Category Archives: special dogs and awards

Have Dog, Will Travel – a book review

Subtitled A Poet’s Journey, this book is a memoir about how Stephen Kuusisto’s first guide dog changed his life.

Born legally blind in the 1950s, Stephen’s family taught him to hide his disability. His alcoholic mother was particularly harsh and so the young Stephen would read books by pressing them right up against his nose and even rode a bike by teaching himself the layout of the local roads (which sounded to me like a particularly hazardous activity). A poet, at age 38 he was employed as a lecturer and made his away around his small college town because he had memorized the routes he needed to take.

Then he was made redundant and was disheartened and depressed when a job coach suggested that he could get a job as a pieceworker in an assembly line. Recognising that if he wanted more, he would need to broaden his world, Stephen registered with Guiding Eyes and started on a new journey with Corky the Labrador by his side.

This book recounts Stephen’s decision to get a guide dog. Under Corky’s guidance, Stephen was able to find an independence he had never known and was employed by Guiding Eyes to speak to audiences about the organisation’s activities and its value to those people with limited or no vision.

I liked this book; it’s a testament to the human-animal bond and the giving nature of dogs. I prefer hard copy books to e-reading and so this book will reside with my growing collection of dog books on the shelf in my lounge.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Petting therapy dogs enhances thinking skills of stressed students

For college students under pressure, a dog may be the best stress fighter around.

Programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved stressed-out students’ thinking and planning skills more effectively than programs that included traditional stress-management information, according to new Washington State University research.

Enzo, a Labrador retriever and experienced therapy dog, enjoys some attention and relaxation during the WSU stress management study with students.

The study was published on May 12, 2021 in the journal AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. The paper demonstrated that stressed students still exhibited these cognitive skills improvements up to six weeks after completion of the four-week-long program.

“It’s a really powerful finding,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues. This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

The researchers measured executive functioning in the 309 students involved in the study. Executive function is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, memorize: “all the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college,” Pendry said.

Pendry conducted this study as a follow up to previous work, which found that petting animals for just 10 minutes had physiological impacts, reducing students’ stress in the short-term.

In the three-year study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interaction and evidenced-based academic stress management. The dogs and volunteer handlers were provided through Palouse Paws, a local affiliate of Pet Partners, a national organization with over 10,000 therapy teams.

“The results were very strong,” Pendry said. “We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.”

Many universities, including WSU, have provided academic stress management programs and workshops for many years. These are traditionally very similar to college classes, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows and take notes. They’re often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” Pendry said. “Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling. It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.”

Human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. Through petting animals, they are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning, Pendry said.

“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” she said.

Animal sessions aren’t just about changing behavior; they help students engage in positive thoughts and actions.

“You can’t learn math just by being chill,” Pendry said. “But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful. Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning.”

The study was supported by a grant through the WALTHAM Human–Animal Interaction Collaborative Research Program.

Source: Washington State University

With impressive accuracy, dogs can sniff out coronavirus

Many long for a return to a post-pandemic “normal,” which, for some, may entail concerts, travel, and large gatherings. But how to keep safe amid these potential public health risks?

One possibility, according to a new study, is dogs. A proof-of-concept investigation published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that specially trained detection dogs can sniff out COVID-19-positive samples with 96% accuracy.

“This is not a simple thing we’re asking the dogs to do,” says Cynthia Otto, senior author on the work and director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Working Dog Center. “Dogs have to be specific about detecting the odor of the infection, but they also have to generalize across the background odors of different people: men and women, adults and children, people of different ethnicities and geographies.”

In this initial study, researchers found the dogs could do that, but training must proceed with great care and, ideally, with many samples. The findings are feeding into another investigation that Otto and colleagues have dubbed “the T-shirt study,” in which dogs are being trained to discriminate between the odors of COVID-positive, -negative, and -vaccinated individuals based on the volatile organic compounds they leave on a T-shirt worn overnight.

