JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study looks at optimism and how it may predict successful service pups.
October 10 2014
Those of us who live with dogs know that our pets have distinctly different personalities. My Sheltie, Nemo, is one of the happiest dogs that I know. A few years ago he was in a veterinary intensive care unit and the staff was amazed at how upbeat he looked, even while being whisked away for emergency surgery. I'm sure that his positive attitude contributed to his eventual full recovery.
So I wasn't surprised to find that studies have suggested that dogs may have a degree of optimism and pessimism. Back in 2010, Bark blogger Karen B. London wrote about a study that gauged these tendencies by the speed at which dogs approached food bowls. The canine test subjects first learned to associate a full food bowl with a certain location and an empty bowl with a different location. They were then brought to various ambiguous locations to observe their speed towards a bowl. Dogs who assumed a new location may also mean a full food bowl were labeled optimistic.
The study went on to measure behavior as well and found that the pessimistic dogs (the dogs who slowly approached bowls in ambiguous locations) were more likely to show separation-related distress, like destructive chewing and barking. While it was an interesting study, Karen believed there were too many variables to draw any conclusions about optimism and pessimism.
However, a new study just published out of the University of Sydney improves on the previous experiment and is applying the work to the selection of service dogs. Led by Dr. Melissa Starling, dogs were taught to touch a target on cue to trigger the release of a liquid. The cue was a sound—one tone that meant touching the target would produce milk and a different tone meant touching the target would result in water. As you can imagine, the dogs were much quicker to interact with the target after the "milk sound."
Once the target behavior was learned, the dogs were presented with ambiguous tones. Those who continued to touch the target at "milk speed" were labeled as optimists, while those who responded with "water speed" were labeled as pessimists. Dr. Starling also looked at the degree of optimism by looking at differences in their response to a range of tones. For instance, a very optimistic dog may touch the target at a quick speed even after a tone that sounds more similar to the water noise.
The research team also found that pessimistic dogs appeared to be more stressed after failing a task than the optimistic ones. This included whining, pacing, and avoiding the task. Optimistic dogs tended to be unfazed by failure and kept trying.
The cool part is that Dr. Starling is now working with Assistance Dogs Australia to see if an optimism test could help in selecting successful training candidates. She believes that this could help determine which dogs will take risks to gain rewards, be more resilient when things don't go their way, and be willing to persist through setbacks.
I can see how this information could be valuable for working dogs and even as a temperament test for future dog sport pups. I can't wait to see the outcome of her continued work with the service dogs.
Do you think your pup is an optimist or a pessimist?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Sick nurse's pet is targeted as Spain tries to control the deadly virus.
October 8 2014
The internet has been buzzing about Western Europe's first case of Ebola, diagnosed in a Spanish nurse on Monday. Teresa Romero, her husband, Javier, and two others were quickly ushered into quarantine. If that wasn't stressful enough for Teresa's family, the government announced yesterday that they plan to put down her dog, Excalibur, as a precaution.
Teresa and Javier objected to the decision, but the government obtained a court order that would allow them to carry out the euthanasia.
While dogs can be infected by Ebola, they do not develop symptoms or die from the disease. However, they can spread the virus to humans through licking and biting, as well as their urine and feces. When the virus is cleared from the dog, they are no longer contagious. So Excalibur could be quarantined like Javier and Teresa, but the Spanish government likely doesn't have the resources to do so (or the protocol on how to carry it out safely). I also think that this is a knee jerk reaction to mitigating the spread of Ebola, which has become a politically and emotionally charged problem.
Ebola has certainly highlighted gaps in disease control around the world. Reading about Excalibur also made me think that we could be helpless to save our pets if an outbreak happened close to home. What if I was sick in the hospital and the government ordered my dogs to be put down? It's frightening.
Animal lovers around the world are mobilizing to change the Spanish government's mind. One of the top hashtags on Twitter this morning is #SavemosaExcalibur. And a Change.org petition has been created with over 350,000 signatures so far. These social media campaigns may not sway the current decision, but I hope it inspires other governments to include pets in their emergency plans in an outbreak scenario.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
U.K. animal welfare organization creates a pet version of the prenup.
