Category Archives: special dogs and awards

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

A girl and her service dog head to the Supreme Court

UPDATE: On 22 February 2017, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in favor of Ehlena Fry and her parents. They are not obligated to go through time-consuming administrative appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.

Ehlena Fry, a girl born with cerebral palsy, has had her Goldendoodle service dog named Wonder since 2009.  When it was time for her to go to school, the school refused to allow Wonder onto school grounds.

ehlena-and-wonder-2

The case has gone to the US Supreme Court – so that other parents won’t face the same hurdles.

Listen to and read the full story here.

Sniffing out UTIs

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are a real problem in people with mobility and neurological disorders. Often, a bacterial infection is well-advanced before the person shows symptoms.  And the consequences for a vulnerable patient like someone who is elderly can be dire.

Knowing that dogs have been trained to sniff out cancers, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii thought they could be put to use in detecting UTIs at an early stage.

urinary-tract-infection-and-dogs

They were right.

All dogs in a controlled study detected samples with between 90 and 94% accuracy, even in very diluted samples.

Read the full journal article here.

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

Southwest Airlines teams up with Canine Companions

Southwest Airlines has committed its support to Canine Companions for Independence by allowing volunteer puppy raisers and their puppies to travel at no additional charge (a savings of $95 per puppy per trip).

The company has instituted this benefit as a standard policy after a very successful six-month trial.  The puppy raisers were professional and the puppies were well-behaved.

The puppies gain valuable experience with commercial flying even before they are fully trained and graduate.  So the Airline is supporting the Canine Companions’ training program with practical skills.

Founded in 1975, CCI is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly-trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. CCI is the largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs, and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs, and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. CCI trains four types of assistance dogs: Service dogs, Hearing dogs, Skilled Companion dogs, and Facility dogs—all of which provide specialized assistance to those in need.

Well done to Southwest Airlines!

Puppy raisers pre-board each aircraft at the same time that passengers with disabilities are given the opportunity to board.  The dogs must have a valid vaccination record and CCI identification must also be produced.

canine-companions-for-independence

Source:  The Companion, Northeast Region, Summer 2016

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

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