JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Study finds that many pups prefer praise over treats.
September 17 2016
A recent study out of Emory University found that many dogs prefer praise over treats. It all began when neuroscientist Gregory Berns was interested in what dogs "really care about." He wondered if it was all about food, or if social rewards were potentially more valuable.
15 dogs, trained to lie still for 30 minutes in an MRI, went through three experiments. The first looked at brain activity when presented with different objects--a hairbrush, a toy car, and a toy horse--paired with a hot dog, praise, or nothing. For 13 of the 15 dogs, their brains were stimulated by the praise just as much, if not more than, the food.
In the second test, Gregory wanted to replicate the first experiment, but this time a subset wouldn't get praised. The researchers found that the dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment seemed to be more disappointed than the other pups when they didn't get it this time around.
The third experiment took place outside of the MRI, in a maze where the pups had to choose between finding a bowl of food and getting praise from their owner. Researchers found that the outcomes of the first two tests were a strong predictor of the dogs' choice. The 13 dogs whose brains were stimulated by the praise, chose to head straight to their person instead of to the treats.
Gregory believes that the research shows dogs are primarily motivated by praise, which could have a great impact on training strategy. He also thinks that these findings can help identify which idividuals might be most successful as service dogs.
“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” Gregory notes in the study, “while a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”
As for our own pets, I think this study reinforces how social we know dogs to be. However, I'm not completely sure all of my dogs would pick me over a tasty treat!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A university looks at animal-assisted therapy's effect on homesickness and retention.
September 16 2016
When I first went away to college, I remember how homesick I felt, especially since I had to leave my pets behind. One of my first good friendships began over a conversation about our guinea pigs. Not only do animals have the ability to make us feel better, but they can also help bring people together.
New research from the University of British Columbia shows that animal-assisted therapy can help students combat homesickness and could have a positive effect on retention. The transition from high school to university can be challenging, and students who are homesick are more likely to drop out.
In the study, 44 first-year university students who self-identified as homesick were given a survey to measure levels of homesickness, satisfaction with life, and connectedness with campus. Half of the students completed eight weeks of pet therapy, while the other half were informed that their sessions would begin in eight weeks. The therapy included 45-minute weekly small group interactions with the dogs, their handlers, and the other participating students. Following the eight weeks, participants in both the treatment group and the non-treatment group completed the survey again.
Participants who completed the eight week program experienced significant reductions in homesickness and a greater increase in satisfaction with life. One student reported that the sessions "felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies." The non-treatment group reported an increase in their feelings of homesickness.
According to Professor John Tyler Binfet., homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university.
UBC student Varenka Kim says that moving to a new city to attend university caused her to feel very homesick and depressed. "I was mainly secluded in my dorm and didn't feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life."
Have time with the puppies is certainly beneficial, but more importantly these sessions gave participants a way to meet and interact with each other, forming lasting relationships that went beyond the therapy program.
Dog's Life: Humane
September 13 2016
Most Make-A-Wish Foundation requests involve traveling to places like Disney World or Paris, or meeting celebrities. But Anna Getner, a sixth-grader at Middlebrook School in Wilton, Conn., had a different dream in mind.
The 11-year-old, who completed an 821-day long treatment regimen for leukemia earlier this year, told Make- A-Wish Connecticut that she wanted to create a puppy playroom at PAWS, her local animal shelter. She had a very specific vision: a place where dogs would feel comfortable and could meet potential adopters in a pleasant setting. Make-A-Wish worked with local business, volunteers and other supporters eager to help make the space a reality.
Anna’s Dog Park was unveiled in February with a party that included Anna, her friends and family, classmates, teachers, and many others. Norwalk mayor Harry Rilling issued a proclamation celebrating Anna’s generosity and kind spirit.
According to Anna, her rescue pup, Franklin, played a big role in her choice of wishes. She wanted all animals at PAWS to find their forever homes and give others as much joy as Franklin has given her.
