Category Archives: research

The Most Desirable Traits in Dogs for Potential Adopters

Note from DoggyMom:

Shelters need all the help they can get to increase rates of adoption.  This latest research from Texas Tech University may help them do that and the results may surprise you – traditional ‘training’ may not be the answer.


Alexandra Protopopova has performed extensive research trying to increase the adoption rates and decrease euthanasia rates for animal shelters throughout the country.

Walking down the long rows of pens at any animal shelter reveals a veritable smorgasbord of canine variety.

Big dogs. Little dogs. Outgoing dogs. Shy dogs. Hyper dogs. Calm dogs. Happy dogs. Sad dogs.

But finding which one is right for a potential adopter is a big challenge for animal shelters throughout the country. The way to find that right fit between adopter and adoptee has almost always been about matching personalities and has never really had much scientific theory behind it.

Until now.

Alexandra Protopopova, a behavioral analyst and assistant professor in companion animal science in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences at Texas Tech University, has turned what started as her doctoral dissertation into a major research focus. She is attempting to determine what behavioral traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters and then working with shelters to train dogs to exhibit those traits when an adopter shows interest.

“Currently there are numerous pets living in animal shelters, not only in Texas but in the U.S. and around the world,” Protopopova said. “The problem is that a lot of these animals are living for quite some time at these shelters, even if the shelters are well-funded. Because of space restrictions, the animals are typically socially deprived, they are housed in single or very small groups without a lot of human interaction, and the euthanasia rates are still very high across the country.

“Can we figure out a way to train dogs in the shelter so that when people come in and see the trained dogs, it will improve their adoption rate and decreases euthanasia rates?”

The answer, through her research, appears to be a likely, yes.

But finding that answer not only meant discovering and displaying the most attractive traits in a dog, but also breaking down some of the myths that have, over time, seemed to determine the most attractive qualities in a canine companion.

Breaking assumptions
Determining what traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters involved not only observing canine behavior but also breaking away from some of the traditionally held assumptions from the past.

These are traits that Protopopova said she has been investigating since her time as a graduate student. Many shelters have training programs that are based on these assumptions, and it took going back to the basics and avoiding the widely held assumptions to determine what true traits in dogs were most and least attractive to potential adopters.

Kennel dog“A typical assumption was that training dogs to sit and not jump or bark would result in higher adoption rates, since that is what we had assumed adopters wanted in their dogs,” Protopopova said. “I also had my own assumption that people really like a dog that would gaze lovingly into their eyes, when in fact we saw no evidence of that in our research. So why don’t we take a step back and systematically figure out what it is people want to see in a dog? We approached it from a marketing perspective, and from there we could see, after knowing what behaviors are favorable to people, what programs we needed to work on to improve behavior and ultimately increase adoption rates.”

An extensive examination of canine behavior in kennels was then undertaken to determine which behaviors were the most and least favorable for potential adopters. Protopopova observed in-kennel behavior and examined everything the dogs did as people walked by.

Behaviors such as barking, sitting and jumping had no effect whatsoever on attracting potential adopters, but a dog that would pace in the kennel, turn their face away from those walking by or lean sadly to one side of the kennel would deter adopters and lengthen the dog’s stay in the shelter.

But the most telling behavior came when there was actual interaction between the dog and potential adopters outside the kennel. It is standard practice at shelters to allow potential adopters to select one or two dogs they might be interested in and allow them to interact in an outdoor area to see if they are compatible.

Two behaviors stood out among all others as the strongest determinants toward whether or not the dog was adopted. If the dog laid down in proximity to the adopter, that increased the likelihood of adoption. Conversely, if the dog ignored the initiation of the potential adopter to play, that decreased quite severely the likelihood of adoption.

Knowing those two key traits in dogs, Protopopova and her fellow researchers were able to develop a structured training program where the shelter volunteer or staff member could go with the potential adopter and guide the dog’s behavior based on its toy preference, knowing the dog would not ignore the toys it likes, or eliminate toys altogether if it was determined the dog did not like playing with toys.

