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JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine Nutcracker
Group raises money for therapy work through their holiday performance

If you love the popular holiday classic The Nutcracker, you have to check out the canine version being performed by 29 dogs in the Chicago-area. And these pups don’t just perform for fun, they're all volunteer therapy dogs that use the show to raise money for their work with the PAWSitive Therapy Troupe.

The Nutcracker features Gracie the Sheltie as the Sugar plum Fairy, Bailey the Shih Tzu as the Nutcracker Prince, Sam the Golden Retriever as the Mouse King, and Lily the Pug as Clara. Amazingly 12-year old Gracie is deaf, but you would never know it from her beautiful solo dance. It takes about 1,000 hours to prepare for the big performance where the dogs are clicker trained to follow hand signals in synchronized precision.    

The PAWSitive Therapy Troupe first performed the canine Nutracker back in 2000 to cheer up sick kids living with their families at a Ronald McDonald House. It was so popular that they expanded production to fundraiser shows to raise money for their therapy work. The first year they sold 800 tickets in the first couple of hours and had lines down the street. This year their shows are sold out, but you can support the cause by buying a DVD of the show on their web site.

Actors, therapy dogs... is there anything that these pups don't do?!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lab Mix Included in Restraining Order
Panzer becomes the first dog to be protected under a new law in Mass.

This summer Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a new law that allows pets to be included in domestic violence restraining orders and it's already been put to good use.  

Just before Thanksgiving, a Labrador mix named Panzer became the first animal in Massachusetts to win protection since the new legislation passed. A Marshfield, Mass. woman filed the restraining order against her boyfriend, who had a history of abusing both the woman and Panzer. The 6-year old pup is now staying in a foster home while the woman and her son are in a domestic violence shelter. Once they find a safe place to live, Panzer will be reunited with his family.

Less than half of the United States currently has similar legislation in place. With 85 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reporting pet abuse in their family, we have to get that number up to 50.  It's critical that we protect the ones we love--both two and four legged.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Taking Cues From Humans
Dogs look to us for guidance in times of uncertainty

My new rescue, Scuttle, is the bubbliest, most energetic puppy I've ever met--until something startles her. Then she freezes or runs into the corner and hides. I've never had a dog that was quite as fearful as she is, so I was often caught off guard when she reacted to something I wasn't expecting. I think I probably froze and then went into overcompensation mode, trying to feed her treats to reverse the negative experience. As you can imagine, it doesn't sound like such a pleasant experience!

After a training buddy helped me take a step back and realize I was acting way too serious, I changed my response to help Scuttle understand that these things weren't a big deal. I've since noticed she’s much better when it comes to handling uncertainty.

It seems that our behavior really does influence how our pups act--a trait canines may have developed by evolving alongside humans over time.

A team of psychologists at the University of Milan noticed that dogs often look to people when they're uncertain about something, a behavior that's called social referencing in young kids. Children often use an adult's emotional reaction to help understand a situation that they're unsure about and use that information to guide future behavior.  

The team of researchers set out to see if dogs exhibit social referencing only in situations of uncertainty, as it appears in children. The study used an oscillating fan with flapping streamers as the object in question since it would be something most dogs hadn't seen before.

The canine subjects were then brought in a room off leash with someone from their family. If the fan was not present, the dogs typically wandered around, rarely looking back at their person. If the fan was in the room, almost all of the pups took a few steps into the room and immediately looked back at their handler, and then back at the fan.

The next part of the experiment tested how the dogs would act based on their handler's response. The people were told to deliver a message in either a positive or negative tone, saying, “that’s really pretty” or “that’s really ugly.” Interestingly, when the handlers expressed displeasure, the dogs tended to freeze in space. In the case of the positive message, the pups didn't change their behavior much and started moving around the room after checking in with their person.

When taken a step further, the dogs usually mirrored their handler's behavior. So if the person either approached the fan or walked away from it, the dog would usually do the same.

This research has really interesting implications on the human-canine bond. Knowing that our pups look to us for guidance on how to interpret new situations puts puts a lot of responsibility on us as their guardians and teachers. It really influences the way I think about working with my crew! 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs Teaching Chemistry
Two talented pups make learning science fun
Chemistry was one of my worst subjects in school, but maybe if my teachers were dogs, I would've paid attention in class!

Lauren Girard has been training her pets to do cool tricks ever since she got her Border Collie, Paige, five years ago. Her pups are so fun to watch that Lauren's sister shows her junior high school students videos of the dogs performing as a reward for good behavior. This inspired Lauren to combine her own science background with her love of trick training to make a You Tube video called Dogs Teaching Chemistry.