“We are collecting many more samples in that study—hundreds or more—than we did in this first one, and are hopeful that will get the dogs closer to what they might encounter in a community setting,” Otto says.

Through the Working Dog Center, she and colleagues have had years of experience training medical-detection dogs, including those that can identify ovarian cancer. When the pandemic arrived, they leveraged that expertise to design a coronavirus detection study.

Collaborators Ian Frank from the Perelman School of Medicine and Audrey Odom John from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia provided SARS-CoV-2-positive samples from adult and pediatric patients, as well as samples from patients who had tested negative to serve as experimental controls. Otto worked closely with coronavirus expert Susan Weiss of Penn Medicine to process some of the samples in Penn’s Biosafety Level 2+ laboratory to inactivate the virus so they would be safe for the dogs to sniff.

Because of workplace shutdowns due to the pandemic, instead of working with dogs at Penn Vet, the researchers partnered with Pat Nolan, a trainer with a facility in Maryland.

Eight Labrador retrievers and a Belgian Malinois that had not done medical-detection work before were used in the study. First the researchers trained them to recognize a distinctive scent, a synthetic substance known as universal detection compound (UDC). They used a “scent wheel” in which each of 12 ports is loaded with a different sample and rewarded the dog when it responded to the port containing UDC.

When the dogs consistently responded to the UDC scent, the team began training them to respond to urine samples from SARS-CoV-2 positive patients and discern positive from negative samples. The negative samples were subjected to the same inactivation treatment—either heat inactivation or detergent inactivation—as the positive samples.

Processing the results with assistance from Penn criminologist and statistician Richard Berk, the team found that after three weeks of training all nine dogs were able to readily identify SARS-CoV-2 positive samples, with 96% accuracy on average. Their sensitivity, or ability to avoid false negatives, however, was lower, in part, the researchers believe, because of the stringent criteria of the study: If the dogs walked by a port containing a positive sample even once without responding, that was labeled a “miss.”

The researchers ran into many complicating factors in their study, such as the tendency of the dogs to discriminate between the actual patients, rather than between their SARS-CoV-2 infection status. The dogs were also thrown off by a sample from a patient that tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 but who had recently recovered from COVID-19.

“The dogs kept responding to that sample, and we kept telling them no,” Otto says. “But obviously there was still something in the patient’s sample that the dogs were keying in on.”

Major lessons learned from the study, besides confirming that there is a SARS-CoV-2 odor that dogs can detect, were that future training should entail large numbers of diverse samples and that dogs should not be trained repeatedly on the samples from any single individual.

“That’s something we can carry forward not only in our COVID training but in our cancer work and any other medical detection efforts we do,” says Otto. “We want to make sure that we have all the steps in place to ensure quality, reproducibility, validity, and safety for when we operationalize our dogs and have them start screening in community settings.”

Cynthia M. Otto is a professor of working dog sciences & sports medicine and director of the Working Dog Center in the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Source: Penn Today

Sniffing in the name of science

The lists of Earth’s endangered animals and plants are getting increasingly longer. But in order to stop this trend, we require more information. It is often difficult to find out exactly where the individual species can be found and how their populations are developing. According to a new overview study published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution by Dr Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and her colleagues, specially trained detection dogs can be indispensable in such cases. With the help of these dogs, the species sought can usually be found faster and more effectively than with other methods.

How many otters are there still in Germany? What habitats do threatened crested newts use on land? And do urban hedgehogs have to deal with different problems than their rural conspecifics? Anyone wishing to effectively protect a species should be able to answer such questions. But this is by no means easy. Many animals remain in hiding – even their droppings can be difficult to find. Thus, it is often difficult to know exactly whether and at what rate their stocks are shrinking or where the remaining survivors are. “We urgently need to know more about these species”, says Dr Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth of the UFZ. “But first we must find them”.

Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth with specially trained detection dog “Zammy”, a Border Collie.

Remote sensing with aerial and satellite images is useful for mapping open landscapes or detecting larger animals. But when it comes to densely overgrown areas and smaller, hidden species, experts often carry out the search themselves or work with cameras, hair traps, and similar tricks. Other techniques (e.g. analysing trace amounts of DNA) have also been attracting increasing interest worldwide. The use of specially trained detection dogs can also be particularly useful. After all, a dog’s sense of smell is virtually predestined to find the smallest traces of the target species. While humans have about six million olfactory receptors, a herding dog has more than 200 million – and a beagle even 300 million. This means that dogs can perceive an extremely wide range of odours, often in the tiniest concentrations. For example, they can easily find animal droppings in a forest or plants, mushrooms, and animals underground. 

At the UFZ, the detection dogs have already proven their abilities in several research projects. “In order to be able to better assess their potential, we wanted to know how detection dogs have previously been used around the world”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. Together with UFZ employee Wiebke Harms and Dr Anne Berger from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, she has evaluated 1220 publications documenting the use of such search dogs in more than 60 countries. “We were particularly interested in which breeds of dogs were used, which species they were supposed to track down, and how well they performed”, explains the researcher.

The longest experience with the detection dogs is in New Zealand, where dogs have been tracking threatened birds since around 1890. Since then, the idea has been implemented in many other regions, especially in North America and Europe. The studies analysed focused mainly on finding animals as well as their habitats and tracks. Dogs have been used to find more than 400 different animal species – most commonly mammals from the cat, dog, bear, and marten families. They have also been used to find birds and insects as well as 42 different plant species, 26 fungal species, and 6 bacterial species. These are not always endangered species. The dogs sometimes also sniff out pests such as bark beetles or invasive plants such as knotgrass and ragweed.

“In principle, you can train all dog breeds for such tasks”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. “But some of them may require more work than others”. Pinschers and Schnauzers, for example, are now more likely to be bred as companion dogs and are therefore less motivated to track down species. And terriers tend to immediately snatch their targets – which is, of course, not desirable. 

Pointers and setters, on the other hand, have been specially bred to find and point out game – but not to hunt it. This is why these breeds are often used in research and conservation projects in North America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia in order to detect ground-breeding birds such as ptarmigans and wood grouse. Retrievers and herding dogs also have qualities that make them good at tracking species. They are eager to learn, easy to motivate, enjoy working with people, and generally do not have a strong hunting instinct. That is why Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepherds are among the most popular detection dogs worldwide. 

Grimm-Seyfarth’s Border Collie Zammy, for example, learned as a puppy how to track down the droppings of otters. This is a valuable contribution to research because the droppings can be genetically analysed to find out which individual it comes from, how it is related to other conspecifics, and what it has eaten. However, even for experienced experts, these revealing traces are not so easy to find. Especially small and dark coloured droppings are easy to overlook. Dogs, on the other hand, sniff even the most unremarkable droppings without distinction. In an earlier UFZ study, they found four times as many droppings as human investigators alone. And the fact that Zammy is now also looking for crested newts makes his efforts even more rewarding.

According to the overview study, many other teams around the world have had similarly good experiences. In almost 90% of cases, the dogs worked much more effectively than other detection methods. Compared with camera traps, for example, they detected between 3.7 and 4.7 fold more black bears, pied martens, and bobcats. They are also often reach their destination particularly quickly. “They can find a single plant on a football field in a very short time”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. They are even able to discover underground parts of plants.

However, there are also cases where the use of detection dogs is not the method of choice. Rhinos, for example, leave their large piles of excrement clearly visible on paths so that humans can easily find them on their own. And animal species that know feral dogs as enemies are more likely to find (and fight) the detection dogs than to be found. “However, in most cases where the dogs did not perform so well, poor training is to blame”, says Grimm-Seyfarth. She believes that good training of the animal is the most important recipe for success for detection dogs. “If you select the right dog, know enough about the target species, and design the study accordingly, this can be an excellent detection method”. She and her colleagues are already planning further applications for the useful detection dogs. A new project that involves tracking down invasive plant species will soon be launched.

