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JoAnna Lou

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

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Getting Ready for the Warm Weather
Tips for preparing your pup for summer activities.
On the first warm day post-winter, I took my older dog, Nemo, on a walk up a local bike path. After months of inactivity indoors, walking three miles was a bit ambitious and Nemo slowed down considerably towards the end of our outing. In my eagerness to make the most of our first break from the cold, I didn't listen to my own advice on easing our pets into an active lifestyle. Now that spring is finally here, it's important to get your pets ready for the adventures that come with warmer weather, whether that be a long walk, a hike up a mountain, or playing fetch outside. Here are a few things to consider as you prepare your dogs.

Activity Level

This may seem like an obvious one, but sometimes we need a reminder to work our dogs up to more intense activities! Start with a shorter walk and gradually do longer distances and difficulties. For a hike this will mean researching the elevation and terrain for challenges like rock scrambling.  

As you're increasing the activity level, make sure you observe your dog to make sure they're comfortable. Even if the temperature doesn't feel too hot, dogs don't perspire or cool down as efficiently as we do. Be aware of the signs of overhearing, which includes heavy and rapid panting, a bright red tongue, thick drooling and saliva, lack of coordination, disorientation, or collapse. Dogs exhibiting these symptoms must be cooled down (you can use a hose or a even a stream, if you're out hiking) immediately taken to a veterinarian. Read this article for more information on canine heat stroke.

Another consideration as you walk around the neighborhood is to be mindful of hot pavement on your pup's paws. When it's warm outside, feel the sidewalk or street with your hand and watch for limping.

Training

As you participate in more outdoor activities, it's important to dust off your dog's recall skills and leash manners. If your pup will be off leash, you need to be confident that they'll come back when called, especially in front of wildlife. If you're keeping your dog on leash, learning not to pull on their leash is an essential skill for safety. When hiking there are many times when pulling can throw you off balance in dangerous areas, such as on steep descents and narrow ledges. Practicing these skills before you head out will make your trips more enjoyable and safe. More on trail etiquette here.

Grooming

There is also some grooming maintenance that will help prevent potential problems. Remember to keep your dog's nails short to avoid snagging or breaking and to trim fur around their paws. If you have a dog with long hair, they may need fur pulled away from their face with a hair tie or clip so it doesn't impede their vision. They may also benefit from clipped fur for the summer heat. However, it's important to never shave your dog completely as this will remove their sunburn protection and temperature regulation abilities. 
Enjoy the warm weather and stay safe!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eugene, Ore. Bans All Dogs Downtown.
The city is starting a six month pilot to try and reduce attacks.
Many communities struggle with issues like breed specific legislation as they try to navigate dog bites and potential lawsuits. How they deal with these challenges can be frustrating for dog lovers because it often results in a knee jerk reaction, like cities that ban bully breeds or apartments that turn away dogs over a certain weight. None of these restrictions get at the root cause of the problem they're trying to solve. I feel strongly that education around training and socialization is the key, not a blanket ban.

Eugene, Oregon has taken a particularly aggressive approach. After several dog attacks, the city made the decision to ban dogs in the twelve block downtown area for the next six months. This pilot program excludes police dogs, dogs whose owners live or work in the area, and trained service dogs.

The ban came into effect this week and starts with a $100 base citation, which a judge can increase to $250 in court. For the first few weeks, violators will get by with a warning.

Eugene certainly has a problem, residents have been complaining about aggressive dogs and one woman's dog was even killed in one of the attacks. But not everyone agrees that this is the right solution.

Isaiah Boise, who works downtown, says there are many challenges in Eugene but thinks the city could come up with a better approach. "It seems like we need better job training skills, more services and less policing, maybe a cross between the both," Isaiah said. "Maybe more community outreach as opposed to just bans and enforcement."

Imagine if Eugene chose to permit dogs based on good behavior versus banning on bad behavior. They could allow pups that passed a certain level of basic training, whether it be completing a manners class at a local dog training club or passing the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test. Not only would it improve the behavior of visiting dogs, but it would create greater awareness around training and developing a bond with your pup.

It's also fundamentally wrong to discriminate.

Councilor Emily Semple voted against the ban, citing that "we don't ban a whole class (of people) just because something bad happens." She also believes that it is unfair for homeless people who live in the area and rely on their dogs for companionship and protection.

Eugene's ban will expire in November, but can be extended if the city council thinks it's making the area safer. Hopefully they'll consider an alternative solution.

What would you propose Eugene do to make their downtown area safe for people and dogs?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Stress and Shelter Dogs
Study looks at how time away can benefit homeless pups.

Animal shelters are stressful places for homeless pets. While classical music and thoughtfully designed spaces can help, nothing can completely make it a comfortable environment. This can affect adopters who can have a hard time predicting how the behavior they see at the shelter may look like at home.