The first clip on chemical bonds was an instant hit, gaining over half a million views in less than a week and encouraging Lauren to create a second installment on the atom. Both videos feature Paige and her two year old mixed breed, Dexter, teaching an entertaining chemistry lesson in under two minutes. Lauren taught everything seen in the videos through clicker training. She believes that positive training is not only a way to teach your dog a cool trick, but also facilitates a trusting relationship that creates self-confidence.

The bond Lauren has with her dogs can be seen in their enthusiasm both in the chemistry videos and in the many other activities that they do. When Paige and Dexter aren't "teaching," they're participating in everything from agility to freestyle. The talented duo is even involved in print and television work. Is there anything that these two pups don't do?

Stay tuned to Lauren's You Tube channel, snuggliepuppy, for more videos from these superstars!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
When Breed Bans Complicate
Dog loving baseball player is traded to an area with breed specific legislation

Breed specific legislation is unfair to the dogs who are automatically categorized as dangerous, but it's also unfair to the families who share their home with these banned breeds. Bully lovers have to worry about where to live and even where to vacation. The rich and famous are no exception.

Last year, when MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle signed with the Florida Marlins, he chose to move to Broward County with his wife, two kids, and four dogs since Miami-Dade County, home of the Marlins' stadium, doesn't welcome their American Staffordshire Terrier, Slater. Moving to an area without breed specific legislation lengthened Mark's commute but it was a small price to pay to keep his family intact.  

However, now the Buehrle family has a new housing challenge. Last week Mark was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, where the entire province of Ontario has had breed specific legislation in place since 2005. Mark's only options are to live hours from the stadium.

The breed ban puts Mark in a really difficult situation, but he's made a positive difference for animals in each of the cities he's played in. In Florida, the Buehrles led a petition to end breed specific legislation in Miami-Dade County andin Chicago, Mark started the "Sox for Strays" charity when he was playing for the White Sox.The pitcher has also been outspoken in criticizing NFL quarterback Michael Vick on the subject of dog fighting.

Hopefully Mark's dilemma will bring attention to how discriminatory these laws are and maybe he can even inspire Ontario to reconsider their breed ban!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Influencing Pit Bull Perceptions
Study finds that photos can influence how personality is perceived

It’s no secret that Pit Bulls are cast in a negative light, causing them to be passed over time and time again at the animal shelter.  Now with the popularity of online adoption web sites, like Petfinder, a good picture can make all the difference in whether a dog gets adopted or not.  I’ve seen great ways of boosting a pet’s chances, from using professional photographers (many who generously donate their time to shelters) to having dogs wear cute holiday-themed bandannas.  But no matter how Pit Bulls are presented, people often click to the next dog as soon as they see the bully breed appear on the screen.

A recent study set out to see how shelters might increase Pit Bull adoptions by being strategic in photographing the dogs.  Lisa Gunter's experiment specifically looked at how different people pictured alongside a Pit Bull would affect perceptions of the dog’s temperament in six categories—approachability, aggressiveness, intelligence, friendliness, trainability, and finally, adoptability.

In pictures where a Pit Bull was featured with a person, no matter who it was, they scored higher in perceived intelligence as opposed to photos where the Pit Bull was pictured alone.  When a Pit Bull was featured next to an elderly woman or a young boy, the scores increased for friendliness and adoptability, while the numbers for aggressiveness decreased.  On the other end of the spectrum, picturing a Pit Bull next to a rough looking man caused scores for friendliness to decrease.

The findings from Lisa's study could easily be applied to shelter dogs to increase adoptability.  For those of you in the rescue field, what strategies have you tried to put Pit Bulls in a more favorable light?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Blind Dog Paints for Charity
A Dachshund looses her eyesight but continues to create artwork

When Seattle artist, DeeDee Murray, taught her dog Hallie to paint, she had no idea that the activity would become so important to the both of them. Ten years after adopting Hallie, the tiny pup unexpectedly went blind in a matter of days. DeeDee then found out that Hallie had Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS), an autoimmune disease that attacks the retina.

Hallie was depressed for several weeks, as she adjusted to her new condition, but eventually her spirit returned and the resilient pup even started to paint again. DeeDee says that Hallie picked up a brush out of the paint cup just like she used to, perhaps using muscle memory. Sometimes Hallie reaches her paw out, as if she's "looking" for her canvas, but usually DeeDee has to tap the paper so that Hallie knows where to place the brush.

Hallie loves painting so much that DeeDee has to stop her before she overdoes it. But the prolific canine's work is going to good use. DeeDee sells Hallie's paintings on a web site and donates the proceeds to Purple Heart Dog Rescue.