Shelter volunteers and staff also would encourage the dog to lie down next to a potential adopter using treats. All these efforts, Protopopova said, resulted in a discernable increase in adoption rates.

“We also asked people why they chose the dog they adopted and why they did not choose the dog they didn’t adopt after those interactions in the experimental setting,” Protopopova said. “It’s fun to take those words the adopters use, those constructs and figure out what they mean. If an adopter told us they adopted the dogs because it was ‘social and liked me,’ they could simply mean ‘the dog lay down next to me.’”

This training program also is cost-efficient, knowing shelters do not have the resources to afford a professional training staff, which is why Protopopova considers it more behavior management than actual training.

But is it actual training? Or could this be considered more of a way of tricking the dog into behaving a certain way to increase its adoptability? That was certainly something Protopopova considered, though adopters indicated afterward the method was no more intrusive than the control group where the dog was allowed to do whatever it wanted.

“The interactions between adopters and dogs are only eight minutes long because that is how long previous research has shown it takes adopters to decide,” Protopopova said. “The dogs have only eight minutes to show their best side, so if we can do anything to show them off in the best light possible, that is a good thing for the adopter and the dog.”

The next step has been partnering with Maddie’s Fund foundation, which offers grants to shelters that works with community veterinarians, rescue groups and animal control agencies. Through Maddie’s Fund’s help, Protopopova is taking her research to a national scale, trying the same techniques at different types of shelters across the country.

“Will it work in smaller, rural community shelters? Will it work in the big city environment?” Protopopova asked. “Furthermore, will it work in different parts of the country? Our assessment was in Florida, but will it work in Texas, in Boston, in San Francisco? We will take it to six shelters nationally and try it out there.”

Other factors besides behavior
Obviously, factors beyond behavior go into why potential adopters choose the dogs they choose. Adopters can be looking for a certain breed or a certain size of a dog.

Certain breeds such as long-haired dogs, shepherd breeds and collie breeds tend to have high adoption rates, as do toy breeds such as Pomeranians or Chihuahuas. But a second question begged to be asked after the initial research by Protopopova – are some breeds more or less susceptible or accepting of behavioral training?

One problem with answering that question is the majority of dogs in a shelter are not purebreeds, but rather a mix of many breeds or dogs that have never had a purebred ancestor. So determining their trainability based on breed would be difficult.

Age also is an important factor in whether the dog’s behavior can be modified to make it more adoptable. Typically, puppies are more likely to be adopted because of their age and the fact adopters want to find a dog that can be with them for a long time. So training of puppies in an animal shelter setting might not be the best use of limited resources.

Conversely, older dogs that are well into their adulthood tend to stay in the shelter longer because adopters don’t seek them. So the ideal group for this experiment was dogs in their adolescence or just into adulthood. The good news is that, contrary to the old saying, old dogs can be taught new tricks.

“It just makes more sense if you’re a shelter volunteer to put your resources in training adolescent dogs,” Protopopova said. “But how does age affect training in general? It doesn’t affect it a whole lot. But, of course, socialization is very important for puppies. If you haven’t socialized your puppy to different people, different sounds, different environments and other dogs, you will have a much harder time young adult dog is much easier on families. Puppies engage in much worse behavior.”

Protopopova said in some cases it’s also difficult to determine how the dog was treated before arriving at the shelter. Dogs in shelters fall into one of three categories – owner-surrender, stray or confiscated due to abuse or cruelty.

The difficulty comes in owners who surrender dogs to a shelter. Shelters charge a fee to owners who give up their dogs, so in many cases, owners tell the shelter the dog was picked up as a stray to avoid paying that fee, or because they are wracked with guilt for giving up their beloved pet.

Those labels not only make a difference to potential adopters, but an owner-surrender dog, somewhat surprisingly, is more likely on a national scale to be euthanized than a stray, Protopopova said.

