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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.  

 

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog: Chester

What’s your dog’s name and age? Chester, 2 years

Nicknames: Chessy, Bud, Booger Butt and Smiley

Adoption Story:

After starting a search for the perfect pup pal Chester's person headed over to her local shelter. She spotted little Chester in an restricted area and inquired about his history. Turns out he was recently picked up as a stray along with another dog, found alone in a secluded wooded area. Fortunately, Chester became available for adoption that day and his partner had already found a home. After meeting Chester she knew he was the one and they instantly connected!

Chester's Interests:

Chester loves to go hiking, head to the dog park, and play chase with anyone who will follow. Once he's found a ball there's no getting that ball out of his mouth unless you have a treat to swap! His mom says Chester is always smiling and always so happy and can brighten anyone's day.

 

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: Lifestyle
Why Losing a Dog is So Hard
Daily changes and a lack of rituals intensify the struggle

Losing a dog is often every bit as intense as losing a family member or close friend, but I’m confident I don’t have to convince anyone reading this of that fact. Instead, I’d like to discuss two of the reasons why that is so.

One issue is that our dogs affect our daily life in ways that few of our friends or family members do. We live with our dogs, and that impacts so many little details of our days—when we wake up, our exercise patterns, our rush home after work, what we buy, and who we have over—to name a few. As much as we love our dearest friends and family members, only a small percentage of them are integral parts of our daily lives. That particular form of closeness explains why many recent widows find the grocery store such a source of misery. It’s hard to go on such a common errand and NOT buy the items that have filled the cart for years or even half a century. After the death of a dog, when the morning routine varies and there are no more walks after work with our best friend, so many simple moments carry a similar reminder of loss.

A second issue is the lack of social customs to help us mourn publicly and to ease us into the next phase of life. There are typically no funerals, no religious ceremonies, no obituaries and no organized assistance from the community to acknowledge the solemnity of the event. Our sacred rituals lag behind the new understanding of the place that dogs have in our lives and in our hearts. The lack of these predictable, shared cultural responses can make it harder to move on.

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than suffering through the death of a child or of an identical twin, but for many people, the grief of losing a dog has the potential to be as bad as for any other loss. As that becomes more widely accepted in society, it is easier for people to cope with the loss of a dog. The acceptance that our bonds with dogs are intensely strong lessens the shame and embarrassment many associate with grieving for a dog. In an environment in which nobody would even think of uttering that horrid phrase “just a dog”, it would be easier to go through the natural grieving process and move forward.

Loving our dogs as much as we love our friends and family does not diminish the love we have for members of our own species. It just illustrates that the realm of humanity is too small to contain the greatness of our love for others.

Have you grieved for dogs like you have grieved for people?

News: Guest Posts
Peeing on the Leash or on Other Dogs
Is your dog guilty of either offense?

Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.

They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.

Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?

Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.

Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.

I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.

Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pink and Blue Accessories
Another way we treat our dogs like our children

We all know that it has become common for people to consider their dogs to be like their children. They are often referred to as “fur babies” or “four-legged kids”. Among the many signs of that are the colors of dogs’ accessories. Leashes, collars and tags are far more likely to be pink for females and blue for males than ever before. Long gone are the days where most dogs wore a basic brown collar with a matching leash, or the era after that when primary colors were common for dogs of both sexes.

There have been many color changes for human babies’ clothes and accessories. The current pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys code is less than 100 years old.) It’s no surprise that the colors we choose for our dogs has a fluidity to it as well.

Now, many guardians pamper their pooches with a variety of accessories in their gender-specific color. I was recently taking care of my good buddies Marley (male) and Saylor (female) and noticed that they have leashes and tags in their gender-indicating color. (They both wear navy blue Penn State colors because their guardian is a proud alumna of that university. The color says nothing about trends in gender-specific accessories for dogs, and everything about the great pride of the Nittany Lions.)

The color that a dog wears may seem like a small thing, but it represents a shift in the way people view dogs. Choosing pink for female dogs and blue for male dogs is another way that we acknowledge the role that dogs play in our lives, and it goes beyond leashes, tags and collars. The interest in blue and pink accessories extends to bowls, blankets, dog beds, toys, clothing, and everything else we buy for our dogs.

Are your dog’s accessories blue or pink because of gender?

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dog: Steve

What’s your dog’s name and age? Steve, 7 years

Adoption Story:

Found walking along the street with another dog in Ft. Worth, Texas he was picked up by a good Samaritan. After effort to locate an owner failed, Steve's fate seemed doomed to the animal shelter. The rescuer called up his friend thinking he and Steve might be a good fit and upon meeting they were instantly best friends. 

Steve's Interests:

Steve loves scratches behind the ear, eating chicken and the song "Free Bird".  When Steve isn't grooving to the music, he can be found hanging out with his best pal Snickers the beagle or snuggling with his people. He is an unparalleled hugger.

