JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study looks at canine and robotic behavior
September 20 2013
Several studies have shown that dogs can understand human gestures better than other primates, thought to be the result of evolving alongside people for so long. But what if it were a robot doing the pointing?
Researchers at the Hungarian Academy of Science and Eötvös Loránd University set out to see how dogs would react to robots that exhibited social behavior, but didn't look like a human.
The dogs were divided into two groups to individually observe a set of interactions. One was between two humans (a researcher and a member of their family) and the second was between their human family member and a robot. One group used a robot exhibiting social behavior (such as talking) and the other used an asocial robot.
These interactions were followed by a food session in which either their person or the robot pointed out the location of a hidden snack.
Not surprisingly, it was difficult for the dogs to find the food when the robot pointed it out. But interestingly, the dogs were were better at understanding the gesture if the social robot pointed it out, as opposed to the asocial robot. Researchers believe that seeing people interact with the robots influenced how the dogs saw the electronic creature.
This reminds me of research done last year on social referencing and canines. That study found that dogs will mirror the behavior of their handlers, particularly when it comes to something they're not sure about. In this case, the robots would be the strange, novel experience.
As more canine cognition research is completed, it's very cool to see how the findings tie together. Studies like this make me really think about how the things I do (consciously and unconsciously) affect my dogs' behavior!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
App developers create a game to raise money for animal shelters
September 18 2013
Mobile app games are addicting, but what if you could help homeless pets while feeding your guilty pleasure? Two brothers are hoping to do just that with their company Bugbyte.
The mobile app company was started in 2012 by Allan and Aksel Junkkila, two Finnish brothers with a passion for gaming and a love of animals. Last year they released their first game, Daredogs, which donates 10-20 percent of the profits to pet rescue organizations all over the world.
Allan and Aksel are now setting out to create Ace Tales, a more sophisticated game that lets people play towards charity challenges that will ultimately lead to donations. The main objective is to collect dog biscuits, which are found floating around in the game and earned after missions are accomplished. The biscuits can then be donated to a pool that is connected to fulfilling charity challenges collectively with other players.
Ace Tales will be available as a free app for Apple and Android phones. The donations will be funded by in-app purchases and advertisements, so you can help animals by simply playing the game.
To create Ace Tales, Allan and Aksel are using the crowd sourcing web site indiegogo to raise the money needed to bring the more complex game to the market. Perks for donations include an interactive toy by Nina Ottosson (one of the project's partners) and having your name (or dog's name) appear on one of the game's ships or planes.
Obviously it would be nice if Ace Tale's donation were higher than 10-20 percent, but this is a great way to combine the fun of mobile games with helping a good cause. And if this app is successful, 10-20 percent of profits will make for a nice sized donation!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Airport movie set doubles as a training ground for jet setting pups
September 13 2013
Flying isn't a fun activity for most people, so you can only imagine how an animal feels who has no idea what's going on. After seeing a stressed dog go through airport security, Talaat Captan, owner of Air Hollywood, decided to use his aviation themed movie studio to help dogs become comfortable flying. In addition to film work, Air Hollywood also offers training for people with a fear of flying. Helping dogs seemed like a natural next step.
The sets at Air Hollywood have been used in movies and television shows such as Bridesmaids, Kill Bill, and NCIS. For the K9 Flight School, the scenes are transformed to train dogs. Famous actors are replaced with extras hired to simulate a crowded, chaotic terminal complete with TSA security checkpoints, rolling luggage carts, and loud departure announcements.
After navigating the terminal, dogs board an airplane set that simulates takeoff, turbulence, and landing motions and noises. Every detail is recreated down to the shutting of overhead luggage bins and the dimming of cabin lights. The class focuses on small pups or service dogs that are allowed in the cabin. Unfortunately for the big dogs, the course doesn't address traveling in cargo.
The curriculum, created by a dog trainer, was tested on 60 puppies from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Rick Wilcox, who oversees puppy-training in Southern California, said the simulations were so realistic that some of the handlers who don't like to fly became nervous.
The only way I know about acclimating animals to planes is by training dogs to jump in a kennel resting on inflatable exercise discs (to simulate movement) while playing an airplane sounds CD. Air Hollywood's K9 Flight School is an amazing way to introduce a dog to flying. Los Angeles is lucky to have an aviation themed movie set that can be used for this purpose. I don't think I'll be seeing this kind of class in New York any time soon!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Alliance scrutinizes trafficking pets for food
September 11 2013
Asian countries and their canine delicacies are often the target of many jokes. While I can't judge anyone for their dietary preferences (I still can't give up hamburgers despite the inhumane beef industry we have in our country), I was horrified to learn about the Trade of Shame, smugglers that steal pets in Thailand to supply a black market for dog meat in Vietnam.
Pets are targeted because they are easy to catch since they are friendlier than your average stray dog. Many are taken in the middle of the night, straight from people's backyards. It's a cruel practice made worse by the fact smugglers believe instilling fear and stress in the dogs release hormones that flavor the meat.
