JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Study uses fMRI brain scans to help organizations train pups to help people.
March 18 2017
As many as 70 percent of dogs that start a service dog training program are let go before graduation. Given that it can cost up to $50,000 to develop one of these valuable pups, organizations that raise these dogs are always looking for better ways to predict who will be up to the task.
You may remember we wrote about a study last year where Emory University neuroscientists looked at dogs' preference for praise over treats. Their lab was the first to conduct functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments on awake, unrestrained pups to understand canine cognition and inter-species communication. Now they're using this technology to help solve the classic service dog dilemma--finding more accurate ways to eliminate unsuitable dogs earlier in the process.
Their study looked at 43 dogs who underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California. All of these pups passed CCI's standard behavioral tests, which selects dogs with a calm temperament to start the formal training program.
Scientists used fMRI to look for higher activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with excitability. They found that dogs showing higher activity here were more likely to fail the training program.
"Data from fMRI provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates," explains research lead Gregory Berns. "What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why."
The team believes that the fMRI would boost the ability to distinguish pups that would ultimately not pass from 47 to 67 percent.
This technology is expensive, so it wouldn't be practical for individual trainers, but could be utilized by larger organizations such as CCI. There's also an additional training component since the dogs must learn to remain still while undergoing the fMRI.
The second part of the study built on Emory's original treat research. In these experiments, the dogs were taught hand signals for "treat" and "no treat," which were shown while the pups were in the fMRI. They found a correlation between training program success and the caudate, a region of the brain associated with rewards.
In response to the treat signal, those who had more activity in the caudate were more likely to complete the service dog training program. In contrast, those with more activity in the amygdala were more likely to fail.
"The ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn't get excessively excited or nervous," explained Gregory. "The two neural regions that we focused on--the caudate and the amygdala--seem to distinguish those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt behaviors."
Gregory's team hopes to refine this evaluation technique and apply it to a broader range of working dogs, such as military and police pups.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
2017 is on trend to be a particularly risky year for disease carrying ticks.
March 16 2017
Ticks are a big concern for dog parents, sometimes I feel like my dogs are magnets for the little pests. They pick up the little buggers while hiking, at agility trials, and even in our own backyard. And it can be annoying to search for ticks under all that fur!
According to Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 2017 is anticipated to be a particularly risky year for Lyme disease. He expects the risk will be high in New York, Connecticut, and possibly areas of the mid-Atlantic region.
This is part of a growing trend, where Lyme contiues to spread in New England and the upper Midwest.
"Reported cases of Lyme have tripled in the past few decades," says Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Kiersten Kugeler.
On the East Coast, Kiersten says most people catch Lyme near their homes, not just when hiking or camping. So if you live in an area that is tick prone, it's important to check yourself and your pets regularly. Since blacklegged ticks can be as small as a poppy seed and like to hang out in the nooks and crannies of the human body, Kiersten advises people to check behind ears, armpits, and the groin area.
If you find a tick, "very carefully, go under the head of the tick with tweezers and just pull out the mouth of the tick, which is embedded in the skin," instructs Dr. Brian Fallon who directs the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center. Don't squeeze the body of the tick which will transfer possible infection into the skin. Don't use Vaseline or fire to remove the tick. Tweezers are the best tool.
There are a few ways to determine your Lyme risk:
All this sounds depressing, but remember, not all ticks carry Lyme, and it takes 24-36 hours to transmit the disease. The sooner you catch them, the better. Kiersten recommends making tick checks as part of your daily routine to combst this preventable disease.
Dog's Life: Humane
Tallahassee Aloft hotel partners with Leon County Humane Society to feature homeless dogs.
March 10 2017
As pet adoption has gotten more attention in recent years, people have found new and interesting ways to promote shelter dogs and cats. Hotels may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to homeless pets, but one lodging chain has found success in partnering with local rescue organizations.
Earlier this month the Aloft Tallahassee Downtown Hotel launched its Dog Foster Program, in conjunction with the Leon County Humane Society (LCHS). Through this program, one lucky shelter pup gets to stay in the hotel lobby, which features a dog house that was built to look like a smaller version of the hotel. This gives dogs more exposure to potential adopters and socialization to different environments and people
So far they’ve had two foster pups--Penelope, a three month old German Shepherd puppy, and Nathan, a five month old Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix. The guests of honor are cared for by the hotel staff, but the adoption is handled by LCHS. Anyone interested in taking a dog home has to submit an application.
While only one dog can sleepover at a time, the program helps all of LCHS' pups, giving visibility to homeless pets and the need for foster homes. LCHS doesn't have a physical shelter. Instead, all pets are housed in foster homes until they find the perfect forever home.
"Our new foster partnership with Aloft perfectly aligns with our mission to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Educate, thereby fostering a kinder community for people and their pets,” said Lisa Glunt, executive director of LCHS. “The new program is an exciting development for our organization and opens the door for us to match more adopters with homeless pets in Tallahassee while continuing to save more lives.”
Tallahassee isn’t the only Aloft to participate in such an innovative initiative. The program was modeled after two successful partnerships at Aloft properties in Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina. The Asheville location, which teamed up with Charlie’s Angels Animal Rescue, found homes for 14 dogs in the first five months of the program.
I hope this story inspires other hotels and businesses to come up with unique ways to feature shelter animals!
Dog's Life: Humane
A Pit Bull finds her forever home at a New York City firehouse.
March 6 2017
Last year New York City animal rescuers Erica Mahnken and Michael Favor got a call about an abandoned Pit Bull in an old crack house. There was no heat or electricity, and the couple who lived there fled after a snowstorm hit. When Erica and Michael found the poor pup, she was malnourished and covered in cigarette burns. A vet later said that the dog was 25 pounds underweight.
Despite being abused, the pup was happy to be found and jumped right into Erica's car.
Unfortunately they didn't have anywhere to keep the dog, so they called some firefighter friends from a Lower East Side FDNY station nicknamed "Fort Pitt." The firefighters agreed to be a temporary foster home.
"As soon as she walked into the firehouse, her tail was wagging, and she was licking and greeting everybody," Erica remembered. "She was super happy. From where she came from, you wouldn't really expect that. You would think that she'd be a little skittish, but she wasn't at all."
After three days the firefighters named the dog Ashley, "Ash" for short, and called Erica to ask if they could adopt her.
“My heart wants to explode,” Erica said. “Everyone’s so quick to judge a dog, especially a dog you don’t know where it came from or what kind of person they are and what kind… It is very satisfying."
Ashley has been enjoying her role as official firehouse dog, hanging out with the crew in the kitchen and riding along with the firefighters on smaller runs. She even has her own spot in the firetruck.
"They walk her about 30 times a day. They bring her on the roof to play. She's constantly in the kitchen watching them eat. She has endless supplies of treats. She has the life over there," describes Erica.
If you're interested in following Ashely's adventures, the firefighters started an Instagram account that has over 19,000 followers.
It sounds like "Fort Pitt" needed some joy in their fire station, which they found in a Pit Bull named Ashley!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
After school program teaches students to prepare pups to help veterans.
March 4 2017
Service dogs have the potential to make a significant impact in the lives of veterans, but many can't afford their high price tag. When students from Summit Elementary School in Divide, Colorado learned about this problem, they wanted to help.
"We recognize a large number of veterans in Teller County who would largely benefit from having a service dog to help them," said student Christian Bonnette.
So five kids teamed up with trainer John Franks from the non-profit group Heroes Pack. After school they work with John to teach dogs the skills needed to help people with PTSD or mobility issues. Currently they're working with a dog named Holly who they plan to donate to a local veteran this spring.
It's not cheap to train a service dog. According to student Leah Strawmatt, it takes about 500 hours to train each pup and about $5,000.
In addition to dedicating their time and raising money, the kids are also doing their part to spread the word about the need for service dogs.
Recently they participated in a regional competition called Destination Imagination (the world's largest creative problem solving competition) and won first place. They were also given the Torchbearer Award, for teams whose solutions have extraordinary impact in and beyond their local communities. According to Heroes Pack, the award has never been given out at the regional level. The kids will move on to the state competition next.
This program is a win-win for everyone. In addition to becoming skilled dog trainers, the students are learning valuable life lessons and helping veterans in the community.
Dog's Life: Humane
U.K. veterinarian quits her job to help street dogs in Sri Lanka.
February 28 2017
Three years ago veterinarian Janey Lowes was vacationing in Sri Lanka when she was struck by the many street dogs that were in horrible shape. Some had been hit by cars, or deliberately hurt by knives or boiling water. Others suffered from untreated health issues, such as ticks and mange. It's estimated that there are three million dogs roaming the streets of Sri Lanka. Sixty percent don't make it past puppyhood.
Janey couldn't bear to ignore these dogs, so she quit her job at a British veterinary practice to dedicate herself full time to the homeless pups of the southern Dikwella District.
