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JoAnna Lou

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

Culture: DogPatch
Live from Brooklyn: Canine Improv

The play I was watching was just 10 minutes in when a black Labrador jumped up next to me and settled in for a nap. This was going to be no ordinary theater experience.

I was at JACK, a performing-arts space in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see Comfort Dogs: Live from the Pink House, the latest experimental play written and directed by William Burke. The Labrador, Gypsy, along with mixed-breed pups Bronco and Bluet, was part of the play’s canine cast.

Comfort Dogs explores the relationship between humans and canines, and our dependence on them, through music and spoken word. Burke was inspired to create the play after reading about therapy dogs visiting a local nursing home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It sparked his curiosity about the emotional responsibility we assign to dogs, and their willingness to stay by our side despite not understanding most of what we say or do.

Normally, when dogs are involved in theatrical productions, their roles are carefully scripted and their behaviors are thoroughly rehearsed. Burke wanted something that felt more natural and spontaneous for Comfort Dogs.

“I didn’t want trained dogs doing things because they had to. That’s not what we were trying to do,” Burke explained. “The idea was to create an environment where the dogs could do anything they wanted, and no one would tell them not to be a dog.”

The result was about an hour of organic interaction between human and canine actors that complemented the play’s monologues and songs. The people also acted like dogs, sniffing, howling and scratching, while the three canine stars were free to be themselves. The dogs’ unscripted roles also meant that each show was unique. It felt like canine improv.

Working with animals, especially in an unscripted setting, presents logistical challenges—among them, finding the ideal performance space. An early iteration that enclosed the dogs on stage, per the original theater’s requirements, took away from the show’s free spirit. The space at JACK allowed Comfort Dogs to unfold as Burke had originally envisioned, showcasing the dogs’ natural behavior.

The three canine actors, each a different breed, size and personality, complemented each other as well, although they were primarily chosen because they were familiar with all of the people on stage. Bronco is Burke’s dog; Gypsy is bass player Paul Ketchum’s pup; and Bluet, whom Burke rescued from a local park, now lives with a friend. The actors’ existing relationships with the dogs grew as they worked on the play together.

It will also come as no surprise to any dog lover that the human actors learned a lot from being on stage with their canine counterparts.

“When you’re an actor, you always talk about ‘being present’ on stage,” says Burke. “With the dogs, they’re present all the time. It was certainly exciting to see.”

Now that Comfort Dogs has closed, the director hopes to work on a longer piece that incorporates more dogs. One of his ideas is to partner with a local shelter so that audience members could adopt the canine actors, making the play even more immersive.

It was refreshing to see Comfort Dogs explore canine theater in this manner, and I look forward to Burke’s next work. Incorporating shelter pups would be an exciting way to give back to dogs, who give us so much. 

News: JoAnna Lou
Therapy dogs Visit Charleston, South Carolina
Comfort canines bring relief and hope to a city struck by tragedy.
As animal lovers, we hardly need a reminder of the healing ability that our dogs have. Following last week's church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, therapy pets have been playing an important role in bringing relief to the community. But simply seeing pictures and stories of therapy dogs can be equally as important for breaking up all of the negativity we see on the news. Many of us around the world are heartbroken by the events, even though we may be thousands of miles away.

Meet Porsha, a St. Bernard, and George, a Labradoodle, two therapy dogs from HOPE Animal-Assistance Crisis Response who visited Charleston this week. Not only did they spread comfort, but they also served as a reminder of the greater mission at hand--to unite the community despite the shooter's attempt to divide.

Since September 2001, HOPE has organized therapy dog teams all over the country to deploy to places in need. They provide consistent training to respond to intense emotional and environmental situations. Porsha and George were much appreciated in Charleston and touched people in a variety of ways.

Ellie Fletcher came to a rally last Sunday to honor the victims. She told People Magazine that "there's so much bad stuff going on in this world, but after interacting with [the dogs], you know that you're always going to have someone to rely on, be that a dog or person. Someone's always going to love you."

For two kids at the park, petting George was actually the first time they'd ever touched a dog before. They were a little tentative at first, but were soon enamored by petting his fluffy fur after being told he wouldn't bite them.

Karen Gregory was devastated by the recent events, which was compounded by the death of her mother last month. George and Porsha marked the first time Karen had smiled in days. She says that the pups made her forget her grief, even if it was just for a few seconds.

It's amazing to see the impact that two dogs can have on an entire community.

News: JoAnna Lou
Dogs Dislike Those Mean to Their Owners
A study finds that canines will refuse food from people unwilling to help out.
I think that my dogs would take food from just about anyone. But a new study from Kyoto University found that canines don't like when people are not kind to their owners. And even a bribe won't change their mind!

The study, led by comparative cognition professor Kazuo Fujita, put three groups of 18 dogs through role plays in which their owners needed to open a box. The owner was accompanied by two people that the dog didn't know and were instructed to act differently in each situation. In the first group, the owner asked one of the two people to help with the task, but was refused. In the second group, the owner asked for, and received, help from one person. In the third group (the control), the owner did not solicit help and didn't interact with either person. In all groups, the third person remained neutral, neither helping or refusing.

After watching the box-opening scene, the dog was offered food by the two unfamiliar people in the room. Dogs that saw their owner being rebuffed were more likely to choose food from the neutral observer and ignore the person who had refused to help. The dogs in the control group showed no preference between the two strangers.

According to Kazuo, this is the first study to show that dogs make social and emotional evaluations of people regardless of what they had to gain. If the pups were acting solely out of self-interest, there would be no differences, meaning an equal number of dogs would have accepted food from each person. This ability is a key factor in building a highly collaborative society, and a trait that is present in children from the age of about three. It's a behavior that not all primates demonstrate. For instance, there is no evidence that chimpanzees show a preference unless there's a direct benefit to them.

Yet another study confirming the special relationship we have with our pups!

News: JoAnna Lou
Comfort Dogs at Funeral Homes
Funeral directors are starting to see the benefit of animals at work.
Therapy dogs have become common visitors at hospitals, college campuses, and nursing homes, but now these pups are adding a new workplace to the list--funeral homes.

Dogs have the ability to lighten the mood at wakes and funeral services, which can run the emotional gamut. Having a pet present can make the room feel more homey and comfortable, or even simply give people something else to focus on. Anyone who has worked with therapy dogs will tell you that the pets seem to know who needs their help and how to provide it.

Mark Krause, owner of a funeral home in Milwaukee, Wis., started bringing his Portuguese Water Dog, Oliver, to work back in 2001. Mark's wife had been training Oliver to visit schools, nursing homes, and hospitals, when she thought that Oliver could be just as beneficial at the funeral home. In his ten years attending wakes and services, they estimate Oliver has touched a couple of thousand families. People light up when Oliver walks in the room.

The work Oliver does can be quite powerful. Mark talks about a time when a 7-year old boy lost his 3-year old sister and completely stopped talking. But the minute Oliver walked in, the boy started chatting quietly to the pup about his sister. Oliver quickly became an indispensable part of the team. When he passed away in 2011, 150 people attended his funeral. Mark can't imagine the funeral home without a dog, so Oliver has since been succeeded by Benny, another Portuguese Water Dog.

Oliver was a pioneer when it comes to therapy dogs in funeral homes, but according to Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, more and more members are bringing animals to work--both certified therapy dogs and well behaved family pets.

Matthew Fiorillo, owner of a funeral home in White Plains, N.Y. is a recent adopter of the idea. He was inspired after seeing the calming effect a Maltese had on stressed people at the airport. Soon after he brought home a Golden Retriever Poodle mix, Lulu, and spent a year training her to be a therapy dog. Now when mourners make arrangements, Matthew asks if they'd like to meet Lulu and tells them she's available, at no extra charge, for any wake or funeral. Almost all have accepted.

The death of a loved one is a stressful and trying time. It's also a time when we need the support that only a pet can provide. The funeral home is a place where comfort animals can have a great impact and I hope to see more successful dogs in this context!

News: JoAnna Lou
DNA Testing for Breed Bans
NYC co-op tightens their pet policy in a questionable way.

Unfortunately breed bans are popping up everywhere, from apartment buildings to entire cities. But one Manhattan luxury co-op is taking their restriction to the next level.