The Soi Dog Foundation and the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been fighting for years to get an animal welfare law through parliament. While not exactly what they were hoping for, an alliance formed last week between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos is a big step in the right direction.
The four countries pledged to stop the trafficking of pets for meat by establishing a five-year ban on importing dogs into Vietnam and planning incentives to motivate law enforcement to tackle smuggling.
The collaboration is a breakthrough even though the true motivation is to stop the spread of disease rather than organized crime or animal cruelty. Vietnam has one of Asia's worst rabies problems, which is exacerbated by canine trafficking.
Trying to end a lucrative illegal market will certainly be an uphill battle. Each dog can fetch 5,000-7,000 baht ($155-215) and it's estimated that 5 million dogs are slaughtered annually. Some fear that managing the border between Thailand and other countries will just force smugglers to find new routes and tactics.
This debate is not about whether it's right or wrong to eat dogs, but about ending a cruel and unethical practice. Similar to preventing stolen pets from becoming research subjects or dog fighting bait, there is no magic solution to ending these criminal activities. However I'm glad that the four Asian countries are taking a step in the right direction, even if stopping trafficking isn't the main goal.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
13-year old invents a video treat dispenser to interact with your dogs when you're away
September 6 2013
13-year old Brooke Martin's Golden Retriever, Kayla, hated to be left alone. Brooke wished there was a way she could talk to Kayla and give her a treat to soothe her anxiety while away from home. Determined to come up with a solution, Brooke created a prototype that combines video chatting with a machine that dispenses dog treats remotely.
Brooke isn't the only one who thought it was a good idea. She quickly formed a team to develop the invention, called iCUpooch, and was recently chosen as a finalist in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for middle-school students. Brooke is now working with Delony Langer-Anderson, an assigned mentor and product development scientist at 3M, to refine the product before heading to the final competition in October.
Delony has been giving Brooke advice on product testing, which resulted in Brooke's current test of different materials at the local animal shelter. They're looking to see which materials can hold up to scratching, banging, and other canine shenanigans.
I love the idea of school kids inventing new products to help our pets. Not only does it teach kids to be analytical problem solvers, it benefits our pups as well!
iCUpooch sounds like a fun gadget for interacting with your dogs while you're gone, if used in the right situation. I think my confident, food obsessed Sheltie, Nemo, would get a kick out of it. But for my rescue Border Collie, Scuttle, who doesn't like being home alone, iCUpooch might make her anxiety worse. Pets with true separation anxiety often act irrationally out of fear. I would be hesitant to market such a device to help dogs with this type of condition.
I look forward to seeing the final version of iCUpooch and hope that its success encourages other students to explore pet related inventions.
If you're interested in learning more about iCUpooch, check out Brooke's Kickstarter campaign.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Animal and government organizations team up to put an end to a dog-fighting ring
September 4 2013
Cracking down on dog-fighting is difficult due to the secretive nature of the "sport" and the money at stake. Since it's usually tied to other criminal activity, people are often reluctant to pass on information to authorities.
Given the challenges, I'm happy to report that after a three year investigation, a power team of animal and government organizations came together to successfully pull off the second largest dog fighting raid in U.S. history on Friday.
It was a team effort by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and local law enforcement.
When people think about dog fighting, many think of a small operation in a dark alley. But this dog-fighting ring stretched from Alabama into Georgia and Texas. It was not uncommon for bets to reach $200,000 on a single fight. There was a lot on the line and it took a long, well planned mission to put an end to the illegal activities.
Rescuers found 367 dogs along with guns, narcotics, and training supplies. 114 pups alone were saved from a single yard where they were left tethered in 90-degree weather without food or water. To give you an idea of the "medical care" these dogs received, there were several staple guns uncovered that, believe it or not, were used to seal wounds received from fighting.
The dogs have already begun to work with behaviorists on the long path to adoption. But the rehabilitation process will be well worth it. Former fighting dogs have went on to become therapy dogs, law enforcement partners, and beloved family pets.
Chris Schindler, manager of animal fighting investigations for HSUS, expects this raid to have a significant effect on large scale dog-fighting operations. Lets hope this is a big step towards ending this cruel "sport."
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Finding Rover uses facial-recognition technology to reunite lost dogs
August 30 2013
Imagine being able to take a photo of a stray dog and instantly finding the person looking for him--without even leaving the spot where you took the picture.
A new free app called Finding Rover promises to do just that through facial-recognition technology and a growing profile database. John Polimento was inspired to create Finding Rover after a lost dog poster brought back memories of how distressed his family was when their own pup was missing.
John teamed up with software developers at the University of Utah to create an algorithm called Pet Match. The program uses machine learning and computer vision to detect a dog's unique differentiating features, such as eye shape and fur color. Because of their fur, it's much harder to apply facial-recognition technology to canines than humans.
Once you submit a photo of your dog, their profile is added to the database and can be matched with pictures of lost pups. The better the photo, the more accurate the results. John claims that with a good picture, your dog will come up 95 percent of the time out of 100 dogs of the same breed.
