Category Archives: research

Dog bite prevention – we may be on the wrong track

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have shown that educating pet owners about canine body language may not be sufficient to preventing dog bites.  They’ve published their research in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour.

Dog bite photo

At a time when data suggests dog bite incidents are increasing, the team at Liverpool interviewed victims of dog attacks to gain further understanding into their perceptions of the experience.

They found that in some cases there was no interaction with the dog before the bite occurred and therefore no opportunity to assess behaviour.  There was a common tendency for victims to blame themselves for the attack, rather than the animal, or in cases where the dog was not known to them, they blamed the dog’s owner.

Warning signs

Even those who felt knowledgeable about dogs, perceived that a bite “would not happen to them”, and so despite the warning signs would continue acting in the same manner, suggesting that education on body language was ineffective as a preventative measure.

My comment:  This particular part of the research resonates with me.  I’ve seen dog trainers, working with client’s dogs, be super-confident despite the feedback that both the owners and myself would be giving them.  And then, they’d do things with the dog – such as reaching for their collar – which would instigate a snap. 

Working with dogs is a privilege, but we should also be humble enough to treat each dog as an individual…

“Preventing the situation from arising at all may not always be feasible. Reducing the damage caused when a dog does bite, through careful pet dog selection and training, is something we should aim for.”  says Dr Carri Westgarth, a dog behaviour expert at the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health.

Raising awareness

The researchers highlight that there is not enough knowledge of how dog bites occur to know how to prevent them entirely. Raising awareness that ‘it could happen to you’ as often used in other campaigns such as drink-driving, will be required for successful dog bite prevention.

More work is also needed with dog breeders to supply dogs that are less likely to bite and that have inhibited bites that do less damage, moving away from a victim or owner ‘blame’ model to explain dog bite injury.

Source:  University of Liverpool media release

Dog sledding is an adventure for kids with cancer

A young cancer patient on the dog sled Credit: Emmanuelle Compte

A young cancer patient on the dog sled Credit: Emmanuelle Compte

A team of sled dogs racing through the snowy forests of northern Canada conjures up the timeless spirit of exploration. But the intrepid youths on the sleds may not be exactly what you’re picturing – they’re young girls and boys with cancer.

A common perception of the paediatric cancer patient is of a frail youth whose childhood experiences are tragically curtailed by the disease. Now, the results of a new preliminary study published in ecancermedicalscience show that children with cancer may benefit from a different kind of treatment – a healthy dose of adventure.

The study follows eleven children aged 10-18 years, and five chaperones including doctors and nurses, on an expedition organised by the French non-profit Sourire à la Vie, which supports the use of adapted physical activity for young cancer patients.

“What I learned from this study is that we doctors have the false belief that kids with cancer cannot practice sport because they are too tired or weak from their treatments,” says corresponding author of the study, Dr Nicolas André. He’s a paediatric oncologist at the Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Marseille, France.

“These perceptions are at least partly wrong,” Dr André says. “Adapted physical activities can be performed by most children with cancer even during their treatment, and can bring a lot to children.”

All of the eleven children received adapted physical training and exercises before the expedition. The children successfully completed the programme without harm – and they demonstrated statistically significant improvement in both physical and psychological health.

The children participated in other activities, such as snow exercises, as well as caring for the sled dogs.

“One of the main reasons why we chose dog sledding was to create a unique sportive experience based on change of scenery and building a strong relationship with animals,” explains study author Frédéric Sotteau, founder of Sourire à la Vie.

The health and safety of the children was of paramount concern, Sotteau says. “We did not compromise regarding security, so we carefully prepared the expedition hand-in-hand with Canadian associations and doctors.”

“Based on our work over the last eight years, we all are convinced that practicing adapted physical activity is very positive for children with cancer,” comments study author Professor Laurent Grélot, a researcher at Aix Marseille University, France. “It avoids cardiovascular and muscular deconditioning, can decrease treatment induced fatigue, and can help maintaining social integration.”

“It is now time to demonstrate these results.”

Based on the success of this study, the researchers have collected enough funding to initiate a randomised trial to evaluate the benefits of adapted physical activities for children with cancer. But perhaps the best take-home message comes from the children themselves.