Pam Keogh, president of Make-A-Wish Connecticut, says that Anna’s request was a first. The chapter has fulfilled 2,500 wishes in the last 30 years, but Keogh doesn’t know of any quite like Anna’s. Local pet food company Blue Buffalo was so inspired by Anna’s selfless decision that it not only helped fund the project, but also announced that it will donate food to PAWS for life.
Mission accomplished: happy rescue pups and, finally, some joy for a girl who has spent way too much time in a hospital.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Researchers try to better understand the condition nicknamed swimmers tail.
September 10 2016
From time to time I hear about friends' dogs who have developed “swimmers tail,” a condition many believe is caused by spending too much time playing in the water. Limber tail as professionals call it, mostly affects larger working dog breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, and results in the tail becoming limp and painful.
A team at the University of Edinburgh wanted to study cases of limber tail in order to understand the habits and lifestyles that might explain why some dogs are affected and others are not. The researchers confirmed that the condition is more likely to show up in working dogs. But not all of the affected dogs had been swimming prior to the onset of symptoms. They did find that dogs with limber tail were more likely to live in northern areas, lending support to anecdotal reports that the condition is associated with exposure to the cold.
Interestingly, Labradors that suffered limber tail were more likely to be related to each other than unaffected dogs, which may indicate an underlying genetic risk.
This was the first large scale study of limber tail. Researchers hope that further studies will look to identify genes associated with the condition, which could help breeders identify animals that are likely to be affected. Overtime, this could help reduce the disease prevalence.
Thankfully limber tail isn't a life threatening condition, but this often causes it to be overlooked and underestimated. Limber tail isn't always reported to veterinarians since symptoms usually resolve themselves within a few days or weeks. However, it's thought to be very painful and distressing for affected pups, so more research is certainly welcome in this area.
Has one of your pups ever been affected by limber tail?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Golden Retriever is rescued nine days after being trapped by an earthquake.
September 8 2016
Two weeks ago, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake devastated parts of Italy, claiming almost 300 lives and leaving thousands without homes. A family in San Lorenzo a Flaviano managed to escape, but couldn't find their Golden Retriever, Romeo. When the earthquake struck, they were sleeping on the second floor of the house and Romeo was downstairs. The family searched for him all day, but assumed the worst after they couldn't locate him. No human survivors have been found since those that were rescued the first day.
Last Friday--nine days later--Romeo's family got quite the surprise. When they came back to their damaged home to retrieve belongings, rescuers heard Romeo barking from under the rubble.
Romeo was a trooper, keeping calm while firefighters worked to free him and then patiently waited while they checked him over. Amazingly Romero was unscathed. Rescuers believe he was saved from being crushed by structural beams above where he was found.
In addition to being saved, there have also been dogs helping with the rescue efforts, such as a Black Labrador named Leo who located an four-year old girl in Pescara del Tronto and a German Shepherd named Sarotti who helped find a ten-year old girl in Amatrice. Leo even got to shake paws with the Pope on Saturday in a meeting with rescue crews.
It's always nice to hear some of the positive stories amid tragedies like these.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Leaving the air conditioner on isn't the magic solution for leaving pets in the car.
September 3 2016
People leaving dogs (and kids) in hot cars has been a heated topic this summer. For those traveling, making the car a comfortable place for pets is a necessity. I've seen lots of solutions, from leaving the air conditioner on to using aluminum shade blankets to deflect the sun. There are also thermometers that monitor a car's temperature from your phone. With all of the media attention on pets in cars, some people that keep the air conditioning on have resorted to posting a sign on their car so well meaning animal lovers don't automatically smash their windows open.
But keeping temperatures cool isn't foolproof. Earlier in the summer an Indiana kennel had 14 dogs die after their truck's air conditioning set-up malfunctioned. And last month, in a more unusual chain of events that were thankfully less tragic, a woman in West Virginia learned that keeping your vehicle on can be problematic. She left her two pups in the car with the engine and air conditioning running while she ran an errand. Meanwhile, the dogs managed to crash the car into a Walmart store. It happened at a slow rate of speed so no people or pups were hurt, and there was minimal damage to the car and building.
