Category Archives: special dogs and awards

Improving the lives of kids with disabilities – one family dog at a time

The family dog could serve as a partner and ally in efforts to help children with disabilities incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives, a new study from Oregon State University indicates.

In a case study of one 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and his family’s dog, researchers found the intervention program led to a wide range of improvements for the child, including physical activity as well as motor skills, quality of life and human-animal interactions.

“These initial findings indicate that we can improve the quality of life for children with disabilities, and we can get them to be more active,” said Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and corresponding author on the study. “And in this case, both are happening simultaneously, which is fantastic.”

CP-kid-and-dog-2-e1402346844838

A boy with cerebral palsy and a therapy dog (not the dog in this study) Photo courtesy of: http://www.michigancerebralpalsyattorneys.com

The researchers detailed the child’s experience in the adapted physical activity intervention program in a case study just published in the journal Animals.

Children with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy spend significantly less time participating in physical activity compared to their peers and are considered a health disparity group, meaning they generally face more health concerns than their peers.

Researchers designed an adapted physical activity, animal-assisted intervention where the family dog would serve as a partner with the child in physical activities designed to help improve overall physical activity, motor skills and quality of life. The family dog is a good choice for this type of intervention because the animal is already known to the child and there is an existing relationship – and both the dog and the child will benefit from the activities, MacDonald said.

Researchers took initial assessments of the child’s daily physical activity, motor skills and quality of life before starting the eight-week intervention. A veterinarian examined the dog’s fitness for participation and the human-animal interaction between the dog, a year-old Pomeranian, and the child was also assessed.

Then the pair began the eight-week intervention, which included a supervised physical activity program once a week for 60 minutes and participation in activities such as brushing the dog with each hand; playing fetch and alternating hands; balancing on a wobble board; and marching on a balancing disc.

“The dog would also balance on the wobble board, so it became a challenge for the child – if the dog can do it, I can, too,” MacDonald said. “It was so cool to see the relationship between the child and the dog evolve over time. They develop a partnership and the activities become more fun and challenging for the child. It becomes, in part, about the dog and the responsibility of taking care of it.”

The dog and the child also had “homework,” which included brushing the dog, playing fetch and going on daily walks. The child wore an accelerometer to measure physical activity levels at home.

At the conclusion of the intervention, researchers re-assessed and found that the child’s quality of life had increased significantly in several areas, including emotional, social and physical health, as assessed by the child as well as the parent. In addition, the child’s sedentary behavior decreased and time spent on moderate to vigorous activity increased dramatically.

“The findings so far are very encouraging,” MacDonald said. “There’s a chance down the road we could be encouraging families to adopt a dog for the public health benefits. How cool would that be?” 

The researchers also found that the relationship between the dog and the child improved over the course of the therapy as they worked together on various tasks. The dog’s prosocial, or positive, behavior toward the child is a sign of wellbeing for both members of the team, said Udell, who is director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at OSU.

“A closer child-dog bond increases the likelihood of lasting emotional benefits and may also facilitate long-term joint activity at home, such as taking walks, simply because it is enjoyable for all involved,” she said.

This study is one of the first to evaluate how a dog’s behavior and wellbeing are affected by their participation in animal-assisted therapy, Udell noted. From an animal welfare standpoint, it is promising that the dog’s behavior and performance on cognitive and physical tasks improved alongside the child’s.

Though the case study features only one child, the research team recruited several families with children with disabilities and their dogs to participate in the larger project, which was designed in part to test the design and methodology of the experiment and determine if it could be implemented on a larger scale.

Based on the initial results, researchers hope to pursue additional studies involving children with disabilities and their family dogs, if funding can be secured. They would like to examine other benefits such a pairing might have, including the sense of responsibility the child appears to gain during the course of the intervention.

“We’re also learning a lot from our child participants,” MacDonald said. “They’re teaching us stuff about friendship with the animal and the responsibility of taking care of a pet, which allows us to ask more research questions about the influence of a pet on the child and their family.” 

Source:  Oregon State University media statement

Job share: Boots and Rush

When this story came through my Facebook feed, I had to share it.

Yet another ‘working dogs/therapy dogs’ success story – this time in Western Australia at the Woodvale Secondary College using two special greyhounds.

Boots came first for three days of dog therapy support, and then Rush joined to fill in for the remaining two days.

Enjoy this video, which shows therapy dog work and benefits:

And the spin-off benefit from using the dogs at the school is the profile raised for greyhound adoption.

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

San Diego therapy dog detects water contamination

It’s just a small news item in the Los Angeles and San Diego newspapers…but it’s another story of how special dogs are – and how they use their detection skills to help humans.

On 26 January 2017, a therapy dog at San Diego Cooperative Charter School in Mountain View wouldn’t drink the water a teacher had poured for it from the classroom sink.

The teacher noticed a sheen on the water, which was tested and initially revealed the substance vinyl chloride.  Subsequent testing has revealed levels of lead some of which exceed health standards.

A district-wide water testing program is underway in all City of San Diego schools.

All because of one keen-nosed therapy dog with discerning tastes!

Source:  LA Times; Voice of San Diego

Mutual Rescue™ – Tracy and Jack

I blogged about Mutual Rescue™ last year; it’s a a trademarked initiative of the Humane Society Silicon Valley.  Aimed at changing the way people think of animal welfare and adoption, each year the Society asks for submissions from people to share their story about a special connection they have made with an animal.

The first story of 2017 has been released.  Meet Tracy and Jack.  Note that Jack is a tripod as well as having only one eye.  It doesn’t stop him from living a full life.

Note:  Tripods benefit from regular massage which helps to retain full range of motion in the remaining limbs.   Stretching and relieving tension in hard-working muscles helps to keep these special needs dogs moving.   I love working with tripods (I don’t live near Jack, so can’t work with him)!

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

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

Scat sniffer dogs help tell the story of endangered lizards

Dogs can be trained to find almost anything (people, drugs, weapons, poached ivory) but one York University researcher had them detect something a little unusual – the scat of endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

The scat detection dogs helped biology PhD student Alex Filazzola discover not only scat, but the importance of shrubs in preserving lizard populations in the face of climate change.

“The loss of these lizards would likely have a cascade effect on other species,” said Filazzola, the study lead.

The research team geo-tagged 700 Ephedra californica shrubs in a 32.3-hectare area of the Panoche Hills Management Area in San Joaquin Valley, California. They then took two scat detection dogs from Working Dogs for Conservation on the hunt for lizard scat in 2013 and 2014.

In 2014, there was a drought during which time lizard scat was found more frequently under shrubs, especially those with dense canopy cover, than out in the open. The shrubs proved instrumental in providing critical micro-environments for the blunt-nosed leopard lizards, in particular, shady places to regulate their body temperature in extreme heat, as well as refuge from predators. The lizards use rodent burrows, most often found under shrubs, to escape predators.

“As the climate warms and lizards find it more difficult to regulate their body temperatures in the heat, these findings could help preserve them not only in California, but globally,” said Filazzola of York U’s Faculty of Science. “It demonstrates how much animals rely on plants for survival that goes beyond that of simply eating them. Positive plant-animal interactions could further support animal populations that are already threatened.”

The research, “Non-trophic interactions in deserts: Facilitation, interference, and an endangered lizard species,” was published in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology.

Once abundant in the San Joaquin Valley, agriculture and industrialization has reduced the lizards’ range by close to 85 per cent. Predictions of increased drought in the area put the lizards at a high risk of being wiped out. The study also pointed out that management techniques used over the past 50 years have done little to change the endangered status of the lizards.

“Planting shrubs, such as the Ephedra californica, could prove critical in managing and preserving endangered species in high-stress or arid ecosystems, such as a desert,” said Filazzola. “Continuing to remove these shrubs to install solar panels, however, further endangers this species.”

In addition, the study found that invasive grasses in the desert were not beneficial. They interfered with the lizards’ ability to move around and limited available habitat by reducing the variety of rodent species which create burrows. The invasive grasses also competed for space with shrubs and caused diminished shrub growth. Managing invasive plant species is therefore crucial in these ecosystems.

The research was funded by the Central Coast Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and York University.

Source: York University media release

Heroes Wear Fur

Retailer Orvis has published a very useful infographic concerning Working Military Dogs (WMDs).  Deployment of these dogs has increased 400% in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Orvis Military Working Dogs Infographic