October 4 2014
These days it's common for couples to sign a prenuptial agreement before getting married. While it protects money and other material assets, it makes no plan for what happens to pets after a divorce. As a result many animals end up in shelters when their parents split up. U.K. animal welfare organization Blue Cross estimates that marital conflict and relationship breakdown results in four relinquished animals each week at their shelter. They've even had cases where one person will bring in an animal without their ex's knowledge.
If we can make a plan for our bank accounts and material possessions, our dogs certainly deserve the same courtesy. So Blue Cross partnered with divorce lawyers at Lloyd Platt and Company to create a "pup nup." This document outlines who will maintain primary custody, the financial responsibility split, and visitation rights in the event of a break up.
Not only does the "pup nup" make one aspect of divorce a little easier, it also encourages responsible pet ownership by helping couples make a long term plan for their animal's care. Even if couples don't end up signing the "pup nup," just inspiring more conversations about a long term plan is a step in the right direction.
The "pup nup" template is available as a free download for anyone adding a new pet to the family.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The airline's new Paws and Relax in-flight channel is designed to soothe passengers.
October 1 2014
Flying can be incredibly stressful these days, between getting through security, navigating crowded terminals, and squeezing into tiny economy cabin seats. So British Airways decided to soothe passengers by harnessing the calming ability of animals.
Paws and Relax, an in-flight entertainment channel dedicated to cute pet videos, launched in long-haul flights just a few weeks ago. It can be found free of charge in the in-flight library's Entertainment section. British Airways' entertainment team got the idea for the channel after reading that watching animals could lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
Richard D'Cruze, the in-flight entertainment manager, says that they were looking for a way to enhance the wellbeing of passengers, while creating something that appealed to all ages.
The initial launch lineup includes popular British animated cartoon, Simon's Cat--which features funny stories of a man and his cat, BBC's The Secret Life of Cats--a documentary which follows felines fitted with cameras and GPS collars, and Animal Planet's America's Cutest Dogs--which shows footage of playing pups.
This is such a fun idea and really should help relieve the stress of flying (at least when you finally get to your seat!). I only wish Paws and Relax had launched a month earlier when I flew home on British Airways.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Shelters team up with resorts to exercise dogs and find potential adopters.
September 27 2014
I love taking my dogs on vacation and feel like it's such a shame to leave them behind when heading on an active adventure. Recently I was researching snowboard trips for the upcoming season and stumbled upon a really cool way to get your animal fix while away from home--borrow a shelter pup!
In Utah, the Pound Puppy Hike program is a collaboration between the Red Mountain Resort and the Ivans Animal Shelter. While the main goal is to get the dogs out of their kennels for the day, there have been 30 adoptions since the program started 10 years ago. The inspiration came from resort guests, many avid dog lovers that wish their pups could join them on the beautiful mountain hikes.
The outings start at the shelter and go through breathtaking red rock cliffs and canyons. It's an easy jaunt compared to the challenging endurance hikes that most guests come to the Red Mountain Resort for, but the Pound Puppy Hike is often a trip highlight.
Southern Utah isn't the only tourist destination to take advantage of people craving a dog fix. Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii lets visitors take a canine buddy to landmarks such as Mahaulepu Beach and Waimea Canyon. They even provide poop bags, towels for the car, and an Adopt Me vest--fantastic advertising! And their Shelter Dog Field Trips have been extremely successful. Not only do the pups get to enjoy the island, approximately two visitors per week permanently adopt a pet.
Dogs Aspen in Colorado is yet another rescue organization that allows people to borrow a pup through their Rent-A-Pet program. These collaborations are just a great win-win for dog loving humans and shelter canines alike.
Would you borrow a pup on your vacation?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Sharing pastimes with our pets requires weighing interest level and safety risks.
September 25 2014
Recently a video of Riley the skydiving dog has been making the internet rounds. At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing. You can't ask a dog if he wants to free fall from over 13,000 feet in the air, not to mention put up with the loud noises, strong winds, and potential side effects (like ear popping and dizziness). After doing a little more research, Riley is not the only skydiving animal. There are other videos of high flying pups on You Tube and of course military dogs are often trained to jump from aircraft. In 2011, handler Mike Forsythe and his canine partner Cara set the world for the highest man/dog parachute deployment for jumping from an astonishing 30,100 feet (although Cara was wearing an oxygen mask and tactical body armor).