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!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Fooling People But Not Dogs
A study of the Delboeuf illusion

Visual illusions reveal the inner working of the eyes and of the brain, and when used in comparative studies, they can teach us a lot about the differences and similarities in vision and neurological processing between species. A common research approach involves using illusions that affect perception of size and investigating whether the illusions affect choice. Allowing research subjects to choose between various options can elucidate the illusions’ effects on members of various species.

One such illusion is the Delboeuf illusion, which causes identically sized objects to appear different in size depending on what surrounds them. In the image below with dark circles of identical size, humans (and other primates) tend to overestimate the size of the circle on the left, which is surrounded by a ring that is smaller than the ring around the circle on the right.

In practice, this is the reason that people seeking to eat smaller portions of food are advised to use a smaller plate. That makes it appear as though there is more food on that plate than when the same portion is served on a larger plate. Can dogs who are watching their figures make use of this same tactic? In other words, are dogs also susceptible to the Delboeuf illusion? The answer is no, according to a study in Animal Cognition called “Do domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) perceive the Delboeuf illusion?”

In the study, one set of trials tested whether dogs could correctly choose larger portions of food over smaller ones. Dogs were given a choice between two piles of biscuits on plates—one pile of biscuits weighed 18 grams and the other weighed 32 grams. Once dogs chose to go for one plate, the other one was picked up and no longer available. Sometimes both portions of food were on small plates, and sometimes both were on big plates. Each dog was offered this choice multiple times. Pooling the date into one big analysis, dogs consistently chose the bigger pile of biscuits.

In another series of trials, dogs were offered a choice between equal portions of food that were presented on different size plates. The dogs had to choose between 32 grams of food on a large plate and 32 grams of food on a small plate. If dogs are susceptible to the Delboeuf illusion, the expectation is that they would choose the smaller plate even though the quantity of food was identical on both plates. Instead, dogs’ choices were no different than if they picked a plate at random with no reference to its size. They were not significantly more likely to choose the large plate or the small plate, providing evidence that the Delboeuf illusion does not affect dogs the way that it affects humans. Dogs are not fooled by the size of the plate.

News: Editors
Leasing a Dog Is a Really Bad Idea
Leasing Golden Retriever Puppies Is a Bad Idea

We heard about an intriguing (and alarming) Bloomberg story over the weekend on NPR’s Marketplace Money program. When asked about predictions for what the guests are “long or short" on, reporter Gillian White said that she was “long” on the financial sector behind “dog leasing.” She was reporting on a piece from Bloomberg about dubious loan scheme operations, such as leasing a dog. In the Bloomberg piece, “I’m Renting a Dog?” Patrick Clark reports about Wags Lending LLC, a California-based firm, that provides leasing options for people who want to buy expensive pet store dogs.

In one of the examples he cites a couple in San Diego purchased a Golden Retriever pup for $2,400, agreeing to pay for the dog with 34 monthly payments of $165.06, bringing the true cost to be $5,800. As White noted that this kind of “leasing operation, taps into the growing trend of consumers who want things but who don’t necessary want to own things.” Added to that is the wish for instant gratification and the fact that most people don’t take the time to read the fine print on things especially when making emotional purchases, like “buying” a dog. Simple fact, many people just want what they want when they want it. And because these leasing companies aren’t subject to the same kind of regulations as loans or even credit cards are, they are able to charge really high interest rates, which range from about 36 percent to 170 percent on an annualized basis! And if you renege of the payment schedule, they are repossess the dog, that's right, they can take the rental dog back. Bristlecone Holding LLC, the company behind this Wags Lending scheme, leases things like furniture, wedding dresses and hearing aids, and the list is growing—but it all started with the dogs. The mission statement from the aptly named, Dusty Wunderlich the CEO behind these companies notes that he is “living in a Postmodern culture while maintaining my old American West roots and Christian values.” Heavens, we need Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s attention on this one fast. Amazing that they can get away with this. Wunderlich also adds that, “We like niches where we’re dealing with emotional borrowers.” Such as those who are staring into the eyes of a pet shop puppy, obviously.

The idea behind Wags Lending came about in 2013, and as the Bloomberg article notes, when Wunderlich “recruited a former hedge fund salesman named Kyle Ferguson as co-founder and launched Wags Lending, thinking dog leases would mark just the first step in a vertically integrated pet-financing company that would eventually include food deliveries, chew-toy subscriptions, and veterinary loans. Then their point-of-sale lease financing became a hit, and they decided to double down on it.” So beware if you happen to stumble upon any of their other “too good to be true” plans! We are seeing more and more of these “point-of-sale” options in the pet sector, especially at vet offices.

So the lesson behind this is a simple one, first of all, do NOT ever ever buy dogs at pet stores, there are many reasons, besides shady lending schemes to not buy a pet shop dog, including that most of those dogs are supplied to pet stores come from puppy mills and buying such dogs only supports those horrible businesses. But even more importantly, there are many wonderful dogs at shelters or with rescue groups and every dog that is purchased at a pet store means another dog just might be euthanized to make room for another dog. That constant intake flow has to stop. Again, read the small print and know what you are getting yourself into before signing up for any of these leasing products. See the Bloomberg piece for the whole story.

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