – Switching to a plant-based diet could save you around 14% at the till, says a report released today by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS). The report details how eating more plant-based foods can help individuals in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland to cut down on grocery costs, reduce emissions, and save animal lives. 

@vancouverhumane Eating a plant-based diet could save you $600 a year on groceries! #PlantBased #Vegan #VeganForTheAnimals #Budgeting ♬ original sound – Vancouver Humane Society

These findings follow the release of a poll commissioned by the VHS, which found that 92% of Lower Mainland residents are concerned about how the rising cost of living is impacting their finances and 66% would be open to eating more plant-based foods to save money. Food costs have skyrocketed over the past year, increasing by more than double the overall annual inflation rate at about 10%, and are expected to rise by 5 to 7% this year according to Canada’s Food Price Report 2023

Image: Vancouver Humane Society, A Transition Toward Plant-Based Diets: A study amongst BC residents in the Lower Mainland

By making the swap to plant-based alternatives, the average person could save $50 each month on groceries. That’s about 14% of the typical monthly cost of groceries for a person living in Vancouver, which was $355.28 last year. The savings are greatest when swapping out animal products for whole foods – for instance, switching from chicken to tofu rather than to manufactured meat alternatives. 

Individuals who eat a lot of beef and seafood could see even higher savings. Swapping 21 servings of beef for lentils each month could save $60, while swapping 21 servings of seafood for mushrooms could save a whopping $64 monthly.

Image: Vancouver Humane Society, A Transition Toward Plant-Based Diets: A study amongst BC residents in the Lower Mainland

In addition to cost savings, eating a plant-based diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by 816kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) annually – about half of what it takes to power an entire home for a year. 

Image: Vancouver Humane Society, A Transition Toward Plant-Based Diets: A study amongst BC residents in the Lower Mainland

A switch away from beef carries the greatest environmental impact – in the typical Lower Mainland diet, swapping beef for lentils reduces greenhouse gas emissions by nearly twice as much as swapping out all other animal products combined. 

In 2020, a similar report from the VHS entitled “Increasing Plant-Based Purchasing at the Municipal Level” outlined the benefits of shifting toward more plant-based foods purchased by the City of Vancouver, including through catering, city-run concession stands, and municipal food funding. That report found by replacing 20% of animal-based food products with plant-based alternatives, the City of Vancouver could save up to $99,000 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 tonnes. In 2021, the Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to explore policy recommendations outlined in the report. 

– ends –    

SOURCE Vancouver Humane Society   

For more information, contact Chantelle Archambault: 604-416-2903,   

Related links:

Related media:


Podcast: Do pigs really like mud? And other farmed animal behaviours

How would farmed animal species live their lives if they weren’t being raised in the animal agriculture system?

Previous episodes have looked at how the needs of farmed animals are not being met in the industrial animal agriculture system; but how do these species behave when they are living lives that are happy and fulfilled? In this episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal well-being, the VHS’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss the natural behaviours and needs of farmed animals like pigs, chickens, cows, and sheep.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

How we learn about farmed animal behaviour

Chantelle: Over the past two months, we delved into what good welfare looks like for companion animals when it comes to things like care, play, and training. This week, we’re going to branch out from that and look at what a good life looks like for the species that are currently raised for meat, milk, eggs, and wool.

We’ll talk about some of the science around farmed animal behaviors and needs, and we’ll touch on ways those needs aren’t being met in today’s animal agriculture system. But if you’d like to hear a more in-depth discussion on that aspect, I’d encourage you to go back to our second episode, which looked into farmed animal cruelty laws and practices.

Amy: Where does knowledge about farmed animal behavior typically come from?

Chantelle: We can learn a lot about what these animals’ natural behaviors would look like by observing non domesticated versions of farmed animals in the wild.

The farmed animal species we’ll be talking about today have been domesticated and selectively bred for thousands of years. So those exact breeds of animals don’t typically exist in the wild, but there are wild or feral animals that line up with those domestic breeds. A lot of knowledge also comes from just observing farmed animals and research studies that are funded by educational institutions or government or even the industry. So there can be bias there.

Amy: Yeah, I really love this topic because looking at animal behavior, I see more about what we have in common with animals, being animals ourselves, than our differences. Humans and other animal species all we’re young need bedding and homes, social structures. We all groom and maintain our bodies, we need to find food and water, and we need engagement with our environment through movement. There’s this othering that happens in society as a result of non-human animals being domesticated for food, but now that we’re not dependent on eating animals or their products, we have an opportunity to re-examine our understanding of farmed animals.

I’m hoping with this podcast and all the actions that you take in your everyday life, we can reflect on what information gets buried in order for people to be more comfortable with animal oppression. It was only once I really spent time in person with pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, and goats, that I began to really understand that our similarities outweigh our differences.

We share fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of death. We share joy at good food and opportunities to stretch our legs. We develop favorite places to spend our time. We like to choose our own friends, and we get along better with some than others. We go through phases and we make different decisions when we’re young and then when we’re old and have had the opportunity to develop more wisdom and we pass on our wisdom to our young.

Chantelle: I’m so excited to dive into some of the specific species to, to better get a picture of what you’re describing. So what animal should we start with?

Amy: Let’s start with pigs.


Chantelle: I love learning about pigs so much. These are one of the animals that kind of tow the line between farmed animals and companion animals because people have started keeping pigs more as pets while the breed typically kept as pets is slightly smaller potbelly pigs. It’s important to note that the breeds raised for meat are not fundamentally different. In a lot of ways, pigs and other animals that are raised on farms are very similar to the animals that most people consider part of the family, like dogs.

Pigs are curious. They have problem solving skills. They’re social. They form complex relationships. They have favorite people. They have favorite animals. They feel fear. They feel pain.

Pigs in the wild

When we’re looking for an analog to domestic pigs in the wild, we can look at the behaviors of feral pigs and wild boars. And just for a little background on what that means, wild boars are essentially the ancestors of domestic breeds of pigs. While pigs who are released or escape into the wild will become feral, they can grow tusks, they’ll grow thicker hair, and they’ll become more fearful of humans.

Amy: Yeah, and this all depends on their genetics, how their bodies are capable in terms of epigenetics. So there are some nuances there.

Pig socialization & rearing young

Amy: We know both in the wild and on farms, pigs are very social animals who live in small to medium size groups together called sounders. Each group can have kind of one to six female pigs or sows along with their young.

