work of dogs
News: Editors
Cheetah Cub and Rescue Pup BFF

Meet Kumbali, the cheetah cub, and his new bro, Kago, a rescue Lab mix. You have to see this charming video from the Metro Richmond (VA) zoo about their story. Kumbali was removed from his mother to be hand-raised when he wasn’t showing any weight gain in his first couple of weeks of life.

He was thriving living with his keeper, but missed companionship, so they got him a pup from a local rescue group. The two young animals bonded almost instantly. And now are, according to their handlers, like devoted brothers. It seems that cheetahs in the wild have a more “flight” than a fight response, but they are also very social animals. As the video says, “in the wild they form coalitions with their brothers.”

So it makes the cross-species friendships with dogs, much easier than it would be with other wild cats. These cheetah-dog pairings in captivity has been happening for over 30 years.

Kumbali and Kago are perfect examples of how well this has worked. Kago provides a calming influence on the young cheetah, because dogs are less fearful than cats and “embrace” the new with more confidence, something that Kumbali picks up on too. You can see why the two have become inseparable.


News: Guest Posts
Case to Protect ADA Rights
A little girl and her service dog vs a school board

The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday against a public school district in upstate New York for refusing to permit a student with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless the family pays for a dog handler to accompany the pair.

The lawsuit alleges that the Gates-Chili Central School District in Monroe County, NY, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a public entity must permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, except under specific exceptions.

The child at the center of this debate, Devyn Pereira, 8, was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare disorder that results in developmental delays, seizures and autism. Her mother, Heather Pereira, a single mother of two, spent more than a year raising the $16,000 for Hannah, a 109-pound white Bouvier trained to perform numerous tasks for Devyn, including alerting school staff to oncoming seizures, preventing Devyn from wandering or running away, and providing support so she can walk independently. 

Pereira, has spent three years trying to convince school officials to allow her daughter’s one-on-one school aide to provide periodic assistance in handling Hannah—primarily, tethering the service dog and issuing limited verbal commands. The dog is trained to last the school day without food, water or bathroom walks.

The lawsuit requests the school district permit Devyn to act as the handler of her service dog, with assistance from school staff. It also seeks compensatory damages of about $25,000 for Pereira for the ongoing cost of the dog handler.  

Announcing the suit this week, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “Honoring an individual’s choice to be accompanied by her service animal in all aspects of community life, including at school, promotes the ADA’s overarching goals of ensuring equal opportunity for, and full participation by, persons with disabilities.” In hearing the news of the department’s decision, Pereira responded, “knowing the United States of America is not only sympathizing with our situation, but willing to take this all way to the top to fix it is an amazing feeling.” And she added, “I have so many dreams for my little girl and with the DOJ’s help, they are all within our reach. It is so exciting to think we are blazing a trail for all those that follow with service dogs.”

For more information about this lawsuit, or the ADA, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800.514.0301 or800.514.0383 (TDD) or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov.  Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.




News: Editors
Detection Dogs: Prostate Cancer

It looks like we soon may be able to chalk up another win for the power of the canine nose.

In a recent UK National Health Service (NHS) preliminary study, trained dogs were able to sniff out prostate cancer 9 out of 10 times, making them a more accurate predictor than the standard (but controversial) Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) screening test, which has a high "false positive" rate. 

For men of a certain age, the prostate goes from a background to a foreground worry. The walnut-sized gland circles the neck of the male bladder, and when it starts causing problems, there can be a number of reasons. The most serious is cancer. To arrive at a definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy, which--like any surgery--comes with its own risks. And this is why the "false positive" rate matters: in order to make a decision to go ahead with a biopsy, a man needs to have a pretty good idea that it's needed. The more accurate the screening, the fewer unnecessary biopsies.

Based on the success of the preliminary study, the NHS has recently authorized clinical trials to more definitively test the canine ability to identify prostate cancer. Dogs trained by the group Medical Detection Dogs will be taking part in the upcoming trials. This group, co-founded by by Dr. Claire Guest, was among those profiled in Barbara Robertson's Wonder Dogs article; click on over to read more about it.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Training Working Dogs
A look at an innovative dog training program at University of Pennsylvania

A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.

After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.

Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.

Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.

Good Timing

Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.

Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.

Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)

In November 2012, Stade’s dog Burana whelped; Ronnie was the fifth of nine males. As she does with every new litter, Stade conducted what she calls “the matching game”: figuring out which dog is best suited for a prospective owner. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she says. Stade observes the puppies’ behavior from birth and presents them with challenges, such as a variety of loud noises, to see how they respond—who gives up, who perseveres, who looks to a human to solve the problem, who whines.

After she’d narrowed down the choice to three dogs, Stade and her husband took Burana and the puppies to a park that was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their farm, an adventure they hoped would help her make the final decision. “I had the brilliant idea of putting them in the back of a horse trailer,” she says ruefully.

Stade rode in the back with the dogs and all of their equipment, but she quickly discovered that without a horse’s weight, the trailer and everything inside bounced. “It was a far more extreme test than I ever would have done intentionally. I never want to put puppies in a situation where they question or doubt themselves.”

Ronnie, still unnamed, was identified only by his yellow collar. While his red-collared and blue-collared brothers reacted to the sounds and movement by becoming angry or anxious, Ronnie took in his surroundings and then promptly curled up and drifted off to sleep. Ronnie wasn’t just an intrepid traveler—he seemed to be unflappable.

In late January 2013, the time came for Ronnie to leave Stade’s farm for his life in Philadelphia. By then, however, the cold weather made it risky to ship him in a plane’s cargo hold. The center needed a volunteer to carry Ronnie on the flight. But there was another complication: Stade likes to keep her puppies well fed just before placement so they have some extra padding to help them adjust to the stress of their new surroundings.

“Ronnie was really fat,” she confesses. In fact, he was eight weeks old and weighed 29 pounds. Would he even fit under the seat of a plane? There was only one solution. David Lee, now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, was unlikely to be challenged if there were difficulties during the flight. He volunteered to fly to Kansas and bring Ronnie to Philadelphia.

Lee recalled seeing the Buddha-shaped Ronnie for the first time: “He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed … just a ball of fire.” While playing tug with Ronnie, Lee instantly fell for his charms, but wondered what he’d be like on the plane. Lee had yet to discover that Ronnie didn’t just resemble Buddha—he possessed his enlightened detachment, too. On the flight, Ronnie didn’t flinch, whine or bark. He just sat on Lee’s lap. When Lee put Ronnie on the adjacent seat, he looked around, lay down and slept.

After arriving in Philadelphia, Lee was able to spend some time with Ronnie. He took him everywhere—to a warehouse, to the beach, down stairs. “Nothing fazed him,” Lee remembers. “He was a great dog even then.”

Trained for Excellence

School is a full-time affair at the Working Dog Center. After being dropped off each weekday morning before 9 am, the puppies spend the day at the center until their foster families pick them up sometime between 5 and 7 pm. The dogs are trained on-site, and their daily training regimens are tracked on a master board. All areas must be covered in a predetermined rotation, but obedience training takes place every day, if only while the dogs are being taken outdoors.

In addition to several indoor training areas, the center has a dedicated outdoor agility course and a rubble pile. They use a nearby vacant warehouse for search training. Regular field trips expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. Destinations include local warehouses, airport terminals, the Philadelphia subways and the rubble pile, which is in New Jersey.

Dogs are grouped according to age so those with a similar skill level can go through a particular training scenario together, but they’re never held back because of their age. Each dog has to master basic scenarios before moving on to those that are more complex. Depending on how many staff members are available, the dogs go through two or three scenarios per day.

Search training, part of which involves finding a volunteer in an empty barrel on the agility course, is probably the most fun to watch—it’s like a really elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Or, one of the puppies might be let loose inside the empty warehouse to find a tug toy. The reward in either case is a well-earned game of tug and a wagging tail. “It’s a game, making it fun for them,” says Training Director DeAngelo.

Regardless of the setup, logistics matter. The dogs need to be transported to training destinations in crates, but the center’s cargo van cannot carry them all, so staff vehicles usually join the caravan. Each puppy also needs his or her own handler during training. Many of the handlers are volunteers or interns, and every attempt is made to pair a dog with the same handler as often as possible. In addition to the director of training, the center has two full-time and three part-time trainers. The part-time trainers have dedicated areas of expertise: agility, obedience and reactivity. When they’re not training, the dogs rest in their crates or are taken for walks, often to Penn’s main campus, where they play and socialize with students.

Otto estimates the costs of raising and training each dog to be $36,000. Penn’s vet school provides their health care, and various companies donate food and other supplies (foster families incur no expenses). In Ronnie’s case, the Wawa convenience store chain made a donation to the center to support his care. Such contributions are crucial, as the center depends entirely on donations for its operating budget.

Job Assignment

Perhaps the most challenging fields for a detection dog are law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR). A major difference is that there are periods of inactivity in SAR work, but law-enforcement dogs work almost daily. “Ronnie can do anything,” declares Otto, and that seems to be the consensus of opinion among those who’ve come in contact with him. “He’s an awesome work dog,” says DeAngelo. David Lee goes further: “I’d love to be his handler. He’s the most laid-back dog I have ever worked with. The only thing that I would fear is if he did something that bored him. As long as it’s fun, that dog will work for days. He’s just that good.”

Initially, Otto was hesitant about placing the center’s dogs in law enforcement because that would require training them in bite work, a key component of criminal apprehension. Introducing an aggressive behavior has to be done carefully to avoid having it affect the dog’s personality. Nevertheless, when the police department of Philadelphia’s mass transit authority, known as SEPTA, announced that it was expanding its canine unit, Otto carefully considered the opportunity.

Ronnie had the chance to prove himself at SEPTA’s 2013 Iron Dog Challenge, an annual fundraiser in which teams of working dogs and their handlers compete in a specially designed course of more than 25 challenges, which include having the dog jump through a window, demonstrate nonreactivity to a gun shot, be carried uphill and placed over a barrier, complete a low crawl, and criminal apprehension. For Ronnie to compete, he had to be trained to bite on command.

Fortunately, one of the center’s volunteers is Bob Dougherty, a certified law enforcement canine trainer who is also a member of the Cheltenham, Penn., police K9 unit. Dougherty worked with Ronnie over several months of accelerated training that included more directed searching and tracking and the subtle work of teaching the bite-on-command behavior.

According to Dougherty, the key is to manage stress so that the dog never feels a pressure to perform, and training remains a game. Dougherty’s goal is to find a balance between achieving results from the dog and maintaining the dog’s happiness, so that the next time, the dog is even more eager to practice biting. “Ronnie is such an easy dog to work with,” says Dougherty. “All the foundation work was done so well. It wasn’t difficult at all.”

Although Ronnie didn’t place at the Iron Dog competition, he did well enough against the more than two dozen teams of certified working dogs and handlers that SEPTA officials took notice. Since 2005, SEPTA had been rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be canine officers. In January 2014, Ronnie and one of his classmates became the first dogs SEPTA purchased. With the help of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the group paid $8,000 for him.

Ronnie now lives with his handler, Officer Javier Class. Class is new to the canine unit, but has been around dogs all his life and always knew he wanted a canine partner. Nevertheless, when he met Ronnie, he was taken aback by the Shepherd’s size. Ronnie weighs100 pounds, and Class says it occurred to him that he might not be able to handle the dog. Class’s moment of doubt quickly disappeared as he and Ronnie bonded.

The two fulfill the principle of opposites attracting: whereas Class has plenty of patience, Ronnie is so eager to work that SEPTA’s head trainer, Officer Dave Parke, has instituted what he calls the “30-second rule”: he has to explain every new concept in 30 seconds so that Ronnie can get to work. Otherwise, the dog barks impatiently. When Ronnie is home with Class, his wife and two children, however, he’s a different dog. Class attributes this to the home environment that Von Elm and Auggie gave Ronnie in his first year.

Ronnie will almost certainly spend the rest of his life with Class and his family, even after he grows too old for active duty (something that’s difficult to imagine today). Barring injury or illness, Ronnie will work until he’s nine or 10, which is about the point at which dogs begin to lose their stamina for the rigors of scent work. For now, Ronnie’s most definitely on the job, and when he’s not, he spends a lot of time with his new best friend, Class’s six-year-old daughter. Their favorite game? Hide-and-seek, of course.

News: Editors
No Hiding from the Search Dogs
Escapees try to throw tracking dogs off scent

Once those escaped killers, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were caught in northern New York, people were wondering why it took the authorities three weeks to track them down. Police dogs had soon after the escape caught their scent only three miles from the prison. Nonetheless there was chatter online that perhaps Matt and Sweat had used a trick of sprinkling pepper in their tracks to confuse the dogs. It was thought, that the fugitives might have been inspired by “Cool Hand Luke.” In this movie Paul Newman brings some “chili powder and pepper and curry and the like” with him when he made his escape. In the movie the ruse worked and threw Bloodhounds off and they ended up sneezing and rubbing their noses. But could this really happen? The New York Times consulted with Alexandra Horowitz, canine cognitive researcher, about the likelihood of this being effective and she thought it was “extremely” unlikely because, as she explained:

That when people move “they slough off dead skin cells, and the scent from those cells lingers both in the air and on the ground.” Dogs, even those who seem to have their noses close to the ground like Bloodhounds, can “air scent” too and as Horowitz explained “there is no way that people can erase the olfactory information that they are leaving.”

Nonetheless, it’s good to note the dogs did their job when they were the first in the team to alert that the convicts were making their way on foot. They also proved to be key members of the long manhunt by helping the authorities to narrow the field—with or without the pepper. 

News: Editors
Organ Donation Ad Wins Hearts
The dog-human bond stars
The FATH (Fundación Argentina de Trasplante Hepático) and DDB Argentina present “The man and the dog”, a story of friendship that seeks to inspire people to become organ donors.

This has got to be one of the most touching PSAs of all times—speaking volumes for the enduring connection between dogs and people. The video, “The Man & The Dog,” was developed by the agency DDB Argentina for FATH (Fundación Argentina de Trasplante Hepático) an organ donation program in that country, and in only 90-seconds itells the moving story of the bond that all dog people can readily understand. See what you think, and be ready to shed a tear or two at the emotional, uplifting ending. Understandably it has become a viral sensation.


News: Editors
Search and Rescue Teams from the U.S. Deployed to Nepal

Making up part of the  U.S. contingent that were deployed to Nepal on Sunday night were these six dogs and their handlers from the Search Dog Foundation from Ojai, California. The dogs and their humans will assist in rescue and recovery efforts in that earthquake stricken country. The six teams from the SDF are part of that amazing organization’s canine-firefighter volunteers who have assisted in numerous international and national recovery efforts since their founding.

Established almost twenty years ago by Wilma Melville, a retired schoolteacher from New Jersey, who  with her Lab Murphy, in 1995 was one of the only 15 Advanced Certified teams in the entire U.S. who worked at the bombed Oklahoma City Federal Building. That experience gave Melville the “determination to find a better way to create highly skilled canine search teams,” so she established SDF the following year in 1996.

