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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.

Braving the Doorbell on Halloween
All Hallows' Eve strategies for barking pups.

In my house, and countless other canine homes, the doorbell is followed by a chorus of excited barking. Training this behavior away takes a lot of patience (more than I have!) and is particularly challenging since barking is so self-reinforcing. So I embrace my canine "back-up" doorbells and let the dogs freely voice their opinion about incoming guests. There's only one time of the year that I really think about all of the barking, and that's Halloween. The holiday brings about 40 costumed kids to our doorstep each year, translating to a few episodes of barking per hour... followed by confused pets wondering where the visitors are.

On Halloween night, my dogs go into their crates with holiday treats (usually new bones or antlers). This isn't for the barking, but for their own safety (keeping them away from potentially scary costumes and opportunities to bolt out of the door).

As an alternative, some of my dog friends opt to leave a basket of candy outside for trick-or-treaters (so the doorbell never gets rung) or skip Halloween all together by turning off the lights in the front of the house (universal sign that a house is not participating in trick-or-treating). These are particularly good ideas for a dog that may be anxious around so much unusual activity or noise. A friend of mine had the great idea of hosting a party at our local training club during trick-or-treating hours (we had a similar party on the Fourth of July to distract pups during peak fireworks time).

I find that trying to drown out doorbells with music or using Halloween as a training opportunity can just make things worse. The best Halloween strategy is to act like nothing out of the ordinarily is happening (to the extent possible), while making sure your dogs are comfortable and secure.

What's your canine influenced trick-or-treating strategy this year? Check out more Halloween safety tips here.

Instinctive Canine Comfort?
Does your dog know when you're not feeling well?

I always hear stories about how dogs sense when we're not feeling well and instinctively provide comfort. Although my own pups don't seem to care if I'm sick (my Border Collie, Scuttle, will just throw balls at me while I lay on the couch), I have no doubt that our pets can pick up on subtle changes that we can't see. Most notably, dogs have been successfully used to predict seizures and even detect cancer. 

This year, Dawn Marcus of the University of Pittsburgh and Amrita Bhowmick of Health Union wanted to explore a dog's ability to predict migraines. As part of their study, they had over 1,000 dog loving migraine sufferers (recruited from online communities) complete a questionnaire about any behaviors their pets exhibited before or during their migraines.

Dawn and Amrita found that 54 percent of the migraine sufferers reported changes in their pets' behavior during or preceding migraines. This isn't completely surprising since the dogs were probably reacting to the person's unusual behavior during intense headaches, but about one in four migraine sufferers reported changes in their pet's behavior before symptoms started, giving them time to proactively take medicine.

The most common alerting behavior involved the dog paying close attention to the person and refusing to leave their side. Other behaviors included persistent licking, barking, pacing, herding, or staring.

It's important to keep in mind that this survey relied on self-reported data and memory of past events, so it's not the most accurate study. It's easy to be unintentionally less objective when reporting your own dog's behavior. Who wouldn't want to think that their pet has amazing predictive behaviors and cares about your wellbeing?

But if dogs could be trained to predict migraines, it could be a significant help to those dealing with debilitating headaches. I would like to see a more rigorous study as a next step. 

Does your dog know when you're not feeling well? For migraine sufferers, does your pup's behavior change when a headache is on the way?

Therapy Dogs on Campus
Study looks at animal-assisted therapy and college students.

Last month Oklahoma State University launched the country's most comprehensive university-wide pet therapy program, part of their commitment to be America's Healthiest Campus. Most schools bring in therapy dogs only at stressful times, such as finals week, but OSU's goal is to be more proactive.

I'd love to see more schools adopt similar programs, but they may be wondering, are therapy dogs a “nice to have” or a valuable resource for students?

Dr. Leslie Stewart of Idaho State collaborated with Georgia State University and Savanna College of Art and Design to explore this question. Dr. Stewart had seen the prevalence of anxiety, loneliness, and post traumatic stress disorder increase on college campuses, putting a strain on limited counseling resources.