While the first study involved roughly 250 dogs, the bigger national study will involve many, many more and will involve dogs from a variety of shelter types, from municipal shelters to limited-admission shelters – a term Protopopova prefers over no-kill shelters. Protopopova is anxious to see how the study works on that national scale and how many adoptions encouraged by a dog’s modified behavior result in some dogs being returned.

Given what has been discovered so far, though, Protopopova is encouraged her efforts and those of her fellow researchers have forged a path to increasing adoptions across the board.

“We are very excited about this procedure because this is really the first time we have experimentally and systematically demonstrated an increase in adoption rates through behavioral training,” Protopopova said.

Source:  Texas Tech University media release

Team develops treatment for canine megaesophagus

The Veterinary Health Center (VHC) at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine is pioneering a new approach to treat one type of canine megaesophagus, a devastating disease of dogs.

megaesophagus-scan

This image shows a canine patient during a video fluoroscopic swallow study. These studies, performed by members of a collaborative research project at the University of Missouri, were a major component of revolutionary techniques developed for the diagnosis and treatment of megaesophagus, a devastating disease of dogs. Credit: MU College of Veterinary Medicine

A partnership between the VHC’s Small Animal Internal Medicine, Radiology, Surgery, and Nutrition services and an investigator in the Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery department at the university’s School of Medicine has resulted in the discovery of a breakthrough treatment for a subpopulation of dogs with megaesophagus. The Mizzou team has identified a defect of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) as a potential treatable cause of megaesophagus.

Megaesophagus (ME) refers to a large, dilated esophagus with poor or no motility preventing normal passage of food and liquid into the stomach. With ingesta not reaching the stomach to produce the sensation of being full, the dog will continue to eat. As a result, the esophagus enlarges greatly. Dogs end up not getting enough calories so they waste away. Dogs with ME also regurgitate large amounts of undigested food and some of that material can be inhaled into the lungs. This inhalation can result in aspiration pneumonia, a dangerous additional symptom that kills many affected animals.

“In general, dogs with megaesophagus typically die of malnutrition, aspiration pneumonia, or are euthanized because the owners are told they have a terrible prognosis,” according to Associate Professor Carol Reinero, DVM, PhD, an internal medicine specialist helping coordinate the efforts of the multidisciplinary team. “We’re taking a closer look at a subpopulation of dogs with idiopathic megaesophagus, which means we don’t know what causes it. We run all of our traditional tests, but we’ve never been able to find an underlying cause. Now with our video fluoroscopic swallow studies, we have identified an abnormality that we believe is driving the problem: an LES-achalasia-like syndrome.”

The LES acts as a valve between the esophagus and the stomach, opening when food and water are swallowed, then clamping tight so food doesn’t come back from the stomach into the esophagus. In dogs afflicted with megaesophagus caused by an achalasia-like syndrome, the LES remains closed.

 “Video fluoroscopic swallow studies have been around a long time,” Reinero said. “The problem with prior protocols is they did not represent normal eating and drinking behaviors. Those tests had very little to do with reality. A dog had to be restrained, lying on its side, and syringe-fed barium, which was not palatable even when mixed with food. If dogs don’t eat during the swallow study you’re not going to get a diagnostic study.”

In order to receive a better diagnostic result, the Mizzou collaborative research team blended innovation with adaptation, developing new techniques and tools while borrowing procedures from human medical practices to diagnose and treat this type of canine ME.

Assistant Professor Teresa Lever, MS, PhD, from the Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery department, spearheaded the development of trapezoidal holding chambers or kennels—which are now patented—where dogs walk in and are funneled to the narrow end of the enclosure. The animals are more naturally restrained and are given food that they consume while standing upright. Lever’s lab, in cooperation with an independent company that conducts feeding trials in dogs, also developed a number of different recipes and consistencies of food and liquid to optimize how well the dogs could take it down and discover which contrast agent was more palatable and effective.