“There are no vets in place to treat these street animals,” she explained. “I feel like all of these dogs are my dogs and I’m the only one to look after them.”
Janey started out tending to these pups on the street with very little equipment. She would stay for months in Sri Lanka, only returning to the U.K. to earn enough money to go back. Since then Janey started We Care, a non-profit with a small team working with her in Sri Lanka. They're currently working on opening a clinic.
The charity has three main goals: treating sick and injured animals, training and educating the local population, and CNVR (catch-neuter-vaccinate-release). Unlike humane organizations in the States, We Care doesn't focus on adoption, since it's not in the Sri Lanka culture. But that doesn't mean they're not making a difference. Since Janey began working in Dikwella, dogs with mange made up 40 percent of the canine population, now it's less than five percent.
"We make a point of returning dogs back to the street. They're missing health care, missing affection, but not freedom. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but it give me the most amazing sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, satisfaction. I love it."
Dog's Life: Humane
Bad weather keeps potential forever homes away in Southern California.
February 24 2017
After years of drought, Southern California is finally getting some rain. Unfortunately it's also putting a damper on pet adoptions.
According to the Pasadena Humane Society, bad weather can cut adoption numbers in half, or even more. On one recent rainy Sunday, only 18 dogs were adopted, compared to 65 on the same day last year. This is largely due to less people venturing out in the rain. After all wet weather is usually uncommon in the area, so even a drizzle can cause traffic and confusion. But another contributing factor is the closure of the outdoor kennels during downpours, meaning less animals are available for adoption.
The dogs have heated enclosures to escape the rain, but this is done for safety reasons. The Humane Society doesn't want visitors to slip and the enthusiastic dogs are more likely to run through the rain in an unsafe manner when someone is walking by their kennel. This problem is somewhat unique to Southern California since their dry, warm weather allows them to have so many outdoor enclosures.
Fortunately most of the rain has occurred in the winter months when fewer dogs are brought to the shelter. The Humane Society's busiest time is during breeding season from the end of March through August. The Pasadena Humane Society takes in about 12,000 animals a year and offers any extra space to other shelters that reach capacity. The reduced adoptions can really make a difference in limiting room for new dogs in need of help.
While bad weather also generally means less calls to Animal Control Services, the Humane Society does find that rain and lightening can spook pets and cause them to run away from home. Some end up at the shelter since it's open rain or shine. While the Humane Society is always happy to help, they urge people to keep their pets safe and sound indoors during storms.
The rain can really be problematic and it's interesting to see how it effects human behavior patterns! But if you're in Southern California and looking to adopt a pet, as long as it's safe, don't let a little rain stop you from finding your next furry friend!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Prison trained service dogs raise money for their organization this February.
February 17 2017
I don't care about Valentine's Day flowers, but this delivery from Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN) is one I'd like to get!
This week, a group of service dogs in training delivered almost 650 Valentine's Day gift boxes throughout Indianapolis as part of Puppy Love Valentine 2017, an annual fundraiser for ICAN, a local service dog organization. ICAN trains pups in three area prisons to help people with disabilities like PTSD and autism.
The dogs arrived with gift boxes that included goodies such as cookies, canine designed artwork, candles, scarves, and greeting dogs featuring the ICAN service pups. Many of the items are made by the prison inmates. This year, Pendleton Correctional Facility's culinary arts program baked cookies in the shape of paw prints, while others made heart-shaped candle holders. The inmates involved in the service dog program also helped the pups create the artwork, which involves having the dogs step in paint and touch the canvas with their paws, noses and tails.
Puppy Love Valentine 2017 raised more than $30,000 for the organization.
Valentine's Day marks an important date for ICAN. The organization began working with local inmates on that holiday in 2002. ICAN founder, Dr. Sally Irvin, saw the program as an opportunity to rehabilitate inmates while providing training to the dogs. They began at juvenile detention facilities, but because of high turnover, ICAN shifted to maximum security prisons because the inmates are there longer, providing more stability for the pups. Now ICAN has about 50 dogs in training at any given time across the three prisons they work with.
“What we challenge everybody here on is that the easiest and most positive way to turn something around is to give back,” said Pendleton Correctional Facility Assistant Superintendent of Reentry Andrew Cole. “To know that these dogs, after all your hard work, are going to help somebody for the rest of that dog’s life, it’s an amazing thing.”
Training the dogs gives inmates a sense of freedom and purpose, while also developing a new skill.
