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JoAnna Lou

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Wellness: Healthy Living
Xylitol in Peanut Butter
More food products are including this ingredient that is toxic to dogs.
It's well known that chocolate is toxic to dogs, but not everyone is aware of xylitol. In an ongoing survey by Preventative Vet, over 50 percent of respondents weren't aware of xylitol or the danger it poses to dogs. In many cases, this sweetener can be even more toxic than chocolate (the picture above shows a dangerous amount of dark chocolate compared to the number of xylitol-containing sugar free gum pieces that could be deadly).

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. Even small amounts can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia and liver failure. Fortunately dogs can recover if treated promptly.

Last year I wrote that xylitol was becoming more common in household products since it can reduce calorie intake. I always knew to be careful with sugar free gum, but the sweetener has been popping up in cookies, cough drops, toothpaste, cosmetics, and mouthwash.

To make things worse, I recently learned that xylitol is being included in some specialty brands of peanut butter. This is alarming because many people use peanut butter to fill Kongs or to make dog treats. Currently no major brand is affected, but this highlights the need to be vigilant in checking the ingredients on the products we use. It's important to note that xylitol can be listed on labels as sugar alcohols, which encompasses many different sugar alcohols, including xylitol.

Please spread the word so that we can make sure no dog is accidentally affected by xylitol poisoning!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pit Bull Police Dog
Program trains rescued bull breeds to sniff out drugs and find missing people.
Today a rescue pup named Kiah (pronounced KY'-uh) graduated from an intense training program, making her one of just a few Pit Bull police dogs. Kiah certainly stands out from the typical Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds on the job.

Kiah will help the Poughkeepsie, New York Police Department detect drugs and track missing people. She'll also serve as a goodwill ambassador for her breed and for the police.

Kiah was given to the department at no cost thanks to a partnership between Animal Farm Foundation, a New York nonprofit that works to ensure equal treatment and opportunity for Pit Bulls, Universal K9, a company that trains law enforcement pups, and Austin Pets Alive, a Texas shelter. Normally trained police dogs can cost as much as $15,000, but this program identifies and trains rescued Pit Bulls to serve as detection dogs for police across the country at no cost to law enforcement. They've placed seven detection dogs so far, including Kiak.

Officer Justin Bruzgul, Kiah's handler, says that the pup is high energy and affectionate, and that they had an instant bond. "I couldn't ask for a better partner."

After Kiah arrived from Texas, her training was finished by George Carlson, the Ulster County, New York sheriff's deputy. He says there's little connection between a dog's breed and their aptitude for police work. The most important factors are the pup's drive, energy, and eagerness to please. George believes that Kiah is the only Pit Bull police dog on the East Coast.

This is such a cool partnership and I can't wait to see Kiah in action! Her journey can be followed on Facebook.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Online Dating Meets Petfinder
PawsLikeMe uses an algorithm to match people with adoptable pups.
One of the dogs available on PawsLikeMe.





















Petfinder, founded in the early days of the internet, revolutionized the rescue community by bringing homeless animals to the screens of thousands of people looking for their next pet (and I'm sure to another thousand who were "just browsing." Who hasn't poked around Petfinder just for fun?!). The web site allows prospective pet parents to search for available animals by location, breed, age, and gender. But what Petfinder doesn't do is filter by energy level or other personality characteristics.

Two women long involved in the rescue community, Elizabeth Holmes and Marianna Benko, and veterinarian Coleen Johnston wanted to create a web site that would put the emphasis on personality and lifestyle fit. Think of it as online dating meets the animal rescue world.

This year they launched PawsLikeMe, a web site that uses an algorithm to match people with available dogs in the area. Prospective adopters answer questions that takes into account what PawsLikeMe considers to be the four core personality traits that influence the human-canine bond: energy, focus, confidence, and independence.  

Anyone can list a dog for adoption on the web site, hopefully giving people a proactive alternative to dropping their pet at a shelter or kicking them out of their home. To keep people out that are looking to make a profit, 50 percent of the automatic $75 adoption fee goes to approved non-profit organizations with a validated 501c3 status or a veterinary clinic with a validated license to receive any adoption fees. The other 50 percent is kept by PawsLikeMe for the operation of the web site.

Shelters and other rescue organizations can also list pets on the web site. After I took the online quiz, I was matched to many available animals in my area, including dogs from the shelter where I adopted my Border Collie mix, Scuttle.

I love that this web site gets people thinking not only about a dog's cute photo, but about the personality and lifestyle fit in terms of energy level and other characteristics. However, I hope that users don't expect a perfect match (anyone who has used online dating knows that these web sites are far from that!). PawsLikeMe is a potentially powerful platform for getting more visibility for their homeless pets and I hope to see more people and rescue organizations use this web site!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Penguin Protecting Pups
Maremma dogs in Australia keep foxes and other predators away.
Dogs have long been used to guard livestock, and more recently have been tasked with protecting endangered big cats, like cheetahs, in Africa. Conservation pups are also being trained to help wildlife by being trained to sniff out poachers' contraband and search for animal droppings for scientific research.

So when Southern Australia's Middle Island was faced with a rapidly declining Little Penguin population, sheepdogs were unsurprisingly the answer. These small penguins were once common along Australia's southern coast. But when red foxes were imported for sport hunting in the 19th century, colonies on the mainland disappeared, leaving most of them on islands.

But that is changing as well. Middle Island once had 800 resident penguins, but the number dwindled to below ten in 2005 as changing tidal patterns and increasing sedimentation made the island accessible from the shore. But today their numbers are back in the triple digits, and much of the credit has gone to a local chicken farmer known as Swampy Marsh. His story is finally being told in the Australian movie, Oddball.

Swampy was first introduced to Maremma sheepdogs when he got a pup named Ben to protect his free range chickens from foxes. When he heard about the penguin's plight, he knew dogs like Ben could help.

One of his farm workers, university student David Williams, wrote a proposal to the state environmental agency for using the livestock guardian dogs on the island. Although it seemed like an obvious solution, the approval process dragged on, even with the penguin population continuing to dwindle. They were afraid no one would listen until the penguins were completely gone.

But finally in 2006, the proposal was approved and the first Maremma was put to work--Ben's daughter Oddball. Since then the penguin population has rebounded to 150, and not one has been lost to a fox.

Maremma dogs are ideal for the job since they are self-reliant and can be left to defend land for long periods of time. Apparently they know to not finish their supply of food and water right away (guess my pups could never be livestock guardian dogs!). Training them involves introducing them to the penguin's distinct fishy odor. Gradually they learn to treat the penguins like any other livestock to protect.

Oddball has since retired, and now lives with Swampy. Her successors, Eudy and Tula, are also nearing the end of their careers at age eight. To secure their replacements, the local groups that manage the project recently raised more than $18,000 to buy and train two new pups.

Seeing the success of Swampy's idea, Zoos Victoria is now trying to use the livestock guardian dogs to reintroduce the Eastern Barred Bandicoot, a small marsupial not seen outside captivity since 2002. A five year trial is currently underway.

It's very cool to see these farm dogs being used in unique ways all over the world!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dining with Dogs Bill Passed
N.Y. State now officially allows restaurants to welcome pets in outdoor spaces.
This week New York Governor Cuomo signed the "Dining with Dogs" bill into law, which had been sponsored by assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal. Effective immediately, the state joins the city of Los Angeles in officially allowing outdoor restaurants and bars to welcome dogs. The new law reverses an old ordinance that excluded animals from sharing outdoor space with dining humans, although judging by the number of dogs I see at New York City sidewalk tables, it wasn't heavily enforced.

Despite the popularity of dining city pups, this summer there was some concern that the bill wouldn't pass. The New York City Health Department was outspoken against the legislation, saying it would "create a risk to the health and safety of diners, restaurant workers, and other dogs. However, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Health, the city has reported no increase in the number of incidents or complains related to dogs in restaurants since passing their similar bill in 2012.

Fortunately the law passed and it's now up to individual restaurants to decide whether or not they'd like to allow pets in their patio, sidewalk, or backyard spaces. Since New York is headed into colder weather, it's likely that most people and their pups won't be able to take advantage of the new law until next year.

Now I just hope that people will be responsible and only bring well behaved, well socialized pups to these restaurants and bars. I'd like to think that we can show New York that making more places pet friendly is a good thing!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Courtroom Dogs Protected
Ohio court rules against a case challenging the use of therapy dogs during a trial.
Earlier this year I wrote about the expansion of the courtroom dog program in New York. These therapy dogs play an invaluable role in helping victims feel comfortable on the stand, which can be a traumatizing experience.

Recently that privilege was challenged in Ohio, when a convicted sex offender argued that Avery, the Labrador-Golden Retriever mix brought in by the county prosecutor, swayed the jury. It marked the first time that a state appellate court heard a case challenging the use of therapy dogs during a trial. Thankfully the court ruled that the therapy dog did not influence the jury.

"One of my main objectives as Summit County prosecutor is to fight for the rights of victims, especially children," says Sherri Bevan Walsh. "Court can be a very intimidating and stressful place. Avery eases that stress and makes the whole process easier to handle, and helps us get the truth out."

To date, the four-year old pup has supported victims in 77 court cases, providing an incredible service. I'm glad that the Ohio court ruled in Avery's favor, protecting the valuable service of courtroom dogs all over the country.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Ivermectin Toxicity While Herding
An Austalian Shepherd is poisoned from eating the feces of a recently dewormed sheep.
Coming from a family with Shetland Sheepdogs and Border Collies, I've always avoided heartworm medication with ivermectin, a drug that some herding breed dogs are sensitive to, due to a genetic mutation. There's a simple test your veterinarian can perform to know for sure, but most of us with herding breeds just use alternate medications.

So ivermectin toxicity wasn't even on Laura Liebenow's mind last month when she brought her Australian Shepherd, Bristol, to a farm to herd sheep. During the herding lesson, Bristol ingested sheep feces, something my dogs have done many times. It wouldn't have been a problem, except that these sheep had been recently dewormed with a product containing ivermectin.

Soon after, Bristol started seizing and eventually became unresponsive. The poor pup was in critical condition and at risk or developing neurological damage. Bristol was quickly transferred to the veterinary school at Tufts University and placed on a mechanical ventilator. It took 10 days for Bristol to begin to breathe on her own and three weeks for her to regain consciousness. Once awake, Bristol needed the assistance of a cart and leg splints to walk. Incredibly Bristol made a full recovery after 40 days in the hospital--no easy feat.

Tufts says that they only treat one or two ivermectin toxicity cases each year, and they're usually from dogs that are exposed to higher-dose ivermectin products intended for farm animals.

A simple cheek swab can be performed by veterinarians to find out if your dog has the genetic mutation behind ivermectin sensitivity, but Bristol's story highlights the need to be vigilant when your pets are exposed to horses or farm animals. Next time I bring my dogs herding, I'll definitely ask if any of the animals were treated with ivermectin recently.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cross-Species Teamwork
Canine and human doctors collaborate on treating cleft defects.

Mr. Moo, a mixed breed puppy from Michigan, was born nine months ago with a cleft palate that forced him to eat through a tube. He was lucky to be taken under the wing of Doctor Bryden Stanley, chief of surgery for small animals at Michigan State University, but the veterinarian was unsure of how to treat the young dog. Usually soft tissue from the same area of the mouth would be used to build a flap over the hole, but there was no soft tissue in the direct area.

So Dr. Stanley sought out Dr. John Girotto, director of craniofacial surgery at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. Dr. Girotto recommended doing what he does for kids without soft tissue—take it from inside of the cheek.

In May, Dr. Stanley performed the surgery on Mr. Moo, believed to be the first time the technique was ever performed on a dog. The puppy has since completely healed and has inspired the doctors to collaborate on helping more dogs and people with this condition.

Cleft lips and palates are a fairly common birth defect in kids, with one in 700 children born with the condition. There are no statistics on how common the defect is in dogs, but its thought to be more common in flat-nosed dogs.

Doctors Stanley and Girotto are now teaming up with two MSU geneticists in investigating the cause of cleft defects. The benefit of including dogs in the study is that results are available quicker, since they age faster than people.

There are some differences in treating dogs and humans, namely the number of doctors and other professionals involved. Dogs normally get two surgeries and then they're done, but children with cleft palates are seen by a whole team of people including, a craniofacial surgeon, plastic surgeon, orthodontist, speech therapist, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and sometimes even a social worker and geneticist.

Doctors Stanley and Girotto are also working on another project. They're planning to treat dogs with cleft defects and then train them to be therapy dogs. These pups will then be able to visit with kids having the same surgery, allowing for a special kind of bond.

I love to see collaborations between doctors and veterinarians!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
NYC Behavior Program Works with Abused Pups
ASPCA's new state of the art center rehabilitates dogs to prepare them for adoption.

Last year the ASPCA closed its small enforcement unit, known to many from the television show, Animal Precinct, and shifted enforcement duty to the New York Police Department. With the police department's increased resources and wider reach, the number of dog cruelty cases surged, leading the ASPCA to open a new behavior center designed to handle the most horrific cases. These dogs come in so traumatized that they cannot be safely put up for adoption. In most cities, these pups would be automatically euthanized, but this new lifesaving program gives them the time and resources needed to heal.

When Alvin, a young Pit Bull mix, arrived at the center three months ago, he was so emaciated and weak that he couldn't walk. His owner was charged with his abuse. Alvin was quickly nursed back to physical health, but the emotional scars were much harder to heal. Alvin was afraid of people that he didn't recognize, as well as unfamiliar clothing and objects.

Animal behaviorist, Victoria Wells, worked patiently with him, wearing costumes to teach Alvin to trust strangers. He's made incredible progress since coming to the center.

Victoria says that dogs like Alvin come in broken and hopeless, but leave happy and healthy.

The ASPCA's state of the art facility was specially designed with these pups in mind. The center features rooms that can be cleaned without handlers having to enter a dog's individual space. Soundproofing and light dimmers are used, along with calming scents and music, to create a tranquil atmosphere. Specialists carefully monitor each dog's condition and progress each day. This information is used to customize the behavior modification programs, but also to provide evidence in the prosecution of abusive owners.

As you can imagine, dogs who finally graduate from the center's program must be matched with a family willing to care for a pet with severe challenges. Those who don't improve enough and are considered dangerous to humans or other dogs, are euthanized.

The center's comprehensive approach has attracted interest from other humane organizations around the country. It would be great to see elements of this facility implemented elsewhere. The program is not cheap by any means, but ASPCA president, Matthew Bershadker explains why it's so important.

“We owe these animals because we, as a society, as a species, have so horribly betrayed them and failed them. It’s our responsibility to make sure they live the life they were born to live.”

New York is lucky to have such a comprehensive and progressive program!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
At-Home Canine Cognition Testing
Duke finds the games conducted by 'citizen scientists' hold up in the lab.

A few years ago I wrote about bringing my dogs to Harvard's Canine Cognition Lab, where my Shelties participated in a study on understanding human gestures. Since then, a web site called Dognition was created allowing you to play similar game-like tests with your dogs to learn about their cognitive and problem solving skills.

Over 17,000 people have participated since the web site started, seeking to find out more about what their pets are thinking. But do the the results hold up in these at-home tests? Duke University's Canine Cognition Center decided to find out.

In their study, Duke looked at data collected by 500 Dognition users from their at-home games. On five of the seven tests analyzed, the data corresponded closely to what had been produced in labs at Duke University and other research facilities.

Dognition was developed by Brian Hare, a professor at Duke who studies primate and dog cognition. People and their dogs were having so much fun participating in his research that he wanted to bring the tests online, allowing animal lovers around the world to learn more about their pets. But Dognition has turned out to be not only fun and games.

Evan MacLean, co-director of the Canine Cognition Center, says that the data these dog owners are producing is actually quality data that is resulting in unique insights.

Analysis of Dognition's unusually large dataset found that dogs have a unique set of cognition skills that they use to navigate the world around them. Some pups were found to be good communicators, while others had better memories or were better at taking their owner's perspective.

“So much is possible when you have this much data,” explained Professor Hare, I'm looking forward to dog owners answering all the big questions that have puzzled scientists for decades.” Very cool!

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