Dr Rebecca Ledger uses the Five Domains Model for forensic animal behaviour analysis

{this post was co-authored by David Mellor}

How can we prosecute cases of animal cruelty when there is no physical evidence? Dr Rebecca Ledger told us. She uses the Five Domains Model, developed here in New Zealand, to explain the mental experiences of animals for cruelty prosecutions mounted in Canada.

The background

Retained as an expert witness by the British Columbia SPCA, Dr Ledger uses animal behaviour to demonstrate suffering. In a recent visit to New Zealand, jointly hosted by the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University, the SPCA, MPI, NZVA, VCNZ and VPIS, she gave a series of talks of particular relevance to those who may be called upon to be expert witnesses in animal cruelty cases.

Historically, prosecutions for animal cruelty relied on proving an animal suffered because of physical harm (e.g. injury, disease, malnourishment). But Dr Ledger has been able to demonstrate emotional suffering using behavioural evidence. She emphasised that welfare assessment using behaviour is not ‘fluffy science’ just because there is no physical evidence. However, there is a need to educate prosecutors and courts about the ways supportable inferences can be made about the emotional experiences of animals. This helps the legal system see cruelty cases through the same ‘lens’ as animal welfare and behaviour experts.

Dr Ledger explained how she writes her Expert Opinions and then described some case studies. Her Opinions begin with a brief summary of how scientific understanding of animal behaviour has developed and now allows the experiences animals can have to be cautiously inferred. Scientific references supporting these inferences are particularly important for this section. She also references the Five Domains Model for animal welfare assessment [1] and then goes on to use the Model to retrospectively assess the welfare of the animal(s) in question.

How is it done

Dr Ledger outlined eight questions we should ask and then answer for the courts. First, whether the animal can suffer i.e. is it sentient? This is where Rebecca shows judges that animals have the ability to suffer both physically and mentally. She has had better results when her Opinions started with these details. Here, the New Zealand Animal Welfare Amendment Act (No. 2) 2015, which recognises animals as sentient, should be immensely beneficial.

Question two asks if New Zealand legislation recognises suffering in animals – clearly it does. The definitions of ‘suffering’ all include mental states or experiences. The third and fourth questions ask if conditions are present that would cause the animal to suffer and which negative experiences (affective states) the animal would likely have. By using the Five Domains Model, she shows that her Opinion is science-based and this enhances the judges’ confidence in what is being concluded. The Model also encourages judges to think about the psychological impacts of specific impositions on the animal.

Questions five and six are to provide insight into the animal’s experiences at the time of the mistreatment. By focusing on the physical and/or behavioural evidence of suffering and how severe and/or protracted the suffering is, these questions help the court appreciate the importance of behavioural evidence. Emphasised here is that behaviours and their associated mental experiences have a function (e.g. fear enables an animal to respond to a perceived threat; aggression creates distance from what it is afraid of).

The seventh question asks if the suffering was necessary – could it have been avoided? For example, dog trainer claims that shock collars are the only way for dogs to learn. An expert witness here would need to be prepared with humane alternatives as examples. The final question focuses on intent – was the suffering inflicted wilfully?

An important caveat

Dr Ledger made it clear that there is a need to ‘choose our battles’. Losing a case may set a precedent that condones the cruelty that has occurred. Rebecca recommends starting with ‘easy wins’ and gradually moving forward from there. She purposely chose dogs because, as companion animals, they are often better understood and more people are sympathetic towards them.

  1. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.



Positive affective engagement: the link between animal welfare science and training for rewards

What better way to celebrate my tenth blog post (it’s still early days for Kat Welfare Matters!) than by taking part in a blog party organised by the wonderful Zazie of Companion Animal Psychology?

The blog party theme is something I wholeheartedly support: ‘training for rewards’. Reward-based training, or positive reinforcement as it is also known, is a form of ‘operant conditioning’[1]. This is just a fancy way of saying it is a training method that involves an animal learning to do something because of the consequences its behaviour has. When animals behave in a certain way they are ‘operating on’ their environment. The positive or negative consequences of that behaviour affects the frequency with which the animal will perform that behaviour in the future. In other words, if the animal does something (e.g. the cat sits) and the consequence of this is positive (e.g. a yummy treat that the cat loves) it results in them doing that more in the future. We can add commands as well, but the basic idea is that the animal does something and we provide the ‘consequence’ of their behaviour.

There is a lot of great evidence for the benefits of reward-based training. I strongly suggest you check out the list of reasons to go positive at Companion Animal Psychology. It makes sense that rewarding animals for a behaviour is more likely to result in better trained animals than punishing them. The escape/avoidance approach to training that was developed in the 1940s relies on negative reinforcement and punishment; animals escape the aversive consequence by changing behaviour. In contrast, positive reinforcement is a ‘modern’ approach to learning and training, as it provides specific information to the animal about the exact behaviour that is required. In doing so, it enhances the human-animal bond.