“Before my cancer diagnosis, I used to do a lot of sport, but then I lost self-confidence and my body was not able to cope with physical efforts,” says Merwan, an 18-year-old patient. “This trip in Canada transformed me. I am in shape again, and now I know I am able to practice sport again.”

“I have been dog sledding for 6 hours a day,” adds Nell, a 12-year-old patient. “I am very proud, and I feel so good now.”

Source:  AlphaGalileo media release

Adjusting stress levels for mellow vs hyper dogs

People aren’t the only ones who perform better on tests or athletic events when they are just a little bit nervous — dogs do too. But in dogs as in people, the right amount of stress depends on disposition.

A new study by researchers at Duke University finds that a little extra stress and stimulation makes hyper dogs crack under pressure but gives mellow dogs an edge.  (These findings will be relevant to any owner who is competing in agility or obedience with their dog.)

The findings appear online in the journal Animal Cognition.

According to an idea in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson law, a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point.

A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard to stay engaged and perform at one’s peak. But when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.

The idea is the relationship between stress and performance follows a Goldilocks model:  Both people and animals function best when the level of stress is not too much, nor too little, but just right.

When you’re taking a test, for example, it helps to be a little bit anxious so you don’t just blow it off,” said study co-author Emily Bray, who was an undergraduate at Duke at the time of the study. “But if you’re too nervous, even if you study and you really know the material, you aren’t going to perform at your best.”

Researchers first observed this pattern more than a hundred years ago in lab rats, but it has since been demonstrated in chickens, cats and humans. In a new study, a Duke team consisting of Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center wanted to find out if the conditions that enable certain animals to do their best also depend on the animal’s underlying temperament.

In a series of experiments, the researchers challenged dogs to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier that was six feet wide and three feet tall. To get it right, the dogs had to resist the impulse to try to take the shortest path to reach the treat — which would only cause them to whack into the barrier and bump their heads against the plastic — and instead walk around the barrier to one of the open sides.

In one set of trials, an experimenter stood behind the barrier holding a treat and called the dog’s name in a calm, flat voice. In another set of trials, the experimenter enthusiastically waved the treat in the air and used an urgent, excited voice. (See YouTube video at https://youtu.be/j6bfo5IlCEY – the video has been protected and so I’m unable to link it directly to this blog post).

The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, ranging in age from an eight-month-old Jack Russell terrier named Enzo to an 11-year-old Vizsla named Sienna. They also tested 76 assistance dogs at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California, a non-profit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

The researchers studied video recordings of each dog and estimated their baseline temperament in terms of tail wags per minute. “The service dogs were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction, whereas the pet dogs tended to be more excitable and high-strung,” Bray said.

Both groups of dogs were able to solve the puzzle. But the optimal amount of stress and stimulation depended on each dog’s disposition.

For the dogs that were naturally calm and laid-back — measured by how quickly they tended to wag their tails — increasing the level of excitement and urgency boosted their ability to stay on task and get the treat.

But for excitable dogs the pattern was reversed. Increasing the level of stimulation only made them take longer.

In one high-arousal trial, a two-year-old spaniel named Charlie Brown lost it and shut down, barking and zipping around crazily until she almost ran out of time.

“In the first five trials she did fine and solved the puzzle quickly with no problems,” Bray said. “Then when the high-arousal trials started she choked. She just couldn’t figure it out.”

“Adding more excitement pushed the pet dogs over the edge and impaired their ability to perform at their peak,” Bray said.

The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service dog training programs, for example.

Source:  Duke University media release

Drug trials in pet dogs with cancer

Physiological similarities between dogs and humans, and conserved genetics between some dog and human cancers, can allow pet dogs to serve as useful models for studying new cancer drugs, says Dr Timothy Fan of the University of Illinois.

Timothy Fan, professor of veterinary clinical medicine. With his personal dog, Ember

Timothy Fan, professor of veterinary clinical medicine. With his personal dog, Ember  photo by L. Brian Stauffer

In a meeting sponsored by the National Cancer Policy Forum of the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., Fan and 15 other experts in the field described the benefits of using pet dogs with naturally occurring (rather than laboratory-induced) tumors in early cancer drug trials.

