JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
News: JoAnna Lou
Study uses MRIs to figure out what’s going on inside the canine brain
May 10 2012
I spend so much time with my dogs that I feel like I know exactly what’s going on inside their heads. But of course I don’t. When I walk in the door, how do I know that Nemo is genuinely happy to see me or is just excited to smell all the interesting scents I brought home on my clothes?
Researchers at Emory University are setting out to understand what our dogs are thinking. Using an MRI to capture brain images, they’re looking at what parts of the brain activate in response to certain activities, like when we talk to our dogs. Scientists believe that this is the cornerstone to knowing what a dog is thinking.
Neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns came up with the idea for the study after learning about canines in the military. He figured that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters, teaching them to stay still in an MRI machine would be doable.
It took eight months for researchers to train two dogs to climb into the machine, put their head in the head coil, and stay still, all while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs. The first study looked at the dogs' brain response to hand signals that indicated whether or not they would receive a hot dog.
The researchers are now looking at more complicated studies on how dogs process human language and if they recognize people by sight or smell. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of their work on canine empathy. The plan is to show dogs a photo of a person being poked with a pin and seeing if it triggers a pain response in the dog’s brain.
We know that our pups have a profound effect on our emptions and health. Knowing more about what our dogs are thinking can help us understand the effect that we have on them.
News: JoAnna Lou
Tainted kibble affects both people and pets
May 6 2012
In early April, Diamond Pet Foods initiated a recall in response to 14 cases of human salmonella poisoning linked to handling their kibble. At first only a few brands were included, but the list has been steadily growing in the last month. Now the recall has spread to other companies who manufacture products in the same plant, like WellPet.
I feed my pups Taste of the Wild, which was only recently added to the recall. It’s frustrating because Diamond Pet Foods initially claimed the food was safe, but then later included it in the recall.
Diamond Pet Foods and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are only reporting the 14-person salmonella outbreak, but stories of sick pets have been emerging online.
One woman in California reported that her dog is suffering from acute liver failure that she believes is related to the Taste of the Wild recall. So far she has spent over $3,000 on veterinary care and she’s not alone. Others are in a similar predicament and are having a hard time getting information from Taste of the Wild.
Sadly recalls seem to be a regular occurrence these days. Feeding a good kibble is no longer about just finding a food with quality ingredients. Now you have to be worried about the track record of a company and the manufacturing plants that they use. I’m starting to think that making my own pet food is the only way that I can be truly confident in the meals I put in my dogs’ bowls. In talking to my friends, I know I’m not the only one contemplating a switch to fresh foods or homemade diets.
Are you planning on changing your dog’s food as a result of the recall?
News: JoAnna Lou
Study finds that our pups experience “runners high”
May 2 2012
Sometimes it takes a good amount of effort to get myself off the couch and out for a run. But when I manage to get moving, it feels great. On the other hand, my dogs seem to naturally love running and could probably gallop around all day.
As it turns out, exercising is another way that humans and canines are alike. Researchers at the University of Arizona recently found that, like people, dogs experience a “runners high,” the rush of positive feelings that result from exercising.
The study originally set out to see if certain species evolved to like running. Sprinting uses a lot of energy and increases risk of injury, so the researchers hypothesized that humans and dogs didn’t run because they had to (for capturing prey and escaping predators), but because they became hard-wired to enjoy it.
They compared species who naturally run—humans and dogs, to ferrets, which are considered non-runners. For the experiment, the dogs and ferrets were trained to use a treadmill using positive reinforcement.
The results showed that the people and dogs had higher levels of endocannabinoids, the chemicals that alter and lighten mood, after running, but not walking. The ferrets had the same levels before and after both, suggesting that they derived no pleasure from the more intense activity.
Apparently these days most humans regularly suppress our biological desire to run, but dogs do not. So the next time your pup looks like he wants to get out and play, lace up your sneakers and go out together. You were both born to run!
News: JoAnna Lou
A new website connects neighbors online
May 1 2012
Years ago, it took a runaway cat for me to befriend several of my neighbors who lived down the street. Eventually Izzy was found and I gained some new friends in the process. Unfortunately, it often takes an emergency to get communities to rally together.
As we become more and more dependent on technology, our isolation has only become worse. A recent study found that over 65 percent of adults are on a social networking site, yet 33 percent of Americans don’t know any of their neighbors by name.
Nextdoor.com aims to change all that by connecting neighbors in a secure online forum. This new social networking website lets users log on and start conversations on everything from finding a ladder to borrow to sending an alert about local road construction.
Naturally, many users have started sharing pet related recommendations, like preferred veterinarians and dog walkers.
Nextdoor.com has also been credited with helping reunite a family in Washington with their lost puppy, Willie. When the small dog ran away last winter, the family posted an alert to their local Nextdoor.com site. Neighbors started reporting sightings and Willie was soon found.