Wild sows experience motherhood very differently than pigs on industrial farms. When they have a choice, they prefer to give birth in sheltered, secluded spots where they raise their piglets on their own for the first one to two weeks. Within the first day, mother sows and piglets will recognize each other by smell. Piglets also recognize the unique grunt calls of their mother, and so they know which pig to go to when it’s time to nurse.

As they get a bit older and start exploring outside of the nest, they’ll call to each other if they get separated. Piglets really like to be close to their mothers, they’ll snuggle up to their mother and litter mates for warmth. After a week or two, the mother and piglets will rejoin the group and the piglets will be fully participating in group life by eight weeks old. All of the pigs will interact and play with each other, but siblings do maintain close bonds into adulthood.

Are pigs aggressive?

Chantelle: Some people in the animal agriculture industry believe that pigs are naturally aggressive, but that’s really because pigs can become aggressive and irritable in stressful conditions; humans do the exact same thing.

In the wild, pigs are mostly peaceful. They form stable social relationships and they live in harmony together. The groups of sounders are not territorial. Many pigs may live in the same area if there’s enough food for all of them. Pigs who branch off might stay close to their mothers, and together the family groups have been found to form herds of up to a hundred pigs.

Whereas we’ve talked about the matriarchal groups (sounders), adult males are more nomadic and the dominant males in an area will generally force the younger males to leave their family groups around seven to 18 months old.

Natural habitats for pigs

Amy: And in terms of their physical environment, pigs are really adaptable.

They can live in most places, from forests, to marshes, to grasslands. They like to be in or near places with dense cover. They tend to avoid areas with a lot of ground frost because it makes it difficult for them to forage roots and tubers.

What do pigs eat?

Amy: Pigs are omnivores. They mostly eat whatever plants and mushrooms are available in their area, but they will hunt for small animals or scavenge meat from dead animals. They spend about 75% of their day rooting and foraging.

If we compare that to industrial animal agriculture, farmed pigs can eat the food they’re given in only 15 minutes in a day or less. They tend to spend much more time resting when there’s a lot of food in an area and they don’t spend as much time traveling to find it or when it’s cold and they need to conserve energy.

Pigs are very social eaters. They prefer to eat together as a group, and they’ll often share food and take turns eating. I think the biggest takeaway on this is knowing how vastly different it looks to be a pig roaming around all day versus having a lot of boredom and time that’s unused for any kind of social or physical activity in industrial settings.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. The way that they spend their time is very different. The environment that they stay in is very different.

Do pigs like mud?

Chantelle: You’re probably familiar with the image of pigs playing in mud, and you may have also heard that pigs like to be clean. If you’re wondering which of those is true, it is both. They’re very hygienic. They keep clean by rubbing off dirt on hard surfaces or swimming in the water and in the wild, they’ll often create separate areas for sleeping, eating, and eliminating waste. And if you have looked at industrial farming systems, things like gestation stalls, there’s absolutely no way for them to do that.

But on the other hand, they also like to wallow in mud or water, and the reason they do that is to regulate their body temperature since they don’t have many sweat glands. So they’ll wallow if they need to keep cool. And when they need to keep warm, they’ll huddle together in communal nests.

 Pig nesting

Amy: And speaking of nests, I love thinking and talking about pig nests. When pigs are pregnant, they take a lot of time to build the perfect nest, to birth their young into. I bet you think of nesting habits of, when you talk about soon to be human parents, it’s referring to birds. But when pregnant pigs want a home for their family, they build a really nice space. And in captivity, the barn conditions means that they don’t get to build the nests. So out of frustration, they end up chewing the bar of the container they’re in until they end up having problems with their mouth and teeth.

Chantelle: It’s really tragic when you look at the disparity of what a good life looks like for pigs expressing their natural behaviors and then the conditions that most of them are living through in the modern farming system.

I think that covers pig behaviour, so shall we move on to cows?


Amy: I’ve always had such a soft spot for cows. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with cows in sanctuary that are social. I’ve also been around cows that were terrified of me. I later figured out why that was; their handlers used sticks to hit them and make them move in down the line to get vaccinated and one handler even jumped his full body weight on a calf in frustration when the calf wouldn’t get up. This was on an organic, free range farm.

I try not to remember those moments very often. I try to focus on the cows that do get to live their ideal lives.

Cow socialization & rearing young

Amy: Cows bond so strongly with their young, the new mom will nuzzle and lick her calf clean, making a sound that encourages the calf to get up and start nursing right away. They’ll provide milk to their calf and spend time together for about a year and sometimes even more before they make the decision to wean them. Suckling increases the bond between the mother and the calf, and that releases oxytocin. So as a kind of converse situation, in intensive farming, calves are removed from their mothers at birth and only fed intermittently rather than the free feeding they would have normally.

Cows that get to continue to suckle their young have a significantly reduced risk of post calving diseases and clinical mastitis. And clinical mastitis is essentially a condition of the udders that is really common on intensive farms.

Chantelle: Definitely. Looking at their sleeping habits, cows can sleep anywhere, but just like humans, they prefer soft bedding. This reduces injuries and health issues such as mastitis and hock sores; they do well on straw bedding. Cows live in a herd with individual and long-lasting social relationships that exist between cows and the herd.

They can recognize up to 50 other cows and they can remember them for several years. They’ll typically follow the decisions of the oldest and most experienced female cows. The ancestors of modern day cows were called aurochs. The social structure of aurochs was based on cooperation, communication, and mutual support with females playing a key role in the organization and leadership of the herd.

Bulls would only join in the herd during the breeding season. Grooming behavior is also social with cows using their tongue, teeth, and horns to clean and groom the hair and skin of other cows. And just like humans, they experience oxytocin from those interactions. They also self groom by rubbing against trees or rocks or other objects to remove dirt and insects and dead skin.

Cow grazing & roaming

Amy: When it comes to eating, cows like to get a variety of nutrients and are highly adaptable to food sources. They are known to have an excellent memory and can remember the location of food and water sources for several years. We know that aurochs would travel long distances to find good food and water sources.

I can say from my experience of being on a free range farm in the mountains, that cows still like to roam big distances in their grazing. In intensive farming, cows can be tied up in barns or packed into dusty feed lots. That means they don’t get any opportunity to do one of their favorite activities, which is grazing. Cows also have an excellent sense of smell, and they can detect orders up to 10 kilometers away.

As a side note, this is why dogs often roll in feces or fishy smells because wolves would hide their scent in order to get a better chance at hunting animals like bison and aurochs.

Cow communication

Cows communicate with each other through a range of vocalizations, body language, and physical contact. They use different vocalizations to indicate hunger, distress, and excitement.

They’re creatures of habit, they prefer to follow a routine and changes in their environment or routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Chantelle: I definitely can sense a familiarity between that and my companion cat. Cows are so fascinating to talk about, but I think that’s a good overview of them and their behaviors. Let’s move on to chickens.


Chicken socialization and behaviour

Amy: I find chickens to be the most interesting and complex of farmed animals. They have this reptilian look descended from the red junglefowl, a wild bird that’s native to Asia. But they also have really complex social structures. I spent some time on a farm that had a flock of rescue chickens, and the biggest rooster was huge.

He had this sizable group of hens that he cared for, but then the other roosters would pair up with one or two hens and keep their distance. I would often see them perched up a few branches in a tree, getting a break from the sun. And chickens also love to spend their time dust bathing in the sun, getting bugs out of their feathers, and they often fall asleep after a good dust bath, which is really cute to see.

They spend their days foraging and as omnivores, they’ll eat bugs and worms as well as grains. They love fruit and it’s a great treat for them on summer days because they can get quite warm.

Egg laying for hens in nature

Chantelle: Chickens in nature would lay 20 to 30 eggs in a clutch all at once, once a year. And when they would do that, they would find a really hidden spot that feels safe and away from predators.

They would keep those eggs warm and do their best to stay alive, leaving only for short periods to get food and water. If you’ve ever heard a chicken lay an egg, you can tell it is an intense and painful process for them every time. Chickens will stay with their chicks until they’re big enough to survive on their own.

They pass on information about their environment, like what bugs are tasty to eat, what places are safe to find shelter. They like to wrap their feet around a branch or a wooden bar at night, and balance as they sleep in a place that has good overhead cover to keep them safe from predators. They also have a range of vocalizations, like clucking, crowing, squawking, and they’ll use those different vocalizations to communicate with each other.

Chickens in intensive farming

Amy: Yeah, and this is really juxtaposed against intensive farming situations, which are really tough to observe if you have seen happy chickens living out their lives. Chickens in intensive farming almost always lack good perches and opportunities to dust bathe. They don’t get reared by a hen, so it’s essentially this weird situation of placing 25,000 orphans in a room together, and they just don’t develop any sense of order and structure that they would have when they’re with their family.

As a result, chickens really often end up boredom feather plucking each other so that they’re often barren. I’ve seen barns where the chickens are so bare of feathers because once it’s started it’s essentially impossible to stop. They are all doing it to each other. They’re also bred to lay eggs almost every day, which on top of being painful makes their bones so weak that they have to be killed after about a year and a half because their bones break so easily.

And as a comparison, chickens in nature live up to 10 years. I was pretty devastated the first time I visited a large scale free range organic operation and realized how much the hens were still suffering. Very few of them, maybe 5 to 10%, even went outside because it’s really problematic to run back inside in case of a predator. There was no overhead cover. Outside, the ground was barren and it really only served a purpose for some of the hens of dust bathing because it was so packed that they couldn’t forage. On a smaller scale farm that was theoretically better, I came across a dead bird that had been trampled. On another smaller scale farm, I came across a chicken whose cloaca, the place where the egg comes out, was stuck permanently extended and the chicken was in a lot of pain. I wasn’t sure how long she had been like that.

I don’t like sharing these stories and I did it very quickly, but they really have stuck with me having witnessed all of that.

After spending a lot of time with chickens, I came away with a strong sense that they deserve to live their lives as fully as you or me.

Chantelle: Thank you for sharing those stories, Amy. I know it’s really difficult to think about, but it’s important for people to know, and it’s something the animal agriculture industry works really hard to hide, so I think it’s an important topic to touch on.

Shall we talk about sheep next?


Sheep have a strong fear response

Amy: Sheep are fascinating as people make a lot of assumptions about them. They have a really strong fear response. In particular, they’re prone to freezing in place. They often get mistaken for “enjoying” being shorn, and I put that in quotes because they’re actually immobilized with fear.

In fact, most activities that people do relate to sheep are about motivating their fear drive, such as when dogs or vehicles are used to herd sheep.

So I wanted to share that because I think a lot of people see these things as normal, and it’s normalized, but there are other kinder ways to motivate sheep with food incentives and things like that.

I thought we’d get that sad part out of the way. So now we can focus more on the ways that sheep are great.

Sheep socialization and communication

Chantelle: Definitely. Sheep have excellent memories. They can recognize up to 50 other sheep’s faces and remember them for several years.

Like cows, they are herd animals. They can see behind them without turning their heads because their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads, like you’ll see with prey animals typically. They’re known for their excellent sense of hearing; they can detect higher frequencies than humans. They can produce different vocalizations to communicate with each other including bleats, grunts, and snorts. A very fun fact is they even have accents. So just like humans, studies have shown that sheep in different regions have distinct vocalizations that reflect their local dialects.

Amy: I love that. Sheep will also spend time with other sheep they know and trust. They’ll seek companionship when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. They sleep in groups huddled together for warmth and protection. And when outdoors, they will sleep in shifts with some sheep standing guard while others sleep, and they tend to return to the same spot to sleep night after night.

Chantelle: When we talk about sheep, we also, I think, can transition very smoothly into goats because goats have a lot of similarities to sheep, so I don’t think we’ll cover them in full.


Chantelle: Goats are excellent climbers. They can climb trees and cliffs, and even steep mountainsides. They have rectangular pupils, which gives them a wider field of vision and better depth perception.

And they’re known for being curious and intelligent, and they’ve been observed learning from each other and problem solving. They have a unique digestive system that allows them to break down tough plant fibers, so they’re excellent foragers.

Many people think that goat milk is a better alternative to dairy milk, but realistically, the treatment and experiences of goats and cows raised for producing dairy is very similar. It limits their ability to express some of their important natural behaviors of grazing, roaming, and raising young. There are so many plant-based alternatives for dairy milk and goat milk on the market now, so you can find one to fit your personal preference.


Amy: Absolutely. I love talking about animal behavior and what animals enjoy. This is a really fun podcast to put together. What was your favorite thing that you learned in preparing for it?

Chantelle: I really love learning about how different animals raise their young. I think it’s so interesting to look at the different family structures and the relationships they form with each other because they’re really so much like us.I think it’s so interesting to look at how complex those relationships can be.

What about you, Amy?

Amy: I really loved learning about sheep dialects. Certainly I know that wild animals like wolves and ravens tend to be regionalized in their communication styles, but it was fun to learn that domesticated animals are too.

I’m also constantly reminded of how much we all have in common.

Chantelle: Yeah, this was a really fun episode to learn about. I’m glad we got to touch on some of the more positive aspects of farmed animals and looking at their behaviors and what it looks like when they get to live a happy and fulfilled life.

I hope that you also got something out of this podcast as a listener, and I hope that you will join us again next month.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we delve into the topic of well-being for wildlife!


Compassion, collaboration, and change: Exploring veterinary social work in animal services

How veterinary social workers can transform animal services

Join the Vancouver Humane Society and three expert panelists on Wednesday, June 14th at 9:00 am PDT for an enlightening 60-minute webinar on the field of veterinary social work and its transformative impact on the animal services industry.

Sign up on Livestorm

Who should join?

Anyone who would like to learn about collaboration between the sectors of social work and animal services, and about promoting the well-being of both workers and animal guardians, is welcome to attend! The webinar is designed for professionals and organizations working in:

  • Humane societies;
  • Shelters;
  • Veterinary clinics;
  • Rescues;
  • Social work; and
  • Related fields.

Free webinar by the Vancouver Humane Society & expert panelists

Find out how veterinary social work could change animal services…

During the 40-minute discussion, panelists will explore topics including:

  • What is veterinary social work, and how does it differ from traditional social work? 
  • How can working with a veterinary social worker benefit organizations in the animal services industry? 
  • How can collaboration between sectors help to combat burnout and compassion fatigue? 
  • How can a veterinary social worker help organizations implement trauma-informed practices? 
  • What are some challenges or barriers that organizations might face when incorporating veterinary social work into their practices, and how can they overcome them? 

The final 20 minutes of the webinar will be dedicated to audience questions, ensuring an interactive and engaging experience for all participants. Attendees who stay until the end will have the opportunity to enter a giveaway prize draw.

Don’t miss this chance to discover how veterinary social work could change animal services, and to explore the possibilities for collaboration between human services and the animal services industry. Register now to secure your spot and contribute to the well-being of animals, workers, and organizations alike.

Meet the panelists

Natalie Cruz

Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital

Natalie has been a veterinary social worker at Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital for more than a year. A lifelong animal lover, she has her Masters of Social Work and has more than 10 years experience in the social services field using skills such as crisis intervention, grief & loss support, difficult diagnosis conversations, end of life discussions, safety assessments, psychoeducation and more.

In her role as a veterinary social worker, she provides support for pet owners who are going through grief and loss, receiving a difficult diagnosis, end of life discussions and quality of life discussions. She also provides support to BBVSH staff around different concerns such as mental health, burnout, compassion fatigue and much more. She hopes by sharing more about veterinary social work that it can start a conversation within the animal services field on having a social worker on their team.

On her days off, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends and enjoy exploring what British Columbia has to offer. She has a dog named Timber and a rabbit named Gertrude.

Erin Wasson

University of Saskatchewan, Western College of Veterinary Medicine

Erin Wasson (BSW, MSW, RSW) is a registered social worker who has worked clinically in several areas, including mental health, addictions, crisis response, interpersonal violence, trauma, geriatrics, disability, and youth work. She has spent her career working with individuals, groups, and communities as an advocate, clinician, and educator. She works from an integrative approach to social work, which includes assessments and interventions from a community-care and trauma-integrated lens. These approaches help Erin and the clients she works with to explore the context of their experiences that lead to relational connection and disconnection within their lives.   

In 2014 Erin implemented the Veterinary Social Work services at the University of Saskatchewan, Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), the first of its kind in Canada. From a one welfare perspective, she continues to work as a social worker at the WCVM, providing services to clients of the Veterinary Medical Centre as well as resources to staff and faculty. Additionally, Erin has been active in the promotion of health, wellbeing, and tangible self-care strategies with veterinarians and allied professions. This includes providing resources, support, and educational seminars to professional associations, animal welfare agencies, and other groups who interact with human and animal relationships and manage the challenges that arise in the interface of the human and animal bond.

Dillon Dodson

Toronto Humane Society

Dillon joined Toronto Humane Society in early 2020 to head up the expansion of the Urgent Care program. Drawing on over a decade of experience working as a professional social worker, Dillon utilized her experience supporting marginalized persons to inform every step of the UC program creation and associated training manual.

From childhood, Dillon has always believed in the power of animal healing and has worked to align her professional skills with a foundational desire to be with animals. From advocating for animal-assisted sessions for trauma survivors to providing equine-facilitated therapy, Dillon seeks opportunities to bring unity between animals and people.

Dillon has an extensive educational background in Social Work gaining her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Toronto and her Bachelor of Social Work from McMaster University, in addition to a number of certifications relevant to her field of specialization. She works through a resilience framework, employing trauma-informed practices and leading with recovery-oriented treatment.

In January 2023, Dillon joined Toronto Humane Society fulltime as senior manager of social work and embarked on certification in veterinary social work. In the same year, she was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Association of Veterinary Social Workers.


Port Moody passes motion to prohibit inhumane rodeo events

A big win for animals in Port Moody

A recent motion to prohibit inhumane rodeo events within city limits was unanimously passed by Port Moody City Council!

The sponsor of the motion, Councillor Kyla Knowles, cited evidence of animal suffering, risk of injury, and public calls for action. She noted that “the routine rough handling of animals in rodeo events completely contradicts industry requirements and best practices for the handling of farmed animals.”

Why a proactive ban?

While many rodeos have been cancelled in the past decade due to public controversy and animal welfare concerns, recent activity from rodeo organizers has emphasized the need for proactive protections for animals.

Last year, a new rodeo was established in Langley Township, which has no bylaws in place prohibiting inhumane rodeo practices. The event prompted advocacy for protective bylaws across B.C.—both in communities where rodeos occur and those where rodeo activities are not yet held.

This bylaw helps to ensure that new events being introduced do not expose animals to the unnecessary fear, stress, and risk associated with rodeos.

Port Moody joins two more B.C. municipalities with rodeo bylaws

The move to ban inhumane rodeo events including bucking, roping, wrestling, and mutton busting in Port Moody follows similar bylaws in place in the City of Vancouver and District of North Vancouver. It also aligns with public polling that indicates a majority of B.C. residents are opposed to the use of animals in rodeo events.

Could your municipality be the next community to prohibit inhumane rodeo practices? Call on your city council to protect animals used in rodeo events!

Take action

Quick action: Contact your city council

Public polling shows that a majority of British Columbians and Canadians are opposed to the use of animals in rodeo.

Some communities, including the City of Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, and Port Moody, have municipal bylaws in place to prohibit inhumane rodeo events and practices. Call on your city council to follow this lead by implementing a bylaw in your community! 

Next step: Join the Animal Advocacy Committee for grassroots action

Are you a B.C. resident interested in taking further action to support the introduction of a rodeo bylaw in your community? Learn more and join the VHS’s new Animal Advocacy Committee!  

Join now

Call on your city council to prohibit inhumane rodeo events in your community

Roping, bucking, wrestling and mutton busting events at rodeos subject animals to fear, discomfort, stress and an unnecessary risk of injury, all for the sake of entertainment. Photos and videos taken at rodeos in British Columbia highlight these animal welfare issues and reiterate the need for stronger municipal bylaws.  

Take action
Watch video

Quick action: Contact your city council

Public polling shows that a majority of British Columbians and Canadians are opposed to the use of animals in rodeo.

Some communities, including the City of Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, and most recently the City of Port Moody have municipal bylaws in place to prohibit inhumane rodeo events and practices. Call on your city council to follow this lead by implementing a bylaw in your community! 

Next step: Join the Animal Advocacy Committee for grassroots action

Are you a B.C. resident interested in taking further action to support the introduction of a rodeo bylaw in your community? Learn more and join the VHS’s new Animal Advocacy Committee!  

Join now

Inhumane rodeo events, practices & tools 

Recent footage from B.C. rodeos reveals numerous animal welfare issues, including stressed and frightened animals being roughly handled and deliberately agitated into fleeing and bucking. Watch the video below to see how inhumane practices and tools cause animal suffering in rodeo events.

Animal welfare issues spotted at B.C. rodeos

Video footage taken at rodeos in Chilliwack and Langley Township shows stressed and frightened animals being roughly handled and deliberately agitated into fleeing and bucking. Learn more and take action:


Join the VHS’s Animal Advocacy Committee

Work alongside the VHS team

to advocate for stronger animal protections and animal-friendly policies in your B.C. community!

Sign up

What is the committee?

The VHS’s Animal Advocacy Committee (AAC) aims to bring together advocates from across British Columbia who are interested in engaging their elected representatives at the local and provincial level in support of stronger animal protections and animal-friendly policies.  

You bring the passion for change; the Vancouver Humane Society will share special actions, help you connect with other animal allies, and work with you every step of the way to make a meaningful difference for animals.

Here are some ways you might advocate for animals as part of the AAC: 

  • Meeting with a city councillor to advocate for a bylaw to prohibit inhumane rodeo events in your community; 
  • Gathering petition signatures in support of a proposal that will benefit animals; 
  • Speaking with your B.C. member of the legislative assembly (MLA) to encourage plant-forward food purchasing policies that help reduce the high demand for animal products and factory farming;
  • Writing and submitting a ‘Letter to the Editor’ to your local newspaper, sharing your concerns about wild and exotic animals in captivity.  

Who should join the committee?

Any B.C. resident who wants to help animals and support the VHS’s local and provincial campaign work! The current scope of the AAC’s work is focused on rodeo; plant-forward policies; wild and exotic animals in captivity; and farmed animal welfare.  

You don’t need to be an expert on these issues or have previous experience writing, meeting or speaking with decision-makers. All you need is an interest in taking action for animals and the VHS team will support you with the rest! 

Why is this important?

Your local City Council and provincial MLA were elected to represent their community – that includes you! It’s crucial they hear from their constituents about issues of concern. As a constituent of theirs, you are uniquely positioned to help bring animal welfare issues to their attention and advocate for change. 

How does the committee work?

The VHS will host online calls to support AAC members in sharing ideas, planning actions and building new skills. Once you sign up to join the AAC, you’ll be invited to the next online call. The VHS is also available to support AAC members’ advocacy work between online calls, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Questions? Contact VHS Campaign Director, Emily Pickett, at

Sign up to join the Animal Advocacy Committee


Podcast: How to train your dog or cat

Training can have a big impact on the way animals experience the world.

Rewards-based training methods can help keep animals safe, build stronger bonds with their guardians, and reduce their fear of unfamiliar situations. In this episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal well-being, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss science-backed training techniques for any species of animal, from dogs and cats to horses to birds and hamsters.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Anyone can learn about training

A dog sits in a training exercise as her guardian holds a ball behind her back

Amy: The way an animal is trained will make a big impact on their experience of the world and level of happiness. The most important thing to mention is that animal training is 100% grounded in science. Any person can learn how to train animals and can get consistent results.

There’s certainly knowledge and skills to be learned over time, and those include in particular how to best design an effective training protocol in regards to frequency and timing. The BC SPCA just released an updated 2023 literature review on dog training that gives great scientific grounding.

Why train animals?

Amy: So what are the reasons to train animals? In a broad sense, there are three goals in training:

  1. To protect ourselves from animals that can harm us; for example, preventing us or others from being bitten or scratched, knocked or pulled over.
  2. To protect animals from harm, real or perceived; for example, preventing animals from getting in fights with each other, preventing them from running or or flying away and related harms like getting injured or starving, as well as husbandry activities such as grooming, foot and hoof care, and medical care and treatment.
  3. To build a bond between us and animals; for example, through trick training or other fun agility type activities.

Chantelle: Speaking of protecting animals from harm, real or perceived, animals can perceive harm that isn’t there, such as when they have a fear from the noise of fireworks. And training can play a big part in making our companions feel happy and healthy and safe.

Early life experiences

Amy: Before we dive into some specific scenarios, I’d love to talk a bit about the impacts of genetics and environment on training. The science of genetics, epigenetics, and environment on behavior is developed more in some species than others.

In a very broad sense, we understand that the negative life experiences of an animal can get passed on to their offspring. In humans, this could be labeled as intergenerational trauma.