“We have a lot of dogs in the United States, approximately 70 million of them, and it’s believed that about 25 percent of pet dogs will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime,” he said. “We’re using dogs to help guide drug development for people, but at the same time we’re offering new, innovative therapies that would otherwise never be available to dogs, to help them as well.”

Several attributes make pet dogs attractive subjects for such studies, Fan said.

“Dogs tend to develop cancer as a geriatric population, just like people,” he said. “Because the tumors develop spontaneously, there is heterogeneity in that tumor population, as a human being would have. The size of the tumors and the speed of growth of those tumors are comparable in dogs and human beings. So there are many attributes of a dog that develops cancer spontaneously that recapitulate the biology that we see in people.”

Some studies have already begun using dogs to test new cancer therapies. Starting in 2007, for example, Fan began testing an anti-cancer drug called PAC-1  in pet dogs with naturally occurring lymphomas and osteosarcomas. The results in dogs allowed the scientists to advance PAC-1 as a potential therapy against human cancers. The drug is now in phase I human clinic trials.

“Another example in which dogs have been important in demonstrating drug activity was an anti-cancer compound produced by the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences,” he said. “The company produced a pro-drug, which must be activated by a naturally occurring enzyme in human leukocytes before it can become effective. Mice and rats lack this enzyme, but dogs have it, so the compound was tested in dogs.”

There also are limitations to the use of pet dogs in cancer drug trials.

“There are some tumors that will not be that relevant,” Fan said. “Colon cancer, for example, is heavily driven by diet, and we don’t see much colon cancer in dogs. So pet dogs might not be a suitable model for colon cancer in humans.”

“There is heterogeneity in the human population and in dogs. So I would argue that if your drug agent produces positive results in dogs, that would give me greater confidence that those findings would be translatable to people.”

Source:  University of Illinois media release

One in four dogs at Crufts is overweight

One in four dogs competing in the world’s largest canine show (Crufts) is overweight, despite the perception that entrants are supposed to represent ideal specimens of their breed, reveals research published online in Veterinary Record.

The widespread dissemination of show dog images online may be ‘normalising’ obesity in dogs, now recognised to be a common canine disorder, say the researchers.

As in people, obesity in dogs has been linked to orthopaedic problems, diabetes, respiratory disease, and certain types of cancer. It also affects both the quality and length of a dog’s life.

The researchers base their findings on 1120 online images of dogs from 28 breeds—half of which are prone to obesity–that had appeared at Crufts. This is the UK’s national dog show, and the largest of its kind in the world.

Only adult dogs that had been placed between first and fifth in their class between 2001 and 2013 were included in the study.

The images were coded and anonymised, and 960 were suitable for assessment. A second person then graded the body condition of each dog in one sitting, using a previously validated method.

Three out of four (708; 74%) of the show dogs were in ideal condition, and none was overweight. But one in four (252; 26%) was overweight.

Pugs, basset hounds, and Labrador retrievers were the breeds most likely to be assessed as being overweight. Dogs were overweight in 80% of the pug images, and in around two thirds of the basset hound (68%) and Labrador (63%) images.

The researchers say Labradors were one breed that was more likely to be assessed as overweight.   (Photo by pedigreelabrador.co.uk)

The researchers say Labradors were one breed that was more likely to be assessed as overweight. (Photo by http://www.pedigreelabrador.co.uk)

The three breeds with the highest prevalence of overweight among the online images are prone to excess weight. But, given that pugs were originally bred to be a companion dog, while hounds and Labradors were bred, respectively, for hunting and fieldwork, being overweight would not be advantageous, say the researchers.

Standard poodles, border terriers, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Hungarian vizlas and Dobermanns were the least likely breeds to be overweight.

The researchers point out that the prevalence of overweight among the show dogs was less than that reported generally for pet dogs in the UK. But the fact that “a quarter were above ideal weight is still a cause for concern,” they write.

“These dogs showcase the ideal characteristics of the pedigree breed, and there is a danger that widespread media exposure might adversely influence owner perception of optimal body shape,” they say.