In the study, 55 students were given access to animal-assisted therapy twice a month throughout the course of an academic quarter. In the group sessions, the participants were invited to stop by and interact with a German Shepherd named Sophie for up to two hours. They were allowed to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, and play with the dog.

Dr. Stewart's team found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms following the animal-assisted therapy. 84 percent said that their interaction with Sophie was the most significant part of the program for them.

This is a small study with self-reported data, but I hope this leads to more research in the area. While no one would argue the upside of having dogs on campus, having the numbers to back up the benefits will help more colleges secure funding for robust programs like OSU's.

Mislabeled Food
Study finds that ingredients listed on packages differ from what's inside.

With recent allegations of mislabeled food, we've never been so far removed from where our meals come from. Last year a study across 21 states found that as much as 33 percent of seafood in the United States is sold as a different product than what's listed on the package. And it's not just human food.

After reading about horse meat found in ground beef products sold in European, California's Chapman University decided to explore mislabeling in the pet food industry. Students extracted DNA from different brands of commercial dog and cat food to test for the presence of eight meat types--beef, goat, lamb, chicken, goose, turkey, pork, and horse.

Of the 52 products included in the study, 20 were potentially mislabeled and one contained a meat ingredient that could not be verified. 16 included a meat type not listed in the ingredients and three substituted a listed meat for a different type. Pork was the most common undeclared ingredient.

The researchers noted that while the pet food was mislabeled, it was unclear if it was accidental or intentional, or at which point in the production chain it took place.

It's not always a matter of the company itself being deceptive, but that there are so many layers of food production these days. Earlier this month Blue Buffalo revealed that a supplier's mislabeling of ingredients may have caused some of their pet food products to contain poultry by-product meal instead of 100 percent chicken meal.

Inaccurate ingredient lists are not only frustrating (who wants to pay a premium for whole meat ingredients that turn out to be cheap byproducts), but also dangerous (how can you find food for a dog with allergies if you can't trust the labels?). The fact that this problem is happening with human food as well means that this is tied to a much larger problem with the way our production chains operate. This information makes a hefty case for making your own meals--for you and your pup!

Dog Allergic to Humans
Indianapolis rescue pup begins allergy shots this week.

Pet allergies are fairly common with as much as ten percent of people having some degree of sensitivity to dogs. In fact one of my fears is that if I have kids, one of them might have or develop an animal-related allergy. But can it happen the other way around?

A few months ago, Indianapolis' Lucky Dog Retreat Rescue discovered Adam, a happy-go-lucky, but sad looking Black Labrador, at the local Animal Care and Control. The poor two year old pup was suffering from a skin condition that they believed would heal with a loving foster home, a flea treatment, and a diet change. Adam turned out to be one of the rescue's most unique challenges.

After Adam's condition didn't improve, the rescue tried a number of remedies ranging from special baths to antibiotics and steroids, all without success. They even did a skin biopsy, which came back negative. Meanwhile, Adam had to wear a cone at all times to prevent him from scratching and biting his skin.

Finally the veterinarian ran a blood test which uncovered an allergy to human dander. Rescue president, Robin Herman, thought the veterinarian was joking, but she too was equally surprised at the finding.

Robin then found a veterinarian who could create allergy shots, which Adam starts this week. They're hoping that this treatment will put Adam on the path to recovery and eventual adoption.

Adam sure is one brave little dog to endure this ordeal with a smile on his face!

High Tech Collars for Border Patrol Pups
Department of Homeland Security considers introducing new technology to their canine team.

Over the years, there have been talks of futuristic dog collars that would reveal if your pet was happy, hungry, or sad. But, unless someone is recreating the translating collar from Pixar's Up, these gadgets seem more like a novelty that would wear off after a few days. But now these collars are getting a serious look for their application with working pups.