“So, now we have these chambers, we have optimized palatable recipes, and we have experience in normal, healthy dogs without swallowing disorders, as well as lots and lots of patients coming in with other swallowing disorders,” Reinero said. “It was in the process of developing this protocol and having clinical patients come in when we recognized that LES-achalasia-like syndrome was the underlying cause of megaesophagus in some dogs. That’s when we began to adapt what they do with humans, a therapy where we’re opening or dilating the LES with Botox and/or balloon dilation.

“We perform an endoscopy to first dilate the LES and then administer Botox, which paralyzes the sphincter muscles that formerly wanted to remain closed. While we are still evaluating this procedure, we’ve had dogs with remarkable clinical improvement. Additionally, when we repeat the fluoroscopic studies, we can document an open LES. The patients that show improvement can be candidates for surgery, and that surgery is potentially curative,” Reinero said.

During a patient’s recovery, residents in the Nutrition Service monitor the dog’s weight and food intake. The amount of food an owner may give a pet might need to be altered every couple of days.

James Schachtel, Bvet Med, MRCVS, is a Radiology resident and key collaborator in the study.

“This approach gives these dogs a chance, whereas a lot of them didn’t have much of one,” Schachtel said. “At this time, it is early in the evaluation process, but it’s a novel approach that shows promise.

“This subpopulation can receive a really significant benefit from our direct ability to detect their malady. It can give them a really good quality of life. This is a revolutionary diagnostic technique for a disorder identified with a pathological outcome. It offers us the opportunity to use therapies that have been successful in people, so we’re optimistic we can experience similar success with canines,” Schachtel said.

Source:  University of Missouri-Columbia

See also my 2014 post about megaesophagus

Controlling the spread of dog diseases

My comments:

In my experience, the boarding operations and day cares that I and my clients have used have all been diligent about infection control. This isn’t surprising.  Provision of care to multiple dogs in the same environment is their core business and they would be risking their livelihoods and reputation by having an outbreak of disease.

The use, however, of dog parks – at least in Christchurch – seems to be on the rise and this is not always a good thing.  Many of us have experienced dogs that are out of control and owners that don’t seem particularly interested in their responsibilities for picking up poo or training/socialising their dogs.  For this reason, I also question whether or not these owners understand the importance of the core vaccinations along the lines of accepted protocols, or if they recognise when their dog is under the weather.  As the guidelines note, not all diseases are fully preventable with vaccines.

There are only a handful of dogs I have met through my massage courses where the vet has agreed the dog shouldn’t be vaccinated – based on reactions in the past – and have documented this on the dog’s health record.

So, for anyone who organises events with dogs – these guidelines should be useful.  They are geared to North American conditions, but still useful elsewhere.  They are also useful for owners to understand infection control. If you choose to go to events with other animals, reviewing the guidelines and the risk calculator will help you be prepared.

Prevention is better than cure!

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


Dogs aren’t exactly famous for their personal hygiene or for maintaining a respectful distance from their canine pals. With a nuzzle, a shared ball or a bark, a dog battling a bug can easily pass it to others and, in some cases, people.

dog-play-group

Photo by Ohio State University

This becomes especially worrisome in group settings, such as dog parks, dog shows and doggie daycare, where animals can spread illness rapidly and then carry it back into their homes and neighborhoods. Protocol for keeping disease transmission at bay has, until now, lagged decades behind efforts to contain human infectious disease.

New guidance for halting the spread of a multitude of dog diseases is now available, thanks to an effort led by veterinary experts at The Ohio State University.

The advice, which appears in a user-friendly guide and in a scientific paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, is intended to be a tool for those in charge of canine group settings and for dog owners, said Jason Stull, a veterinarian and assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State.

“When you have many dogs in a fairly confined space, the opportunities for disease transmission are everywhere,” Stull said.

Stull and his co-authors want their work to lead to written infection prevention and control plans for settings where dogs congregate.

“In veterinary medicine we’re probably 30 years behind in our infection control efforts compared to human medicine,” he said. “But a lot of the risks really can be managed with some simple steps.”

