JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Competitive runner befriends a stray dog who sticks with him for 80 miles in the desert.
October 20 2016
This summer, Australian ultramarathoner Dion Leonard was running through China's infamous Gobi desert when a stray pup started following him. The scruffy little dog turned out to be one tough cookie, joining Dion for four of the six day-long stages of the race, an astonishing 80 miles! Dion named the dog Gobi and they became inseparable. The pair slept together in camp and Dion started carrying Gobi over river crossings. They even won the third stage together, beating many top athletes.
After the race was over, Dion knew that this special dog could not be left behind. He made plans to bring Gobi back home to Edinburgh, Scotland, but just before she was due to travel to Beijing to enter quarantine, Gobi slipped out of the home she was staying at in Urumqi. Dion flew back to China where volunteers helped him search for Gobi from dawn to midnight. They put up posters, asked taxi drivers and fruit vendors, and visited parks and animal shelters. The local television station interviewed Dion and residents even stopped him in the street to say they too were keeping an eye open.
However, Dion was afraid the search was wouldn't be successful, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. There was a good chance that Gobi may have run back to the countryside.
“I needed to come and do it, just to be sure in my own mind I had done it," said Dion. “But realistically, I was dreading having to go back home next week without her.”
Then a man called saying he and his son had brought a stray dog home from the park and thought she might be Gobi. Dion was skeptical after a few false alarms, but when he walked into the man's house, Gobi immediately recognized Dion. She ran over, jumping on Dion and squealing with joy. Gobi has barely left Dion's side since.
Dion says that losing Gobi was one of the worst days of his life, but that being reunited with her was one of the best.
"It was just mind-blowing to think that we had found her," said Dion, "It was a miracle."
There are not many people or dogs that can run 80 miles, which makes it even more amazing that these two found each other!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Three organizations in Finland team up to understand root causes of dog behavioral issues.
October 19 2016
A research group from the University of Helsinki and the Folkhälsan Research Centre recently teamed up with the LC-MS Metabolomics Centre of Biocentre Kuopio to study the blood count of hyperactive and impulsive dogs--another successful collaboration between canine and human scientists. The three organizations decided to embark on this study to understand the most common behavioral problems in dogs--fearfulness, sensitivity to noise, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Since these issues can have a negative impact on the wellbeing of both canines and humans, the scientists wanted to uncover root causes. Part of their work is also helping to test a new metabolomics technology which could speed up future genetic research, particularly as it relates to behavioral research.
"Behavior and behavioral disorders often develop as a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, which makes studying them challenging," explains lead scientist Hannes Lohi. "Metabolomics, or the study of the metabolism, provides us with new clues on the biological issues underpinning behavioral disorders while promoting genetic research. At the moment, metabolomics research in dogs is rare, and the purpose of this pilot study was to examine new approaches and attain information on any metabolic abnormalities associated with hyperactivity in dogs."
Looking at blood metabolites showed a significant link between hyperactivity and lower blood phospholipid levels. It wasn't surprising because several studies in humans have shown lower blood lipid and fatty acid levels in ADHD patients. This also tied in with their earlier research that showed blood count differences between fearful and fearless pups.
Another interesting finding was the negative correlation between hyperactive behavior and the levels of metabolites of tryptophan, an amino acid that's produced in the gut when intestinal bacteria processes food. This difference in the gut bacteria of hyperactive and normally behaved dogs supports previous research in humans that found a connection between the intestines and the creation of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior in the brain. It was also found to work in the opposite way. A stress reaction in the brain can have an adverse effect on the gut microbiota.
However, the causal relationship for these findings isn't clear, so more research is needed. The hope is that this work could eventually better our understanding of these behavioral issues in both dogs and people.
Anyone who has worked with an extremely fearful dog knows how painful and frustrating it can be to both the animal and the people who love them. So I'm excited to see research that might help improve the lives of those affected. However, I hope that people won't think these biological findings mean they should give up on a solid training plan. While the cause of these fearful or hyperactive behaviors may be somewhat innate, we can still help dogs cope and even thrive with training. No doubt it takes a lot of dedication and patience, but I hope that this research will only help us make gains with these affected pups.
News: Guest Posts
A Vermont boy gets help in his quest for a diabetes pup.