Last week, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Chief Technology Officer, Wolf Tombe, mentioned that the agency is considering special collars for the canine units working the U.S. border. The wearable technology contains sensors that use an algorithm to relay threatening barks to a handlers' cell phone.

CBP's human counterparts already use smart wrist-watches, wearable cameras, and clothing equipped with health and safety sensors, so giving the canines a bit of technology seems like a logical next step. With about 1,500 teams, CBP's dog program is the largest law enforcement canine program in the country. These pups are often referred to as the agency's best tool in tracking potential terrorists and sniffing out illegal substances. Their noses are able to detect some scents at an incredible four parts per trillion.

Wolf believes that the collars will allow dogs to work safely and effectively at a greater distance from their handlers. Additional features could also be added, such as GPS and video.

But not everyone agrees that the gadget is worth the expense. Shawn Moran, Vice President of the National Border Patrol Council, doesn't see the need for a high tech collar since agents are usually close to their dogs. It would be interesting to see if the collar's "translating' capabilities could pick up on minute variances in barking and other behavior that their handlers may not be able to detect (or would have a hard detecting in a hectic situation).

Either way, no collar can replace the communication system that develops organically over time between a handler and their pup-- no matter how fancy the algorithm. My hope is that this technology is used to aid, not replace, a solid human-canine working relationship.

Optimism in Dogs
Study looks at optimism and how it may predict successful service pups.
My perpetually optimistic pup, Nemo.

Those of us who live with dogs know that our pets have distinctly different personalities. My Sheltie, Nemo, is one of the happiest dogs that I know. A few years ago he was in a veterinary intensive care unit and the staff was amazed at how upbeat he looked, even while being whisked away for emergency surgery. I'm sure that his positive attitude contributed to his eventual full recovery.

So I wasn't surprised to find that studies have suggested that dogs may have a degree of optimism and pessimism. Back in 2010, Bark blogger Karen B. London wrote about a study that gauged these tendencies by the speed at which dogs approached food bowls. The canine test subjects first learned to associate a full food bowl with a certain location and an empty bowl with a different location. They were then brought to various ambiguous locations to observe their speed towards a bowl. Dogs who assumed a new location may also mean a full food bowl were labeled optimistic.

The study went on to measure behavior as well and found that the pessimistic dogs (the dogs who slowly approached bowls in ambiguous locations) were more likely to show separation-related distress, like destructive chewing and barking. While it was an interesting study, Karen believed there were too many variables to draw any conclusions about optimism and pessimism.

However, a new study just published out of the University of Sydney improves on the previous experiment and is applying the work to the selection of service dogs. Led by Dr. Melissa Starling, dogs were taught to touch a target on cue to trigger the release of a liquid. The cue was a sound—one tone that meant touching the target would produce milk and a different tone meant touching the target would result in water. As you can imagine, the dogs were much quicker to interact with the target after the "milk sound."

Once the target behavior was learned, the dogs were presented with ambiguous tones. Those who continued to touch the target at "milk speed" were labeled as optimists, while those who responded with "water speed" were labeled as pessimists. Dr. Starling also looked at the degree of optimism by looking at differences in their response to a range of tones. For instance, a very optimistic dog may touch the target at a quick speed even after a tone that sounds more similar to the water noise.

The research team also found that pessimistic dogs appeared to be more stressed after failing a task than the optimistic ones. This included whining, pacing, and avoiding the task. Optimistic dogs tended to be unfazed by failure and kept trying.

The cool part is that Dr. Starling is now working with Assistance Dogs Australia to see if an optimism test could help in selecting successful training candidates. She believes that this could help determine which dogs will take risks to gain rewards, be more resilient when things don't go their way, and be willing to persist through setbacks.  

I can see how this information could be valuable for working dogs and even as a temperament test for future dog sport pups. I can't wait to see the outcome of her continued work with the service dogs.