It feels a little artificial to have an online neighborhood, but I can see how communities have to evolve the way they interact to keep up in this age of technology. However, as much as I rely on my smartphone and internet connection, I probably meet the most people in my neighborhood the good old fashioned way—while walking the dogs!
News: JoAnna Lou
A handicapped dog negotiates obstacles with his nose
April 27 2012
Navigating an agility course isn’t easy, so it would seem impossible for a dog who can’t see or hear. But there’s one pup in Texas who is proving everyone wrong.
Charlie is from a litter of deaf and blind puppies who were slated to be euthanized at a Texas shelter. Tara Stermer, a local trainer, and her friend, Carol Knight, took in Charlie, the mom, and two of the other puppies. Tara and Carol have been doing basic obedience and rescue event demos with the dogs, but were looking for new ways to provide enrichment.
At the suggestion of a friend who works with deaf and blind adults, Tara started teaching Charlie to negotiate agility obstacles with his nose. It may seem crazy, but Tara believes that training blind dogs to differentiate obstacles by smell isn’t so dissimilar from teaching a seeing dog to track.
Each obstacle is assigned a different scent so that Charlie can use his nose to anticipate what obstacle is coming up. So far Charlie has learned to go over a small jump and weave through poles.
Tara isn’t aware of anyone else doing agility by scent, so it’s still a work in progress. She may incorporate textures since scent varies with wind and other weather conditions.
Unfortunately, dogs with disabilities are often the first to be euthanized at shelters. But Tara has found that their handicap doesn’t hinder their learning curve. These dogs don’t realize that they’re different and can be trained with operant conditioning just like any other dog.
Charlie is an inspiration who will hopefully encourage people not to give up on these special dogs. Truly anything is possible!
Check out the Training By Tara Facebook page to follow Charlie's journey.
News: JoAnna Lou
Companies respond to the canine obesity problem
April 24 2012
Human weight loss is a billion dollar industry, covering everything from books to personal training. When I first heard about a local doggy daycare’s canine “fat camp,” I thought it might be taking advantage of our obsession with shedding pounds. Activities at the camp include hikes, walks on a treadmill, doga (canine yoga!), and swimming. The marketing is certainly creative, but the camp is actually reflecting a nationwide epidemic.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of dogs and cats are considered overweight or obese. It’s a problem that veterinarians are calling the single most preventable health crisis in America.
The pet industry is responding by introducing products like canine treadmills, specially designed toys to increase activity, and dog running leashes.
Last year the makers of Science Diet introduced a line of meals and treats in pre-measured packets. And when Banfield found that veterinarians were hesitant to tell people that their dogs were overweight, the national veterinary chain introduced software to give pets a Body Condition Score.
Obesity can lead to a number of health problems, including diabetes and kidney failure. And research has suggested that a lower calorie diet can lead to a longer lifespan. So why are so many pets overweight?
First, most of us lead a pretty sedentary life these days, which carries over to our pets. Second, it can be hard to feed the right amount of food. I know my dogs would eat all day if they could and it can be hard to resist their cute faces. At my house, we replaced frequent treats with pieces of carrots and other vegetables.
According to Dr. Denise Elliott, a veterinarian and nutritionist at Banfield, the feeding directions on pet food packages can be inflated by as much as 25 percent.
Also, many people don’t know what normal weight looks like for a dog. Purina has a helpful chart on their website, but it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian.
The pet obesity epidemic is a serious one, but it’s a problem that our pups are counting on us to figure out.
News: JoAnna Lou
Study looks at how adopters decide a dog is “the one”
April 20 2012
The first thing I noticed about my oldest dog, Nemo, was the cluster of cute freckles on his nose. But I knew he was “the one” as soon as I held him in my arms and he licked my face.
The ASPCA wants to understand more about how we pick our pets so they can better help homeless animals find new homes. They conducted a study of 1,500 prospective adopters at five animal shelters across the nation on how they decided on their pet.
The research found that people are most likely to choose adult dogs based on their behavior, but are most likely to choose puppies based on physical appearance. Not surprisingly, age was more important for puppies than adult dogs.
However, despite behavior and looks, having some sort of connection, like the way Nemo licked my face, was the deciding factor that convinced people that a particular animal was “the one.”
How did you know that your pup had to be a part of your life?
News: JoAnna Lou
The doomed ship's survivors included three canines
April 16 2012
April 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Knowing that only 31 percent of the ship's human passengers survived, I was surprised to learn that three dogs made it safely to New York.