Lisa Gunter, a doctoral candidate studying behavioral neuroscience at the Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory, has embarked on research that explores how we can reduce stress and increase adoption success. Lisa acknowledges that one challenge for shelters is bringing out an animal's true behavior in a stressful environment that looks nothing like home.

As a first step, Lisa wanted to look at the sleepover program at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, the largest no-kill shelter in the country. About 1,600 dogs and cats live there, and it's become a popular vacation destination for pet lovers. One volunteer program lets visitors take a dog back to their hotel room for the night.

The pilot study set out to see how these sleepovers affected stress levels.

Lisa measured cortisol levels, a diurnal hormone that is a measure of stress, at three time points: at the shelter pre-sleepover, during the sleepover, and back at the shelter post-sleepover. She also took a behavioral snapshot of each dog, answering questions such as, What's he like on a leash?, What's he like when he sees another dog?, and What's he like when you come into his kennel?

The impact was measurable. The dogs' cortisol levels were significantly reduced after one night.

"We're trying to get more at the dog's welfare, how they're feeling on a larger timescale, not just 10 or 15 minutes," explained Lisa. "When we saw the cortisol had significantly reduced on just one overnight, that was pretty exciting. We didn't imagine that one night out would make a difference."

Lowered stress levels could allow the dogs to behave more naturally, giving people a better view of their true personality. They also discovered another potential factor into shelter pets' welfare.

Anecdotally, people who participated in the sleepover program reported that after the dog settled down, they would often immediately go for a long sleep. This could be an important finding.

"Getting good, uninterrupted sleep could be one mechanism by which we're seeing this reduction in cortisol," says Lisa. "The dogs are getting a good night's sleep, something they can't get at the shelter because they have a lot of noisy neighbors."

Lisa has been working on this study in collaboration with a researcher at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. They were recently awarded a grant to carry out this study at four more shelters with a two-day sample instead of the one-day Lisa did at Best Friends.

I look forward to seeing more developments and would be interested in seeing the long term effects of getting away from the animal shelter, even if it's just for a few hours. While most organizations wouldn't be able to implement a sleepover program like Best Friends, most shelters do have volunteers who can take the dogs out for a long walk or day trip.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Canine Invasion in Newark Airport
89 guide dogs-to-be train at a New Jersey airport.

We've written about comfort dogs visiting airports during times of stressful travel, but what if you got to the airport and saw nearly 100 pups romping around?

Last weekend travelers passing through New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport saw just that--89 guide dogs in training. These pups were brought to Terminal C as part of their prep with The Seeing Eye, a local group that places about 260 guide dogs per year with the visually impaired. 

The Labradors, Poodles, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers accompanied their handlers through ticketing, security checkpoints, and baggage claim. They rode escalators, explored the terminals, and even boarded a United Airlines plane.

Newark Airport has been hosting guide dog training for more than 20 years. According to airport deputy general manager Frank Radics, "the program has trained nearly 3,500 dogs to assist visually impaired passengers navigate busy airports, making air travel a little easier."

Exposure to a variety of environments is essential to a guide dog's training.

"We have to make sure the dogs are steady when there's a lot of noise so they're confident and it doesn't scare them," said longtime puppy raiser Jeanne Kollmer. "It's so many different experiences you can have in one venue."

Jeanne was at the airport with ten month old Black Labrador, Shari, the 18th dog she helped raise for The Seeing Eye. It's been incredibly rewarding.

"You're making a difference in someone else's life," says Jeanne. "There's nothing better than that."

If you missed the parade of pups, they'll be back at the airport this Saturday for more training.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Therapy Dog Uncovers Contaminated Water
San Diego is starting district wide water testing after a dog refuses to drink water from a classroom sink.
It's easy to get caught up in the busy day to day of our lives and overlook important details. On the other hand, our dogs live in the moment and take notice of of all the little things we miss. They also have the benefit of a much better sense of smell and hearing than we do. So in a way, it's not surprising that a San Diego therapy dog alerted a school to a serious problem.

Earlier this year, a teacher at Emerson-Bandini Elementary School noticed her therapy dog wouldn't drink from a bowl filled with water from the classroom sink. She then noticed a sheen similar to what oil looks like on the surface of water. The district tested a sampling of water from around campus and detected contaminants that exceeded the state's allowable level. According to the school district, they found vinyl chloride (C2H2Cl), a chemical that is related to degrading plastic, in a range up to 2.35 micrograms per liter. The maximum allowable level is 0.5 micrograms per liter.

As a result, beginning this week all pipes in the San Diego Unified School District will be tested for contaminants including lead. And in the meantime, the students are drinking bottled water until the district can ensure their safety.