It's probably best to leave your pups at home while you're running errands or eating at a restaurant, but for those who don't have a choice, make sure you have a solid plan for keeping your pets cool. And if you leave the engine on, remember to put your car in park!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
August 31 2016
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Detection dogs who didn't make the grade are looking for new homes
August 28 2016
It has long been common practice for service dog organizations to adopt out the pups that didn't meet their high standards, but now the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is instituting a similar program to rehome explosives detection dogs.
The TSA is looking for forever homes for the pups who have either retired or didn't make it through their training program. The dogs typically range in age from two to 10 years old and are usually German Shorthaired Pointers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, or Belgian Malinois.
These explosives detection pups will likely be well trained, but will come with unique challenges. As you can imagine, these working dogs need homes that can continue to provide an active lifestyle. In addition, unlike service dog school drop outs, explosives detection pups aren't used to a home environment because the TSA's dogs live in kennels. There is sure to be a considerable adjustment period, so I hope that the TSA plans on providing some support and guidance during the transition.
There's no adoption fee, but all prospective families must fill out an application and be approved. If applicants meet the requirements, photos and information on the available dogs will be sent and the Adoption Coordinator will help match families with the best pup for their home.
If you're interested in adopting an ex-TSA dog, contact the Adoption Coordinator at AdoptaTSAcanine@OLE.tsa.dhs.gov. This seems like a great program to ensure that these hard working pups live out their retirement days with a loving family.
News: Guest Posts
Pups as a Work Perk
August 23 2016
For dog lovers, being able to bring our pups to work is a huge perk. Most companies don't allow pets in the office, but that is slowly changing. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, seven percent of employers now allow pets to come to work—up from five percent five years ago.
Many companies see this as a way to help with retention and work-life balance at no extra cost. It's often people's favorite perk.
At North Carolina based Replacements Ltd, there are about 30 animals that join their 400 workers on a regular basis. Their policy is probably one of the most liberal—the office has even been visited by a duck, potbellied pig, and possum. Public Relations manager, Lisa Conklin, even hopes to bring in her horse, Azim, one day.
The pets have always been on their best behavior. Although on a number of occasions the human employees have broken the fine dining dishes that Replacements sells, no one can remember an animal ever being responsible for an incident before.
Bringing our pets to work is a fun perk, but it has tangible benefits as well.
In 2012, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Randolph Barker led research that measured levels of cortisol in workers' systems. His team found that people whose animals came to work saw a decrease in stress throughout the day, while those who didn't have a pet saw their cortisol increase. Randolph says that pet friendly companies typically report more coworker cooperation and interaction as well.
But there are some challenges with having a liberal pet policy. Not all animals like being in an office environment and it's up to the individual employee to make the best decision for their pet. There are also other considerations for organizations, such as allergies and finding a building that is pet friendly.
However, provided that a company can make it work logistically, the benefits seem immeasurable!
Dog's Life: Humane
Shelter volunteer treats dogs to an outing and a Starbucks snack.
August 20 2016
There are many "secret" items on Starbucks' menu, including one for dogs called the puppuccino. Now I don't drink coffee, but I have a friend who regularly takes her pup with her to Starbucks and orders a puppuccino along with her regular drink. The item is just a small cup filled with whipped cream, but dogs love it! In Washington, a few lucky shelter pups are being treated to puppuccinos while they wait for their forever homes.
Kitsap Humane Society volunteer Molly Clark had been taking rescue dogs on her local Starbucks visits for some time, but recently it has become an official program. As part of Puppuccino Pals, Molly takes one lucky pup each Tuesday to get a puppuccino. The local Starbucks pitches in by posting signs telling customers about the dog of the week to pique the interest of potential adopters. Molly also posts photos of the outings on the shelter's Instagram account.
"The dogs love the shelter breaks, and they adore the puppuccinos," says Kimberly Cizek Allen, events and outreach assistant coordinator at the Kitsap Humane Society. "You can see it in their little eyes as they lick the whipped cream out of the cup."
Not all dogs love an outing to Starbucks, so Molly will sometimes bring a puppuccino back and treat a pup to whipped cream and some time in the quiet room or play yard. This is such a fun collaboration between a shelter and their local Starbucks.
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