Publication: 
Annegret Grimm-Seyfarth, Wiebke Harms, Anne Berger: Detection dogs in nature conservation: A database on their worldwide deployment with a review on breeds used and their performance compared to other methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution (2020), DOI: 10.1111/2041-210X.13560. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/2041-210X.13560

Source: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)

Dogs put the fun into learning vital social skills

A new UBC Okanagan study finds children not only reap the benefits of working with therapy dogs–they enjoy it too.

“Dog lovers often have an assumption that canine-assisted interventions are going to be effective because other people are going to love dogs,” says Nicole Harris, who conducted this research while a master’s student in the School of Education. “While we do frequently see children improve in therapy dog programs, we didn’t have data to support that they enjoyed the time as well.”

Harris was the lead researcher in the study that explored how children reacted while participating in a social skill-training program with therapy dogs.

The research saw 22 children from the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club take part in a series of sessions to help them build their social skills. Over six weeks, the children were accompanied by therapy dogs from UBC Okanagan’s Building Academic Retention through K9s (BARK) program as they completed lessons.

Each week the children were taught a new skill, such as introducing themselves or giving directions to others. The children would first practice with their assigned therapy dog before running through the exercise with the rest of the group. In the final phase, the children —accompanied by their new furry friend and volunteer handler —would practice their new skills with university students located in the building.

“Therapy dogs are often able to reach children and facilitate their growth in surprising ways. We saw evidence of this in the social skills of children when they were paired with a therapy dog,” says Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the School of Education and director of BARK. “The dogs helped create a non-threatening climate while the children were learning these new skills. We saw the children practice and hone their social skills with and alongside the dogs.”

While the children were learning and practising their new skills, the research team collected data.

“Findings from our observations suggested that canine-assisted social and emotional learning initiatives can provide unique advantages,” says Harris. “Our team saw that by interacting with the therapy dogs, the children’s moods improved and their engagement in their lessons increased.”

In fact, 87 per cent of the team rated the children’s engagement level as very or extremely engaged during the sessions.

At the end of the six weeks, Harris interviewed eight children, aged 5 to 11 years old, who regularly attended the sessions. Each child indicated the social skill-training program was an enjoyable and positive experience and the dogs were a meaningful and essential part of the program.

One participant noticed that the children behaved better at the sessions than at their regular after-school care program, and they thought it was because the children liked being around the dogs.

Half of the children mentioned ways that they felt the dogs helped with their emotional well-being, with one participant crediting a dog with helping him “become more responsible and control his silliness.”

As a full-time elementary school teacher, Harris notes that schools have become increasingly important in helping students develop social and emotional skills, and this research could contribute to the development of future school-based or after-school programs.

“Dogs have the ability to provide many stress-reducing and confidence-boosting benefits to children,” says Harris. “It was really heartwarming to see the impact the program had on the kids.”

The research stemmed from the Building Confidence through K9s program, which was offered in partnership with the TELUS Thompson Okanagan Community Board.

The study was published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education.

Source: University of British Columbia

K9 Chemistry: A Safer Way to Train Detection Dogs

Trained dogs are incredible chemical sensors, far better at detecting explosives, narcotics and other substances than even the most advanced technological device. But one challenge is that dogs have to be trained, and training them with real hazardous substances can be inconvenient and dangerous.

NIST scientists have been working to solve this problem using a jello-like material called polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS for short. PDMS absorbs odors and releases them slowly over time. Enclose it in a container with an explosive or narcotic for a few weeks until it absorbs the odors, and you can then use it to safely train dogs to detect the real thing. 

A detection dog in training.
Credit: Courtesy of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine

But a few weeks is a long time, and now, NIST researchers have developed a faster way to infuse PDMS with vapors. In the journal Forensic Chemistry, they describe warming compounds found in explosives, causing them to release vapors more quickly, then capturing those vapors with PDMS that is maintained at a cooler temperature, which allows it to absorb vapors more readily. This two-temperature method cut the time it took to “charge” PDMS training aids from a few weeks to a few days. 