October 13 2016
When Aiden Heath was diagnosed with type one diabetes four years ago, the eight-year old learned that dogs could be trained to help monitor glucose levels. While the canine nose isn't going to replace a blood meter entirely, these amazing animals can sense problems 20 to 30 minutes before the electronic tool. But at $15,000, a service dog wasn't in the Heath's budget. So Aiden's mother, Jenni, encouraged him to start saving, one penny at a time.
And the Waitsfield, Vermont boy did just that, collecting coins that he stored in a little red wagon he called "Brinks." Aiden slowly accumulated $6,000 when news coverage of his effort went viral in April. Almost overnight, donations came in from across the country, helping Aiden raise more than $20,000. Finally Jenni and Aiden were able to put a deposit on a Chocolate Labrador named Angel from Nevada. Aiden waited patiently while the pup was trained, following her progress through videos and photos.
This week Aiden finally got to meet Angel, and is learning to work together with the help of a trainer.
Jenni says that Aiden is "over the moon" about finally having Angel at home and gaining some independence. And he won't be the only one to benefit. Angel will give Jenni peace of mind, especially at night, when it comes to testing Aiden's sugar levels.
"We have been so amazed by the outpouring of support," Jenni said. "Aiden is feeling the love. There are no words."
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It doesn't cost a lot to make a big difference in someone's life.
October 10 2016
Living in New York, I see a lot of homeless people on the streets with their pets. These animals play an important role in the lives of these marginalized men and women, providing a nonjudgemental relationship in a lonely world. You can imagine how devastating it would be to lose that bond. But that's exactly what happened to a man in Huntsville, Texas, who was fortunate to meet a woman willing to go the extra mile to help.
Patrick had fallen on hard times, but was lucky to have his pup Franklin by his side. They didn't have a lot of anything, but Patrick would always make sure Franklin got food first when meals were in short supply. However things took a turn of the worse when Patrick was caught trespassing and landed in jail for two days. During that time, Franklin was brought to the local animal shelter. When Patrick was released, he found out it would cost $120 to get Franklin back.
In desperation, Patrick sat in a nearby Walmart parking lot with a cardboard sign that said "Dog in Pound Need Help." Fortunately Wilma Price was out running errands and spotted Patrick and his sign. It left an impression.
"I've seen every sign in the world except that one," said Wilma. "I've seen 'I need a beer,' "lost my job," 'need help," I could go on forever, but never this sign."
Wilma wasn't in the best financial situation herself, in fact she only had eight dollars to her name, but she was determined to do something.
First Wilma called the shelter to verify Patrick's story, which was true. The $120 included the impoundment fee, as well as a rabies shot, heartworm test, and flea prevention. Wilma didn't have the funds, but called a friend to sponsor the money. When Wilma went to the shelter with Patrick, he was incredibly thankful and overwhelmed by Wilma's generosity. Patrick and Franklin were overjoyed to be reunited. Patrick's eyes teared up and Franklin was wiggling with joy. Patrick tried to give Wilma the small amount of money he had collected before, but she refused.
"We’ve all been in a bad situation in our life," explains Wilma. "So always remember to pay it forward. You never know who that person might be that you help, but I know for a fact that Patrick loves his dog. I wouldn’t accept his money because maybe he can have some dinner tonight. His dog eats before he does. Wow, that sounds like me too."
Anyone who'd like to support Patrick should visit Mr. K's Pet Shelter's web site and address donations to “Patrick and Franklin.” Wilma is planning to further help Patrick by driving him to Dallas in hopes of finding more resources to help him rebuild his life.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Canadian city puts their breed specific legislation on hold amid a lawsuit.
October 6 2016
Last week Montreal's City Council passed a ban on Pit Bulls that was quickly met with public outcry... and a lawsuit. The Montreal SPCA is arguing that the law is so vaguely worded that it puts any large-headed dog at risk. As a result the ban only lasted a few hours before Justice Louis Gouin of Quebec Superior Court temporarily suspended it while reviewing the Montreal SPCA's lawsuit against the city. Yesterday it was decided that the law should be put on hold for the duration of the legal challenge. The opposition is supported by the Quebec Order of Veterinarians, United States-based Pit Bull advocates, and even celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Cyndi Lauper.