The inmates go through a rigorous interview process to participate, ultimately earning credits for an animal trainer apprenticeship. Out of 1,750 inmates, a group of 15 dog handlers and six alternates are involved in the program. The pups in training live with their trainers in a special housing unit, spending 24/7 together. ICAN staff comes to the prison weekly for a formal training session.
“We serve two under-served populations, prisoners and the people with disabilities who the dogs will serve," says ICAN Director of Development and Outreach Denise Sierp. “It’s the dogs that bridge it all together.”
Dog's Life: Humane
A routine human test provides a pup’s innocence.
February 14 2017
A young Belgian Malinois from Detroit already had an incredible story when he went from homeless pup to service dog. But just months after his rescue, a misunderstanding threatened his new life. It would take a test usually reserved for humans to prove his innocence.
Jeb was barely a year old when he was found chained inside a shed last January. His owner had passed away and no one else in the family wanted him. When Jeb was taken in by a local dog rescue, volunteer Kandie Morrison thought he’d make the perfect service dog for her father, Kenneth Job.
Kenneth, a 79-year old Air Force veteran struggling with a neurodegenerative disease, took an instant liking to Jeb. So neighbor and veterinarian Dr. Karen Pidick trained Jeb to help Kenneth stay steady and assist in helping him get up if he fell.
Kenneth and Jeb came to rely on each other, but eight months later everything changed in an instant.
One August morning, the Jobs’ neighbor of 30 years, Christopher Sawa, looked out his kitchen window and saw Jeb standing over the lifeless body of his Pomeranian, Vlad. Christopher ran outside and tried to give Vlad mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late. With 90-pound Jeb towering over 14-pound Sawa, you can see why Christopher might blame Kenneth’s dog.
Animal control took Jeb into custody and the case went to trial.
The Jobs were horrified. Jeb lived peacefully with their three other dogs, seven cats, and a coopful of chickens. "We've never had any children," Kenneth would later testify. "The dog was like a child to us."
Kenneth had been outside with his dogs that morning when all four pups ran off toward a favorite swimming hole.
Despite the fact there was a lack of physical evidence linking Jeb to Vlad’s death, and there were reports of other possible culprits, the judge ruled that Jeb met the legal definition of a dangerous animal. Jeb would have to be euthanized.
The Jobs were desperate and came up with the idea to have testing done to compare the DNA in Vlad’s wound with Jeb’s DNA. Samples were taken and sent to the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida. They determined that the DNA did not match, proving Jeb wasn’t the dog that killed Vlad.
After the test, Jeb was allowed to go home, but nine weeks in animal control turned him in a different dog. Jeb lost 15 pounds and his social skills. He was also afraid to go outside.
Nonetheless, the family was relieved to have Jeb back home. However, the Jobs wondered why they had to come up with the idea of DNA analysis. Why didn’t the court do it before sentencing Jeb to death?
The test was under $500, but canine cases are handled differently in our judicial system.
"In a criminal prosecution, where you're putting a person in jail, we have the highest level of protection," explains law professor David Favre. "Dogs have no rights. They're property.”
I don’t think courts will make DNA analysis automatic anytime soon, but the Jobs hope their story will make more people aware that this tool can save lives.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Study finds dogs exhibit resting behavior when listening to books on tape.
February 11 2017
Last month I wrote about the Sarasota Orchestra cellist who played for dogs at her local animal shelter. There’s been a lot of research about the impact of music on animals, particularly the calming effect of classical music. As a result, animal shelters and boarding facilities not lucky enough to have their own live performance, often play the tunes of Mozart and Bach throughout their kennels.
But is this calming effect exclusive to classical music or could it extend to other audio with a pleasing cadence? Hartpury College in the United Kingdom set out to explore different sound types and the effect on canine behavior. Their researchers looked at the effect of regular kennel sounds (the control), classical music, pop music, psychoacoustically designed canine music (tunes specifically designed to be pleasing to a dog), and an audiobook. The tracks were played for two hours a day, skipping some days so the dogs wouldn’t become habituated to the noise.
Not surprisingly, they found that pop music resulted in the highest rate of barking. But it wasn’t classical music or the psychoacoustically designed canine music that was associated with the most calm behaviors. It was the audiobook that resulted in the dogs spending more time resting and less time displaying vigilant behaviors.
The book used in the experiment was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe performed by Michael York. Given the calming effect of the audiobook, it would be interesting to do a follow-up study comparing the effect of different audiobooks and voices, as well as other speaking tracks, like the news.
While shelter staff and potential adopters may find the audiobooks strange, the results of this study on the dogs seems worth experimenting with a few titles.
Do you think you’ll try playing an audiobook for your pup?
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