Military canines aside, I totally get why someone would want to skydive with their dog recreationally. Who wants to leave their pets at home while you're out having fun? I love my dogs and naturally want to include them in all of the the activities that I enjoy. From hiking mountains to attending baseball Dog Days, my favorite pastimes are even better with my pets by my side. But sometimes it's hard to tell if the dogs actually like certain activities. My Border Collie, Scuttle, isn't normally a big fan of water, but I wanted to take her kayaking with me. I spent weeks getting her used to anything that would simulate aspects of kayaking, such as balancing on an inflatable exercise ball. So far I've taken her three times, and while she loves hanging out with me, and watching everything going on on the water, it's hard to tell if she actually enjoys being on the kayak or not. I try to pay close attention to her body language, but only Scuttle would know for sure!
Besides evaluating whether our dogs like participating in certain activities, it's also important to weigh all of the safety risks. I don't know if Riley likes skydiving, but he can't decide that the risks of jumping from a plane is worth the enjoyment. This is where I really start to disagree with taking a dog on this type of activity, though I realize risk is fairly relative (I'm thinking Nathan, Riley's human counterpart who has completed over 400 jumps, would not consider skydiving as risky as I do!). We bear a responsibility to make this decision on behalf of our pets, so it's not one that I would take lightly.
How do you decide what activities to share with your dogs? Do you think we tend to over include them?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study looks at stress behavior associated with different training methods.
September 20 2014
A study published earlier this month showed that shock collars can lead to an increase in stress behaviors in dogs. This may seem like stating the obvious, but these type of training devices continue to be popular despite the risks. The research by the University of Lincoln was commissioned by the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to provide scientific evidence on which to base their animal welfare policy (pretty cool!).
The study was made up of 63 dogs that were identified as having poor recall skills and related problems, such as attacking livestock, a main reason for the shock collar's use in the U.K. The canine subjects were divided into three groups: Group A used a shock collar under the direction of trainers nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association (ECMA). Groups B and C trained without a shock collar. One group under the direction of the same ECMA trainers and the other with trainers from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, a group committed to reinforcement based methods.
The trainers worked with each dog for two 15-minute sessions a day, for five days. The interactions were videotaped to analyze behavior, and saliva and urine samples were collected to measure cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress).
The researchers found that the dogs in the shock collar group showed significantly more stress behaviors, such as tense body language, yawning, and disengaging with the environment. Although a smaller preliminary study found higher cortisol levels associated with the shock collar, there wasn't a significant difference in cortisol levels in the larger research.
Furthermore, following the five days of training, 92 percent of owners reported improvements in their dog's behavior. There was no significant difference in reported efficacy across the three groups.
Some people say that there are certain behaviors, like a reliable recall, that can't be taught without a shock collar. And that is simply not true. I've seen people train rock solid recalls using only reinforcement based methods. It's nice to have this scientific research to back up that claim. I was also impressed that the U.K. government commissioned this research to inform their policy.
Of course training using reinforcement based methods doesn't come without dedication. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts in dog training! However, a key learning from this study is around the consistency in results across groups (as a side note, while results seemed consistent in the short term, I believe that punishment tools, like shock collars, can often develop unintended consequences in the long term). The short training sessions repeated every day was the primary diver for getting results. Even if you only train for five minutes a day, if you stick to it, you'll see progress in your training challenges.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pete's Pet Posse launches as part of the school's America's Healthiest Campus initiative.
September 17 2014
Earlier this week Oklahoma State University announced the launch of the country's most comprehensive university-wide pet therapy program. This initiative, named after the school mascot, Pistol Pete, is part of their commitment to be America's Healthiest Campus. Pete's Pet Posse is currently made up of thirteen dogs who are clients of OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.
The program was designed to help students, faculty, staff, and campus visitors overcome emotional and stressful situations. But the unique part of their mission is the goal of being proactive, not reactive. While many schools bring in therapy dogs during high stress times, like finals week (my Sheltie, Nemo, has been one of those pups at a local college), OSU recognizes that the benefits of animals are needed year round. Pete's Pet Posse is strategically deployed across the campus, with each department deciding how the therapy pets will be utilized.