The law bans new Pit Bulls and requires existing Pit Bulls to be licensed by the end of the year. Additionally, the dogs would have to be neutered, microchipped, and vaccinated by March 31, 2017, muzzled in public, and their owners would have to undergo a criminal background check.
The push for this law came after a fatal mauling that happened in a Montreal suburb during the summer. As it turns out, the dog responsible for the killing may not have even been a Pit Bull. Montreal police are still waiting on a DNA test to confirm the breed.
The outcome of the lawsuit could shape the treatment of bully breeds beyond Montreal since Quebec is currently considering a province-wide ban. Unfortunately breed specific bans aren't new to Canada. The city of Winnipeg implemented a similar restriction in 1990 and the whole province of Ontario in 2005.
But breed specific legislation is deeply problematic. It's a band-aid that tries to prevent dog attacks by making a sweeping generalization about a single breed. The statistics seem to back up the misplaced blame. According to Liz White of the Animal Alliance of Canada, dog bites in Toronto increased 24 percent between 2014 and 2015, despite the decade long ban there.
I hope that the Montreal SPCA is successful in defeating the law and helps the city put better practices in place, like education and training resources. Responsible dog owners can prevent dog bites and attacks, not breed specific legislation.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Colorado woman is inadvertently slashed by her knife wielding dog.
October 1 2016
"Drop it" is one of the basic behaviors I think every dog should know. Along with a reliable recall, relinquishing an object on cue is important for safety. While it's useful for getting your favorite pair of shoes back from your dog's mouth, it's also critical if your pup has picked up something dangerous or toxic. The "drop it" cue would've been really helpful for Celinda Haynes who learned the hard way that bribery doesn't always work.
Last month Celinda's Labrador Retriever, Mia managed to steal a sharp paring knife from the kitchen counter. Celinda tried to entice Mia with a treat to drop the knife, but ended up getting sliced by the blade.
"When Mia went over to eat the treat, she ran the knife across my arm and cut a big old gash about four inches long," Celinda explained.
But when Celinda went to Platte Valley Medical Center in Colorado to have the wound treated, the staff didn't believe her story. Deputy Zach Johnson was sent to investigate the case as possible domestic violence, but concluded that it really was the family dog, Mia.
"I've been in law enforcement a long time," Zach said. "You just can't make this stuff up."
Mia is a very energetic puppy, and at the young age of one, Celinda will have plenty of time to teach her some new tricks. If you're looking to train a "drop it" cue, check out this page from Victoria Stillwell.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New York becomes the latest state to allow people and pets to be buried alongside each other.
September 30 2016
To dog lovers, our pups are our family. So it's no surprise that a growing number of people want to be close to their pets after they pass away. Most states don't make it easy, but New York just joined the growing trend to accommodate pet lovers by revisiting burial laws.
Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law allowing New Yorkers to be buried with the cremated remains of their pet. Cemeteries can still opt out since some would be prohibited to do so for religious reasons.
"This legislation will roll back unnecessary regulation and give cemeteries the option to honor the last wishes of pet lovers across New York," said the Governor.
Before this new law, New Yorkers could have their ashes buried with their pups in a pet cemetery. But even that was threatened in 2011 when the state's Division of Cemeteries banned the practice. However they reversed the decision months later after a public outcry and potential lawsuit. At Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, there are over 500 people's ashes buried alongside their pets, clearly demonstrating the need for a change in the law.
Now that pets have been becoming an established part of the family, more states are changing their laws. In 2014, Virginia passed legislation that permits pets and people to be buried side by side, as long as they're not in the same grave or coffin. And last year, Massachusetts introduced a bill that would allow the state's cemeteries to designate land for people and pets to be buried alongside each other. Other states with existing pet-human burial laws include Pennsylvania and Florida.
Admittedly I haven't given much thought to my own burial plans, but I do think the trend in these laws is a good thing. Burials are important to many people for cultural, spiritual, or religious reasons. It only makes sense that in a country where we're so close to our pets, we are allowed to be buried together.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Congressman Jim McGovern makes a push to provide funding to help veterans.