SDF is the only non-profit in the U.S. dedicated to finding and training rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters. They recruit dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, then provide the dogs with professional training, and match them with firefighters and other first responders who then go on to find people trapped in the wreckage following disasters. They go to great lengths to find canines with the exceptional characteristics required in a search dog: intense drive, athleticism, energy and focus. The traits that can often make dogs unsuitable as family pets and land them in a shelter—intense energy and extreme drive—are exactly the qualities required in a search dog. SDF offers these talented animals what they crave: a job! The dogs (primarily Labs, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and mixes) are recruited from animal shelters and rescue groups throughout the Western states—some just hours away from being euthanized. A happy ending for all… as these dogs are transformed from rescued to rescuer. The teams are provided at no cost to fire departments or taxpayers, and with no government funding.  Do think of donating to this worthwhile organization so they can continue in their mission to help disaster victims.

Watch the video to see the teams walking up to their  plane. We wish them, and the people of Nepal well.




Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Animal-Assisted Therapy
Do sick children benefit?
Bobby and therapy dog Swoosh hang out.

Every year, nearly 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, and some 40,000 are receiving treatment. It’s a scary time for both the children and their families, and anything that helps make it less frightening is a good thing. Can dogs do that?

Those of us who love dogs already know how much they improve our lives, especially by providing absolute love and comfort when we most need it. This healing human-canine bond is the basis for the ever-growing use of therapy dogs in all sorts of settings, including nursing homes, retirement homes and schools, and as part of disaster-relief teams.

Therapy dogs have become common in hospitals as well, but access varies by institution. Dogs in hospitals raise general concerns about human safety, including increased infection risks, allergies, phobias and aversions. While there is a wealth of positive, anecdotal evidence for the benefit of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) in all these settings, there’s little hard evidence to verify it. To overcome remaining barriers to AAT as part of their treatment programs, hospital staff and risk managers need proof.

Enter the American Humane Association (AHA). With financial support from Zoetis, a global animal health company, and the Pfizer Foundation, a charitable offshoot of the international pharmaceutical giant, AHA is in the final stage of a rigorous, three-year, peer-reviewed, controlled study, “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” or CCC for short.

The study aims to document the specific medical, behavioral and mental-health benefits AAT may have for children between the ages of 3 and 12 recently diagnosed with cancer, as well as for their families. The third and final clinical stage of the study includes 100 children receiving treatment at five participating children’s hospitals across the country, including Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore.

Janice Olson, MD, MHA, is medical director of the Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program at Randall and manages its CCC study. “We have a long tradition of pet therapy, at least since I arrived 15 years ago. So when this study opportunity came up, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We already had dogs visiting in in-patient, so why not out-patient as well? Staff didn’t have any concerns. Everyone was more than happy to participate.”

According to Amy McCullough, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy, the hospitals were selected because they had existing therapy dog programs. “It was difficult to recruit hospitals for the study,” Amy said. “Doing research [has an impact on] their resources and staff. Some only allowed therapy dogs one day a week, or in one room outside of the treatment clinic. It was interesting to see the differences between hospitals across the country in terms of how therapy dogs were used. There are no standards. Some hospitals were willing to modify their policies to allow for our study—for example, in how often dogs can visit and where.”

The study requires that the dogs be registered with a therapy dog organization, be credentialed and meet the participating hospital’s criteria. Some hospitals’ criteria exceeded those AHA would have required.

To answer the question, “What can we do to improve the day-to-day health, healing, and quality of life of children suffering from cancer, and the families who suffer along with them?” the study tracks blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families, and the staff and caregivers who enjoy the benefit of working with therapy dogs. (Sadly, 50 percent of the children and families enrolled in the study will not be spending time with the therapy dogs because they are in the control group required for the study to have validity.)

Ryker Halpin was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, the month he turned six. He and his parents, Allison and Matt Halpin, are enrolled in the CCC study at Randall. They have an English Mastiff at home, so Allison and Matt knew Ryker would be comfortable with visits from a therapy dog. Ryker had been in the hospital a week when they were approached about participating. “Given all the dreadful news we’d just gotten, it seemed like a great opportunity, something positive to look forward to,” said Allison.

Ryker was paired with Bailey, a five-year-old female yellow Lab, and her handler Kate Dernbach. Bailey visits Ryker and his parents once a week at the hospital; each visit lasts 15 minutes (give or take five minutes). They’ll do this for four months. After each session with Bailey, Ryker is asked questions about how he’s feeling, and his blood pressure and pulse are recorded. His parents are also asked a series of questions, and a sample of Bailey’s saliva is taken to monitor her stress level.

At the time this article was written, Bailey had visited Ryker four times. “The first couple of visits were pretty low-key because Ryker had been given a lot of steroids, was just not himself, withdrawn and quiet,” Allison said. “But when he came home, he talked about Bailey. Bailey was something for him to look forward to. The last visit, Ryker was just waking up, so was in bed; he asked Bailey to get into bed with him. He enjoys brushing her. She was there during a chemo treatment; she’s one more thing to take his mind off it all.”

Dernbach and Bailey have been volunteering at Randall for close to three years, visiting once a week and making appearances on every floor to see children with all sorts of illnesses. Dernbach is a mom and a cancer survivor, so the idea of participating in the CCC study appealed to her on many levels. “It’s so rewarding to go in and help. The dogs are a huge distraction from why the kids are there, so even if the visit is only 15 minutes, it’s good for them. Bailey has calmed and relaxed people. I know what a huge impact she makes.”