Stull and his collaborators embarked on the effort at the urging of the American Kennel Club. The researchers reviewed more than 400 academic papers related to the topic and examined published reports of outbreaks of disease in dogs before developing their advice.

The guidance they provide is intended to be an outline of the best possible approach to infection control, Stull said.

But what works in one setting won’t necessarily be practical or possible in another and those who make use of it are expected to tailor the guidelines to their needs, he said.

Among the recommendations:

• Dogs with signs of infection should be kept out of group settings.
• People who touch dogs in group settings, such as handlers, staff and judges, should frequently wash their hands or use sanitizer.
• Community surfaces and items should be regularly disinfected and sharing of items such as leashes, toys and bowls should be avoided.
• Dogs should have up-to-date vaccinations, including against distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza, Bordetella and rabies – all highly contagious diseases that can lead to severe disease and death.
• Efforts should be made to keep rodents and wildlife out of areas where dogs will be, and to keep dogs out of areas most likely to include ticks, fleas and other disease-carrying pests.
• Those in charge of group settings and those who participate should avail themselves of a new online risk calculator to help them determine the potential for disease spread.
• Dogs should be kept clean – and cleaned up after.
• Organizers of group events should avoid overcrowding of dogs.
• Care should be taken with puppies and other dogs with weaker immune systems. The benefits of socialization should be weighed against the risk of illness.
• Every group setting should have on-site or off-site access to a veterinarian who can help with disease-prevention guidelines.

In practice, following this advice could mean a judge uses hand sanitizer between groups of dogs when pulling up their jowls to look at their teeth.

It could mean a parks and recreation department works to eliminate standing water in a dog park, and to stay on top of keeping the grass mowed short.

It could mean a doggie daycare operator assigns dogs to smaller play groups so that if disease spreads it will be limited.

Stull said vaccines are an excellent guard against disease spread, but many of the threats to dog health aren’t vaccine-preventable and require additional thoughtful prevention.

“It’s going to be a bit of a culture change and we need everyone involved – from the dog owners to group organizers to large organizations such as the AKC,” he said.

“People who care about dogs are really invested and want to do what they can to protect their loved ones and that’s what we’re trying to do. On top of that, a lot of these diseases can be transmitted to people.”

Patricia Haines, past president of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association and a consultant to Stull and his collaborators, said the information they’ve provided is invaluable and science-based.

“This project will be informative to the experts, those planning competitive events and for people who manage private facilities and public situations, such as dog parks,” said Haines, who raises and shows pointers.

“Many of the dog-loving public have never thought of the risks at dog parks and other group settings,” she said.

The new infectious disease guidelines do not focus on animal shelters and rescues, which have other factors to consider and for which there are some existing established recommendations, but rather on settings in which the dogs have owners.

About 35 percent of households in the U.S. and Canada have at least one dog – totaling about 75 million canine companions in North America.

The full report, including the risk calculator and fact sheets addressing particular infectious diseases, are available through the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine: http://go.osu.edu/IDk9risk.

Source:  Ohio State University media release

Scientists test nanoparticle drug delivery in dogs with osteosarcoma

At the University of Illinois, an engineer teamed up with a veterinarian to test a bone cancer drug delivery system in animals bigger than the standard animal model, the mouse. They chose dogs – mammals closer in size and biology to humans – with naturally occurring bone cancers, which also are a lot like human bone tumors.

wikimedia-commons-photo-of-bmd

Dogs with naturally occurring cancers are more similar in size and biology to humans than are other mammals, such as mice. Public domain photo: Wikimedia Commons

In clinical trials, the dogs tolerated the highest planned doses of cancer-drug-laden nanoparticles with no signs of toxicity. As in mice, the particles homed in on tumor sites, thanks to a coating of the drug pamidronate, which preferentially binds to degraded sites in bone. The nanoparticles also showed anti-cancer activity in mice and dogs.

The researchers report their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

These findings are a proof-of-concept that nanoparticles can be used to target bone cancers in large mammals, the researchers said. The approach may one day be used to treat metastatic skeletal cancers, they said.