September 24 2016
Earlier this month Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern was on Capitol Hill to garner support for the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act. The bill, which he introduced last year, would give five million dollars annually in federal grants to nonprofit organizations that train service dogs for members of the Armed Forces and disabled veterans. The congressman was joined by retired Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Garvey, his service dog, Liberty, and Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the founder of Puppies Behind Bars, a program where prison inmates train Labrador Retrievers for veterans, people with disabilities, and law enforcement agencies.
The funding would not only help make dogs available, but would also provide assistance with expenses. Under Veterans Affairs rules, service members seeking animals to help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) don't quality for the benefits available to those with visual, hearing, or mobility impairment, who get help with veterinary care and travel benefits associated with obtaining and training a dog.
According to an article in Time magazine, 40,000 troops have been physically wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, but 10 times as many exhibit symptoms of PTSD. As you can imagine, the need for service dogs has been steadily growing in recent years.
These pups help veterans live more independent lives, increasing mobility and social interactions, while reducing stress and panic. They can be trained to perform functions specific to those with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). For instance, if a dog sees their partner is having a flashback or nightmare, they will initiate a calming behavior, like putting their head in the person's lap or licking their face.
Organizations that place dogs with veterans have seen significant gains. One man became an avid traveler after being too afraid to leave his house for months. Another was able to reduce his pill intake from 30 to two different medications.
For Michael, no one needs to tell him the statistics to know how invaluable Liberty has become in his life. "Liberty is my grounding rod, he calms me down so quickly," Michael says. "If I ever get disoriented, he is like my little rock."
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Study finds that many pups prefer praise over treats.
September 17 2016
A recent study out of Emory University found that many dogs prefer praise over treats. It all began when neuroscientist Gregory Berns was interested in what dogs "really care about." He wondered if it was all about food, or if social rewards were potentially more valuable.
15 dogs, trained to lie still for 30 minutes in an MRI, went through three experiments. The first looked at brain activity when presented with different objects--a hairbrush, a toy car, and a toy horse--paired with a hot dog, praise, or nothing. For 13 of the 15 dogs, their brains were stimulated by the praise just as much, if not more than, the food.
In the second test, Gregory wanted to replicate the first experiment, but this time a subset wouldn't get praised. The researchers found that the dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment seemed to be more disappointed than the other pups when they didn't get it this time around.
The third experiment took place outside of the MRI, in a maze where the pups had to choose between finding a bowl of food and getting praise from their owner. Researchers found that the outcomes of the first two tests were a strong predictor of the dogs' choice. The 13 dogs whose brains were stimulated by the praise, chose to head straight to their person instead of to the treats.
Gregory believes that the research shows dogs are primarily motivated by praise, which could have a great impact on training strategy. He also thinks that these findings can help identify which idividuals might be most successful as service dogs.
“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” Gregory notes in the study, “while a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”
As for our own pets, I think this study reinforces how social we know dogs to be. However, I'm not completely sure all of my dogs would pick me over a tasty treat!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A university looks at animal-assisted therapy's effect on homesickness and retention.
September 16 2016
When I first went away to college, I remember how homesick I felt, especially since I had to leave my pets behind. One of my first good friendships began over a conversation about our guinea pigs. Not only do animals have the ability to make us feel better, but they can also help bring people together.
New research from the University of British Columbia shows that animal-assisted therapy can help students combat homesickness and could have a positive effect on retention. The transition from high school to university can be challenging, and students who are homesick are more likely to drop out.
In the study, 44 first-year university students who self-identified as homesick were given a survey to measure levels of homesickness, satisfaction with life, and connectedness with campus. Half of the students completed eight weeks of pet therapy, while the other half were informed that their sessions would begin in eight weeks. The therapy included 45-minute weekly small group interactions with the dogs, their handlers, and the other participating students. Following the eight weeks, participants in both the treatment group and the non-treatment group completed the survey again.
Participants who completed the eight week program experienced significant reductions in homesickness and a greater increase in satisfaction with life. One student reported that the sessions "felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies." The non-treatment group reported an increase in their feelings of homesickness.
According to Professor John Tyler Binfet., homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university.
UBC student Varenka Kim says that moving to a new city to attend university caused her to feel very homesick and depressed. "I was mainly secluded in my dorm and didn't feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life."
Have time with the puppies is certainly beneficial, but more importantly these sessions gave participants a way to meet and interact with each other, forming lasting relationships that went beyond the therapy program.
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