JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Attentiveness is Innate
Researchers study wolves to prove the origin of the human-dog relationship.
Many studies have show that dogs can understand human gestures, while chimpanzees cannot. This initially came as a surprise to scientists because of our genetic ties to primates. It was thought that canines developed this ability through domestication, however a series of new studies suggest that this capability may be more innate.

Behavioral scientists from Austria's Messerli Research Institute and the Wolf Science Center hypothesize that the dynamic between wolves and their pack mates could've provided the basis for today's human-dog relationship. Because of this, they believe that selection for social attentiveness and tolerance was not necessary during canine domestication.  

To test their hypothesis the researchers have been working on a series of experiments to examine social attentiveness and tolerance of wolves and dogs within their packs and toward humans. To compare what could be attributed to evolutionary changes rather than individual experiences, the researchers compared dogs and wolves that had been raised in an identical way and socialized with humans to a similar extent.

The first study tested the ability of the dogs and wolves to pay attention to human actions. In the experiment, the subjects observed a familiar human either hide a food reward or pretend to hide one. There was also a control round where the food was hidden before they entered the test area (and would have to detect by smell). Both the dogs and wolves were equally good at differentiating whether or not the person actually hid food or not. Interestingly dogs outperformed the wolves in both test and control conditions, suggesting that they relied on their nose more than the wolves to find the hidden food.

Another experiment looked at the wolves' ability to follow gaze. The researchers set up scenarios to see if wolves would follow the eyes of people and pack members, both looking into distant space and around barriers. They found that the subjects followed human gaze just as readily as their fellow wolves, implying high social attention and willingness to accept people as social partners who might provide important information.

So far the researchers' work has shown that wolves pay as much attention to people as dogs do, supporting the hypothesis that the human-canine bond was not necessarily selected for through domestication. The behavioral scientists plan on continuing their experiments to further their theory. It's certainly interesting to see that the understanding we have with our dogs could be in their DNA!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Poisonous Water
Dogs die after drinking water from California's Lake Chabot.
When I hike with my dogs, I always bring enough water for them to drink, but they often end up taking a few sips from streams along the way. Generally I don't think too much about where the pups are quenching their thirst (aside from keeping them out of very murky puddles), however a recent report of dogs dying from toxic algae is making me much more aware of trail side water.

In the last two months, three dogs have died after drinking water from Northern California's Lake Chabot, located in a popular park. The lake has had a dangerous algae bloom since September, which is harmful to humans and animals. These blooms normally happen in late summer, but unseasonably warm temperatures and drought conditions have caused algae to proliferate well into the winter months.

Park and municipal officials have urged an urgent warning for people to keep dogs away from the water, and have posted additional signs along the lake trails.

I have a portable water filter that I use for longer backpacking trips, but it's important to know that these devices will not make algae bloom affected water safe to drink. Use your judgement and keep an eye out for water sources your dog may try to drink from.

If you're planning on hiking in a park, check the area's web site before you leave to be aware of any warnings. Algae blooms are often foamy, scummy, or slimy looking with an offensive odor. They can be a variety of colors, such as blue-green, brownish red, pea green, or white. Not all blooms are toxic, but you can't tell just by looking at it (a toxin test is required). Generally it's best to direct your dog to clear, flowing water sources.

What precautions do you take for thirsty pups on the go?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Helicopter Pet Parents
Researchers look at how our personality affects pet care.

There's a lot of joking today about “helicopter parents” who are too overbearing with their kids. It may not be the best way to raise children, but what about pets? Two researchers at UC Berkeley and California State University are collaborating on a study that will look at personality and attachment style, how we relate to others, and whether it can predict better pet care.

In the first part of their research, Mikel Delgado and Gretchen Reevy surveyed more than 1,000 pet lovers across the country. They found that those who expressed the greatest affection for their pets were also rated among the most conscientious and neurotic. While these may be bad characteristics for human parents, it may work better for pets, who will never be independent. Cat lovers tended to score high on anxious attachment, meaning they tend to need more reassurance from their pets. Both dog and cat lovers scored low on avoidant attachment, suggesting that they enjoy close relationships with their pets.

This was the first study to combine principles of human attachment theory to pet people's personality types. Next Mikel and Gretchen plan to do further the research by investigating whether greater affection and anxious attachment is associated with better care and understanding of their pet's needs.

If you're interested in learning more about your attachment style (based on human relationships), take this long or short online test. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Therapy Dogs and Cancer Patients
Study documents the benefits of pet therapy at a NYC hospital.

When I visited hospital patients as part of a therapy dog program, it was obvious that my Sheltie, Nemo, brought joy to what could be a depressing environment. But still most people view animal-assisted therapy as a "nice to have," not something that could have a significant effect on a patient's health.

That may all change with a new study at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City. The collaboration between the hospital, therapy dog organization The Good Dog Foundation, animal health company Zoetis, and the Pfizer Foundation, is aiming to quantify the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

The research is the first that documents the benefits of pet therapy in adult cancer patients, and is by far the most rigorous study in this area. Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at Mount Sinai, says that this is a definitive study that uses the same scientific standards to examine the merits of animal-assisted therapy as they use for the cancer treatment itself. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the positive effects, having hard data will help therapy dogs secure future funding and support.

In the six week study, 37 patients received daily 15-20 minute assisted animal visits (AAV). The patients were at the hospital with aggressive cancers in the head and neck, and were receiving a combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy in advance of surgery. The patients were assessed at the beginning of the study (as a baseline), at the mid-point, and at the end. They measured satisfaction with the AAVs, ability to withstand treatment, lingering effect of AAV after treatment, and perception of social support. 

The researchers found that the patients showed an increase in social well-being over the course of the study, even after they underwent marked declines in both physical and functional well-being. After controlling for the reduction in physical well-being, they also found statistically significant increases in emotional well-being as well. Some patients even said that they would have stopped their treatments before completion if it weren't for the regular therapy dog visits.

Most hospital patients are lucky if they see one therapy dog during their hospital stay, let alone the daily visits. But hopefully this study will help make the case for adding regular animal assisted therapy to more comprehensive treatment plans. 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The ARK at JFK
NYC airport is adding a terminal for traveling creatures.
A pet relief area at JFK International Airport.

Earlier this week I was at JFK International Airport and took a peek at one of the pet relief areas. It's a small, but well maintained, area for dogs to take a potty break before catching their flight. Many airports now have these relief spots, thanks in part to accommodating service dogs.

However, animals traveling in and out of the New York City airport will soon have a brand new terminal just for them. Construction has started on a 178,000-square-foot building, dubbed The ARK at JFK, which will feature an overnight pet resort, a 24-hour animal hospital, an aviary, and a climate controlled arrivals area, complete with horse stalls and 14.5 acre grounds.

It's projected that 70,000 animals will go through the ARK each year, including companion pets, zoo animals, livestock, and race horses. The terminal, which is scheduled to open next year, will be the first USDA-approved, 24-hour, privately owned airport quarantine operation. Architecture firms specializing in equine and livestock design are collaborating with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design the state-of-the-art facility.

The ARK is primarily for animals in cargo, and won't have much impact on the average person flying with their pet, but it will be nice to have the boarding facility and animal hospital on premise. This facility also shows how airports are starting to cater to the growing number of traveling animals. I'd love to see elements of the design incorporated into other airports and into areas specifically for the average consumer.

What pet-friendly feature would you like to see incorporated into your local airport?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs Shed Light on Migration Patterns
Scientists use canine remains to learn more about humans.

We've benefited in many ways from our relationship with dogs. Studying canines has led to everything from new medical advancements to behavioral insights. Now scientists are using dogs to understand human migration patterns around the world.

According to University of Illinois biologist Kelsey Witt, canines were one of the earliest organisms to have migrated with humans to every continent. This special relationship makes them a valuable research tool.

The school recently embarked on the largest genetic analysis to date of ancient dogs in the Americas, shedding light on both canine and human history. In the study, researchers compared DNA from ancient canine remains to those from previous collections. The findings suggested that dogs may have arrived in the Americas thousands of years after the first wave of people came from Asia (the period also coincides with the earliest known dog burial in the Americas). Based on the canine DNA, researchers also hypothesize that the first two major human migrations came from two different source populations.

In the study, scientists focused specifically on DNA from the cell mitochondria. Since it's inherited maternally, it shows an unbroken line of ancestry, as opposed to looking at chromosomes which can exchange genes between the maternal and paternal pair. This has allowed them to uncover breeding patterns, genetic diversity, and roles (ancient dogs were used for a wide range of jobs—hunting assistants, herders, haulers, companions, and even food).

While it may seem counterproductive to use dogs to study our migration patterns, scientists don't always have access to human remains since genetic analysis is destructive (understandably people don't want their loved ones' remains touched). This is why they often use ancient dog remains for their research. The scientists hope to continue their work and learn even more about patterns of human migration into the New World.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Rides Bus to the Park
Seattle pup is a public transportation regular.

My dogs are always ready to go, running in circles while I put on my shoes, grab my jacket, and throw poop bags into my backpack. I imagine they wonder why it takes so long to leave the house. But not all dogs are so patient. One pup in Seattle became tired of waiting and took matters into her own paws.

Jeff Young and his Black Labrador mix, Eclipse, live next to the bus stop that takes them to the local dog park. Sometimes Jeff isn't finished smoking his cigarette when the bus arrives, so Eclipse started boarding the bus by herself and exiting a few stops later. Jeff then gets on the next one and meets her at the dog park.

The two year old pup soon became a regular on the bus, with riders looking out for her each day. Eclipse remained a local legend until Seattle radio host Miles Montgomery launched her into web infamy. He was riding the bus when suddenly Eclipse jumped into the seat next to him, then got off at her stop. Miles was so surprised that he took a selfie and posted it on Twitter. Soon the picture went viral and Eclipse's bus rides were famous.

In pet friendly Seattle, dogs are allowed to ride buses on leash, at the discretion of the driver. But no one seems to mind the well behaved Eclipse. I'm a little concerned that she's wandering off on her own, but perhaps Jeff should ditch the cigarettes and accompany Eclipse to the park on the first bus!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Smartphone for Dogs
New collar lets you 'video chat' with your pup.
These days it seems like everyone has a smartphone, even toddlers can be regularly seen playing with the expensive devices. So it was only a matter of time before the technology reached our pets too.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Motorola unveiled the Scout 5000, a collar which is being billed as a smartphone for dogs. While there are other GPS-enabled collars, the Scout 5000 adds Wi-Fi connectivity, a wide-angle video camera, and a speaker/microphone. In addition to being able to track your pet with GPS and geofencing, you can watch a live video stream and talk to your pup remotely. So theoretically, while you're at work, you could see your dog jumping on the couch and have the ability to tell him to get off.

I think that the voice capability will end up being more novelty than practical. Dogs will quickly learn that you can't enforce anything when your voice is coming from the collar. And trying to calm an anxious pet through the device might confuse them even more.

Also, I've tried talking to my dogs over Skype and they don't seem to recognize my virtual voice. My theory is that they know who is in the room and will zone out other voices (perhaps learned from ignoring meaningless voices on television and radio). But maybe it's just my crew. It would be really interesting to see what they're up to all day (although as one guy who filmed his pup on a GoPro found, you may never want to leave your pets again!).

The Scout 5000 will be available in June and includes one year of 3G service. It's a bit bulky, so only larger dogs will be sporting this version.

Would you get a high tech collar for your pup?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Photos for Anthony
Facebook page collects over 500,000 pet pictures to lift a boy's spirits.
A photo posted by Filicia May of her two dogs,  Jase and Remy.
16-year old Anthony Lyons loves his dogs, but is forced to leave them behind when he checks into the Phoenix Children's Hospital once a month for chemotherapy treatments. It's a grueling week long ordeal and the only thing that puts a smile on Anthony's face is the visits from the hospital's therapy dogs. But unfortunately they can't come every day.

So Roberta Lucero-Koron, a family friend, began a Facebook page called "Photo Doggies for Anthony" where pets around the world could make a "virtual visit" to the hospital. As of Monday, over 500,000 photos of dogs from as far as Dubai have been posted (plus some cats, pot-bellied pigs, and lizards). Many are accompanied by a short description of the pup's personality and favorite things, so that Anthony can feel like he's really met the dogs.

The original Facebook page was taken down yesterday because someone posted an inappropriate photo, but Roberta created a new page this morning and hopes they'll get to 500,000 again soon. Judging by how many pictures have already been added this morning, it looks like they're well on their way!

Anthony was first diagnosed with a treatable type of leukemia in July and will continue to have monthly chemotherapy treatments over the next three years. It's going to be a long road, but this is a great way to use social media to bring the canine community together to lift Anthony's spirits, one photo at a time.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Wagging Tails at Check-in
A North Carolina hotel hosts adoptable dogs.
If you miss your dogs while on vacation, you'll love the Aloft hotel in Asheville, North Carolina--but you may need to make room for an extra passenger on the way home! In July, the lodging chain's downtown location teamed up with Charlie's Angels Animal Rescue to host a dog until a forever home could be found.

Since then, guests have been welcomed by an adoptable canine when they come to stay. The dog is always on leash or in an exercise pen as to not overwhelm anyone at check-in. The pups can't stay in guest rooms, but they can accompany visitors to the restaurant, bar, and other public areas.

People come to Asheville for the Great Smoky Mountains, the craft beer scene, or the artsy culture, but now some are heading home with a new furry family member. Jan Trantham and her husband, from Atlanta, Georiga, fell in love with a 2-year old Shih Tzu named Jackson at check-in. Each day they set out to sightsee, but found themselves wanting to go back to see Jackson, and eventually adopted him.

Since the program launched five months ago, 14 dogs have been adopted and the hotel has received plenty of positive feedback from guests. Aloft and Charlie's Angels hope to expand the collaboration to other hotels within the chain. Aloft has always been pet friendly, allowing dogs to stay for free, so adding the program felt natural.

Adoptions have even extended beyond hotel guests. Caren Ferris of Amherst, Mass. and her husband were staying nearby, but met Ginger, a 4-year old Terrier mix, at the hotel bar. Next thing they knew, the Ferris' were calling the shelter and filling out adoption papers.

The program has had many benefits. The dogs get to live outside of the shelter and socialize with many different people. And guests missing their own pets  can get their dog fix, and maybe even meet a new addition. The pups also encourage guests to mingle since they make such good conversation starters.

A win for both people and puppies!