Do you think your pup is an optimist or a pessimist?

Dog to Be Killed in Ebola Fight
Sick nurse's pet is targeted as Spain tries to control the deadly virus.

The internet has been buzzing about Western Europe's first case of Ebola, diagnosed in a Spanish nurse on Monday. Teresa Romero, her husband, Javier, and two others were quickly ushered into quarantine. If that wasn't stressful enough for Teresa's family, the government announced yesterday that they plan to put down her dog, Excalibur, as a precaution.

Teresa and Javier objected to the decision, but the government obtained a court order that would allow them to carry out the euthanasia.

While dogs can be infected by Ebola, they do not develop symptoms or die from the disease. However, they can spread the virus to humans through licking and biting, as well as their urine and feces. When the virus is cleared from the dog, they are no longer contagious. So Excalibur could be quarantined like Javier and Teresa, but the Spanish government likely doesn't have the resources to do so (or the protocol on how to carry it out safely). I also think that this is a knee jerk reaction to mitigating the spread of Ebola, which has become a politically and emotionally charged problem.

Ebola has certainly highlighted gaps in disease control around the world. Reading about Excalibur also made me think that we could be helpless to save our pets if an outbreak happened close to home. What if I was sick in the hospital and the government ordered my dogs to be put down? It's frightening.

Animal lovers around the world are mobilizing to change the Spanish government's mind. One of the top hashtags on Twitter this morning is #SavemosaExcalibur. And a Change.org petition has been created with over 350,000 signatures so far. These social media campaigns may not sway the current decision, but I hope it inspires other governments to include pets in their emergency plans in an outbreak scenario.

The First 'Pup Nup'
U.K. animal welfare organization creates a pet version of the prenup.

These days it's common for couples to sign a prenuptial agreement before getting married. While it protects money and other material assets, it makes no plan for what happens to pets after a divorce. As a result many animals end up in shelters when their parents split up. U.K. animal welfare organization Blue Cross estimates that marital conflict and relationship breakdown results in four relinquished animals each week at their shelter. They've even had cases where one person will bring in an animal without their ex's knowledge.

If we can make a plan for our bank accounts and material possessions, our dogs certainly deserve the same courtesy. So Blue Cross partnered with divorce lawyers at Lloyd Platt and Company to create a "pup nup." This document outlines who will maintain primary custody, the financial responsibility split, and visitation rights in the event of a break up.

Not only does the "pup nup" make one aspect of divorce a little easier, it also encourages responsible pet ownership by helping couples make a long term plan for their animal's care. Even if couples don't end up signing the "pup nup," just inspiring more conversations about a long term plan is a step in the right direction.

The "pup nup" template is available as a free download for anyone adding a new pet to the family.

British Airways Launches Onboard Pet Entertainment
The airline's new Paws and Relax in-flight channel is designed to soothe passengers.

Flying can be incredibly stressful these days, between getting through security, navigating crowded terminals, and squeezing into tiny economy cabin seats. So British Airways decided to soothe passengers by harnessing the calming ability of animals.

Paws and Relax, an in-flight entertainment channel dedicated to cute pet videos, launched in long-haul flights just a few weeks ago. It can be found free of charge in the in-flight library's Entertainment section. British Airways' entertainment team got the idea for the channel after reading that watching animals could lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

Richard D'Cruze, the in-flight entertainment manager, says that they were looking for a way to enhance the wellbeing of passengers, while creating something that appealed to all ages.

The initial launch lineup includes popular British animated cartoon, Simon's Cat--which features funny stories of a man and his cat, BBC's The Secret Life of Cats--a documentary which follows felines fitted with cameras and GPS collars, and Animal Planet's America's Cutest Dogs--which shows footage of playing pups.

This is such a fun idea and really should help relieve the stress of flying (at least when you finally get to your seat!). I only wish Paws and Relax had launched a month earlier when I flew home on British Airways.