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JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Eats Christmas Lights
Wires were the only clue to the intestinal blockage

Our pets eat a lot of strange objects, but this may be a first!  Charlie, a mixed breed pup in Southampton, England, recently got life-saving surgery to remove a string of Christmas lights that he ate.

Charlie’s family didn’t even notice that the lights were missing, but became concerned after finding wires in his poop.  An x-ray painted a clear picture of his stomach’s tangled contents and the vets performed emergency surgery to remove the lights.

My Sheltie, Nemo, went through a similar procedure this summer after he ate a whole leash.  Like Charlie, Nemo is prone to eating random objects.  I have to be really careful about what gets left out around the house even though it’s pretty much “dog proof.”

The holidays are a particularly hard time with the general chaos, presents under the tree (my tree is safely behind an exercise pen!), and boxes of decorations ready to be sniffed and investigated.

Be sure to keep interesting objects out of reach and monitor your dog for symptoms of an intestinal obstruction, which include loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea (or no stool at all if it’s a complete obstruction). The American Kennel Club also advises against decorating your tree with edible objects, like strings of popcorn.

Stay safe this holiday season! 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Diabetic Alert Dogs
Trained pups can outdo medical technology

When Dustin Hillman developed severe hypoglycemic unawareness, a complication of diabetes, it would often land him in the emergency room from low blood sugar.  At its worst, the condition left him unconscious more than six times in a two week period.  It also threatened Dustin's independence, almost forcing him to drop out of graduate school and move in with his parents.

That all changed when a hypoglycemic alert dog named Tippy came into his life.  In the first three months with the Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, Dustin lost consciousness only once and didn't require emergency services.  Dustin was also able to regain his life and complete a Masters degree in Chemistry from Purdue University.

Diabetic alert dogs are becoming increasingly popular, especially as diagnosis rates rise.  Ed Peebles, president of the National Institute for Diabetic Alert Dogs, gets up to 20 applications a day looking for a trained pup.

Amazingly dogs can help diabetes sufferers in ways that modern technology cannot.  While a glucose monitor can detect high sugar levels, the chemicals produced during low blood sugar incidents have not been identified, so machines can only record drops after they happen.

Dogs can learn to alert humans before the blood sugar drop occurs.  Researchers don't know how the pups do it, but are working to identify the chemical compound they smell.  Knowing this information would allow scientists to better train future dogs and to possibly make a mechanical detection device.  But for now the unique canine ability remains a mystery.

Andrea Calamoneri, whose 15-year-old son Dylan has Type 1 diabetes, was initially skeptical, but was convinced after seeing her son's dog at work.  Celeste can alert them to a drop in blood sugar well before it actually happens.  The smell of dropping sugar levels will even wake Celeste out of a nap.  "It gives you chills when you see it happen," says Andrea.

The power of the canine nose and their willingness to work with us in these extraordinary ways is incredible.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Bringing Comfort to Newtown, Conn.
Therapy dogs help a grieving community

No words can describe the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. As we try to make sense of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, most of us can only begin to imagine what the Newtown, Conn. community is going through right now. People around the world have offered to help in any way they can, including a team of therapy dogs from Illinois.

Nine Golden Retrievers and their handlers from K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry traveled hundreds of miles to help grieving Newtown residents with the special support that only dogs can provide.

The canine team--Abbi, Barnabas, Chewie, Hannah, Luther, Prince, Maggie, Shami, and Ruthie--have been visiting funerals, candlelight vigils, and other gatherings. Some people pet the dogs while they talk or pray, while others prefer to spend quiet time knowing a furry friend is by their side.

The handlers say that the dogs have helped people open up and talk, an important step in healing. But not everyone is ready to do so yet. For kids, the tragedy can be especially scary and complex, so the teams have also been stopping by other Newton schools to talk to the children.

"You could tell which [kids] were really struggling with their grief because they were quiet," says Tim Hetzner, the president of Lutheran Church Charities, the group behind the comfort dogs. "They would pet the dog and just be quiet."

But the teams are ready to provide whatever support is needed, whether it's someone to chat with or just a hug from a big, furry Golden Retriever.

Recognizing that healing takes time, each dog carries a business card with their name, Facebook page, Twitter account, and e-mail address so that the people they meet can stay in touch. It's a really cool way for the teams to extend their reach even after they have to leave.

The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry was started in response to another school shooting in 2008, when a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University. Now 60 dogs in six states participate in a wide range of therapy activities from visiting patients at local hospitals to comforting victims of national disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy.

The comfort pups receive more formal training than the average therapy dog. They're screened at 5.5 weeks old and then work with a trainer for 8-12 months.

The K-9 Comfort Dogs also make me think of Catherine Hubbard, one of the 6-year old victims, a huge animal lover who dreamed of opening a shelter when she grew up. She would've loved meeting the Golden Retriever teams. Catherine's family requested that people make donations to The Animal Center in Newtown in lieu of flowers.