Only first class passengers were allowed to bring dogs on the voyage and many belonged to prominent families. There were 12 confirmed dogs on board the Titanic including a Toy Poodle, a Fox Terrier, a French Bulldog and millionaire John Jacob Astor's Airedale named Kitty. The three survivors were all small enough to be smuggled onto the lifeboats—two Pomeranians, one named Lady, and a Pekinese named Sun Yat-Sen who belonged to the Harpers, of publishing firm Harper & Row.
Most of the dogs did not live in the cabins with their family and instead were cared for by crew members in the ship's kennel. Some of the pets were even insured, but mostly because they were considered property. However, that wasn't the case for all of the dogs aboard the Titanic.
There are many heartbreaking stories that came out of the disaster, but as a dog lover, I'll never forget the one about Ann Elizabeth Isham and her beloved Great Dane. Although many passengers regarded their animals as material possessions, Ann was said to have visited her dog every day at the ship's kennel.
Legend says that when Ann tried to evacuate with her Great Dane, she was told that he was too large. Ann refused to leave without him and got out of the lifeboat. When a recovery ship toured the wreckage days later, the crew spotted the body of a woman holding onto a large dog. It's assumed that the bodies recovered were that of Ann and her Great Dane, but the information is unverified. However, whoever the woman and dog were, one thing is for sure—they were there for each other until the very end.
News: JoAnna Lou
Hugs have the opposite meaning to dogs
April 12 2012
As a kid, I remember watching the emotional scene in the movie Homeward Bound and seeing the oldest boy hug his Golden Retriever, Shadow, upon being reunited. I also remember reenacting the scene many times with my poor cat (unfortunately for the cat, I didn't have a dog when I was younger). We regard our pets like family, so hugging them feels natural.
According to a recent survey, 30 percent of dog lovers hug their pets more than their human family members. More than half of those surveyed said that hugging their dog makes them smile. However, it may not be the case the other way around.
In honor of the relationship we have with our pets, Purina's Beneful named April 10th the first annual Hug Your Dog Day. I understand the dog food company wanted to celebrate the human-canine bond, but encouraging people to hug their dogs isn't a good idea.
Of course, I've hugged my dogs before. It feels satisfying, but now that I know more about canine behavior, I can tell that the feeling isn't mutual. My dogs simply put up with hugging, but would rather I pet them instead.
According to canine behaviorist Patricia McConnell, in primates, hugging is an expression of love, endearment, support, or a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. Dogs, however, don't have arms like primates and evolved with no concept of our term of endearment.
In fact, a hug has the exact opposite meaning to a dog. What starts off as good intentions most closely resembles a gesture of dominance to our pets. Because we've built a relationship of trust with our dogs, they know we're not acting aggressively, but it still makes most pups uncomfortable.
It probably goes without saying to never hug a dog you haven't met before. This is also related to how you would approach a strange animal. The best way is pet them under the chin or chest, not on their head or back, which they may view as threatening, and looks similar to the beginnings of a hug! This is an important lesson to pass on to other animal lovers, especially children who are particularly vulnerable to bites.
So next time you go to hug your dog, pay close attention to their body language and facial expression. If your dog is licking his lips, panting, flicking his ears back, or shows stiffness in his body, even subtly, it's time to back off.
We may see our pets as our four-legged children, but it's important to remember that they're not humans. There are many other ways to show our dogs that we love them, however tempting it is to give them a hug.
News: JoAnna Lou
N.Y. pup chases away an intruder and survives a bullet to the skull
April 6 2012
Pit Bulls get a bad reputation in the media, especially in my area of New York. But a heroic Staten Island pup brought the bully breed a bit of much deserved positive press this week.
On Saturday, Justin Becker and Nicole Percoco had an intruder visit their apartment, posing as a FedEx deliveryman. As the man tried to force his way inside, Justin trapped the armed suspect in the doorway, but was unable to shut him out. That’s when the couple’s 12-year old Pit Bull, Kilo, sprang into action.
As the brave dog leapt towards the door, the intruder fired a shot into Kilo’s head and ran off. There was so much blood, Nicole thought for sure that they would have to say goodbye to their beloved dog. But Justin rushed him to the veterinarian and Kilo turned out to be very lucky.
The bullet ricocheted off Kilo’s skull and exited through his neck, sparing him from certain death. Kilo’s veterinarian called the case “one in a million” and credited Kilo’s thicker skull for protecting his brain. Apparently, Pit Bulls have particularly thick skulls as compared to other breeds, such as Yorkies. The hospital staff was so impressed by Kilo’s loyalty and sweet personality that they drew an “S” for “superhero” on his head bandage.
I am always in awe of our dogs’ selfless behavior. Kilo could certainly sense the danger of the situation at Justin and Nicole’s apartment, yet he rushed to protect his people in a split second.
Kilo is lucky to be alive, but Justin and Nicole are just as lucky to have him as a part of their family.
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