The Upper West Side building put a new rule in place that requires residents to prove that their pet is not one of the co-op's 27 banned breeds. Going forward, a veterinarian must sign off on every dog's pedigree. For mixed breeds, the co-op board may ask that the pet take a DNA test. If a dog is made up of 50 percent or more of the forbidden breed, they will not be allowed to live in the building. Outraged residents have been calling the "canine breedism" intrusive.

The long list of banned breeds is supposedly based on "documented information regarding their tendency towards aggressiveness," but it's unclear where the information was obtained. And it's not just the traditionally discriminated pups on the list. Besides Pit Bulls, the group also includes Shih Tzus, Pomeranians, Malteses, Basset Hounds, and Saint Bernards. 

The compilation of 27 outlawed breeds makes you wonder why the building even bothers to be "pet friendly" at all. It also highlights what's wrong with breed bans in the first place. Individual dogs in the hands of the irresponsible people are dangerous, not entire breeds. The co-op's new rule is terribly misguided. DNA tests are not going to make the building safer. I wish the co-op board would instead focus their time on figuring how to encourage and reward responsible pet ownership and not punish based on breed stereotypes. 

News: JoAnna Lou
Courtroom Dogs in New York
New York City expands its courtroom therapy dog program to adults.
Testifying against an abuser is an experience that can run the gamut of emotions--from deep anger to paralyzing fear. Recognizing how intimidating this process can be, New York began allowing dogs in the courtroom in 2011 to support children on a case-by-case basis. The program has been successful and this week marked the first time that a dog was allowed to accompany an adult in a New York City courtroom.

Paz, a 5-year old Labradoodle, made his official appearance at the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday. While this day stood out, it was actually the culmination of six months of support he provided to the woman testifying. Paz first became involved in the case when the woman had difficulty viewing evidence, such as photos of the crime scene.

Then throughout the trial, Paz would wait outside of the courtroom, ready to comfort the woman when testifying became too overwhelming and she had to leave the room. Paz was so effective that the prosecutor asked Justice John G. Ingram for permission to have Paz in the courtroom, which was approved. Paz's calming effect was apparent as the woman bravely recounted disturbing case details without losing her composure.

Experts say that a dog’s ability to soothe and calm a child can elicit testimony that would be difficult to obtain otherwise. So it seems like a no brainer that these benefits would extend to adults as well. Paz's handler in the courtroom said she hoped that the case would lead to the broader use of therapy dogs in these situations. I certainly hope to see a lot more of Paz and other therapy dogs in the courtroom! 

News: JoAnna Lou
Dog Lunges in Front of Bus
Seeing eye dog jumps in front of a moving vehicle to protect his owner.
Service dogs are everyday heroes, dedicating themselves to helping people live as normal a life as possible. But Figo, a seeing eye dog from Brewster Village, New York, went above and beyond the call of duty this week.

On Monday, Audrey Stone and Figo were crossing the street when the driver of a mini bus failed to see the pair. With no signs of the bus stopping, the Golden Retriever threw himself in front of the vehicle to protect his blind owner. Figo then stayed by Audrey's side as emergency responders arrived. Paul Schwartz, a nearby gas station manager, said that Figo let him wrap his leg without any protest, but kept pulling to be near Audrey. Their bond was obvious.

Figo wasn't allowed in Audrey's ambulance, but was taken to the veterinarian in a fire vehicle.

According to Brewster Village Police Chief John Del Gardo, Figo took a lot of the impact. Photos of the crash even showed fur stuck to the bus' front wheel. Fortunately both Figo and Audrey are okay. The accident left Figo's leg with a deep cut to the bone, but after a successful surgery, he's now recovering with a leg splint. Figo will be staying at the veterinarian until Audrey is able to care for him. She suffered a broken ankle, elbow and ribs, and a head wound, so it will be some time before Figo can go back to his full duties.

What a brave pup!

News: JoAnna Lou
Teen Advocates for Heartworm Disease Awareness
Conn. teen is raising money for shelters and awareness for a potentially fatal disease.
When teenager Annie Blumenfeld adopted her dog, Teddy, from a kill animal shelter in 2012, she was inspired to do more to help homeless pets.  Annie is a talented artist and has since raised almost $40,000 through her charity, Wags 4 Hope, by painting pictures of her donors' animals. Required donations vary from $30-45, depending on the number of pets in the piece, but 100 percent of the money goes to shelters. Annie pays for the canvases, brushes, and paint out of her own pocket.

But Annie also has a second part to her mission. When Teddy originally arrived at the shelter, he had heartworm disease. Fortunately he recovered, but not all dogs are so lucky. When Annie found out that the disease is easily preventable, she wanted to do everything she could to raise awareness. Currently Annie is fighting to pass HB-5422, a bill addressing heartworm disease awareness, which will also require Connecticut's dog license form to indicate whether or not the dog is receiving heartworm prevention medicine. Annie even testified on the bill's behalf back in March, so fingers crossed that it will be passed soon!

News: JoAnna Lou
Dogs Spreading Lawn Chemicals
Study finds that pets can track potentially harmful herbicides inside the house.

When I treat my lawn with herbicides, I usually keep my dogs off of the grass for a couple of days. But a new study has me rethinking my use of chemicals in the yard all together.

A study at Purdue University has found that dogs can pick up garden and lawn chemicals, contaminate themselves, and transfer the herbicides to people. Some of these chemicals have been associated with an increase in cancer , particularly bladder cancer, in dogs and humans. Researchers suggested that Scottish Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Shetland Sheepdogs, Beagles, and Wire Hair Fox Terriers are at particular risk because those breeds have a high genetic propensity for bladder cancer.

In the study scientists sprayed herbicides on plots that were green, dry brown, wet, or recently mowed, then measured how much of the chemicals remained up to 72 hours post treatment. They found the highest levels on dead or dying plant material. Dry brown grass doesn't absorb the chemicals as readily, leaving the herbicides lingering on the surface longer. Applying excessive amounts of the chemical was another way surface levels remained high, since the plants already absorbed as much as they could.

In the second part of the study, researchers analyzed urine samples of dogs from households that used herbicides and those who didn't. The majority of pets from homes that used chemicals were found to have the same herbicides in their urine. But some of the dogs from untreated homes also had the chemicals in their urine. Wind can cause herbicides to travel up to 50 feet away from the application site, so the researchers theorized that the chemicals pose a risk even to those who don't use them on their own yards. There are industry guidelines for restricting lawn chemical application based on wind speed, but the average homeowner is probably not aware of those best practices.

For now the researchers recommend only using herbicides if absolutely necessary. And when you do, always follow manufacturer guidelines, allow gardens and lawns to dry before allowing pets out, and wash your dogs' feet each time they come inside the house. They also said ideally you should treat the front and back yard separately, a week apart, which would give your dogs a safe area to use while the other part gets sprayed.

Do you use herbicides on your lawn? What precautions do you take to protect your pups?

News: JoAnna Lou
Enabling Dogs to Take Photos
Nikon designs a heart rate triggered camera for canines.
You Tube is filled with "dogs eye view" videos, where energetic canines run around with GoPros strapped to their bodies. But what would our pups capture if they could take still pictures? Nikon decided to find out by figuring out a way to let a Border Collie become a "pho-dog-rapher."

Nikon's Heartography experiment didn't start specifically with dogs in mind, they simply wanted to translate emotions and feelings into a photo. The outcome was a 3-D printed camera case that's connected to a heart rate monitor strap. Using Bluetooth technology, the camera takes a photo when the person's heart rate goes above a set baseline.

They then decided to take the experiment a step further by creating a custom case that could be strapped onto a dog. Just like the human version, when the pup's heart rate spikes, the camera takes a photo. The tester was a Border Collie named Grizzler, who took many amusing photos of food, objects he encountered on walks, and other animals he met. Nikon did say that Grizzler took many blurry shots, so they picked the best ones for their video.

Unfortunately Nikon has no plans to make the experiment into a commercial product, but it would certainly be fun to have photos documenting our dog's walks, from their point of view, giving us another viewpoint into what might be going through their brains.

What do you think your dog would take a photo of?

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