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JoAnna Lou

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JoAnna Lou participates in agility, rally obedience and therapy work with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She supports her canine hobby with a career in professional training and development at a New York financial firm. JoAnna has a diverse background working with animals that includes researching birds at the Bronx Zoo and helping a friend run a rat rescue group (yes, rats!). Her writing has appeared in The Bark, DogSport, New York Tails and New York Resident.

New Sport: UpDog
Disc dog/agility hybrid makes for a more accessible activity.

Anyone who participates in a dog sport, like agility or rally obedience, knows that there are numerous benefits. Not only do you get fun exercise, but you develop a deep bond with your pup. However, it can be hard to "get into" activities like agility. As much as I've tried to get my non-"dog competition" friends into the sport, it's difficult because the time, cost, and skill required.

Five disc doggers in Florida set out to minimize the barrier to entry by making their favorite sport more accessible. Kat and Jack Fahle, Andrea and Jason Rigler, and Babz Mahony created UpDog because they found that disc dog was largely limited to extremely athletic pups and handlers that were good at throwing discs long distances (if you've seen me throw a ball, you'd know why I don't participate!).

Their goal was to design a sport that was more beginner friendly. UpDog, which incorporates elements of both agility and disc dog, features games that allow for short tosses, a wider range of disc types, and playing with multiple discs. This helps open the games up to more diverse participation. For example, for dogs that will only return a disc if you have another one in your hand, UpDog has games that allow multiple discs to be in play. If you can't throw more than six feet away (like me!), there are games where you only have to throw discs shorter distances. UpDog also allows the rolling of discs to let people without throwing skills work on distance tricks.

Unlike in disc dog, winning is not necessary to advance. In UpDog, you work towards your own personal best by earning points to move up in level (similar to agility). Each level brings new skills to learn and master. However, the UpDog team emphasizes that extensive training in agility or disc dog is not required. If your pup can catch a disc (even one rolled on the ground) and can do simple agility jumps and tunnels, you can have a great time at an UpDog event.

UpDog classes have only been offered since the spring, but events are already filling up all around the country. Look for competitions, which are open to spectators, in Illinois, New Hampshire, and even Canada. I hope that this activity gets more people to discover the wonderful world of dog sports!

For more information on this budding sport, visit the UpDog web site.

Dog Friendly Car Service in N.Y.C.
App connects pet lovers with transportation in the Big Apple.

There are many challenges to having a dog in New York City. In most of the Big Apple, patches of grass for potty breaks are few and far between. Off leash play areas are reserved to small fenced dog runs or parts of Central Park for early bird pups with reliable recalls. But one of the most annoying parts of sharing city life with a pup is finding transportation, especially if you have a non-handbag sized dog.

Since most New Yorkers don't own a car, animal lovers have to rely on the subway (where dogs have to be in a carrier, which is difficult, if not impossible, for big dogs) or a taxi. And it's not always easy getting a cab driver to stop when you have a large-by-New-York-standards pup. As if hailing a taxi wasn't hard enough in a city of over eight million people!

Enter yet another life changing app. Whisk, which launched in New York City last October, lets riders hail livery cabs with their smartphones. Earlier this month they added a new feature that connects people with animal friendly drivers. Users simply click the pet icon in the Whisk app to activate a search of eligible cars. Once Ride Now is clicked, a driver will show up with yummy treats to share and a blanket for the dogs to sit on in the backseat (animals are also welcome to ride in their own crate if they bring one).

Whisk CEO Michael Ibrahim was inspired to create the new feature when his Rhodesian Ridgeback Bafana broke her leg after being hit by a bicyclist in Manhattan. It was nearly impossible to find a cab that would take Bafana, so they ended up carrying her the 20 blocks to the veterinarian.

There is a $10 additional fee for riders traveling with pets, but it's seems like a convenient option for dog lovers with limited transport options. I hope that Whisk's new service will encourage other travel companies to consider adding pet friendly features too. If there's anything that New York City animal lovers can agree on, it's that having a pet here is expensive!