Research in rats has demonstrated that if a rat is stressed while pregnant, the offspring will demonstrate more signs of fear and anxiety. However, there’s genetic and temperament variations within a litter, so essentially one offspring can be really fearful and aggressive, while another can come out fearful and defensive, and another could seem to be easygoing. These behaviors are seen to continue into adulthood.

It’s important to note that wild animals will be genetically fearful of humans. Feral domestic animals are those that aren’t exposed to humans in their early lives, so we know that environmental or early life experiences can play a big role as to the level of fear that domestic animals experience, such as one in response to humans.

Classical conditioning

Amy: Many people have taken psychology classes or heard of that experiment where a person called Pavlov rang a bell, which led to an animal salivating in prediction to food delivery. That’s called classical conditioning.

Chantelle: Classical conditioning is basically when a neutral stimulus like ringing a bell is paired with a stimulus that provokes a response like food.

Eventually, the animal associates the neutral stimulus with the meaningful stimulus so strongly that they start expressing the response when they’re exposed just to the neutral stimulus alone, which is why Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard a bell.

Now we will get into classical conditioning to better describe the role of genetics and environmental influences on behaviour. We know that classical conditioning causes a neutral stimulus to result in an involuntary response, and one example of that is a fear response.

The way people and animals respond to different stimuli, especially in terms of what causes fear and anxiety and folks’ risk tolerance, is very individual. The way that we, and other animals, respond to stimuli will differ. For example, some people can stand at the top of a high building comfortably, while others experience a fear response—things like a racing heart or sweating. Standing at the top of the building can be seen by some to present a risk, but it’s not a sign of imminent danger in itself. The same goes for walking into a loud, crowded restaurant.

For animals, some common examples we think about are skateboards or vacuum cleaners.

Amy: Classical conditioning is really interesting because, as I was mentioning, it can relate to early life experiences and temperament. One animal might hear a loud noise and be unaffected, while another will hide at a young age, and with no change or influence, will continue to hide as an adult. Fireworks are a great example of this. Many animals are terrified of fireworks because of the loud noises they elicit. Training animals with classical conditioning methods involves three concepts: habituation, desensitization, and counter conditioning.

Applying classical conditioning: habituation

Amy: Habituation can occur when a stimulus has repeated exposure and the animal doesn’t experience any consequences, they can become familiar with it.

Habituation’s effectiveness depends on the degree of sensitivity of the individual. I might be able to get used to motorcycle noises by being exposed to them over time, while another individual might find them increasingly fear inducing. The same goes for individual animals.

It can be helpful to pair positive reinforcement, such as delivering a treat, with stimuli that we think might cause fear in the future for animal to aid in the habituation process when an animal is newly being exposed to unfamiliar stimuli. Delivering a treat is one way of conditioning the animal, so instead of being fearful of something like a noise they have a neutral or positive association with it.

Once, I was caring for a mini dalmatian mix that had spent her whole life tied up or crated in a barn. I was tasked with exposing her to new stimuli as my foster. It was amazing to see the world through her eyes; she would cower when a plane went by overhead!

Chantelle: So basically, the dog you were caring for was becoming habituated to everything because she hadn’t been exposed to anything. It sounds like she was in a similar situation to a puppy going out into the world for the first time. So if an animal isn’t having a response to a new thing at all or is having just a brief startle response about something new, we can help them become habituated to the new thing.

Applying classical conditioning: Desensitization and counter conditioning

Chantelle: When an animal is already showing signs of fear as a response to something, we can use the tools of counter conditioning and desensitization as go-to methods for making life more comfortable for them.

Amy: Two examples I would love to highlight are a fear of the sound of skateboards and a fear of having nails or hooves done.

If we take a step back, first we have to identify what the animal we are working with is afraid of. We talked about fear and stress behaviours a little bit in the last episode, so I won’t go into great detail. Depending on the species, you might observe cowering, running or flying away, freezing, barking, running towards the fearful situation aggressively, hissing, swatting, scratching, pecking or more.

Once the fear behavior is observed and identified, and the cause of the fear is identified, a training plan can be created. It is best to work with a trainer who is knowledgeable about the species if you think that you or your animal are at risk of injury or further psychological damage.

For example, my dog Clover became so averse to having her nails cut that I had to work with a trainer to develop a very carefully constructed protocol for desensitizing and counter conditioning her, also called DSCC. Similarly, her fear of skateboards became problematic because she would run towards them, barking, and almost pull me over! No one else could walk her because of this risk.

Chantelle: What are some of the steps someone could take to desensitize and counter condition an animal who has a fear response?

What is an animal’s “threshold” in DSCC?

Amy: The most important thing to understand about the process of DSCC is that animals have a “threshold”. This means that there is a moment that they don’t observe the thing they are afraid of, and then there is a moment when they notice and don’t react, and then there is the moment they react. It is impossible to desensitize and counter condition an animal that is already reacting.

Some fearful animals can stay in a hypervigilant state, so they are always looking for threats. It can also be very difficult to desensitize and counter condition them. Trainers suggest creating opportunities for decompression so that an animal is more relaxed as a status quo, before starting to retrain them.

The only method to train an animal that is feeling fear is delivering a reward when they are under their threshold. They receive the reward when they notice the thing they are afraid of, but do not react to it.

It can be important to set up scenarios that keep them feeling safe and relatively below threshold.

This can mean keeping a large distance between the animal and the trigger, or with something like foot or hoof care, breaking the process down into microsteps. For example, if the animal reacts to seeing the nail clippers, then anything that happens after they see the nail clippers is going too far.

There are lots of videos on Youtube about DSCC.

Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Handling

Lionel is an under-socialized cat from an animal hoarding background. He didn’t have much experience with being pet and hands coming towards him were scary at first. Here is one of his first DS/CC sessions to being pet.

Chantelle: The terms desensitization and counter conditioning are coupled together, because both are needed to change a behavior response from fearful to neutral. However, desensitization essentially describes the reduction in emotional response to the stimuli, or the outcome that is desired, while counter conditioning describes the method used to achieve that outcome, which involves changing the association the animal has made between the behavior and its consequences by pairing it with a positive experience.

Amy: Exactly! And that is what is always needed in this process: that pairing of a positive experience.

Chantelle: I did this with my companion cat Callie last year. We had fireworks going off near our home every night leading up to Halloween, and she was very fearful of them. I tried to help her get used to the fireworks by giving her a treat every time one went off. It’s a common training method, but I didn’t realize it was a classical conditioning method.