Bailey’s visits with Ryker got off to a slow start. “Maybe it was just that everyone was unsure, because of the study,” Dernbach said. “He didn’t want her on the bed, didn’t want to touch her. If that happens during a visit to other kids outside the study, we quietly leave. With Ryker, we had to stay. But by the third visit, he brushed her, and on the fourth visit, he was excited to see her, asked her to get up on the bed, had his hand on her the whole time while getting chemo. Bailey slept beside him, which he thought was funny because she’s a 70-pound Lab taking up the whole bed and he couldn’t straighten out his legs.”

Bailey and the other therapy dogs are also being closely studied. Researchers videotape the visits and dog behaviorists review the videos for signs of canine stress, such as excessive yawning and other body cues. They also measure the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the dogs’ saliva before and after visits to see if and how ATT has an impact on their physical and mental health. According to Dernbach, Bailey’s not allowed to see other children during study visits with Ryker to ensure that the data collected from her saliva samples is valid.

The good news: earlier stages of the study showed that the dogs did not have increased stress from their time with the children and families. In fact, their cortisol levels, on average, were lower after spending time with the children.

McCullough and AHA hope that the study results, which are expected sometime in 2015, will bolster efforts to expand the use of ATT as an affordable adjunctive treatment option for people of all ages and walks of life, with many sorts of illnesses in a variety of settings. Some of the already-documented benefits of ATT include relaxation and lowered blood pressure; improved social skills; and decreased stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. “We encourage therapy dog handlers to get involved in programs like this,” said McCullough. “It’s a low-cost, accessible treatment, helping families in need.”

For the Halpins, the benefits of participating in the study are immediate and real. Even the survey questions asked of Ryker after each visit with Bailey, about his stress and anxiety, are helpful. “They ask him to rate things as very satisfactory, satisfactory or unsatisfactory. He expresses his feelings in so many ways when responding to the survey. As a parent, I get better insight to his feelings. He says he’s not stressed or scared, that he’s joyful. That reminds me to not project my feelings onto him. Ryker lights up when it’s a Bailey-visit day. He’s a shy guy; seeing Bailey helps.”

Such a simple thing—a visit from a therapy dog—provides powerfully healing benefits for patients young and old, as well as for their families and the staff who treat them. Here’s hoping the study’s results open even more doors to therapy dogs and their handlers very soon. No one should have to go without.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
The UnMusher
Restoring mistreated and abandoned sled dogs to health.

I push the glow button on my watch. Midnight. An enormous black cat and a Pit Bull mix snooze contentedly on my bed. I, too, was sleeping deeply, and it takes me a moment to remember where I am: a one-room cabin, 20 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska.

I climb down a ladder through a hole in the floor of the loft into a dog den and gingerly pick my way between paws and tails to a portable indoor john, hidden under the kitchen sink. It’s probably more than 20 degrees below zero outside, and I’m glad I don’t have to bundle up for a trip to the outhouse.

When I sit, 22 pairs of eyes glint in my direction. In the moon glow, the cabin is a dreamy dog domain, unlike any gathering of canines I’ve ever seen. Quiet and contented, they are sprawled on the couch, chairs, rugs, and under and on top of the raised bed in which my human host—Arna Dan Isacsson—sleeps. They lose interest in me quickly. One or two slip through the wool-blanket flaps of the dog door; others readjust, snuggle into one another and hunker down for more sleep. I climb back up my ladder feeling more like a wolf-child than a writer researching a story.

In the morning, the evening’s strangeness is gone. I wake to a dehumidifier’s noisy drone. In the bone-dry Fairbanks climate, this industrial-strength appliance will suck nearly three gallons of water—liquid dog breath—from the atmosphere every few days. Isacsson is heating coffee and doing yoga stretches with her “deputy,” an intense, tricolor Border Collie mix named Gari. She is why I’m here. I’ve traveled to the epicenter of competitive dog sledding to see how this transplanted Swede rehabilitates canine castoffs in a way no one else has the time, energy or faith to try.

Only a few dogs are inside this morning—comfort-seeking pups such as the delicate tan-and-white 14-year-old Husky curled up in the crook of the couch. Ten years ago, this sled dog was saved by one of Isacsson’s friends, who came across her as she was being beaten by a musher while she was still harnessed to the team. Isacsson has asked me not to use the dog’s name for fear the incident will be linked to that high-profile musher even today. Many of her dogs are here because they have troubled histories associated with mushing (from the stress of life on a chain to physical abuse, neglect or simply having been dumped), but she is careful about criticizing neighbors and friends.

Instead, she offers an alternative that is part rescue and part example. Since the early 1990s, Isacsson has lived with both her own and rejected dogs, as few as eight and as many as 30 or more, in as close an approximation of a natural pack as she can manage. She believes that by integrating them into the group, the often mistreated, last-chance dogs can be restored to a state of physical and mental health, and some day, thrive as companion animals in her home or with others. Her well-mannered crew testifies to the success of her method.

Dogs trickle in and out while we get ready for a hike. As she prepares breakfast and cleans up, they seem to visit with her and each other. “They need a social landscape,” Isacsson explains. “The experience of gnawing and grooming together satisfies something in their limbic system. It’s as important as food and shelter.”

Elaj (pronounced Ely), an Australian Shepherd who looks out of place among the mostly Husky mixes, climbs into Isacsson’s lap when she sits down. While she is a key component in his universe, she points to the pack as the active agent.

“I’m the camp counselor. I call the shots. But it’s the group that heals the dog. I just reinforce it. I allow for it,” she says. “I credit the success of rehabilitation and restoration of these often compromised dogs to the powerful healing dynamics that exist within the family pack structure. Many less desirable behaviors are simply being replaced by constructive peer influences and by just being allowed to live life as a dog where there are clear pack boundaries.”

Camp K9 Kin, as she calls her home, is a free-run kennel on 14 birch-covered acres. One partially cleared acre or two is ringed in cyclone fencing, which includes six expansive pens with doghouses opening onto a large central play area that Isacsson refers to as the courtyard. Her cabin sits inside the yard at one end. Most of the time when she is home, the dogs have free range of the courtyard and pens. Smaller groups are sometimes allowed beyond the boundary for reconnaissance in her woods and intense chase games along the fence line. When she goes to work, she leaves some dogs in the central area and others in pens with pen pals. No one is chained.

“There are people who think I spoil my dogs,” Isacsson says with a smile, and it’s true that her camp is nothing like the dog yards that dot most of Alaska. In the standard setup, sled dogs spend their lives among grids of doghouses on chains just long enough for them to circle their house or climb inside and maybe interact with neighboring dogs. In many households, sled dogs never come inside even when pet dogs are permitted indoors.  Their only entertainments are running in a team and mealtime. Summers can be especially dull, since some mushers stop exercising their dogs due to the heat.

Warm months at Camp K9 Kin include hiking, swimming, berry-picking and splashing around in swamps. In the yard, Isacsson sets up plastic pools as oases for drinking, cooling off and more grouping. In addition, she creates a bone yard; at night, after the dogs have enjoyed a fresh batch of raw bones, she collects them and then buries them in a pen. The next morning, the dogs race out to dig up, strut with and rebury the bones. Doghouses and the roots of a downed tree provide elevated perches for the dogs who like to watch over the yard.

She calls this the “layered life.” It’s the physical expression of the hierarchies and relationships in the group. The same sort of layering plays out on the various planes in the cabin. “Without having a tested hypothesis, I can tell you it’s very important for them to have this layered life,” Isacsson says. “They spend about 50 percent of their time working out these dynamics. I provide a wide spectrum of opportunities so they can find balance.” For a dog on a chain, she says, “there are no layers. There are absolutely no options at all.”

Watching Isacsson move among her dogs—in a knee brace, in case an exuberant pup plows into an old injury—is a revelation. A Pit Bull mix, a German Shepherd, several Border Collie mixes and a plethora of Huskies romp and play and snarl. There is lots of contact, some minor scuffles, but no fights—it’s high energy without the anarchy. They are mostly left to their own devices with one another, although occasionally, she runs interference for weaker, marginalized dogs, such as an old gray Husky named Payak, who has never really been accepted, or Yasmin, a silky new addition who is blind.

Her approach is informed by behavioral ecology; field studies of bears, wolves and wolverines; mythology; professional kennel management; gut; and endless, patient observation. She pays close attention to the pack, and they pay close attention to her as she communicates in English, Swedish and French, with body language and with animal sounds. She grrrrs and caws. She’s been called the “Mexican ‘dog whisperer’s’ Swedish twin.”

“I think the reason people make the comparison is the way that the dogs respond,” Isacsson says. But she doesn’t call herself a trainer or offer quick fixes, although she advises her dogs’ adoptive families for years and does consulting for people having trouble with their dogs. “I’m about connecting to the dog and finding a place for the dog in my life. I’m not about solving problems. I’m about relationships. That’s why mushers have problems with their dogs; they talk about correcting.”

Exercise is the other essential element of the Camp K9 Kin regimen. During my visit in March, when Isacsson traditionally takes off several weeks to journey with her dogs in the backcountry, we sled, hike, skijor and play games, including hockey-style fetch on the frozen Chena River or in the yard with a bandy stick.

What becomes obvious after a few days is that this is a physically demanding life in an extreme climate that would break down most people. In addition to the rigorous exercise, daily maintenance consumes time, energy and finances. It takes hours to pick up waste, replace straw in dog houses, clip nails, trim fur, massage limbs, chop and stew meat and fish (which she does on a porch stove even when the mercury hovers well below zero), treat ailing dogs, wash blankets, vacuum, repair gear and on and on. Isacsson makes ends meet with a night job, processing satellite images of Earth at the University of Fairbanks, and through the generosity of friends and supporters. Still, take one look at her biography, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.

The 45-year-old with classic Nordic looks—straight blond hair cut short, blue eyes, fair skin and ruddy cheeks—is the daughter of a Swedish actress, Mona Dan-Bergman, and a prominent watercolorist, Arne Isacsson. Her first name is a hybrid of theirs. They divorced when their daughter was three. After they split, she led a divided life—spending six months with her mother and six months with a foster family. At 12, she lobbied unsuccessfully to live with her foster family full-time. The months with her mother, who Isacsson thinks was probably manic-depressive, were difficult. The young girl ran away frequently and often hid in a hollowed-out tree.