Vending Machine for Stray Dogs
Solar powered box dispenses kibble and recycles garbage

Homeless animals and garbage are just two of the many problems cities grapple with. Last month a Turkish company unveiled an ingenious machine that targets both of those issues, combining recycling and feeding stray dogs.

The Pugeon Smart Recycling Box releases kibble in exchange for trash, reminiscent of the machines at grocery stores that give you a nickel for cans and plastic bottles.

Located around Istanbul, anyone can walk up to the solar powered gadgets and insert an empty plastic bottle at the top. This activates the machine to dispense a small amount of kibble in a dish at the bottom. The bottles, which are later recycled, cover the cost of the food.

Istanbul is home to more than 150,000 stray dogs and cats, so the rations are gobbled up quickly. The city has struggled to manage the overpopulation problem over the years. In 2004, Turkey introduced an animal protection law centered around neutering homeless animals, but it is not well enforced.

While the Box helps hungry pups, it doesn't help solve the overpopulation problem. But besides providing food and disposing of trash, the machine plays a third important role--getting people to think and talk about homeless animals. Hopefully the Box will inspire people to take an active role towards a lasting solution for the stray pups.

Studying Behavior to Save Dogs
New organization aims to use research to keep pets out of shelters.

According to the Simon Foundation, behavior is the number one killer of dogs under the age of three. Challenges such as barking and aggression result in millions of dogs to be surrendered at animal shelters around the world each year.

This sad reality inspired the creation of their Center for Canine Behavior Studies. The Center aims to use behavioral science to advance our understanding of dogs and to strengthen the human-canine relationship to be proactive against the homeless pet problem.

Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, is serving as their Chief Scientific Officer.

One of his first studies will look at how owner personality influences the behavior of their dogs.

Past studies have shown that higher rates of behavior problems (sexual mounting, destructiveness, attention-seeking, separation anxiety, and aggression) in dogs were associated with people that were emotionally unstable (measured using tools such as the Eysenck Personality Inventory).

A study of search and rescue dogs deployed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon following the 9/11 terrorist attacks found that the handler's PTSD and depression symptom scores (one year later) predicted the development of behavioral problems, such as sepration anxiety and aggression, in their dogs.

Dr. Dodman and Professor James A. Serpell, Director of the Center of Interaction of Animals and Society at UPenn, are furthering this research by embarking on the largest owner-dog personality-behavior study ever conducted to establish the how a person's personality and psychological status can affect pet behavior.

They hope to use the results of the study to help people understand the influence they are having on their pet's behavior and to be able to modify their interactions accordingly. They also would like to use the information gained to help predict which owner personality types are most compatible with a particular dog that they plan to adopt.

There is lots of exciting research coming out of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and I can't wait to see the impact on homeless pets.

Xylitol Becoming More Common
The toxic ingredient is showing up in more household products.

It's widely known that xylitol, an ingredient in sugar-free gum, is toxic to dogs. Even small amounts can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia and liver failure. This has led me to be really careful about leaving packs of gum in handbags I leave around the house. I also keep gum packs (and chocolate) in a secure plastic bin in my pantry, just to be sure no hungry dogs get into the dangerous treats.

But I recently discovered that many more household products contain xylitol. In addition to other edible goods, like cookies, cough drops, and medications, the ingredient has been popping up in toothpaste, cosmetics, and mouthwash. The Pet Poison Hotline even found a line of clothing with xylitol embedded in it!

Clearly it's important to check the ingredients of the products you have lying around the house and keep them away from your pets. Xylitol is typically listed in the “Other ingredients” or “Inactive ingredients” section, but it's also been seen in the “Supplement Facts” box, so make sure you read the package closely. Sometimes the ingredients won't be listed as xylitol, but may be included as “sugar alcohols,” which encompasses many different sugar alcohols, like xylitol.

If your pet has ingested a product with xylitol in it, immediately call a veterinarian. The ingredient is so toxic that symptoms can show up within 10 minutes of ingestion. This includes weakness, lethargy, loss of coordination, seizures, vomiting, and rapid breathing. Fortunately dogs can recover if treated promptly.