There are countless stories of dogs who detect medical conditions, sense when bad weather is coming, and alert people to someone in trouble. Our pets have an uncanny ability to notice things that go right over our head. The students at Emerson-Bandini Elementary School are lucky that this therapy dog uncovered the toxic water before anyone became sick.

Have your dogs ever alerted you to something peculiar? 

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
From Abandoned Pup to Working Dog
An abused Beagle finds his niche in airport customs.

Last year an abused Beagle was found abandoned outside of the Northeast Georgia Animal Shelter. The pup, who they later named Murray, had half of one of his ears missing and a band on his tail, as if someone had been trying to shorten it. Understandably, Murray was scared and nervous. Shelter workers said he probably hadn't been socialized much.

After receiving medical care, Murray was placed in a foster home through Alcovy Pet Rescue. His foster family gave him the love and attention he deserved, coaxing him out of his shell. It was here that they discovered he had a knack for sniffing out food.

"He was constantly smelling everything and getting into cabinets," said Yvonne Petty, director of Alcovy Pet Rescue. He was just very interested in that kind of thing."

While many people might find Murray's habit annoying, Alcovy Pet Rescue knew that Murray's propensity and activity level made him a good candidate for airport customs work. They had several rescue pups go down this path before.

That's how Murray ended up training with the United States Department of Agriculture where he excelled at his new job.

"He's a great dog," Yvonne said about Murray. Even when they're done training, he still wants to work."

Murray graduated from training earlier this month and was assigned to work at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where he will be scanning luggage for prohibited plants and food.

"He's done so well and we're just so amazed at what a transformation he made from being abused," she Yvonne. "You can really find great dogs in animal control instead of going out and buying them."

Tammie Jourdanais, the director of the Northeast Georgia Animal Shelter, says that she's thankful Murray was left at shelter where he wasn't automatically euthanized due to his injuries.

"It's one of those stories that makes what I do rewarding," explained Tammie. "They always say 'poor shelter dogs,' but these poor shelter dogs can really do great things in the world.

I love that Murray's foster family believed in him and was able to uncover his true talents. Do you think your pup has what it takes to be an airport customs dog? 

 
Good Dog: Studies & Research
How We Perceive Our Pups
Empathy affects how we read canine facial expressions.
Empathy is our ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others. But does this extend to how we interact with our pets? Researchers at the University of Helsinki and Aalto University set out to explore how empathy and other psychological factors affect the way we perceive both dogs and other humans. 

Based on previous research, the scientists knew that people with higher emotional empathy evaluated other people's expressions more quickly, accurately, and often more intensely. Their study was the first to show that human empathy affects how we perceive our pups.

In their experiment, participants were shown images of human and canine faces, and as a control, inanimate objects and abstract pixel images. They were instructed to estimate how the target in each image was feeling.

The study found that empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of canine facial expressions, though the accuracy of those assessments is unreliable.

Miiamaaria Kujala, one of the postdoctoral researchers, said it's possible that empathetic people actually over-interpret the expressions of dogs.

The researchers also looked at another characteristic--experience with dog training. While empathy affected assessments of canine facial expressions more than previous dog experience, earlier studies showed that past training experience increased in importance when interpreting the dog's body language as a whole.

That makes sense given how much time dog trainers spend on learning to understand canine body language.

Expression type also made a difference. The researchers found that people assessed happy human faces more intensely than happy canine faces--and the opposite was true when looking at threatening faces. The team believes this may be due to the tendency to perceive faces of your own species as generally more pleasant. They also found that people experienced in dog training estimated the happy expressions of dogs as happier than others did.

So it seems that our empathy does extend to how we perceive our pups, and our experience with training deepens how we understand them.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Friendship From a Shared Skin Condition
A boy and dog bond over a rare ailment.

Three years ago kindergartener Carter Blanchard was diagnosed with a rare skin condition that developed white patches around his eyes. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to come to terms with his transforming face under the scrutiny of his classmates.

“The first thing he’d tell me when he got in the car,” remembers Carter’s mom, Stephanie Adock, “is that he hated his face and the way he looked.”

Now eight years old, Carter is comfortable in his own skin, thanks in part to a dog from Oregon.

Soon after Carter’s diagnosis, Stephanie was browsing Facebook when she saw a photo of a dog named Rowdy who also had white patches around his eyes. The 13-year old pup gained a worldwide social media following because of the unique look.

It turns out Rowdy had vitiligo, the same skin condition as Carter. The disorder is a result of destroyed pigment cells in the skin, but the cause isn’t known.

Carter started watching videos of Rowdy online, which totally changed his outlook.

“Carter used to be very upset but now he is proud that he was chosen to have vitiligo and wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Stephanie. “He thinks that everyone else’s skin is boring.”