The dogs were companion animals with bone cancer that were submitted for the research trials by their owners, said U. of I.  Professor Dr Timothy Fan, who led the study with materials science and engineering Professor Jianjun Cheng.  All of the dogs were 40 to 60 kilograms (88 to 132 pounds) in weight, he said.

“We wanted to see if we could evaluate these drug-delivery strategies, not only in a mouse model, but also at a scale that would mimic what a person would get,” Fan said. “The amount of nanoparticle that we ended up giving to these dogs was a thousand-fold greater in quantity than what we would typically give a mouse.”

Using nanoparticles with payloads of drugs to target specific tissues in the body is nothing new, Cheng said. Countless studies test such approaches in mice, and dozens of “nanopharmaceuticals” are approved for use in humans. But the drug-development pipeline is long, and the leap from mouse models to humans is problematic, he said.

“Human bone tumors are much bigger than those of mice,” Cheng said. “Nanoparticles must penetrate more deeply into larger tumors to be effective. That is why we must find animal models that are closer in scale to those of humans.”

Mice used in cancer research have other limitations. Researchers usually inject human or other tumor cells into their bodies to mimic human cancers, Fan said. They also are bred to have compromised immune systems, to prevent them from rejecting the tumors.

“That is one of the very clear drawbacks of using a mouse model,” Fan said. “it doesn’t recapitulate the normal immune system that we deal with every day in the person or in a dog.”

There also are limitations to working with dogs, he said. Dogs diagnosed with bone cancer often arrive at the clinic at a very advanced stage of the disease, whereas in humans, bone cancer is usually detected early because people complain about the pain and have it investigated.

“On the flip side of that, I would say that if you are able to demonstrate anti-cancer activity in a dog with very advanced disease, then it would be likely that you would have equivalent or better activity in people with a less advanced stage of the disease,” Fan said.

Many more years of work remain before this or a similar drug-delivery system can be tested in humans with inoperable bone cancer, the researchers said.

Source:  Illinois News Bureau media release

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

Children are unaware of the risks of approaching frightened dogs

Children understand the risks of approaching an angry dog but they are unaware that they should show the same caution around frightened dogs says a study presented to the British Psychological Society’s Developmental Psychology Section’s annual conference this week.

kid-scared-pet_s36fbl

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Rose of Staffordshire University said: “UK statistics show that young children are at the highest risk of being bitten by a dog with nearly 1200 admissions to hospital for under 10’s during 2013-2014. This study explored whether the explanation is that they are unable to accurately recognise a dog’s emotions when approaching one.”

Dr Rose and Grace Alridge (also of Staffordshire University) asked two groups of children aged 4 to 5 (57) and 6 to 7 years old (61) to watch 15 videos and look at 15 images showing real life behaviour of dogs.  Video clips were all between 6 and 11 seconds long and the only auditory information was the dog barking. The images and videos used had been watched by two veterinary nurses and two laypeople who had agreed on the emotion the dog was showing.

Both groups were asked questions relating to their intention to approach the dog (Would you play with this dog?) and what emotion they thought the dog was experiencing (How happy/angry/frightened do you think this dog is feeling?).

Analysis of the results showed that the children recognised happy, angry and frightened dogs in videos and images at above the level of chance. Furthermore, they recognised angry dogs more accurately than happy or frightened dogs.

However, although the children were less likely to approach an angry dog there was no difference in their inclination to approach a happy or frightened dog.

Dr Rose said: “Young children are relatively good at accurately identifying the emotion that a dog is displaying. However, children’s understanding of safety around dogs is lacking as they only demonstrated caution about approaching angry dogs. They appeared to be unaware that there might be problems approaching frightened dogs. This finding should help inform dog bite prevention campaigns.” 

Source:  The British Psychological Society media release

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

Praise or food?

Given the choice, many dogs prefer praise from their owners over food, suggests a new study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The study is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioral experiments to explore canine reward preferences.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and lead author of the research. “Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”

food-or-praise

Praise Pooch: Most of the dogs in the experiments preferred praise over food, or liked them both equally. Kady, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, was the top dog when it came to the strength of her preference for praise.

Dogs were at the center of the most famous experiments of classical conditioning, conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov showed that if dogs are trained to associate a particular stimulus with food, the animals salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus, in anticipation of the food.

“One theory about dogs is that they are primarily Pavlovian machines: They just want food and their owners are simply the means to get it,” Berns says. “Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. In previous research, the Dog Project identified the ventral caudate region of the canine brain as a reward center. It also showed how that region of a dog’s brain responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

chowhound

Chowhound: Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time. “Ozzie was a bit of an outlier,” Berns says, “but Ozzie’s owner understands him and still loves him.”

For the current experiment, the researchers began by training the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes. A pink toy truck signaled a food reward; a blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signaled no reward, to serve as a control.
The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an fMRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.

All of the dogs showed a stronger neural activation for the reward stimuli compared to the stimulus that signaled no reward, and their responses covered a broad range. Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

The dogs then underwent a behavioral experiment. Each dog was familiarized with a room that contained a simple Y-shaped maze constructed from baby gates: One path of the maze led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner. The owners sat with their backs toward their dogs. The dog was then repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths. If they came to the owner, the owner praised them.

“We found that the caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” Berns says. “Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make. Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

The experiments lay the groundwork for asking more complicated questions about the canine experience of the world. The Berns’ lab is currently exploring the ability of dogs to process and understand human language.

“Dogs are hypersocial with humans,” Berns says, “and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding.”

Source:  Emory University media release

Pet therapy can combat homesickness

The expression dog is man’s best friend might have more weight in the case of first-year university students suffering from homesickness, according to a new UBC study.

The study shows that animal-assisted therapy can help students combat homesickness and could be a useful tool in lowering post-secondary drop-out rates.

homesickness-research-photo

John Tyler Binfet, seen with his dog Frances, conducted a study on the effect of pet therapy on homesickness. Binfet runs the Building Academic Retention Through K’9s (B.A.R.K.) program at UBC’s Okanagan campus. Credit: UBC

“Transitioning from high school to university can prove to be a challenge for many first-year students,” says Assistant Professor John Tyler Binfet of UBC’s Okanagan campus.

“Given that students who experience homesickness are more likely than their non-homesick cohorts to drop out of university, universities have a vested interest in supporting students during their first-year transition.”

In the study, 44 first-year university students who self-identified as homesick were given a survey to measure levels of homesickness, satisfaction with life and connectedness with campus. Half of the students completed eight weeks of dog therapy, while the other half were informed that their sessions would begin in eight weeks’ time. Dog therapy included 45-minute weekly sessions involving small group interactions with the dogs and handlers, and engagement with other first-year students participating in the study.

Following the initial eight-week session, participants in both the treatment group and the non-treatment group completed the survey again.

Participants who completed the eight-week program experienced significant reductions in homesickness and greater increase in satisfaction with life. Participants reported that sessions “felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies.” While the non-treatment group reported an increase in their feelings of homesickness.

According to a 2009 report conducted for B.C. Stats, students who left post-secondary happy were almost twice as likely to have felt a sense of belonging compared to students who left unhappy. Students who left university unhappy were almost twice as likely to say they did not feel a sense of belonging on campus.

A total of 29 per cent of students who dropped out cited more interactions and friendships with other students as a factor that would have influenced their decision to stay longer.

While further study is needed, a university’s ability to influence campus connections could be a useful tool in lowering drop-out rates in first-year students, says Binfet.

“Many first-year university students face the challenge of integrating into their new campus community,” says Binfet. “Homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university.”

“Moving to a new city, I did not know anyone at the university and became very homesick and depressed,” says UBC Okanagan student Varenka Kim. “I was mainly secluded in my dorm room and did not feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life.”

Source:  University of British Columbia media release