The pain in Newtown will never fully go away, but the work of these dogs and the support of others around the world helps the community know that they're not alone in getting through this tragedy.

If you're interested in donating to the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, visit the Lutheran Church Charities web site.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Puppies for Rent
College student makes dogs available to fill a void

I missed my pets so much when I was in college, especially when I was stressed out during exam time.  After graduation, I volunteered with Nemo and other therapy dogs to visit students at a local university during finals.  It always made me wish I had visiting pups to cheer me up during those stressful nights.

After seeing how many students at Bringham Young University were craving a pet fix, Jenna Miller started Puppies for Rent to fill the void.  She rescues puppies and rents them out until she finds a permanent home for them.  Jenna believes that the dogs are better off being rented out to pet lovers (and potential adopters) instead of being stuck in an animal shelter.

So far Jenna has adopted out 11 puppies that have been rental dogs.  Most of her clients are college students who can’t have a pet with their dorm lifestyle or families who don’t want to commit to the responsibility.

I certainly see the benefit of getting homeless pups out there and fulfilling people’s pet fix, but the idea of renting dogs is troublesome.  Jenna didn’t specify if renters are screened to make sure they’re responsible, but shelters take great care to make sure adopters, foster homes, and volunteers are ready to take on the responsibility of a dog, even if only for a few hours a week.  Renters should be subject to the same criteria.

Secondly dogs, especially developing puppies, crave consistency.  There can be a lot of confusion and conflicting rules if puppies are frequently rented to different people each day.

Finally, it feels like a contradiction that shelter pets, the poster children of getting people to realize that animals are a long-term commitment, are being rented for profit.

If people want to get their pet fix, there are lots of opportunities to socialize or foster dogs through your local rescue group.  When I was in college, I started an animal shelter volunteer club where we took dogs out to the park and taught them new tricks.  Not only did I get my puppy time, but I met many other animal lovers who were eager to play with homeless pets too.

What do you think about renting puppies?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pet Photos with Santa
Many dogs are uncomfortable with the holiday picture frenzy

I don't have children, but I consider my dogs to be my furry kids in everything from choosing the best daycare to researching safe toys. When the holidays come around, they each have a stocking hanging over the fireplace and Christmas themed collars. And for years, I took my canine crew to the pet store to get their photo taken with Santa. The holiday ritual has become so popular that I noticed my local mall's Santa's workshop now has a weekly pet night!

Santa photos are great additions to family holiday cards, but for many dogs, getting their picture taken is not fun. Getting plopped into a stranger's lap can be stressful, especially when they're wearing a funky costume. Then mix in attempting to get the animals to stay still, trying to get them to look at the camera, flashing a bright light in their eyes, and dealing with the distraction of the other pets waiting their turn.  

It's important to know what your dog is comfortable with before bringing them to a Santa photo shoot. Ask yourself if your pup is okay with:

  • New environments
  • Strange people and dogs
  • People in costumes or other strange outfits
  • Flashing lights
  • Being handled and restrained by a stranger
And remember to manage your expectations. Asking your dog to maintain a stay or to turn their attention to the camera can be difficult, particularly in a hectic environment. Observe your pup's body language and leave if they're not comfortable. If you think your dog may not enjoy a visit to Santa's workshop, consider a photo session at a private studio instead of visiting a busy pet store or mall. In my case, I started taking my own holiday pictures at home.   Remember that Santa photos are supposed to be fun for both of you!

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Teaching Dogs to Drive
New Zealand SPCA takes on the ultimate training challenge

Animal trainer, Mark Vette, set out to train the impossible, all in the name of creating positive buzz for the SPCA in South Auckland. Mark decided to showcase how intelligent shelter pets are by teaching dogs to drive a car.

The pups were chosen from a short list of candidates at the shelter. After seeing how each dog responded to targeting objects through clicker training, Mark chose Monty, a 10-month old Giant Schnauzer deemed uncontrollable, Ginny, a 1-year old Whippet Mix rescued from abuse, and Porter a 10-month old Beardie Mix found roaming the streets.

The three dogs then moved to a farm to begin intensive training. Mark and his team began teaching 10 individual behaviors, from pressing a starter button to shifting gears, that chain together to become driving a car. The vehicle used was custom made by engineers for animal drivers.

Within one week the superstar pups were putting their paws on targets shaped like parts of the car. The next week they learned to hop into the drivers seat and put their paws on the steering wheel. By week five the canine crew began to accelerate and brake on cue.

In just two months, the dogs were driving the modified car with enthusiasm (made possible with clicker training!).

It’s incredible to see all the steps leading up to training such a complex behavior. It also shows how amazing shelter pets are and that there’s no limit to what you can train a dog to do!

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!

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