Stephanie reached out to Rowdy’s owner, Niki Umbenhower, and they kept in touch for the last few years. Since they lived so far away, Stephanie didn’t think Carter would ever see Rowdy in person. But when a local television station featured their friendship, an anonymous viewer donated $5,000 to fly Carter and his mom from Arkansas to Oregon so they could finally meet Rowdy.

The bond was instantaneous.

“When we walked in I didn’t feel like we were walking in for the very first time, they were family already,” said Stephanie. “You could tell Rowdy knew something was going on and felt the energy of the room.”

Carter spent the first two hours petting Rowdy, and then Rowdy settled down next to Carter as he played with Legos.

Dogs teach us so much and one of those lessons is the power of being nonjudgemental. There’s so much we can learn from Rowdy and Carter’s friendship. Sometimes our pups just know exactly what we need!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Improving How We Evaluate Service Dogs
Study uses fMRI brain scans to help organizations train pups to help people.
As many as 70 percent of dogs that start a service dog training program are let go before graduation. Given that it can cost up to $50,000 to develop one of these valuable pups, organizations that raise these dogs are always looking for better ways to predict who will be up to the task. 

You may remember we wrote about a study last year where Emory University neuroscientists looked at dogs' preference for praise over treats. Their lab was the first to conduct functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments on awake, unrestrained pups to understand canine cognition and inter-species communication. Now they're using this technology to help solve the classic service dog dilemma--finding more accurate ways to eliminate unsuitable dogs earlier in the process.

Their study looked at 43 dogs who underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California. All of these pups passed CCI's standard behavioral tests, which selects dogs with a calm temperament to start the formal training program.

Scientists used fMRI to look for higher activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with excitability. They found that dogs showing higher activity here were more likely to fail the training program.

"Data from fMRI provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates," explains research lead Gregory Berns. "What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why."

The team believes that the fMRI would boost the ability to distinguish pups that would ultimately not pass from 47 to 67 percent.

This technology is expensive, so it wouldn't be practical for individual trainers, but could be utilized by larger organizations such as CCI. There's also an additional training component since the dogs must learn to remain still while undergoing the fMRI.

The second part of the study built on Emory's original treat research. In these experiments, the dogs were taught hand signals for "treat" and "no treat," which were shown while the pups were in the fMRI. They found a correlation between training program success and the caudate, a region of the brain associated with rewards.

In response to the treat signal, those who had more activity in the caudate were more likely to complete the service dog training program. In contrast, those with more activity in the amygdala were more likely to fail.

"The ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn't get excessively excited or nervous," explained Gregory. "The two neural regions that we focused on--the caudate and the amygdala--seem to distinguish those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt behaviors."

Gregory's team hopes to refine this evaluation technique and apply it to a broader range of working dogs, such as military and police pups.  

 

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Lyme Disease on the Rise
2017 is on trend to be a particularly risky year for disease carrying ticks.
Ticks are a big concern for dog parents, sometimes I feel like my dogs are magnets for the little pests. They pick up the little buggers while hiking, at agility trials, and even in our own backyard. And it can be annoying to search for ticks under all that fur!

According to Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 2017 is anticipated to be a particularly risky year for Lyme disease. He expects the risk will be high in New York, Connecticut, and possibly areas of the mid-Atlantic region.

This is part of a growing trend, where Lyme contiues to spread in New England and the upper Midwest.

"Reported cases of Lyme have tripled in the past few decades," says Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Kiersten Kugeler.

On the East Coast, Kiersten says most people catch Lyme near their homes, not just when hiking or camping. So if you live in an area that is tick prone, it's important to check yourself and your pets regularly. Since blacklegged ticks can be as small as a poppy seed and like to hang out in the nooks and crannies of the human body, Kiersten advises people to check behind ears, armpits, and the groin area.

If you find a tick, "very carefully, go under the head of the tick with tweezers and just pull out the mouth of the tick, which is embedded in the skin," instructs Dr. Brian Fallon who directs the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center. Don't squeeze the body of the tick which will transfer possible infection into the skin. Don't use Vaseline or fire to remove the tick. Tweezers are the best tool.

There are a few ways to determine your Lyme risk:

  • Check your state health department's web site to see if Lyme is present in you community
  • Save the tick you pull and have it tested in a lab to see if it was carrying Lyme
  • Take a picture of the tick and send it to the TickEncounter Resource Center where scientists can identify the tick and tell you the chance it could have Lyme
Lyme is hard to diagnose in dogs because the symptoms are often delayed or are similar to those of many other diseases. Animals with Lyme may be in generalized pain, start limping, or stop eating. Lameness can appear suddenly, shift from one leg to another, and even disappear temporarily. Some describe it as "walking on eggshells."

All this sounds depressing, but remember, not all ticks carry Lyme, and it takes 24-36 hours to transmit the disease. The sooner you catch them, the better. Kiersten recommends making tick checks as part of your daily routine to combst this preventable disease.

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