Amy: Typically a very high value reward is needed for this process, a reward that the animal does not experience any other time.

What is most important to consider with this kind of training is that it needs to involve short, intentional training period because just like us, animals reach a limit where they can’t relearn, and that limit is extremely short when it comes to situations that cause them fear.

DSCC is a very slow process, but we know from science that it works, and it just requires calm, consistent behaviour on our part.

Some scenarios we may never achieve the full outcome we are hoping for. For example, if you have a pet bird who bites your fingers as a means of protection, it might take a very long time to change that, and realistically, based the bird’s early life experiences, that behaviour may never change as much as you want it to.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning to the Syringe

Uploaded by Busy Beaks Academy on 2018-01-14.

Chantelle: This can be a hard concept to really absorb, so we’ve included some videos where you can see DSCC in action with a few different species.

It can be helpful to search youtube for desensitization and counter conditioning, and whatever fear issue the animal you are working with is experiencing, to get a general idea of how to address it.

Journey DS/CC to Touch

Journey is learning that touch is not scary – but it’s hard for her! From this angle it’s easy to see that touch with the hand is too much for her at this point. The trainer pushes her too far and she jumps away.

Keep in mind that the person on YouTube might be making some mistakes when it comes to the value of the reward, the timing, or how much they push the animal in each session. Each animal is an individual and will move at a different pace.

NAIL TRIMS – part 1/3: counterconditioning & desensitization to tools and handling

This is the first part of three on teaching the dog to like nail trims. This part covers the process of counterconditioning and systematic desensitization to tools (in this case nail clippers) and general handling of the paws.

I also want to note here that there’s a misconception that “taming” and “training” are completely different thing. Really, taming is just one type of training that uses the classical conditioning technique of desensitization to teach animals to tolerate human touch who normally wouldn’t, like hamsters or feral cats.

Operant conditioning

Amy: Now that we have covered classical conditioning, let’s talk about operant conditioning. This is the formal term for intentionally increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behavior using a consequence.

Something to keep in mind, that I will bring up throughout, is that the same techniques that have an impact on human behaviour, have an impact on animal behaviour. Essentially, the way you raise a child, or treat a friend, and the way you train an animal are grounded in the same science.

Chantelle: I think this is probably the thing people do most consciously with children, like giving a toddler a high five every time they put their shoes on nicely for a walk because they like high fives.

In operant conditioning, there are four quadrants representing the following four ways of training: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement.

  • The term positive is used for when a “consequence” is something that is added.
  • The term negative is when the “consequence” is that something is taken away.
  • The term “reinforcement” is used to describe trying to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour.
  • “Punishment” is used to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour.

Four quadrants of operant conditioning in animal training

Positive (adding)Negative (taking away)
Reinforcement (to encourage desired behaviour)Positive reinforcement is essentially adding something to the equation to encourage an animal to repeat a desired behavior. You can think of this as the well-timed use of food, play, or happy verbal attention to encourage them to repeat desired behaviours.Negative reinforcement is when negative stimuli are applied to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour. A person might put physical pressure on a horse with the body of another horse until the horse offers a desired behaviour, such as turning a certain way, at which point, they give the horse space. The horse offers that behaviour as an attempt to avoid the physical pressure they were experiencing.
Punishment (to discourage unwanted behaviour)Positive punishment involves adding a stimuli to a stop an unwanted behavior. This can include a person telling a dog “No” or “Stop” when they are barking. Positive punishment is often used on when walking an animal on a leash. When a dog pulls, handlers often have the tendency to tug at the leash. In this case, the handler is adding a correction as the consequence.Negative punishment is when we take away something to get a behavior to stop. This could be, for example, walking away silently from an animal that is jumping up.

Chantelle: Although these are all ways that can be used to train animals, we know now from research that the level of effectiveness and long-term outcomes for the psychological well-being of the animal can differ based on the technique used. These different quadrants don’t fully encapsulate the role that trust plays in each of these scenarios.

Assuming all of these training methods are applied consistently, a training method like positive reinforcement builds trust because the animal derives enjoyment from the experience through brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin and want to continue to seek out experiences that lead to the release of those chemicals.

On the flip side, training methods like positive punishment or negative reinforcement are grounded in the parts of the brain that seek to avoid situations that cause fear or pain and do not have a knock-on effect of building trust.

Amy: We use the words “reward-based” and “aversive-based” training to differentiate between these two.

In the literature review we referenced from the BC SPCA, 4 out of 4 data-based research studies found that training with aversive-based techniques lead to more stress related behaviours in the dogs compared to training with reward-based techniques. They also identified that 7 of 7 surveys found that more frequent reported use of aversive-based techniques, whether alone or in combination with reward-based techniques, was associated with more frequent reporting of aggression and other problem behaviours.

Applying operant conditioning

Chantelle: I was wondering if you could speak more to different training tools?

Amy: Absolutely. In an ideal world, animals could be completely naked, with no harness or halter or collar.

However, sometimes we need to attach the animal to us, or ourselves to the animal, for that added layer of safety. In those situations, we certainly don’t want to put them or us at risk, so it can get pretty high stakes, especially when you talk about large animals like horses!

The most important thing is to see a collar, leash, harness, or halter as something that the animal might be fearful of and either habituate, or, if they are already fearful, practice DSCC to ensure that they are comfortable with putting on and taking off the apparatus.

Any tool that is safe to use should not cause pain. Tools like bits that you put in horse’s mouths, or prong collars, or choke collars, or shock collars, are all designed with positive punishment training methods in mind.

A trainer might be deceptive about this. For example, think about a scenario where a dog is walking around, away from a person. The person calls the dog and gets no response. The desired behaviour is for the dog to come to the person. A trainer might suggest pairing an electric shock (positive punishment) to extinguish the undesired behaviour (walking away) with a treat when they change their behaviour, and call that positive reinforcement.

The first problem with this example is that the trainer is adding an intermediary of positive punishment into a scenario that can be trained without it. That essentially makes a person dependent on shocking their dog to get the outcomes they want, which we know from research.

The second problem is that shocking a dog is aversive and can lead to long-term negative outcomes for both the dog, and the relationships with the dog and other dogs, strangers, and the guardian, since it is brings in their fear response.

