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JoAnna Lou

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

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.

Dog's Life: Humane
Florida Hotel Fosters Shelter Pups
Tallahassee Aloft hotel partners with Leon County Humane Society to feature homeless dogs.

As pet adoption has gotten more attention in recent years, people have found new and interesting ways to promote shelter dogs and cats. Hotels may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to homeless pets, but one lodging chain has found success in partnering with local rescue organizations.

Earlier this month the Aloft Tallahassee Downtown Hotel launched its Dog Foster Program, in conjunction with the Leon County Humane Society (LCHS). Through this program, one lucky shelter pup gets to stay in the hotel lobby, which features a dog house that was built to look like a smaller version of the hotel. This gives dogs more exposure to potential adopters and socialization to different environments and people

So far they’ve had two foster pups--Penelope, a three month old German Shepherd puppy, and Nathan, a five month old Chihuahua/Rat Terrier mix. The guests of honor are cared for by the hotel staff, but the adoption is handled by LCHS. Anyone interested in taking a dog home has to submit an application.

While only one dog can sleepover at a time, the program helps all of LCHS' pups, giving visibility to homeless pets and the need for foster homes. LCHS doesn't have a physical shelter. Instead, all pets are housed in foster homes until they find the perfect forever home.

"Our new foster partnership with Aloft perfectly aligns with our mission to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Educate, thereby fostering a kinder community for people and their pets,” said Lisa Glunt, executive director of LCHS. “The new program is an exciting development for our organization and opens the door for us to match more adopters with homeless pets in Tallahassee while continuing to save more lives.”

Tallahassee isn’t the only Aloft to participate in such an innovative initiative. The program was modeled after two successful partnerships at Aloft properties in Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina. The Asheville location, which teamed up with Charlie’s Angels Animal Rescue, found homes for 14 dogs in the first five months of the program.

I hope this story inspires other hotels and businesses to come up with unique ways to feature shelter animals!

Dog's Life: Humane
From Abandoned Pup to Firedog
A Pit Bull finds her forever home at a New York City firehouse.
Last year New York City animal rescuers Erica Mahnken and Michael Favor got a call about an abandoned Pit Bull in an old crack house. There was no heat or electricity, and the couple who lived there fled after a snowstorm hit. When Erica and Michael found the poor pup, she was malnourished and covered in cigarette burns. A vet later said that the dog was 25 pounds underweight.

Despite being abused, the pup was happy to be found and jumped right into Erica's car.

Unfortunately they didn't have anywhere to keep the dog, so they called some firefighter friends from a Lower East Side FDNY station nicknamed "Fort Pitt." The firefighters agreed to be a temporary foster home.

"As soon as she walked into the firehouse, her tail was wagging, and she was licking and greeting everybody," Erica remembered. "She was super happy. From where she came from, you wouldn't really expect that. You would think that she'd be a little skittish, but she wasn't at all."

After three days the firefighters named the dog Ashley, "Ash" for short, and called Erica to ask if they could adopt her.

“My heart wants to explode,” Erica said. “Everyone’s so quick to judge a dog, especially a dog you don’t know where it came from or what kind of person they are and what kind… It is very satisfying."

Ashley has been enjoying her role as official firehouse dog, hanging out with the crew in the kitchen and riding along with the firefighters on smaller runs. She even has her own spot in the firetruck.

"They walk her about 30 times a day. They bring her on the roof to play. She's constantly in the kitchen watching them eat. She has endless supplies of treats. She has the life over there," describes Erica.

If you're interested in following Ashely's adventures, the firefighters started an Instagram account that has over 19,000 followers.

It sounds like "Fort Pitt" needed some joy in their fire station, which they found in a Pit Bull named Ashley!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Colorado Kids Train Service Dogs
After school program teaches students to prepare pups to help veterans.
Service dogs have the potential to make a significant impact in the lives of veterans, but many can't afford their high price tag. When students from Summit Elementary School in Divide, Colorado learned about this problem, they wanted to help.

"We recognize a large number of veterans in Teller County who would largely benefit from having a service dog to help them," said student Christian Bonnette.

So five kids teamed up with trainer John Franks from the non-profit group Heroes Pack. After school they work with John to teach dogs the skills needed to help people with PTSD or mobility issues. Currently they're working with a dog named Holly who they plan to donate to a local veteran this spring.

It's not cheap to train a service dog. According to student Leah Strawmatt, it takes about 500 hours to train each pup and about $5,000.

In addition to dedicating their time and raising money, the kids are also doing their part to spread the word about the need for service dogs.

Recently they participated in a regional competition called Destination Imagination (the world's largest creative problem solving competition) and won first place. They were also given the Torchbearer Award, for teams whose solutions have extraordinary impact in and beyond their local communities. According to Heroes Pack, the award has never been given out at the regional level. The kids will move on to the state competition next.

This program is a win-win for everyone. In addition to becoming skilled dog trainers, the students are learning valuable life lessons and helping veterans in the community.

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