Linking reward-based training and animal welfare science using the concept of positive affective engagement

Training for rewards emphasises the idea of giving an animal something they find rewarding or enjoyable. These rewards may be different for different animals, but should result in the animal experiencing positives emotions. This links directly with the concept of positive experiences, or affects, that is being increasingly emphasised in animal welfare science.

While animal welfare scientists used to concentrate their efforts on the negative experiences of animals, we are looking more and more at the potential for positive experiences. Back when animal welfare science began, people were worried about how badly animals were being treated and their potential negative experiences – especially animals confined in intensive production systems. But now that we have learnt more about how to keep animals and what they might need to minimise their negative experiences, we are able to look at providing them with opportunities for positive experiences e.g. play and/or exploration. Ensuring animals are receiving good nutrition (food and water), that their environment is suitable, and that they are healthy typically only moves them from negative/poor welfare towards neutral. None of these ‘survival-related’ provisions [2] are enough to result in overall positive welfare. However, when we start to look at how animals are behaving and provide them with opportunities to behave in ways they find rewarding, we can start to move them towards an overall positive welfare state.

Rewarding animals for a behaviour that we want them to do and that they enjoy could result in heightened states of positive welfare. Hence asking a dog to ‘sit’ becomes ‘playing sit’; the dog starts to associate the command and their response with a positive reward (e.g. food and/or your happy voice). We know that play is a positive experience for most animals, so why would we not want to make training positive for them?

‘Positive affective engagement’ is the experience animals may have when they respond to motivations to engage in rewarding behaviours. The concept includes all experiences that are positive [3]. In reward-based training, the concept could include the state of engagement that results from an animal’s goal-directed, energised performance of a learned task that it enjoys. The enjoyment may result from the task itself and/or be due to the associated reward. A 2015 review by Mellor [4] emphasises the scientific support (via ‘affective neuroscience’) for the existence of positive experiences and their assessment using behaviours we observe in animals. In other words, training for rewards is not only a very effective training method, but there is good evidence to suggest that it could improve the lives (or welfare) of our animals.

My Jäger cat sits for a food treat


  1. Stafford, K., ed. The welfare of dogs. Animal Welfare, ed. C. Phillips. Vol. 4. 2006, Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  2. Mellor, D.J. and N.J. Beausoleil, Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 2015. 24(3): p. 241-253.
  3. Mellor, D.J., Enhancing animal welfare by creating opportunities for positive affective engagement. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 2015. 63(1): p. 3-8.
  4. Mellor, D.J., Positive animal welfare states and encouraging environment-focused and animal-to-animal interactive behaviours. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 2015. 63(1): p. 9-16.

Exploring end-of-life management of old and chronically ill cats

My second study towards my PhD is well under way. The recruitment phase started on social media (Facebook and Twitter) with a call for cat owners to participate. Interested cat owners who have put down their cat in the last 6 months are redirected to an online survey which takes them through a few quick questions. These are to help us interview the right people.

We want to make sure we are interviewing cat owners who recently euthanased their pet. If it was too long ago then the vet involved may not remember enough details for their (separate) interview. The cat owners, and their vet, must also be in New Zealand. The interviews are done in person so I need to be able to visit them. We are also asking owners to tell us why the cat was put down. If it was due to a disease that lasted a long time, or because the cat was older, then we might get more information about tricky decisions that were made. On the other hand, a cat that was put down because it was involved in an accident would probably provide much less information. The owners also need to give us permission to contact their vet for interview and leave us enough information to contact them.

We have also had a write-up about the study in VetScript – the magazine for The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA). An email has also gone out to all NZVA members. Massey University has got on board with an article on their website and the study has been shared through their social media channels. These various initiatives are helping get the word out about the importance of the study and how to participate.

Why am I doing the study?

The research seeks to uncover how the owners of older cats or cats with chronic disease perceive the role their vets have played in the euthanasia process, before comparing this to the vet’s own understanding of their involvement. We are also looking at the decision-making process and how cat owners, and their vets, are making euthanasia decisions. This improved understanding of what drives owner behaviour would safeguard older cat welfare and further inform vets of their role in end-of-life management.

How can you get involved?

If you are a cat owner who meets our criteria, or you know someone that might, please take the time to visit our online recruitment page and answer a few questions. This should only take 5-10 minutes of your time.

If you are a veterinarian and you think you might have a client that would be happy to chat to me then please direct them to our online recruitment page.

If anyone has questions about the study they can get in touch with me at: K.Littlewood@massey.ac.nz