“That time savings can be critical,” said NIST research chemist Bill MacCrehan. “If terrorists are using a new type of explosive, you don’t want to wait a month for the training aids to be ready.”

For this experiment, MacCrehan infused PDMS with vapors from dinitrotoluene (DNT), which is a low-level contaminant present in TNT explosives but the main odorant that dogs respond to when detecting TNT. He also infused PDMS with vapors from a small quantity of TNT. Co-authors at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine then demonstrated that trained detection dogs responded to the DNT-infused PDMS training aids as if they were real TNT. 

While this study focused on DNT as a proof of concept, MacCrehan says he believes the two-temperature method will also work with other explosives and with narcotics such as fentanyl. Some forms of fentanyl are so potent that inhaling a small amount can be harmful or fatal to humans and dogs. But by controlling how much vapor the PDMS absorbs, MacCrehan says, it should be possible to create safe training aids for fentanyl.

Other safe training aids already exist. Some are prepared by dissolving explosives and applying the solution to glass beads, for example. “But most have not been widely accepted in the canine detection community because their effectiveness has not been proven,” said Paul Waggoner, a co-author and co-director of Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences Program. “If you put an explosive in a solvent, the dogs might actually be detecting the solvent, not the explosive.”

To test the two-temperature method, MacCrehan devised a PDMS “charging station” with a hot plate on one side and a cooling plate on the other (so the “hot stays hot and the cool stays cool,” as a 1980s commercial jingle put it). He prepared various samples by placing the DNT on the hot side, where the chemical was warmed to temperatures ranging from 30 to 35 degrees Celsius (86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit) — well below the temperature that would cause TNT to detonate. The PDMS was kept a relatively cool 20 degrees Celsius, or about room temperature, on the other side of the charging station. 

MacCrehan loaded the DNT-infused PDMS samples, which hold their charge for up to a few months, into perforated metal cans. He also loaded several cans with blanks — PDMS samples to which no vapors were added. He labeled the cans with codes and shipped them to Auburn University. 

The researchers at Auburn had trained a team of six Labrador retrievers to detect TNT using real TNT explosives. They then conducted a study to determine if the dogs would alert to the PDMS from NIST samples as if it were real TNT.

This study was “double blind”: Neither the dog handlers nor the note-takers who scored the dogs’ responses knew which containers underwent which preparation. This is important because dogs are keenly attuned to the body language of their handlers. If the handlers knew which samples were prepared with DNT, they might inadvertently cue the dogs with the direction of their gaze, a subtle shift in body position or some other subconscious gesture. And if the note-takers knew which samples were which, they might over-interpret the dogs’ responses.

The dogs alerted to all the DNT-infused PDMS samples. They did not alert to the blanks, meaning that they were responding to the DNT, not to the PDMS itself. “They responded to the samples as if they were the real thing,” Waggoner said. 

The dogs did not respond as consistently to PDMS that was infused with limited quantities of TNT. However, MacCrehan explains that the very small amounts of TNT he used for this purpose may not have contained sufficient amounts of DNT to fully infuse the samples.

Looking forward, MacCrehan will be experimenting with ways to safely prepare PDMS training aids for the improvised explosives TATP and HMTD. These compounds are extremely unstable and detonate easily, so having safe training aids for them will be especially useful.

MacCrehan is a laboratory chemist, not an animal behavior expert. But despite his technological orientation, he is amazed by dogs. He estimates that they are 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than the most sophisticated analytical instruments. “We are nowhere near having a hand-held gizmo that can do what they do,” he said.  


