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News: Editors
Dogs Take Over the Pilot Seat

Mark Vette, an animal behaviorist from New Zealand, who made a splash a few years back by training dogs to drive cars, has taken his skills to a new height and has now successfully trained dogs to not just co-pilot, but to actually pilot planes. As with his driving “dare” he has taken on this newest challenge to promote the talents and adoptability of shelter dogs, certainly a noble cause. You have to watch this video to see how successful, he and his team of trainers, were. From what this well-edited clip shows, the dogs too seem to like getting behind the throttle and definitely soared to new heights.

The dogs went through a four-month training period, and as the final episode of Dogs Might Fly, that aired in UK on Sky-1 television, you can see just how well they performed and maneuvered the plane to even make perfect figure eights up in the air.

The three dogs were first trained on flight simulators and harnesses kept them sitting upright so they could “paw” unto the plane controls. Vette said that he was very careful that the three would-be pilot dogs were happy with what they were doing and that their welfare was his highest priority. The dogs were trained to respond to color lights. As Vette commented that, “Most importantly, this exercise has proven that shelter dogs are not secondhand goods.” He added that “They are smart and deserve a chance at life.” 

He himself adopted one of the pilot dogs as the show ended (the one shown here at the controls), and I can’t imagine that the other two weren't also snatched up. Diane D., a reader drew this to our attention today, and thankful that she did.

 

News: Karen B. London
Toddler Has a Canine Chauffeur
Modern fun for a boy and his dog

I’m not old enough to remember when the only toy a boy and his dog had was a stick, but I’m sure old enough to be impressed by a remote control car that carries both of them around! In this video of a toddler and a dog in a car, it appears as though the dog is fully in control of the vehicle. At first viewing, I found that a bit unsettling, even with a trustworthy dog. I realized later that the mom (offscreen) controls the acceleration and braking as well as the right turns. The dog is turning the car to the left, though, with some remarkable paw control.

Besides being entertaining, this video has some nice qualities to it. I like how calm the dog is throughout the video and the sweet, gentle way that the boy pets his dog at about 20 seconds. I couldn’t help but smile at the way the dog looks around like he is watching the road. Responsible drivers of any species deserve a pat on the back, or in this case, a belly rub! I also like the way the mom responds instantly when the boy wants to stop. The moment he requests it, the car comes to a halt. She’s wise to avoid a situation in which either the dog or the child is unhappy.

Not every dog has the ability to be comfortable or calm enough to keep this activity safe and fun. Would your dog be able to handle it?

News: JoAnna Lou
Increase in Attacks on Guide Dogs
Service dogs' faithfulness can also make them vulnerable.

Service dogs spend their days dedicated to their people, so intensely focused on their every need. This faithfulness also makes them especially vulnerable.

A study recently published in the journal Veterinary Record found that the number of reported dog attacks on guide dogs in the United Kingdom has risen significantly in the past few years. A total of 629 attacks were reported between 2010 and 2015, an increase from an average of three per month in 2010 to eleven attacks per month in 2015.

The study was a collaboration between researchers from the Guide Dogs charity and the University of Nottingham. They aren't sure if the numbers reflect higher levels of reporting or an actual trend, but nonetheless they want to better understand the problem.

55 percent of the victim dogs were officially working in their harnesses when attacked, but the incidents weren't always unprovoked.

More than a quarter of the attacks were attributed to a lack of control, even though both owners were present in 77 percent of the incidents. This led researchers to believe that many of the attacks could've been prevented if the aggressor dog was put on leash when the owner saw the guide dog in their working harness. While the causes and circumstances of the attacks varied, this seems like a simple solution.

As you can imagine these attacks have a significant effect on the guide dogs and those who rely on them for mobility and independence. Over 40 percent of the attacked pups experienced a negative impact on working ability. And 70 percent of the dog handlers reported an affect on their emotional well being.

In 2014, attacks on guide dogs became an aggravated offense in the U.K., punishable with sentences of up to three years for the attacking dog's owner. Between this new law and awareness, the Guide Dogs and the University of Nottingham hope the numbers will begin to swing in the opposite direction.

News: Karen B. London
Disappearing Treats
Dogs react to magic

Magician Jose Ahonen made treats disappear right in front of dogs’ noses. When I watched videos of his work, I saw dogs who understood that a treat had been there and that it MUST still be nearby. Their reactions made it clear that they knew the treat had gone missing.

One common response was for the dogs to look down at the ground as though the treat had fallen. A fallen treat is probably a familiar experience for most dogs, so they were using a search strategy that had worked in the past. Many of the dogs began to sniff and investigate the immediate area. Another frequent reaction was to look at Jose or in the direction of the camera, where perhaps the guardian and a camera operator were. Many dogs look to people for information or for help when they are confused. I see this in training or when a toy has rolled somewhere inaccessible, so it was not surprising that dogs who were puzzled about the location of the treat did this. A number of dogs pawed at Jose’s hands, which is such a common response to a closed fist around a treat that I’ve used it many times as part of training a dog to “Shake” or “High-5”.

The most interesting aspect of the video is that dogs in it appear to show object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. Object permanence is considered a major milestone in human development. Many children have been tested—an experimenter hides a toy while the child is watching and then observes whether the child can find it. Most children show object permanence by the age of one year. A lot of dogs have shown object permanence in scientific studies, but it is not universal in the species.

The magic tricks with dogs in these videos were for entertainment and are not controlled experiments. The smell of treats was still present, so that could have tipped the dogs off that the treats still existed. Their actions are certainly not conclusive evidence that dogs are cognitively capable of object permanence, but they are still suggestive of it.

I wish I could see a longer clip of each dog because I’m curious how much time they spent searching and whether they showed increasing frustration. It was a relief to realize that each dog was given a treat before and after the disappearing trick, which I would imagine lessened any distress about the missing treat. For some of the dogs, the most distressing part may have been the laughter of the people observing. I think dogs can tell when they are being laughed at, and it bothers me. Still, it's really hard not to laugh when you watch this (I know I did!), so I can hardly blame people for that.

How do you think your dog would react to a magician making a treat disappear?

News: JoAnna Lou
Evacuating Dogs on a Plane
WestJet allows dogs to sit in the cabin while transporting displaced Fort McMurray residents.

As wildfires spread in Fort McMurray, Canada, about 88,000 people have left the area after a mandatory evacuation. Calgary based airline WestJet played a key role in getting evacuees out of the oil sands community, running about 70 flights in and out over the last two days. Their participation is part of an existing relationship with Suncor and Shell, so it had the benefit of being privately funded (as opposed to other aspects of the evacuation). These flights have been particularly unique, not only because of the circumstances, but because of the canine passengers. Many of the evacuees left so quickly they didn't bring a kennel for their pups, meaning most four legged passengers couldn't fly in cargo. So WestJet allowed people to travel with their dogs sitting on the floor next to their seat.

Evacuees posted photos of their flying pups on Instagram, and it seems like, despite the cramped conditions, all of the dogs managed to get along. I'm sure having these pups in the cabin was comforting to the many stressed passengers. All of their possessions may be gone, but at least they had their entire family with them--both human and canine. 

Not all dogs were as lucky as the WestJet canines. Some pets were stuck at home as their owners were out of town when the evacuation order was put in place or at work while roads were closed off. McMurray Fire Emergency Animal Assistance set up an online form for people to report stranded pets, but there aren't any official rescue plans in place yet. Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society is coordinating grassroots rescue efforts. To help out, visit their Facebook page.

It seems after every disaster we say there needs to be better planning that involves pets. We know that people will refuse to evacuate or move into a shelter without their pets, so it's extremely important that we put this type of support in place.

 

News: Karen B. London
A Dog in the Lap
Feel the weight, feel the love

Sometimes people acquire a lap dog on purpose, choosing with great care a dog who is small, cuddly and loves to sit with people. Other times, an unintended lap dog, particularly a large one, brings to mind that famous comment referring to software: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” That is, you can consider it a problem or you can accept that it is just part of the system.

There are a lot of perks of living with a lap dog. You always feel loved, you certainly feel warm, and there is no possibility of being lonely. Many dogs love lap sitting, happily taking advantage of any opportunity to sit on people as they enjoy a cup of coffee, do a little yoga or attempt to watch a movie. There are many reasons why dogs choose to be so physically close to us that they are literally on top of us.

Some are social and friendly without boundaries, while others are a bit clingy because they are insecure. Some are fearful and seek comfort in physical contact but others simply don’t want to miss out and seem to be in a constant state of asking, “What’s up guys? What are we going to do now?” I believe there are dogs who are heat-seeking missiles and love to share body heat regardless of the weather. We could argue that all lap sitting stems from loving us and feeling comfortable and happy when they are with us. Whatever the reason, it’s a very cozy feeling to have a dog in your lap, especially when the dog is clearly so content to be there.

On the other hand, having a dog in your lap can be problematic, especially if the dog is bigger than your lap. It can be hard to work at your computer, eat your breakfast, repair your glasses or perform any number of tasks when the movement of your arms is impaired and all you see is fur. It may also mean that you remain in place when you really should get up. I have personally continued to sit with a dog in my lap because it made me so happy even though both legs had fallen asleep or I had to use the bathroom so urgently that I was really pressing my luck.

The term “lap dog” may imply that a dog is small, but I’ve had dogs ranging from six pounds to well over 100 pounds consider my lap the perfect seat. Size has less to do with being a lap dog than a dog’s inclination to be snuggly and affectionate in this particular way. A small gentle lap dog can make me happy because it’s so endearing to have one settle in with me. The humorous joy of having a dog who is nearly my size choose my lap as a resting place can make me just as happy. There is something vaguely ridiculous, but no less loving, about such a large dog considering my lap to be the best spot in the house, even when there is clearly not enough room for their entire body.

It’s not always convenient or completely comfortable, but the warm, cozy weight of a loving dog in your lap is one of life’s great joys. Do you have a lap dog?

News: Editors
Are Some Dogs Hardwired to Overeat?

Researchers at Cambridge University looked at Labrador Retrievers (the most popular breed in the U.S. and the UK) to assess why that breed is more prone to obesity than other breeds. Their findings, recently published in the journal Cell Metabolism, point to a possible genetic reason behind this.

“About a quarter of pet Labradors carry this gene [difference],” lead researcher Dr. Eleanor Raffan noted. “Although obesity is the consequence of eating more than you need and more than you burn off in exercise, actually there’s some real hard-wired biology behind our drive to eat,” she added. Labs have the greatest documented obesity prevalence.

More than 300 Labradors, from pets to assistance dogs, were screened for known obesity genes in the study. The international team found that a change in a gene known as POMC was strongly linked with weight, obesity and appetite in both Labradors and Flat-Coated Retrievers.

Other breeds—from the Shih Tzu to the Great Dane—were also screened, but this particular genetic difference was not found.

Dr. Giles Yeo, was one of the human geneticists from the University of Cambridge, who worked on the study. “What we have found is that some Labradors get fat because they have a deletion in a gene within their brain,” he said.

“And this particular gene plays a role in sensing how much fat they have in their body—and so some Labradors don’t know how much fat they have and so keep eating to try to get fatter.”

Researchers also found that the mutation is significantly more common in Labradors selected to become assistance dog breeding stock than those selected to be companions.

It is certainly intriguing why assistance Labs are more prone to be carrying this gene deletion, but as they hypothesized, dogs carrying the POMC deletion may be more likely to be selected as for work as assistance dogs because trainability and temperament are the main “drivers for selection of these dogs, and positive reinforcement with food reward is the mainstay of puppy training.”

 

News: JoAnna Lou
Pets and Homeless Youth
Study finds both benefits and challenges for homeless youth and their dogs.
There's no question that having a dog in your life has many benefits. And it's been confirmed again in a new study that looked at homeless youth and their pets. Researchers from Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) found that young people with animals are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behavior, like alcohol abuse and hard drug use, because they don't want to be separated from their pets. They were also less likely to be depressed than their counterparts without animals.

But what was really interesting was that the researchers found many youth are extremely open to discussing their struggles and issues with veterinarians. This is an important connection considering many of them have lost trust in people. I think the unconditional love they've gotten through their pets helps make this relationship possible.

However, amid the benefits, there are also struggles associated with having a pet while homeless. Many shelters don't allow pets, so these people may be limited in where they can sleep. Avoiding homeless shelters also means less access healthcare and addiction treatment services.

Michelle Lem the lead researcher and founder of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), a volunteer group providing mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Canada, hopes that this study will highlight the need for pet friendly homeless shelters and show the value pets bring to these marginalized groups.

News: Guest Posts
App Review: Dog Food Hazards
Quick access to list of foods our pups should avoid.

Although we're inundated with apps these days some information is worth carrying around with us for quick access. The newly released Dog: Food Hazards app (android, free) is a very simple app dedicated to one topic, as you might have guessed, hazardous foods dogs should avoid.

Featuring a simplified layout for quick navigation, one can refresh their knowledge of dangerous foods for dogs and get information on symptoms caused by each featured food type. As a bonus they’ve prominently placed access to ASPCA’s pet poison hotline so it is quickly accessible too.

Unfortunately, the list of food hazards is limited, so it may not be helpful for people looking to delve deeply into the topic. While Dog: Food Hazards is a fairly barebones app, we enjoy the peace of mind that comes with its ease of access to information that every dog owner should know.

News: Karen B. London
How Do Dogs Feel About Hugs?
The short answer is that it depends
Girl hugs uneasy dog

Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.

Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”

Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.

Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)

Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.

His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.

Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.

Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.

His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.

That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.

Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.

How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.

When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.

I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.

I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.

The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.

What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?

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