What if a dog gets an electric shock when they are next to another dog? If they are fear aggressive by nature, they might end up turning and biting that dog, connecting the fear they are feeling to the presence of that dog.

So, how do we eliminate the need for the shock collar? The answer is in identifying the original goal: for the dog to respond to being called.

This can be difficult when a dog has already latched on to the scent of an animal trail, or the visual of another dog. Similar to the idea of threshold, there can sometimes be a point of no return where a dog goes into a focus mode and no longer registers the sound of our voice.

Early recall training has to be consistent, with small wins and big rewards. You eventually build up to more complex scenarios, and it has to be done gradually. The cue used to call the dog back has to be used only in very specific scenarios, where it is always paired with a very high value reward.

For example, for a time, Clover was trained to come to me yelling “TACO”. At some point, I stopped using as high of rewards, and I even used it once or twice without a reward, and the word lost its value. The good thing is you can always train a new cue, whether it be a word that is easy to yell or whistle.

Chantelle: This is a great example of the difference between training using solely positive reinforcement versus positive punishment and positive reinforcement combined. What other examples do you have for operant conditioning?

Amy: Many people think the only way to train a horse is by putting pressure on them. Instead, horses do really well with clicker training.

A clicker is an intermediate reinforcer that gives a cue that an actual positive reinforcer will follow. This is helpful when there is a time that passes between when a behaviour happens and our ability to deliver a reward. A click can happen right away and then the reward itself can follow.

Fairhorsemanship is a great resource for clicker training horses to lunge, move hindquarters, walk at liberty and more. Great reinforcers for horses include apples, carrots, sweet feed, but can also include high fiber pony cubes, sunflower seeds, chaff and scratches depending on the horse’s past experiences with these items as well as personal preference.

In sanctuary environments, it is so important for wild animals to be able to actively participate in and opt in to their care. Clicker training works really well for this.

You can find videos online of elephants voluntarily presenting their feet to be trimmed and filed. Positive reinforcement clicker training is how they work with animals to increase their desire to participate in what is called “cooperative care”. This is the term for any grooming and body maintenance that an animal chooses actively to be part of, rather than being tied down or held down for the care to occur.

Maia’s Foot Presentation

This morning Karissa did some training with Maia, working on her front foot presentation. We do footwork with Maia, but because of the immediate need for foot care when she and Guida arrived, we sort of skipped past the formal training part. So it’s one of the things we are working on now.

Grooming and veterinary procedures can be stressful for all species. Often, when pets go to a groomer, they are held in place by a tight cord around their neck so that they feel helpless and cannot go anywhere. This is aversive, but common because of the time and cost pressure for the grooming and expectation of the guardian.

Ideally, pets are able to opt in, and opt out, of their grooming and veterinary handling experience. This can be done through positive reinforcement training.

With animals that are already fearful, the principles of desensitization and counter conditioning would need to be applied. Veterinary professionals can be certified Fear-Free, you can learn more about this from the link in our blog.

I only work with veterinary professionals who know how to read Clover’s behaviour and have the knowledge and training to keep her calm when we are at the vet. They never restrain her. Sometimes I hold her while a technician gives her treats if a needle is involved to prevent sudden movement that would further cause her harm.

Voice and choice for animals

Chantelle: Mentioning the opt in and opt out sounds like consent. I’m wondering if anyone talks about consent with animals?

Amy: I’m glad you mentioned that. I often think about people picking up small animals, cats, and small dogs without identifying first if that is something the animal wants.

Similarly, people will touch the top of the head of an animal because it is the easiest to access, but typically animals prefer to be offered a hand to sniff and then will direct the hand where they want it for pets, if anywhere.

We can offer a lot to the animals in our lives by giving them the opportunity to ask for what they need without assuming what we want, such as cuddles, is something they also want.

You can train an animal to enjoy being picked up or to be pet; however, the training needs to be designed with voice and choice.

Chantelle: What do you mean by voice and choice?

Amy: Voice and choice refer to the ability of animals to communicate their needs and preferences and to have some control over their environments.

Voice refers to an animal’s ability to communicate their needs and desires through vocalizations, body language, or other forms of behavior. It is a common misconception that animals do not have a voice. We know that they communicate clearly, but it comes down to whether anyone is actively listening to them.

Choice refers to an animal’s ability to make decisions about their environment, and in reference to training, their ability to end the training session when they want. It is important to listen to their voice as you can often identify subtle signs of frustration when they start to become overwhelmed.

Providing animals with opportunities to make choices in training can help them develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Choosing an animal trainer

Chantelle: You spoke in the last episode about receiving advice from a trainer to encourage a dog not to bark, and most people’s response would be to trust what we see as professional advice. How do we know if the guidance a trainer is giving us is trustworthy or not?

Amy: This is something I have grappled with a lot. With my first dog, he had a big barking problem. He barked at every noise that he heard. Unfortunately, I worked with a trainer who was not knowledgeable with animal behaviour. She suggested I make something that makes a loud noise, or try a spray bottle, and introduce this each time he barked. I now know these methods as positive punishment. Citronella collars and shock collars are also positive punishment.

Sadly, I was misguided and my dog suffered for it. I now know that the best ways to manage barking behaviour involve counter-conditioning and desensitization, as well as managing the environment.

When my current dog, Clover, started barking out the window, a trainer suggested frosting the glass so she couldn’t see through.

Whenever we would move to a new place, I would give her a high value treat every time we heard a noise, before she had a chance to bark. Pretty soon, she was coming to me for treats whenever she heard a noise, instead of barking!

When trying to screen for a trainer, it is important to ask clear questions about what quadrants of operant conditioning they work with, as well as what outcomes they have seen implementing DSCC.

Avoid working with trainers who can’t speak about quadrants of operant conditioning. This is a big red flag and is really common in the horse community. Also avoid trainers who say they are comfortable using positive punishment or negative reinforcement. These are aversive methods.

Look for trainers that specifically mention positive reinforcement-based training and use food-based rewards. Ask them about desensitization and counter conditioning and see if they understand the importance of pairing timing and rewards.

There are also training accreditations that can be researched. Some are more effective than others.

If you aren’t sure about a trainer, there is probably a good reason! Anyone can call themselves a trainer and they might actually make suggestions that are harmful.

Any good trainer is focused on ensuring a positive bond between the person and their animal, and a positive experience for the animal being trained.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we delve into the topic of well-being for farmed animals!