Paper: W. MacCrehan, M. Young, M. Schantz, T.C. Angle, P. Waggoner and T. Fischer. Two-temperature preparation method and visualization of PDMS-based canine training aids for explosives. Forensic Chemistry. Published online Oct. 15, 2020. DOI: 10.1016/j.forc.2020.100290

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Tracking the working dogs of 9/11

When veterinarian Cynthia Otto was in Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks helping support the search and rescue dogs, she heard rumors about the possible impact on the dogs’ long-term health.

“I was at Ground Zero and I would hear people make comments like, ‘Did you hear that half of the dogs that responded to the bombing in Oklahoma City died of X, Y, or Z?’ Or they’d say dogs responding to 9/11 had died,” she recalls. “It was really disconcerting.” 

Cynthia Otto (center) cared for search-and-rescue dogs during their work at the 9/11 disaster site, later studying the impact of their service on their health. (Image: Courtesy of Cynthia Otto)

It also underscored to her the importance of collecting rigorous data on the health of dogs deployed to disaster sites. An initiative that launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did just that, and this week, 19 years later, Otto and colleagues’ findings offer reassurance. Dogs that participated in search-and-rescue efforts following 9/11 lived a similar length of time, on average, compared to a control group of search-and-rescue dogs and outlived their breed-average life spans. There was also no discernible difference in the dogs’ cause of death.

“Honestly this was not what we expected; it’s surprising and wonderful,” says Otto, director of the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center, who shared the findings in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

While postmortem results showed that dogs that deployed after the 9/11 attacks had more particulate material in their lungs upon their death, it seems this exposure didn’t cause serious problems for the animals in life. The most common cause of death were age-related conditions, such as arthritis and cancer, similar to the control group.

During and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 response, Otto and colleagues reached out to handlers to recruit search-and-rescue dogs into a longitudinal study that would track their health, longevity, and cause of death. They recruited 95 dogs that had worked at the World Trade Center, Fresh Kills Landfill, or Pentagon disaster sites. As a control group, they also included in the study 55 search-and-rescue dogs that had not deployed to 9/11.

As part of being involved, the dogs received annual medical examinations, including chest X-rays and blood work. When the dogs died, the researchers paid for the handlers to have veterinarians collect samples of various organ tissues and send them for analysis at Michigan State University. Forty-four of the 9/11 dogs and 19 of the control group dogs underwent postmortems. For most of the other dogs in the study, the research team obtained information on cause of death from medical records or the handlers themselves.

While the team had expected to see respiratory problems in the exposed dogs—conditions that have been reported by human first responders to 9/11—they did not.

“We anticipated that the dogs would be the canary in the coal mine for the human first responders since dogs age faster than humans and didn’t have any of the protective equipment during the response,” Otto says. “But we didn’t see a lot that was concerning.”

In fact, the median age at death for 9/11 dogs was about the same as the control group: 12.8 compared to 12.7 years. The most common cause of death for the dogs that deployed was degenerative causes—typically euthanasia due to severe arthritis—followed closely by cancer, though the risk of cancer was about the same as in control group dogs. 

Otto and her colleagues have ideas for why the foreign particulate matter found in some of the dog’s lungs did not translate to ill health, though they emphasize that they’re speculations, not yet based in data. 

“For the pulmonary effects, it’s somewhat easier to explain because dogs have a really good filtering system,” Otto says. “Their lungs are different—they don’t get asthma, for example—so it seems like there is something about their lungs that’s more tolerant than in humans.”

She notes that working dogs tend to be extremely physically fit compared to pet dogs, perhaps counteracting any ill effects of the deployment conditions on health. But working dog handlers and trainers can always do more to focus on fitness and conditioning, especially because doing so could slow the progression of arthritis, a disease which played a role in the death of many dogs in the study.

“We know when people stop moving, they gain weight and that puts them at a higher risk of arthritis, and arthritis makes it painful to move, so it’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “The same can be true of dogs.”

The mind-body connection may also help explain the difference between humans and dogs and the longevity of the working dogs, Otto says, as dogs don’t necessary worry and experience the same type of stress in the wake of a disaster.