Hallie is truly an inspiration and continues to show that loss of vision will not stop her. Recently DeeDee and Hallie took up the sport of K9 Nose Work and the determined pup passed her first Odor Recognition Test, finding the "hide" in a minute flat!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Importance of Eating Breakfast
Study finds dogs perform better after a full belly

At my training club, we always tell people to come with a hungry pup. particularly those in our beginner classes who haven’t developed a solid working relationship yet. The thinking is that a dog on an empty stomach will be more motivated to stay focused for a reward. But it turns out that the opposite may be true.

It's well known that humans perform better after we eat breakfast. So two scientists at the University of Kentucky set out to see if this holds true in dogs. Dr. Holly Miller and Charlotte Bender looked at canine test subjects and their ability to find hidden food. Some pups were given a morning meal first and others had to work on an empty stomach. You'd think that the hungriest ones would be the first to find the food, but the study found the dogs who ate breakfast were able to find the hidden food more accurately.

Dr. Miller believes that diet may explain why domesticated dogs experience this phenomenon, but wolves don’t. When animals eat a carbohydrate rich diet (such as most commercial dog food), their brains are more dependent on glucose and are more affected by fluctuations in glucose levels. But with a diet of hunted meat, where carbohydrate levels are low and fat content is high, the brain switches to a secondary fuel source of ketone bodies, meaning their neural processes don't fluctuate as much.  

This research definitely changes how I think about training. Usually I work with my dogs before breakfast and after their morning walk, but this study is something to consider when I’m doing something that requires a lot of focus or self-control. And maybe we’ll reconsider telling people to show up to class with a super hungry dog!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surviving Hurricane Sandy
Reflections on the storm and where to donate to help affected pets

In the 30 years I've lived in New York, I've never seen anything like the widespread destruction that Hurricane Sandy left behind. I was very fortunate that my family made it safely out of the storm. During the the hurricane I realized that us dog people are in a unique situation. While many of my friends stayed holed up in their homes, I had to venture outside, no matter what the weather, to walk the dogs--especially my puppy who has to go out several times a day.

During the peak of the storm, I was terrified that a tree would fall on us. Fortunately my puppy goes almost immediately, but there were several times where the wind was so noisy, I ran straight back inside before she even had a chance to potty. Trees claimed many lives in my area, including two people walking their dog.  My pups and I were so, so lucky. I think next storm I might build an indoor potty area in my garage as an extra precaution.  

Times have certainly changed from Hurricane Katrina. I was impressed that New York City made all evacuation shelters pet friendly and lifted animal restrictions on subways, taxis, and trains. However, not all made it through the storm unscathed.  Local animal shelters were damaged and some still don't have electricity. Despite the pet friendly evacuation shelters, many animals were left behind, scared dogs ran away and are now missing, and still others are safe, but have no home to go back to.  

No matter where you live, there are ways to help out. The ASPCA is rescuing pets, providing veterinary care, and bringing supplies to animal shelters and families in the hardest hit areas. Visit their web site to donate money to the rescue efforts.

Best Friends Animal Society is coordinating and delivering donations, transporting animals to non-affected areas, and manning the pet portion of the Sussex County, N.J. evacuation shelter. If you're local, contact the NYC Volunteer Coordinator at tammyh@bestfriends.org to contribute supplies (everything from pet supplies to gas gift cards) or to help out. Shelters impacted by the storm can apply for a micro-grant through the Best Friends web site.

Also, a Facebook group was created to reunite lost pets with their families. Even if you're not in the North East, you can share alerts on your Facebook news feed to reach friends who may be in the area.

Pet lovers are a tight community and I've already seen people banding together to donate supplies, lend generators, and organize fundraisers. I know we will help each other through this difficult time.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Grants for Pet Friendly Women’s Shelters
AKC supports domestic violence services that welcome dogs

Nearly 50 percent of female domestic violence victims delay entering a women’s shelter because of concerns for leaving a pet behind. Not only does this prevent people from getting help, it also means animals remain in danger as well. 85 percent of women entering shelters talk about pet abuse in their family. Some shelters allow animals, making it easier for women to make the emotional decision to leave home, but many do not.

The AKC aims to support women’s shelters that welcome pets and encourage those who don’t to reconsider. In honor of October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the AKC Humane Fund awarded grants to eleven different pet friendly women’s shelters across the country in Safford, Arizona; Cabot, Arkansas; Crescent City and Susanville, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; Alpharetta, Georgia; Aurora, Indiana; Spruce Pine and Whiteville, North Carolina; Spearfish, South Dakota and Spokane, Washington.

These women’s shelters allow victims to bring pets with them to a safe space. Not only does this encourage people to leave dangerous living situations, but it also means that the women can have their pets by their side during a difficult time.  

To donate or apply for a grant, visit the AKC Humane Fund web site.

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