The app has features to help capture searchable images, such as a bark noise to get dogs to look at the phone's camera and movable circles to focus the eye and nose data search points. It took me a few tries to get a decent picture!
If you find a lost dog, you can still take a picture at a distance and search for matches, it just won't be as precise. You can also view all missing and found pets in your area by list or map. In just a few weeks Finding Rover has already helped several pups find their way back home.
Finding Rover has great potential to help reunite pups with their families. The app makes it quick and easy to search for potential matches, hopefully encouraging more people to report stray pets. I can see this revolutionizing how animals are found, as long as enough people create profiles for the database to be valuable. Right now there doesn't seem to be much activity in my area.
Believe it or not, a version for cats is in the works and should be available in about six months!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Livestock guardian pups protect endangered cats by driving them away
August 29 2013
Livestock guardian dogs have long been used to protect farm animals--and even penguins!-- from dangerous predators. In Namibia, Africa, Anatolian Shepherd Dogs and Kangals watch over flocks of goats and sheep, but also indirectly help the endangered cheetah. Over 95 percent of Namibia's cheetahs live on livestock farmland due to environmental pressures. Although the big cats are a protected species in this country, farmers are allowed to kill any threat to their animals. In the 1980's alone 10,000 cheetahs (the current total worldwide population) were killed or moved off farms. The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) believes that most of the killings were by farmers. In response, CCF started the Livestock Guarding Dogs Program to provide Anatolian Shepherd Dogs and Kangals to protect sheep and goats, while easing the conflict between farmers and cheetahs. The Livestock Guarding Dogs Program has resulted in an 80 to 100 percent decrease in livestock losses and less retaliation against cheetahs. In the last 19 years, around 450 dogs have been placed with farmers. Cheetah numbers hit a low of 2,500 in 1986, but has since reached about 3,000 in Namibia, the largest remaining wild cheetah population in the world. Now there is a waiting list for the dogs and the program has expanded to other countries. Unfortunately cheetahs still face threats on game ranches and cattle farms where the dogs are not suited. The livestock guardian dogs do their job with little violence. They're not trained to chase or attack and instead use barking and posture to scare predators away. Cheetahs are not normally aggressive and will usually quickly retreat from a noisy dog. The Livestock Guarding Dog Program is such a creative way to protect an endangered species. If you'd like to help out, visit the CCF web site to sponsor a dog. The program costs over $40,000 a year to breed and care for the pups.
August 29 2013
During my late-summer visit to the Montreal Botanical Gardens’ Mosaïcultures Internationales “Land of Hope” exhibition, I was greeted by two delightful canine sculptures crafted entirely from plants: Japan’s Hachiko faithfully waiting on a train station platform, and from Canada, shepherd Elzéard Bouffi er planting a tree alongside his sheepdog and flock. The show features 48 living masterpieces created by horticultural artists from 25 different countries, who present their cultural icons through a botanical medium called mosaïculture.
These works are breathtaking in their size and detail. Unlike topiaries— trees or shrubs pruned into specifi c shapes—each unique piece of art is made from thousands of individual plants. Mosaïcultures Internationales uses 4,000,000 pieces of plants, fl owers and colorful foliage, and the largest sculptures stand almost 50 feet tall. Pictures do not do this exhibition justice, so get to the Montreal Botanical Gardens by September 29 and see it for yourself.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New research works on communication between working pups and their handlers
August 23 2013
Most days I feel like I have a good idea of what my dogs are thinking (and it usually involves food and tennis balls!). After living with an animal for so long, you develop ways of communicating, even if you don't speak the same language. But there are also many times when I wish my dogs could tell me exactly what they want or how they're feeling, and vice versa.
What animal lover didn't watch the Pixar animated film, Up, and wish they had one of those collars that allowed the dogs to converse with the humans? It may seem like something out of science fiction, but it's exactly the kind of technology that a team at Georgia Tech is trying to develop.
The project, led by Dr. Melody Jackson, is called FIDO for Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations, The team is trying to develop wearable technology to make it easier for assistance and military dogs to communicate with their handlers.
Dr. Jackson is a director at Georgia Tech's BrainLab, as well as an assistance puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. She has been trying to understand brain signals through sensors to use the information to build computer interfaces for people with disabilities. Dr. Jackson came up with the idea to combine wearable technology with working pups while collaborating with Thad Starner, a member of her team who worked on Google Glass, the infamous “computer glasses.".
In their prototype, the dog would wear a vest with sensors that interpret behavior and send communication signals to people. For the past several months, Dr. Jackson's team has been testing the sensors, which are linked to both natural and trained behaviors that would allow the dogs to have a larger and more specific vocabulary. The next step will be to connect these sensored behaviors with something meaningful, such as spoken words.
The goal is to help working dogs communicate more effectively. For instance, military dogs who previously could only give a general bomb warning could tell their handlers what type of bomb they're detecting. A seeing eye dog would not only be able to alert their handler to an obstacle ahead, but communicate what needs to be done to get past the obstacle.
The team believes that the possibilities are endless. What do you wish your dog could tell you?
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