The Kennel Club has recently introduced changes in policy for judging criteria, to emphasise characteristics that promote good health in dogs, say the researchers.

But breed standards of optimal condition should be reinforced for competition, to ensure consistency, they say, concluding: “Further effort is now required to educate owners, breeders and show judges so that they can all better recognise overweight condition, thus helping to prevent the development of obesity.”

Source:  EurekAlert! media release

What are you looking at? (Dogs follow the human gaze)

Dogs are known to be excellent readers of human body language in multiple situations. Surprisingly, however, scientists have so far found that dogs do not follow human gaze into distant space. Scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated how this skill of dogs is influenced by aging, habituation and formal training. The outcome: Gaze following to human gaze cues did not differ over the dogs’ lifespan, however, formal training was found to directly influence gaze following in dogs.


Gaze following to distant space has been documented in many species and is considered a basic response found in many taxa. Dogs may present a special case as the researchers found evidence that they are able to follow human gaze to objects such as food or toys, but not for the comparatively simpler task of following gaze into distant space.

Two possible reasons were offered to explain this phenomenon: One reason could be habituation. Dogs lose their innate gaze following response as they age, as they are frequently exposed to human gaze cues over their lifespan and slowly stop responding to them. Another reason could be formal training such as obedience, agility, and trick training may interfere with the dogs’ response to gaze cues, since dogs are usually trained to look at the owner, to wait for commands and ignore distractions.

What influences dogs’ gaze following response to human gaze cues?

Lead author Lisa Wallis and her colleagues at the Vetmeduni Vienna investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab in order to address the question of whether habituation, and/or training influences dogs’ gaze following response, and to determine, for the first time, how this ability changes over the course of a dog’s life by comparing groups of dogs of different ages. 

Dogs of all ages are able to follow human gaze

The scientists tested two groups of dogs with differing amounts of formal training over their lifespan. Both groups participated firstly in a test and control condition, where their initial gaze following performance was measured. The experimenter obtained the dogs’ attention using its name and the command “watch” after which the experimenter turned her head swiftly to look at the door of the testing room in the test condition, or looked down to the floor next to her feet in the control condition. If the dogs responded by looking at the door within two seconds in the test condition but did not look at the door in the control condition, a gaze following response was recorded.

Dogs’ tendency to follow human gaze is influenced by training for eye contact
Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

Lisa Wallis with a Border Collie in the test room. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis' gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

The dog follows Wallis’ gaze to the door. (Photo: Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs which had a higher amount of formal training over their lifespan showed a lower gaze following response compared to dogs with little or no training. Similarly, short-term training also decreased dogs’ gaze following response and increased gaze to the human face.

The authors conclude that formal training had a stronger influence than aging or habituation on dogs’ gaze following response. This may explain why previous studies have failed to find a gaze following response when cues to distant space are used, and why in comparison to other species dogs perform relatively poorly in this task. The fact that the experimenter used strong attention-getting cues and provided contextual relevance by looking at a door may have also contributed to the positive results found in this study.

“From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs”. – says Lisa Wallis.

In her current project, together with her colleague Durga Chapagain, Wallis is investigating the effects of diet on cognitive aging in older dogs. The scientists are still looking for dog owners who would like to participate in that long-term study (food is provided for free).

This research has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Source:  Vedmeduni Vienna media release

The prescription for a soldier’s PTSD

I just found this very short item on the San Francisco Chronicle website.  A photo of a heavily tattooed man, his baby and his dog….

 Photo: Patty Snijders

Photo: Patty Snijders

The man is Ari Sonnenberg with his daughter, Nila Louise Sonnenberg, born April 1, 2015, and his Belgian Malinois dog, Sigmund Freud (also known as  Siggy).

Patty Snijders (Ari’s wife) says: “The dog has helped both Ari and me tremendously. He’s made our marriage stronger and prepared us for parenthood in many ways.”

A simple photograph and a lovely sentiment.  Siggy sounds very special and his presence has clearly been a help to the couple.

The body of knowledge about the value of dogs for our physical and mental health continues to grow, with research and study and stories like those of Siggy and his owners.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand