Category Archives: Dogs

Brain scans of service-dog trainees help sort weaker recruits from the pack

Brain scans of canine candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a rigorous service training program, a study by Emory University finds.

The journal Scientific Reports published the results of the study, involving 43 dogs who underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California.

Dogs with MRI machine

Some of the service dog trainees that were involved in the study pose with an fMRI scanner. (Photo by Gregory Berns.)

“Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates,” says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who led the research. “What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why.”

All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala – an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program.

“The brain scans may be like taking a dog’s mental temperature,” Berns says. “You could think of it as a medical test with a normal range for a service dog. And the heightened neural activity that we see in the amygdala of some dogs may be outside of that range, indicating an abnormal value for a successful service dog.”

The findings are important, he adds, since the cost of training a service dog ranges from $20,000 to $50,000. As many as 70 percent of the animals that start a six-to-nine-month training program have to be released for behavioral reasons.

“There are long waiting lists for service dogs, and the training is lengthy and expensive,” Berns says. “So the goal is to find more accurate ways to eliminate unsuitable dogs earlier in the process.”

The study found that fMRI boosted the ability to identify dogs that would ultimately fail to 67 percent, up from about 47 percent without the use of fMRI.

“This type of approach is not going to be feasible for individual trainers and their dogs because of the expense of fMRI,” Berns says. “It would only be practical for organizations that train large numbers of dogs every year.”

CCI is a non-profit that breeds, raises and trains dogs to assist human partners. Its service dog program, designed for disabled people, provides dogs to do tasks such as turn on lights, pick up dropped keys, open a door and pull a manual wheelchair.

Golden retrievers, Labradors — or crosses between the two — are the usual CCI service dog breeds, due to their generally calm and affable natures. After the puppies are weaned, they are adopted by volunteer puppy raisers for 15 months, before returning to CCI to undergo behavioral tests. Those that pass begin training.

For the Scientific Reports paper, the researchers taught the dogs how to remain still while undergoing an fMRI at the start of the training program.

The Berns’ lab was the first to conduct fMRI experiments on awake, unrestrained dogs, as part of an ongoing project to understand canine cognition and inter-species communication. In an early experiment, dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a food treat, and another signal meant that the dog would not receive one. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation when the dogs saw the signal for the treat, but not for the non-treat signal.

The researchers adapted this experiment for the current study — the largest yet involving dogs undergoing fMRI. The dogs were taught hand signals for “treat” and “no treat,” but sometimes the signals were given by the dog’s trainer and other times by a stranger.

The results found that dogs with stronger activity in the caudate in response to the treat signal – regardless of who gave the signal – were slightly more likely to successfully complete the service dog training program. However, if a dog had relatively more activity in the amygdala in response to the treat signal – particularly if the signal was given by a stranger – that increased the likelihood that the dog would fail.

“The ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn’t get excessively excited or nervous,” Berns says. “The two neural regions that we focused on – the caudate and the amygdala – seem to distinguish those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt behaviors.”

Berns hopes that the technology may become more refined and have applications for a broader range of working dogs, such as those used to assist the military and police forces.

Source:  Emory University

Izzy’s racing career

Izzy is a retired racing greyhound.  She won 6 races over the course of her 2  1/2-year, 74 race career.

As a salute to my ‘little winner’ who is now a much-loved pet and helper in massage classes, here is a montage of the finish lines at her races and one photo of her in her preferred career…

Izzy winning on 10 Dec 2010Izzy winning on 25 May 2011Izzy winning on 1 Jun 2011Izzy winning on 3 Aug 2011Izzy winning on 7 Nov 2012Izzy winning on 19 Dec 2012

IMG_1237

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

High meat diets – a NZ study

An independent study from New Zealand has found that a high meat diet is easier for dogs to digest, meaning more nutrients are able to be absorbed, resulting in higher levels of bacteria associated with protein and fat digestion.

The study found:

  • High meat diets are more digestible for dogs
  • More nutrients from a high meat diet are able to be absorbed
  • Dogs on a high meat diet had higher levels of the bacteria associated with protein and fat digestion
  • Dogs on a high meat diet had smaller poo and better fecal health

The research paper ‘Key bacterial families (Clostridiaceae, Erysipelotrichaceae and Bacteroidaceae) are related to the digestion of protein and energy in the dog’ is accessible here.

With Government funding and funding from the NZ Premium Petfood Alliance, which is a collaboration between Bombay Petfoods, K9 Natural and ZiwiPeak, the research is being undertaken at AgResearch and Massey University.

“To date there has been hardly any published research, so this study is a significant contribution to the international animal nutrition field. A lot of diets on the market have been designed to ensure a dog survives, but this research shows that high meat diet is the best to help a dog thrive,” said New Zealand Premium Petfood Alliance spokesperson Neil Hinton.

Another study, about cat diets, is underway.

Source:  Beehive.govt.nz media release and AgResearch media release

Breed-specific dog foods

Back in January, I posted a blog about Prescription diets – what’s the truth?

In this post, I’m again going into the controversial world of commercial dog food and sharing some information on breed-specific dog foods.

The two labels most associated with breed-specific foods are Eukanuba and Royal Canin, although there are others.

 

In the November 2016 issue of Your Dog (published by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University), veterinary nutritionist Cailin Heinze provided opinion about such foods.

Dr Heinze re-iterated the common theme about the lack of rules for marketing.  “It’s a free for all.”

Although these pet foods must meet the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standard, ‘tweaking’ recipes to make them slightly more suitable for a particular breed isn’t a big change to make.

The article points out that there are no feeding trials to support the claims made for breed-specific dog foods and that the breed-specific formulations are not therapeutic diets.

You will need to buy access to read the article in its entirety (follow the link above), and I won’t break copyright by printing too much of the article in this blog.

It is heartening to see a veterinary nutritionist making these comments.  Too often, criticism of commercial dog foods is discounted because the writers are not veterinarians.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

My diary

I still use a paper diary despite having access to online calendars and tools. There’s a reason for that.

Diary photo

I successfully managed my time through the Auckland Power Crisis of 1998 without a hitch, thanks to my paper diary. My colleagues, who were already relying on electronic schedules, didn’t know where they were supposed to be for weeks.  Meetings had to be rescheduled; service delivery slowed.

My diary also helped me through the days and weeks following the Canterbury Earthquake of February 2011. During these trying times, I could still make and keep appointments, keep notes as reminders, and generally have something to hold onto that was part of ‘normal’ life.

Most pages include reminders of what I need to finish that day.

And reflecting on my diary over the weekend, I see that it includes Izzy’s social calendar.

Going forward over the next couple of months, Izzy has engagements for play dates, appearances at the Riccarton Market for Greyhounds as Pets, and dates for sleepovers when I have to travel for business.  She also has a birthday party date with her best mate (and boyfriend) Bergie.

I often say that the best thing we can give our dogs is quality time.  One way of ensuring you make time for your dog is to commit to them in writing.  I’m pretty confident that I’ve got the right priorities and tools to do just that.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Officer Goodboy

New Zealand takes biosecurity very seriously.  That’s because our economy relies on agricultural and horticultural production and because our relative isolation from other continents has kept us free from some pests and diseases.

One of the best parts of coming home from overseas is heading into the baggage area and seeing the Ministry of Primary Industries’ (MPI, for short) detector dogs doing their job.  Usually Beagles, but sometimes other breeds, these dogs are focused on sniffing your bags to see if they contain any at-risk items.

Last year, MPI created a commercial using Officer Goodboy to explain the entry procedures into New Zealand.  A very good use of dogs in advertising.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

Life skills

Prospective dog owners who do their research will consistently find recommendations for things like dog training (obedience, walking on leash, etc.) and regular veterinary care.

However, in my experience there are 2 essential life skills that some dogs are missing.

They are:

  • handling on a table
  • touching of the paws

As a canine massage therapist, I was trained to work with dogs on a table.  It’s good professional practice.  It helps me have a better view and leverage for working on dogs and it also is good health and safety for me because it preserves my posture and the health of my knees.

When a dog is injured or infirm, or so large that even the efforts of the owner and I are not enough to get them onto the table, then I will work with them on the floor.

However, I meet dogs that won’t tolerate handling on a table and in some (not all) cases this is because they just were never taught to accept it.  Since I don’t want to be bitten, I have to go to Plan B – which is the floor.

Abbie table photo

Abbie is a 12 1/2 year old Labrador Retriever cross. She’s been a client for over a year. Abbie needs to be lifted onto my table but is otherwise an easy client to have. Food treats helped her accept the table over successive sessions.

One reason why I recommend massage for puppies is that it teaches them to accept table work at a young age.  My table is a cushioned and friendly table – not a cold stainless steel one that you will find in veterinary practice.

All of my canine clients get a treat at the end of their session- so my techniques are reward-based.

And I’ve done sufficient professional training in behavior that I can work to reinforce a timid, shy or scared dog so they get become more accustomed to table work.

Dogs can also be paw sensitive, but through positive training techniques, there is no reason to think that 99.9% of them can’t be trained to accept touching of their feet.  When a dog has mobility issues, I want to massage their toes and work acupoints in the feet and legs.  That’s hard to do if they are growling, snarling or too scared to let me touch them.

Dog groomers and vets will agree with me – it’s no fun having to muzzle a dog because they need their nails clipped, for example. We’re just reinforcing bad experiences if we do.

In the 8 years I have been practising, I have never used a muzzle.

If you are a dog parent reading this – ask yourself how your dog reacts to being on a table or having their paws touched.  If they are reluctant or worse, I’d say it’s time to review your training and schedule in a course of massage therapy.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand