JoAnna Lou

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

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!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Man and Pup Saved from S. Car. Creek
A Canadian man refused to leave his dog behind in the flood waters.
South Carolina has been inundated by flood water, resulting from what Governor Nikki Haley called a "storm of historic proportions." But amid the loss and tragedy, there have also been heartwarming stories of rescue and goodwill.

Last weekend George Osterhues was on a road trip from Ottawa, Canada to Florida with his Yorkie, Tila, when they took a detour off Interstate 77 due to the bad weather. Unfortunately George and Tila ended up on a street that runs across a creek that was overflowing. The swelling water quickly submerged the road and it was too late to escape.

Fortunately Chester, South Carolina resident Tom Hall was scouting the area to see if anyone might need help. As he got to the creek, Tom noticed the trapped car and waded in the water to get a closer look. That's when he saw George, who at this point had been in the water for several hours.

Tom yelled over to George that he would be right back and ran home to get his family, a life preserver, and some rope. When he returned, the water was so strong that it was difficult to move. But he managed to get over to the car, where the water was already chest deep. Tom was ready to pull George out of the window, but George refused to leave without Tila. At first Tom tried to convince George to let him come back for Tila, but George insisted that they go together. So Tom ended up towing both of them to shore at the same time.

The whole rescue took an hour with the help of his son and wife. Since George didn't have a car anymore, the Halls invited him and Tila to stay with them until they could arrange for a hotel and rental car to get him back on his way to Florida.

George credits the Halls with saving his life and was humbled by their generosity. It's always nice to hear stories like these among all the bad news. I'm just glad that George and Tila are safe!

Wellness: Healthy Living
Toxic Mushroom Kills The Rock's Puppy
The Rock's was unable to save his French Bulldog for the second time.
Actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson made the news last month when he saved his new puppy, Brutus, from drowning in his family's pool. The young French Bulldog was running in his new backyard for the first time when he made a beeline towards the pool. Not knowing how to swim, Brutus began to sink to the bottom. The Rock immediately jumped in, fully clothed, and pulled the pup to safety. But this month it was another backyard hazard that ultimately took Brutus' life. The Rock has been committed to sharing his tragic story.

Earlier this week Brutus was outside playing with his brother, Hobbs, another French Bulldog, when Brutus ate a mushroom. It happened to be poisonous and within hours the toxins were destroying his liver and immune system. On Monday The Rock was forced to take Brutus off life support. Hoping to prevent this from happening to other families, The Rock took to Instagram with a warning. Alongside a photo of Brutus, he said, “I encourage all of you out there to be mindful of mushrooms in your yards, parks or anywhere outside your dogs play. What looks innocent, can be deadly to your lil’ family members.” The message was capped with the hashtag #WishICouldveSavedYouOneMoreTime.

The Rock's message is an important reminder to check the plants that are in your backyard and any other outdoor spaces your dogs play in. In my yard, mushrooms will often pop up overnight. The ASPCA has a searchable database of plants toxic to pets, with photos, if you find anything you don't recognize. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Sledding and Pediatric Cancer Patients
Study uses adapted activity to improve physical and psychological health.
Pediatric cancer patients have so much of their childhood stolen from them, and attempts to protect them can sometimes do more harm in this area. Often caretakers with good intentions will shield these kids from physical activities. However, a new study has shown that some pediatric cancer patients can actually benefit from a little more adventure in their lives, on both a physical and psychological level. Given that the activity studied was dog sledding, and what we know about the positive effects of therapy dogs, I think that the pups may have had a lot to do with the outcome as well!

Researchers followed eleven children, aged 10 to 18 years old, on an expedition organized by Sourire à la Vie, a French non-profit that supports the use of adapted physical activity for young cancer patients. The kids received training and exercises in preparation for the excursion, then traveled with doctors and nurses to race dog sleds in Northern Canada. They also participated in the pups' care while they were there.

The study found that not only can most pediatric cancer patients participate in adapted physical activities, even during treatment, they showed an improvement in both physical and psychological health. Laurent Grélot, professor at Aix Marseille University, explained that the activity had many benefits. "It avoids cardiovascular and muscular deconditioning, can decrease treatment induced fatigue, and can help in maintaining social integration."

No doubt the canines had an impact on the result as well. "One of the main reasons why we chose dog sledding was to create a unique sportive experience based on change of scenery and building a strong relationship with animals," explains Frédéric Sotteau, founder of Sourire à la Vie.

As a next step, the researchers are planning to do a randomized trial to further evaluate the benefits of adapted physical activities for children with cancer. However, you don't need to look at the data to see the positive effects.

"Before my cancer diagnosis, I used to do a lot of sport, but then I lost self-confidence and my body was not able to cope with physical efforts," says Merwan, an 18-year-old patient. "This trip in Canada transformed me. I am in shape again, and now I know I am able to practice sport again."

This program seems like a wonderful way to combine physical activity with the healing properties of the human-canine bond!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs' Fur Dyed in Theft
Microchip proved useful in the case of a stolen Seattle pup.
I'm a huge advocate for microchips because collars and identification tags can easily fall off, but they can also be useful in other situations. Recently a family in Seattle had to rely on a microchip to prove ownership when their pup was stolen and disguised with hair dye.

Earlier this month, Robert Lucier went to the supermarket and tied his Cairn Terrier, Waffle's leash to a post while he ran inside. When he returned, the pup was gone. Over the next four days, Robert received multiple calls from people who saw Waffles with a homeless woman, and one who saw a woman washing paint out of a dog's coat in a public restroom. Using the information, Robert rode his bike downtown, called police, and located the woman with Waffles. Robert almost didn't reorganize his beloved pet as Waffle's fur had been dyed black.

For a second Robert thought that he may be harassing the wrong person, but the smell of chemical dye erased any doubt in his mind. The woman argued with him about whose dog it was, but a veterinarian scanned Waffles' microchip to confirm the truth. Thankfully Waffles is now back home with his family. While this story shows how valuable a microchip can be, it's also an important lesson to not leave your dog tied outside!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pets Amid the Refugee Crisis
A boy treks over 300 miles to Greece with his beloved puppy.
There have been so many heartbreaking stories that have emerged from the Syrian refugee crisis. But one video posted by the UN Refugee Agency's Facebook page this weekend had a rare glimmer of hope and love amid the difficult journey that millions are undertaking.

In the clip, 17-year old Syrian refugee, Aslan, talks about traveling all the way from Damascus to Lesbos, Greece with his puppy, Rose. The Husky mix even has her own passport. Aslan believes that they walked over 310 miles together during their trek, much of it with Aslan carrying Rose in a plastic carrier.

Many people have questioned his choice to bring along his puppy, but Aslan says, "I love my dog. I need him." He also says that he has enough food and water for both of them. Given the stressful experience, they're lucky to have each other. For more stories like Aslan's check out the Help for Refugees with Pets Facebook page to learn about others who could not bear to leave any part of their family behind.

If you'd like to help Aslan and others involved in the crisis, contact the UN Refugee Agency.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Honoring the Newtown Comfort Dogs
A child's tribute to the comfort pups that helped heal a school.

When Guy Bacon returned to school following the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school, it was an emotional day. Guy had just lost his sister Charlotte, one of the 26 victims. But during that difficult day, the now 11-year old distinctly remembers the moment a dog named Drago walked into the classroom. The Spinone Italiano was the first of ten pups Guy met that helped him feel calm and relaxed when he pet their fluffy fur and received licks in return.  

Guy's fifth-grade teacher, Karen King, remembers how excited the kids were to see pets in school, on a day when they were all experiencing sadness, fear, and confusion. Guy spent his first few days back lying next to the dogs with his notebook open, interviewing each of the canine volunteers and capturing them through drawings.

With Karen's help Guy decided to embark on a project called The Dogs of Newtown, "a book about the special therapy dogs that visited me and my friends at school and helped wipe the tears from our faces." The book will be dedicated to Charlotte.

Guy has spent the last two years collecting his vignettes, illustrations, and photos, many from the comfort dogs' handlers. Rounding out the project are pictures taken by New York City photographer, Mary Bloom.

This was a special project for Guy and he was involved in every aspect. Guy worked with a graphic designer on the layout and assisted Mary on the four photo shoots. It was apparent throughout the project that Guy had a special bond with these dogs. "They gave him a special gift when he needed it most and writing this book was his way of giving back to them," Mary explains.

The Dogs of Newtown is a wonderful dedication to the human-canine bond and a way to honor everyone involved in the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Tomorrow the book will be introduced nationally at the annual Charlotte's Litter Awareness Day in West Haven, Conn and will be available on Amazon on October 1.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lost Pup Recognizes Her Family on Television
Tabitha finds her way back home in an unusual way.
I don't think that my dogs can recognize my voice over Skype or the phone, despite the number of times I've tried to talk to them while traveling. So this story of a lost pup recognizing her family on television was even more incredible to me.

Earlier this month, Kelly Schaefer's husband, Alfred, wandered off with their Bichon Poodle mix, Tabitha in Kansas City, Missouri. Alfred suffers from Alzheimer's, so as soon as Kelly noticed the two missing, she started searching the neighborhood. After finding Alfred, Kelly was unable to find Tabitha.

Kelly posted nearly 300 fliers around the neighborhood and was afraid that someone may have found the friendly pup and kept her.

As it turns out, a woman did find Tabitha and was actively looking for her rightful home. The woman happened to be watching the local news when Fox 4 reporter, Judy Le, interviewed the Schaefers about their efforts to find the five year old pup. Apparently Tabitha immediately perked up and started wagging her tail when Kelly and Alfred appeared in the story, particularly when they said Tabitha's name. The woman then knew she had Tabitha and immediately called the featured phone number. That same day Tabitha was back home with her family.

Kelly says that Tabitha loves watching television, so she wasn't surprised to hear what happened. What a cool happy ending to the story!