During the program's pilot phase, Posse pups have been used in many capacities such as greeting students studying in the library and reassuring new employees in orientation. Dr. Lee Bird, Vice President of Student Affairs, has also requested dogs to join meetings to help students grappling with a particularly difficult challenge. The therapy dogs also provided comfort this spring after a student was killed by a drunk driver. The pups truly play a multifaceted role on campus!
And it's not an easy job to get. Each canine-human therapy team must apply to the program. Once accepted they go through extensive training in partnership with the veterinary school. A top priority is also to make sure that the Posse is healthy. Participants are given a stipend towards a microchip, vaccinations, and heartworm/flea/tick prevention, as well as regular wellness exams.
If Pete's Pet Posse continues to be successful, the goal is to extend the program system-wide across all OSU campuses. I hope that more colleges will follow OSU's proactive example!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Bretagne is the last surviving search and rescue pup.
September 13 2014
As we pass another 9/11 anniversary, we will never forget the countless human and canine rescuers who dedicated weeks of their lives to finding survivors. Bretagne, the last surviving Ground Zero search and rescue dog, returned to Manhattan on Thursday for the for the first time since 2001. The then two year old Golden Retriever, and her handler Denise Corliss, traveled from Texas to New York for what was their first national assignment together.
Denise was inspired to enter the search and rescue field after volunteering as a "victim" during a training session. She still remembers the moment when a dog discovered her buried under rubble after a few hours. Even though it was only a test, the feeling of relief and joy left a lasting impression.
Soon Denise found herself with Bretagne and started training the puppy for search dog duties. Just a year later the duo made it onto the Texas Task Force 1, meaning they were good enough to be selected for national disaster duty.
Following 9/11, Bretagne and Denise worked 12 hour days at Ground Zero alongside about 300 other search and rescue dogs. When they weren't searching, the pups served as unofficial therapy dogs for the stressed human rescuers. Bretagne and her canine co-workers brought smiles and hope when it was needed most. And they didn't need to be trained for this part of the job.
Denise tells the story of when Bretagne rushed over to a depressed firefighter. Even when Denise called the otherwise obedient pup, Bretagne stayed by the firefighter's side, putting her head on his lap. It was exactly what was needed in the moment.
After 9/11, Denise and Bretagne went on to help in rescue efforts following Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Ivan. Six years ago, Bretagne retired from rescue work, but now travels to Texas elementary schools to help students with special needs. She is truly living a life of service!
It will come as no surprise that Bretagne is currently up for the American Humane Association's annual Hero Dog Award. And you can help her win by voting through the Hero Dog Award web site.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study looks at what canines find reinforcing.
September 8 2014
Whenever I talk to people who are facing a dog training challenge, I always ask questions about the reward they're offering for the desired behavior. Often roadblocks can be overcome by increasing the frequency of the reward (and by making the exercise easier). For instance, if you're trying to reduce leash pulling, you might help your dog earn more rewards by reducing the distraction level (by moving further away from enticing dogs) or breaking down behaviors and acknowledging small successes (such as a head turn in your direction).
In addition to the number of rewards you give, it's also important to understand what is most motivating to your pup. For my Sheltie, Nemo, food is his number one reward, followed by toys, but for my Border Collie, Scuttle, it's the opposite.
Because I consider understanding rewards so essential, I was excited to see that Dr. Erica Feuerbacher and her team at the University of Florida is doing research on this topic.
Their latest study looks at how dogs respond to different interactions with people, verbal and physical (petting). Their "test subjects" included a mix of shelter dogs and non-shelter pups, and the humans giving attention included strangers and owners. The team found that across all groups and situations, the dogs showed a preference for petting over verbal interactions by staying near the person longer during petting sessions. The pups showed significantly less proximity seeking behavior with the verbal interactions, similar to the control sessions with no interaction at all. They also found that the dogs never seemed to tired of being pet.
Erica and her team believe that petting is an important interaction between dogs and humans that may maintain inter-species social behavior. Vocal interaction, on the other hand, is something that needs to be conditioned. I definitely see this in my training. A "good boy" or "yes!," usually garners a response from my pups, but I believe it's because they know a treat usually follows the words (similar to the way you'd condition a click with a treat in clicker training).
Previous research from Erica's team showed that animals preferred food to being touched. I think most pups would agree with those findings!
What's your dog's number one reward?
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