Today, she’s adamant about calling her work foster care. “I don’t call myself a rescue,” she says. “I’m just kind of like a halfway house. I was a burden to the commons for a while because I was in foster care. Now, in my mind, I can repay the debt.”

As a child, Isacsson pretended to have been raised by wolves, an idea she thinks was originally inspired by The Jungle Book. “I think kids who are traumatized live in a fantasy world part of the time. The world of imagination can become the only balanced part of your life,” she says. “I have memories that aren’t really memories from my life. That pack of wolves I was raised by, I know now that it’s not real.”

She fed her fantasy by reading everything she could about canines in the wild. When she discovered there were no wild wolves in Sweden, she became outraged. In 4-H, she studied Turkish livestock guardian dogs and ways to manage livestock without eradicating predators.

She attended a farm high school, where she raised a litter of German Shepherd puppies for an entire year. “I was part of that pack, living with them in a barn. Yet, it was always clear that I was a human and they were dogs. They had leaders in their mother and father, as well as growing siblings, but still I too was their leader. It was an experience that no book or person could ever have prepared me for.”

On my last day in Fairbanks, we take the dogs out sledding. I know the dogs on my team—Jordy, Ilso, Raanin, Lappy, Sachiko and Kaepen—pretty well by now, which makes watching and encouraging them very satisfying. With the White Mountains in the distance, we glide through the gentle ups and downs and curves along a ridge. The only sounds are our heavy breathing and the sled runners crunching over snow-dusted ice. The sun, the wind and the team invigorate me. It’s easy to see why people fall so hard for this experience.

It’s warm, so Isacsson and I run, rather than ride, uphill, and take frequent breaks in the shade so the dogs can munch snow or roll to cool down. It would be fun to go all-out, but their benevolent leader is not willing to push these dogs to a point where they could be injured or become exhausted. That’s one reason she’s not a competitive musher.

Still, she has serious pedigree. As a teenager, she taught herself Nordic mushing. She constructed a harness out of horse halters, hooked her German Shepherds up to a kick sled and let them pull her across the fjord ice. After moving to the United States, she worked for three leading mushers, including four-time Iditarod champions Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. She was an ambassador for Scandinavian mushers and a production assistant on a PBS Iditarod documentary.

But mushing in the U.S. is different than it is in Scandinavia. In Isacsson’s native country, for example, keeping dogs on chains is illegal, sled dogs are usually allowed in homes and top mushers keep only about 30 dogs (as opposed to as many as 100 in U.S. kennels). Abandoned or dumped dogs aren’t a fact of mushing there, either, as they are here.

As much as she enjoyed being paid to live and work with dogs, at some point she realized she couldn’t be part of an organized sport that treated dogs like ATVs. Today, mushing plays a very different role in her life. “It does not define who I am,” she says. “I don’t have dogs to fulfill my mushing experience; I mush to fulfill my dogs’ experiences.”

The sport still drives her. Not only does she provide a home and healing for mushing rejects, she also wants to be seen as a workable model for kennel management. She has offered her vision to anyone who will listen, at mushing symposiums and during three years on the board of Mush with PRIDE, an organization established in 1991 to address the care of dogs and the public perception of the sport.

Still, she is realistic. Huge kennels and tethering aren’t going away anytime soon. So her short-term push is for kennel owners to create time and an environment for dogs to socialize off the chain. As a starting point, she recommends either perimeter fencing around yards or building large playpens so dogs can be allowed some free-run play together. She invites people to see her operation, to bring their dogs for a visit. She has even offered to help install fencing. And even this compromise on her vision, she knows, will be a tough sell.

When I check back with Isacsson six months later, she’s added three dogs and built three more pens. It’s snowing when I call, normally a cause for joy, but she’s demoralized. She’s on her way to take in her 27th dog, one of a large group of dogs that were being slowly starved to death. She’s stretched and doesn’t want to add to her pack, but this one is the son of her couch-loving Husky. “He’s family,” she says, to explain why her heart is overruling her head.

But the real punch in the gut, she says, came in July. A puppy she’d placed with good friends five years earlier was returned because of pressures in their life. She was crushed.

“I started thinking about it, wondering am I just enabling people?” says Isacsson, who always promises to take back dogs if necessary. “It was really an eye-opener. I’m thinking about not taking in any more dogs.”

I’m stunned. That she feels hopeless is a rift in the Force.

By the time I hang up, it’s almost 6 PM in Fairbanks, probably just about time to feed the dogs at Camp K9 Kin. During my visit, mealtime struck me as the realization of Isacsson’s vision. While many of the dogs are fed in pens with their pen pals, as many as eight to 12 eat together in the big yard.

Isacsson sets the metal bowls in a ring, like a canine Round Table, and stands in the center with two white plastic buckets. She calls a hungry dog, who then sits in front of a bowl that she fills with a scoop of kibble and two ladles of warm stew. Once the bowl is filled, she and the dog look into each other’s eyes. Until that happens, she waits. Then she says “okay” in Swedish. The dog lunges at the food. She turns to the next bowl, calls another dog, working her way around the circle. One dog at a time sits, waits, connects, eats—and leaves his or her pack mates unmolested.

After the meal, she’ll head inside for her own dinner of soup, cheese and Swedish flatbread. At some point, a howl will rise up in the yard. They do it every night after dinner. It’s eerie and beautiful and seems intended for her. Then Isacsson will walk onto her porch and call out, “Thank you.”

Could she really give that up?

With two dozen dogs keeping her busy, Arna Dan Isacsson has not had time to create a website, but she can be reached k9kin@yahoo.com.


Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
YAPS Brings Hope to Cancer Victims
Pet pen pals lend a loving paw

The diagnosis of cancer is life-altering for all who are touched by it. When a child or a loving pet bears this burden, the tragedy seems particularly unfair, and brings cancer’s arbitrary and random selection home on a whole new level. Today, cancer is the number-one natural killer of dogs, regardless of breed, gender or age. In Denver, Colo., a unique support program is helping young human and canine cancer patients cope with their illness.

Enter Anne Ingalls, Colleen Chambers and YAPS—Youth And Pet Survivors—a pen-pal program that pairs children who have cancer with dogs (and in one case, a cat) also suffering from the disease. The participating child-dog pairs currently number 10, with some having enjoyed relationships spanning the last several years.

Ingalls, a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital in Denver, describes the inspiration for YAPS as a “divine spark.” The program took shape after Ingalls was invited to join the board of directors of the Animal Care Foundation.

“There was a lot of discussion about what sort of program we might create that would blend these two populations of veterinary patients and children,” she says. “Children with cancer are very restricted [as] to what outside environments they can be exposed to, because of the heightened risks of injury and infection. Hospitals enforce these restrictions very stringently. That’s why we came up with the pen-pal concept—to bypass those restrictions.”

Colleen Chambers, surgical technician and practicing manager of the surgery department at the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado, keeps a book featuring pictures and biographies of all the participating animals. Dogs include Mary Jane, a Labrador; Sandy and Emma, both Golden Retrievers; a West Highland Terrier named Max; Ram, a Doberman-Labrador mix; and Bonkers, the program’s only cat.

“The children choose their own animal, often deciding on an animal that’s gone through the same type of cancer and treatments as they themselves have,” says Chambers. Each child also receives a copy of the book Annie Loses Her Leg but Finds Her Way, written by Sandra Philipson and illustrated by Robert Takatch, the true and very inspirational story of an animal who survives great adversity. A plush Annie doll also comes with the package.

After being paired, the children stay in touch with their dogs via letters and email. The owners of the canine participants respond for the dog. The owners, who include former teachers, educators and psychologists, are carefully screened to ensure their suitability and capacity to relate to the experiences and challenges that surround the disease.

The children are selected based on criteria that include energy levels and motivation. “I know a lot of these kids personally,” says Ingalls. “The nurses I work with also refer children to me, and I consider the factors of each case. It’s got to be something they want to do. We want their parents to support them, but not do the writing for them. Some kids who express interest initially look through the book and ultimately tell me that they’re just not up for it right now.”

One young man who recently made the decision to join YAPS is Sean Flanagan, an 18-year-old Denver resident. Sean’s canine partner is Boone, yellow Lab, who lost his right front leg. Sean and Boone met for the first time in late September at Bark in the Park, the annual YAPS picnic—one of several annual group events where kids, dogs, owners and families spend time getting to know one another, face to face.

“He’s great, he’s got so much energy,” says Sean of Boone. “He’s a lovable dog. We rode around together at the picnic in a golf cart, and he had his head in my lap.” In the basket behind the golf cart rode the Flanagan’s family dog, Maggie, a Miniature Schnauzer. “Maggie was the smallest dog there,” says Sean, “but she got along with everyone.”

Both the VRCC and nearby Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are actively involved in exploring new cancer treatments in animal populations, providing advancements in the treatment and control of the disease, as well as hope for eventually declaring victory over it. CSU’s comparative oncology program rates as the largest of its kind in the U.S. Specialists in medical oncology, nutrition, radiation therapy, surgical oncology, pathology, physics and specialty nursing work in concert with researchers to implement state-of-the-art, individualized therapies in chemotherapy as well as photon and electron radiation.

Dr. Robyn Elmslie, a board-certified veterinary oncologist at VRCC, blends traditional medical approaches for fighting cancer with innovative treatments that include gene therapy for localized tumors and electrophoresis (see below).

YAPS offers therapy on an entirely different level, one that addresses the emotional component of the illness. Says Chambers, “There are a lot of pet therapy programs out there, but this one appears to be unique.”

Ingalls agrees, expressing her hope that other children’s hospitals and veterinary centers around the country might eventually add this program to their treatment options. She also hopes that one day, YAPS is international in scope.

“This could become a world phenomenon,” she says. “Ultimately, of course, part of the success will always depend upon the depth of the connection made between the child and the pet.” Often, strong and enduring relationships are forged between entire families, and the YAPS program becomes a healing experience for all involved.

“The kids get really attached to the animals,” says Chambers. “They’ll tell things to the animals they won’t tell to people, even family—they feel free to express their deepest fears. Animals are nonjudgmental, and they don’t carry the emotional stigmas that people do. They come through the experience of disease a lot stronger than most people.”
“I think it’s a good thing for kids with cancer and kids with disabilities to know they have someone to listen to them. It’s hard, sometimes, not to have anybody to listen to your stories,” says Sean.