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JoAnna Lou

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

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Agility by Scent
A handicapped dog negotiates obstacles with his nose

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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Growing Pet Weight Loss Industry
Companies respond to the canine obesity problem

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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How We Choose Our Pups
Study looks at how adopters decide a dog is “the one”

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?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs of the Titanic
The doomed ship's survivors included three canines

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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Conflicting Gestures of Affection
Hugs have the opposite meaning to dogs

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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pit Bull Takes a Bullet for His Family
N.Y. pup chases away an intruder and survives a bullet to the skull

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.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
From the Round Pen to the Office
Building better work dynamics through herding sheep

I fund my agility addiction with a job in corporate professional development. Over the years, I've seen a lot of parallels between how people and dogs learn. For instance, human or canine, it's best to break down new behaviors into small achievable pieces. And, whether it comes in the form of a good performance review or a click from a clicker, feedback is rarely given often enough.

We have a lot we can learn from our dogs, but a shepherd in Wiltshire, England, has taken the notion to a new level. Chris Farnsworth is teaching business professionals to build better office dynamics by rounding up sheep. In his “Raising the Baa” course, teams learn how to give feedback, develop leadership skills and deal with stress through herding and analyzing video.

I've seen many team building exercises over the years, but this one is definitely the most unique. Participants have said that they've learned a lot about improving office relationships, but I'm sure they also found out that being a sheepdog is no easy task!

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Breed Ban: Next Stop Airlines
United is next in line to discriminate against certain dogs

The United/Continental Airlines merger has been causing quite the stir lately. And because United is a federal contact carrier, any policy changes greatly affect military personnel.

Last month, the airline changed the way they transport pets, dramatically increasing fees flying into countries with certain regulations. United ended up making an exception for military families, but it ruffled a lot of feathers.

Now, United Airlines has jumped on the breed-ban bandwagon and singled out nine breeds they deem dangerous—Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Presa Canarios, Perro de Presa Canarios, Dogo Argentinos, Cane Corsos, Fila Brasileiros, Tosas, and Ca de Bous. Those dogs, and mixes that include those breeds, are not allowed to travel United after the age of six months or after they reach 20 pounds in weight.

After a public outcry, United removed the word “dangerous” to describe the breeds, but they made no change to the ban. This affects countless pet lovers, but also means that military families stationed away from home may not be able to fly back on United with their dogs.

I've said this before, but I wish more governments and companies would realize that a sweeping breed ban will not solve their problem. At a minimum I think they should make an exception for dogs who have demonstrated good manners, like earning the AKC Canine Good Citizen certification or passing a therapy dog test. It's unfair to let a bad reputation affect all dogs of a certain breed.

A petition to persuade United to reverse the ban has been started on Change.org. So far they have over 35,000 signatures.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Facebook Says No to Puppy Mills
ASPCA teams up with the social network to clean up their online classifieds

In some ways ridding the world of puppy mills seems easy. If people simply stopped buying animals from pet stores, the problem would be solved. But in reality, it sometimes feels like a battle that will never be won.

Anytime a friend is looking for their first dog, I try to educate them about puppy mills and point them in the direction of reputable breeders or shelters. But many times, I've been disappointed over the years when some of those friends give into instant gratification and turned to a pet store.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the Internet has only helped perpetuate puppy mills. Buying dogs online has become as common as buying from pet stores. This is particularly troubling because dogs sold on the Internet are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act license and inspection requirements of brick and mortar pet stores.

Now, puppy mills have one less place to advertise online. The ASPCA's No Pet Store Puppies campaign teamed up with Facebook and Oodle, the company behind the social network's Marketplace, to put new measures in place that ensures puppy mill dogs will no longer be sold in Facebook's online classifieds.

This is a small step in solving the problem of online puppy sales, but it's great to see key companies, such as Facebook, supporting the campaign. Puppy mills contribute to the overpopulation problem and
ignore the best interests of the dogs they exploit. Preventing these sales might be an uphill battle, but it's an critical one. I'm hopeful that one day we will be successful in making puppy mills a thing of the past.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Finding Adopters on Facebook
Is there a balance between exposure and spam?

I remember when Petfinder revolutionized the way adoptable animals found potential homes. A dog who might only be seen by a few visitors passing through the local shelter could now be seen online by hundreds of people.

Facebook has taken this exposure to a new level. Now homeless animals can be seen by people who aren't even looking for a new pet. Photos and descriptions are easily shared with thousands of people in a matter of seconds.

The City of Hartford Animal Shelter, one of Connecticut’s largest kill shelters, credits Facebook with saving countless pets each month. It's not uncommon for several months to go by without having to euthanize any dogs.

Last year, many rescue groups and shelters had their Facebook accounts suspended after being targeted by an automated anti-spam filter. Facebook has since reversed the glitch, but it highlighted the frequency and repetitive nature of these type of posts.

In addition to the shelters and rescue groups I follow, I have a lot of friends who post about dogs and other pets looking for homes. And there are certainly a lot. Even I admit that I sometimes glaze over the numerous postings on Facebook. However, I realize that this awareness is necessary for finding homes and I know many people who have found their new furry family members through these updates.

Are there too many adoption posts on Facebook? Do we just need to be more creative with how we use the social networking tool?

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