How my MSc is helping dogs and their owners

Justine Williams is a graduate of our MSc in Behaviour Change. Here she explains how she has applied theory from her masters studies to her new business, Our Family Dog, a website for first-time dog owners in the UK.

Changing human behaviour

I had my first light-bulb moment after reading the books of Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), and discovering that human behaviour was a pretty complex subject.

I was Head of Campaigns for the RSPCA at the time and this rang true as efforts to ‘change’ people using advocacy and awareness-raising techniques were having limited results. Shifts in attitudes were short-lived. People soon reverted to their default behaviour or belief.

Hungry to learn more, I booked myself onto a three-day behaviour change conference in 2011. Presentations from public health professionals left me giddy with excitement about how human behaviour change techniques could be applied to improving animal welfare.

Ground-breaking insight

After successfully convincing my boss that, yes, understanding why people behave the way they do was relevant to animal welfare, we set about applying this in a range of contexts. This ranged from puppy buying and cat neutering to meat consumption. This was ground-breaking for the animal welfare sector. We shared our new-found knowledge with colleagues in other animal welfare organisations. The term ‘behavioural insights’ was becoming the latest buzzword thanks to the newly formed Nudge Unit (as it was then). And the use of behaviour-change theory was increasingly being used by a growing number of organisations.

That said, it took a while for animal welfare as a topic to make it onto the behaviour-change circuit. As I marched along to an academic conference to present my first poster about the use of behavioural insights to increase cat neutering rates in the UK, I realised I was the lone-voice crazy cat lady in a room full of public health professionals.

Back to the classroom

There came a point when my text-book expertise wasn’t quite enough. I wanted to learn more about the theory that underpins behaviour change. Through a friend who was equally as geeky as I was about the subject, I found out about the University of Derby’s part-time MSc in Behaviour Change. I applied, got in and went back to the classroom in September 2017 for my first study block. I was as excited as a year 7 student on their first day at secondary school.

Armed with books, folders, hand-outs and links to useful websites, I returned home to set about studying towards my first assessment. I had been out of education for the best part of 25 years and don’t have an undergraduate degree so this was all completely new to me. I’d also just started a new job, so was on a parallel learning curve and beginning to think I had bitten off more than I could chew. Thankfully, I came through the first assessment with a good result.

Another lightbulb

Applied Behaviour Change (ABC) was the subject of our third and final module of the first year. It was a chance for students to design an intervention using the COM-B (capability, opportunity, motivation) behaviour-change model. And this is when I had my second lightbulb moment.

Much of the behaviour-change work I had been doing at the RSPCA was around pet animals. This included the issue of puppy buying and the link between impulse buying and the relinquishment of dogs to rescue centres. Problematic behaviour in dogs is one of the main reasons why dogs end up in rescue centres. And this could be prevented through early intervention.

Research studies have identified a mismatch between the expectations and reality of dog ownership. For example, new dog owners are often unprepared for the level of commitment that’s required to raise a puppy. There is low awareness about dogs’ needs for companionship, particularly when they are young, and how leaving dogs alone can lead to them developing separation anxiety. Sadly, old-school, quick-fix fear-based training techniques (eg anti-bark collars), as opposed to the use of positive reinforcement, are still the norm.

Tidal power

Emotion takes over

Efforts to improve knowledge among prospective dog owners has proved difficult. This is because, for many people, the emotional side of our brain takes over when it comes to buying a puppy. And the rational right side of our brain – the sensible side – doesn’t get a look in. In behavioural terms, the problem is that people launch into getting a puppy without any preparation. This includes, for example, lack of planning about what to do with a puppy when out at work during the day.

Over coffee one day, I shared an idea with Senior Lecturer of Psychology and ABC Module Leader Dr Fiona Holland. It had stemmed from my work at the RSPCA about the need for parenting websites, like Mumsnet, for new dog owners.

Puppy parenting is similar in many ways to having a baby. They both give parents sleepless nights, and there’s a good chance they will poo on the carpet when being toilet trained. On a serious note, many new dog owners can feel overwhelmed as the reality of dog ownership kicks in. They often turn to the internet for advice, which is not always the best quality or helpful for the dog, or owner.

Encouraging response

Fiona was really encouraging in her response. So, fired up with renewed enthusiasm and knowledge, I decided to use the COM-B behaviour change model to design an intervention. COM-B posits that three things are required for behaviour change to occur. These are capability (eg knowledge, psychological skill, physical skill), opportunity (eg time, resources, social norms and cues) and motivation (eg plans, beliefs and emotional reactions). An analysis of the problem in behavioural terms found that change among dog owners was required across all three components.

In July 2019, Our Family Dog was launched. It is the first website exclusively for new dog owners in the UK. Central to the website is good quality evidenced-based advice for dog owners. But this is presented in a way that is designed to bring about change in capability, opportunity and motivation. This includes framing (comparison to having and caring for a baby), social comparison (real-life stories from new dog owners) and social support (the forum).

Timing is important

The timing of behaviour-change interventions is an important consideration. With Our Family Dog, rather than try to engage people before they get a dog, which has proved challenging, the website primarily targets dog owners when they are most receptive to and in need of support. This is during the very early weeks of pup parenting.

So, is it working? It’s still very early days but it’s certainly moving in the direction I had hoped. The target behaviour for the launch phase is simply to visit the website. Google and Facebook Ads allow for fairly precise audience targeting and, with Google Analytics plugged in, I can measure how the audience engages with the site and specific pages.

The good news is that people are coming to and spending time engaging with the website, and are sharing it on social media. This is really important because, if our friends like and share content, we are more likely to read and engage with it too.

It’s baby steps – as behaviour change generally is – but hopefully it will be the first of many baby steps towards creating happy dogs, and happy owners too.

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