This just shows how important it is to know what's in the products in your home.

Refining the Office Dog Policy
SparkFun Electronics' journey to a canine culture.

I think it's every dog lovers dream to bring their pup to work. But as much as it'd be fun to have Nemo or Scuttle at the office, I realize that welcoming dogs at work comes with a lot of challenges.

So it was interesting to read the evolution of SparkFun Electronic's dog policy, which they recently shared on their blog. Employees started bringing dogs to the Boulder, Colorado office about six years ago when the company was much smaller, with no official policy. As SparkFun grew, bringing dogs became a documented perk and they had up to 30 dogs coming in each day. Managing the four legged members of the office became difficult.

At first SparkFun wanted to keep the policy casual, letting each department set and enforce their own guidelines, but fights broke out between pups, dogs bit delivery people, and poop was left unscooped. People became resentful because problems escalated and no one was held accountable in a consistent manner.

The dog policy became a hot topic of debate at the monthly directors meetings, but SparkFun  stayed remarkably committed to keeping their perk. They eventually came up with the “Dog Tribunal,” otherwise known as the idea that saved our dog privileges or the SparkFun equivalent of jury duty.

Employees are chosen at random to serve on the Dog Tribunal, which meets monthly to review dog complaints, issue warnings and punishments, and amend the Dog Policy on the company wiki as needed.

The Dog Tribunal isn't just about punishing offenders, but finding ways to make the canine culture work. For instance, they determined that the root of the poop problem was that people would forget bags needed to clean up. So poop bag dispensers were installed around the grounds, along with playful propaganda style signs. SparkFun also has a mass cleanup day every six months or so. These small changes  solved an issue once thought impossible to crack.

Now the dog problems have largely dissipated and dogs are firmly ingrained in the SparkFun culture. Dogs even factored into how their new office building was designed. The pups were mentioned as a joke in engineering meetings, but it turned out to be critical that they be added to the calculations because dogs can generate more heat than humans. Perhaps not important when you have one or two dogs, but at SparkFun, the 45 pups make up about a third of the workforce.

SparkFun has found a way to make their dog culture work by making their policy open and fair. Now their Dog Policy is posted online so that other companies can learn from what they figured out about office pups. It's open source so anyone can adapt it for their own use. They've even made their quirky poop bag dispenser sign available for download.

30 Day Pet Food Challenge
You Tube videos chronicle awareness around pet food ingredients

When I got my first dog, I spent countless hours pouring over the ingredient of different pet foods. I finally settled on grain free kibble made from human grade ingredients, but even so I don't think I would eat a day's worth of dog food.

Enter Dorothy Hunter, animal lover and owner of Paws Natural Pet Emporium in Kennewick, Washington. Dorothy is so passionate about quality pet food that she just completed a vow to eat only dog, cat, and bird food from her store's shelves for one month. She embarked on this journey to create awareness around pet nutrition, chronicled in a series of You Tube videos.

“You would be surprised how tasty dog and cat food can be when it's made right,” says Dorothy. She believes that, in many cases, our pets are eating better than us.

Many people asked Dorothy about her digestion, but she says she felt great on the diet. Her selection couldn't be further from the “supermarket kibble” people picture when they think of pet food. Dorothy's menu consisted of oven baked blueberry treats, freeze dried vegetables, kibble with salmon flakes, and canned food with pieces of succulent chicken.

Dorothy's You Tube videos are a great way to get people thinking about their pets' food while reaching a new audience. There's nothing like eating dog treats and kibble to make you hyper aware of the ingredients inside!

Consequences of Not Scooping Poop
Maine dogs may lose park privileges due to high E. coli levels.

Picking up after our pups is common courtesy, yet barely a walk goes by that I don't see poop left behind on the side of the road. People may think that leaving a few droppings is not a big deal, but it all adds up and can potentially develop into a health risk. In Rockland, Maine, dog lovers are now facing the loss of a popular park due to unscooped poop.

