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!

News: Guest Posts
Conservation Pup In-Training: Part VI
A New Dog-in-training Joins Up

October and November have been the most exciting months of 2012 for Dogs for Conservation. More than a year of hard work and patience have paid off and we now have some tangible things to show for it!

In October 2012 we had the wonderful opportunity to both save a life and acquire another great detection dog! Formerly known as Allie, now named "Terra" (as in "Terra Firma"), this female Border Collie was found as a stray and was looking at her last days before being euthanized at a Texas shelter. That was when Ruff Mutts Border Collie Rescue saved her life and realized she had potential to be a working dog! Debbie Schwagerman, Director of Ruff Mutts, wrote:

“Allie actually came from the Wichita Falls animal shelter. She was picked up as a stray and no one claimed her. In fact, even after she was available for adoption, no one adopted her and no other rescue stepped up for her. I agreed to take her at the last minute, and she was transported out to me in Terrell. I knew from the minute I met her she was born to DO something.”

Terra was then evaluated and temporarily fostered by Bob and Karen Deeds of Canine Connection in Fort Worth, TX where she was deemed a wonderful prospect for detection work!

Soon after that, we at Dogs for Conservation contacted Bob Deeds about any dogs he knew of that might work out for our program … and the rest is history!! Terra is currently being trained by our head trainer Tiffanie Turner to detect the highly endangered Houston Toad! Terra is the sweetest girl who gives the best doggy hugs I have ever seen!! She is crazy about her ball, and that has been the key to teaching her how to "learn to earn” … she did not even know how to sit when we got her!

While Terra sniffs out toads, Ranger has stepped up his training a notch and has finally been introduced to a target odor. Many months of preparation and fun have led up to this time, and so for Ranger it is just another game! He has been learning how to use his nose properly and efficiently, learning how scent behaves in different terrain and weather, and of course his obedience training continues every day as well. All of these are pieces to the puzzle that will ultimately have our “puppy” working well in the real world in 2013. It amazes me daily how much he enjoys what he is doing… I am so proud of him!

Until next time, feel free to visit us on our website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on Ranger and Terra’s progress!!

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?!

News: Guest Posts
Family Dies to Save Dog
Tragic ending to heroic efforts
dog swim ocean

Tragedy struck a northern California family when their dog, Fran, was swept out by a wave while playing fetch at Big Lagoon state beach. Sixteen-year-old Gregory Kuljian immediately dove in to save her. Seeing his son struggle in the eight-to-10-foot surf, Gregory's father, Howard Kuljian, 54, quickly followed. Gregory made it out, but returned to the churning waters along with his mother, Mary Scott, 57, to rescue his father.

All three drowned as Gregory's 18-year-old sister, Olivia, and girlfriend watched in horror. The group had gathered at Big Lagoon state beach near Arcata, California, for a leisurely stroll where signs warned of dangerous sneaker waves. The dog, Fran, safely made her way back to land.

News: Guest Posts
Take a Study Break with a Dog

Final exams at college are always stressful. You’re studying far into the wee hours, cramming facts and formulas into your tired brain, worrying about grades, neglecting your nutrition, sleep and exercise needs, and counting the days until your last exam is done and you can go home. Add to all of that stress the fact that you’re away from the comforts of home, including your beloved family pet.

Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has come up with a creative solution for some of its students: Puppy Room. As the Dalhousie Student Union Facebook page poster says, “Yup, it’s a room full of puppies.”

Or more accurately, the students will hang out with some certified therapy dogs, coordinated by the local chapter of Therapeutic Paws of Canada. That program places therapy dogs with people suffering from high blood pressure, depression and loneliness.

Now they can add final exam-related stress to that list.

As soon as the Student Union posted about the idea on Facebook, it went viral. The therapy dogs will be on campus for several hours on three separate days during exam week. All of the dogs are at least a year old, so while they might not technically be puppies, I doubt any of the students will care.

My thought? Other universities and colleges should jump on this wagon. They could use therapy dogs, or better yet connect with local shelters which might actually have some real puppies that could use the socializing and play time with the students. The puppies gain people skills; the students do better (we hope) on their exams. A big win-win.

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.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Festive Canine Decorations
Bo Obama at Christmas

When First Lady Michelle Obama guided visitors through the White House to see the Christmas decorations, it was easy to see that First Dog Bo Obama had a starring role. He accompanied the first group to see a preview of the holiday décor wearing jingle bells, but his presence extends far beyond that.

There is a large statue of Bo next to the 300-pound gingerbread White House in the State Dining Room. In the East Garden Room, there’s life-size model of him holding a string of lights in his mouth. Dozens of cut out pictures of Bo are on display throughout the house in what are referred to as Bo-flakes. Visitors can go on a scavenger hunt to search for the Bo ornaments that are in eight rooms. The guide to the scavenger hunt is on a Bo bookmark.

If you decorate for the holidays, do you use images of your dog in any way?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What a Good Dog

On a recent dark, chilly fall evening, a three year old child wandered out of his home un-noticed by his parents. His departure was, however, observed by the family dog, a large neutered  male Pit Bull, who took it upon himself to follow the little boy and stay close by his side. They were a good distance from home before they were seen by some passers-by who stopped to help. The child was unable to tell them where he lived or give them any other information so deputies were summoned. The dog stayed by the child’s side the entire time, friendly but watchful.

The child was going to be taken into protective custody so one of my fellow animal control officers was dispatched to pick up the dog. The officer scanned the dog and found a microchip which had been implanted by our shelter during a free neuter clinic that we had offered a few years previously. Thanks to the chip, one phone call was all that was needed to get the pair home safely. The situation is still under investigation but could have been much worse had the dog not chosen to stay with the little boy.

I was so touched by the way the faithful dog stayed with the child the entire time and by the way, once again, a microchip led to a happy ending!

I would love to hear from readers about things your dogs have done to be there for someone in need. 

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!