City officials are considering the shutdown of Snow Marine Park and permanent dog ban because of elevated levels of E. coli bacteria. Recently standing water in the park has tested at a E. coli level of 16,000, nearly seven times the safe level of 400. Terry Pinto, the director of the local wastewater treatment plant, says he has never seen E. coli levels that high before.

Officials believe dog poop is to blame. Snow Marine Park is known locally as a dog park, although it is not officially one.

The city is now fielding recommendations on how to proceed. If E. coli levels don't go down, they will be forced to close the park for disinfection and may reopen no longer allowing dogs. Other options are to put up more signs reminding people to scoop poop and to put better enforcement in place.

Lets hope people get the message about picking up after their pups. We fight so hard for dog friendly places that it's always frustrating to lose privileges because of a few (or in this case, more than a few!) irresponsible people.

Sniffing Out Thumb Drives
Trained pups in New England uncover hidden child porn.

Is there any limit to what the canine nose can uncover? Police dogs in New England are now being trained to sniff out child pornography by finding the hard drives and other tech devices that could contain the hidden files. In recent years, child pornography trafficking has become a growing problem in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Authorities estimate that it's now a $20 billion industry.

The Connecticut State Police Training Academy is teaching dogs, using reinforcement based methods, how to find all sorts of digital devices that could contain child pornography. People hide devices with illegal data in the most unlikely places, like behind ceiling tiles or inside radios. Over 60 dogs have graduated from the 22-week program.

A Labrador Retriever named Thoreau was recently placed at a Rhode Island police department, making the Ocean State the second in the nation to have a digital device sniffing pup. Last month Thoreau assisted in his first search warrant, pinpointing a thumb drive containing child pornography in a box hidden deep inside a metal cabinet.

Thoreau practices every day to earn his dinner, tracking down hard and flash drives inside desks and cabinets. Frequent training is required to maintain fresh skills and to keep up with the ever-changing technology.

I can't wait to see what amazing task our dogs are trained to sniff out next!

PTSD Dog Saves Veteran in Many Ways
Axel helped Jason Haag reclaim his life and family

When Purple Heart recipient Captain Jason Haag came home after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he faced a much tougher battle at home--post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Jason suffered from nightmares, panic attacks, and thoughts of suicide. He spent a year and a half locked up in his basement with the windows blacked out, turning to a heavy use of alcohol and two dozen types of medication. The worse part was the way the 34 year old pushed away his family, screaming at his kids and even once choking his wife.

After Jason's wife threatened to leave, he was desperate for a solution that would help him regain his life. Jason then discovered K9s for Warriors, a Florida group that trains shelter pups to serve veterans with PTSD. Jason traveled to their headquarters to meet his new canine partner, Axel, and participate in a three-week training program. Afterwards, Jason was able to reconcile with his family and reclaim some sense of normalcy. 

"There's no doubt in my mind that if it wasn't for Axel, I'd be six feet underground now," said Jason, "I'd have become a PTSD statistic."

PTSD affects an estimated 30 percent of America's war veterans, with one committing suicide almost every hour, a startling number.

Shari Duval started K9s for Warriors after her son, Brett Simon, a bomb-dog handler, returned from Iraq with PTSD. The dogs are trained to carry out specific tasks to lessen symptoms. For instance, the dogs can perform “block and center” moves to provide a sense of protection the veterans in public. The pups can also recognize panic and anxiety attacks. Donors fund all expenses related to the program except travel costs to and from Florida, and the ongoing care for the dogs once they go home.

To date K9s for Warriors has graduated 127 teams with a 95 percent success rate. The program's dogs have helped veterans reconnect with their families and with society, facilitated returning to the workforce, and reduced the reliance on medication by as much as 80 percent.

Jason's life was so transformed by Axel that he now serves on the board of K9s for Warriors to help spread the word about PTSD and the benefit of service dogs.

"I think I'll be in recovery for the rest of my life," said Jason. "But my goal now is just to save as many veterans' lives by spreading the word about service dogs and providing hope that there's a chance of recovery."