“These dogs have an incredible relationship with their partners,” Otto says. “They have a purpose and a job and the mental stimulation of training. My guess is that makes a difference, too.”

Cynthia Otto is director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and professor of working dog sciences and sports medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Advanced Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Source: University of Pennsylvania, Penn Today

Dogs can detect traces of gasoline down to one billionth of a teaspoon

Detection dog

Eza waiting for her handler, Jeff Lunder, to initiate a search of a residential structure fire to check for any indication of ignitable liquid. Photo credit: Joe Towers

Trained dogs can detect fire accelerants such as gasoline in quantities as small as one billionth of a teaspoon, according to new research by University of Alberta chemists. The study provides the lowest estimate of the limit of sensitivity of dogs’ noses and has implications for arson investigations.

During an arson investigation, a dog may be used to identify debris that contains traces of ignitable liquids—which could support a hypothesis that a fire was the result of arson,” explained Robin Abel, graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and lead author of the study. “Of course, a dog cannot give testimony in court, so debris from where the dog indicated must be taken back to the laboratory and analyzed. This estimate provides a target for forensic labs when processing evidence flagged by detection dogs at sites of potential arson.”

The study involved two dog-and-handler teams. The first was trained to detect a variety of ignitable liquids, while the other was trained primarily with gasoline. Results show that the dog trained on a variety of liquids performed well detecting all accelerants, while the dog trained on gasoline was not able to generalize to other accelerants at extremely low concentrations.

Another outcome of the study was the development of a protocol that can be used to generate suitable ultra-clean substrates necessary for assessing the performance of accelerant-detection dogs for trace-level detection.

“In this field, it is well-known that dogs are more sensitive than conventional laboratory tests,” said James Harynuk, associate professor of chemistry and Abel’s supervisor. “There have been many cases where a dog will flag debris that then tests negative in the lab. In order for us to improve laboratory techniques so that they can match the performance of the dogs, we must first assess the dogs. This work gives us a very challenging target to meet for our laboratory methods.”

So, just how small a volume of gasoline can a dog detect?

“The dogs in this study were able to detect down to one billionth of a teaspoon—or 5 pL—of gasoline,” added Harynuk. “Their noses are incredibly sensitive.”

This research was conducted in collaboration with Jeff Lunder, vice president of the Canine Accelerant Detection Association (CADA) Fire Dogs. Funding was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The paper, “A novel protocol for producing low-abundance targets to characterize the sensitivity limits of ignitable liquid detection canines,” was published in Forensic Chemistry (doi: 10.1016/j.forc.2020.100230).

 

Source:  University of Alberta media release

Turning the page for Spot boosts literacy in young students

Reading in the presence of a pooch may be the page-turning motivation young children need, suggests a UBC researcher.

Golden retriever Abby listens

Golden retriever Abby listens while Annie Letheman (right) reads to her sister Ruby and researcher Camille Rousseau (middle) observes.

Camille Rousseau, a doctoral student in UBC Okanagan’s School of Education, recently completed a study examining the behaviour of 17 children from Grades 1 to 3, while reading with and without a dog. The study was conducted with Christine Tardif-Williams, a professor at Brock University’s department of child and youth studies.

“Our study focused on whether a child would be motivated to continue reading longer and persevere through moderately challenging passages when they are accompanied by a dog,” explains Rousseau.

Participants were recruited based on their ability to read independently. Prior to the study, each child was tested to determine their reading range and to ensure they would be assigned appropriate story excerpts. The researchers then choose stories slightly beyond the child’s reading level.

During the study’s sessions, participants would read aloud to either an observer, the dog handler and their pet or without the dog. After finishing their first page, they would be offered the option of a second reading task or finishing the session.

“The findings showed that children spent significantly more time reading and showed more persistence when a dog—regardless of breed or age—was in the room as opposed to when they read without them,” says Rousseau. “In addition, the children reported feeling more interested and more competent.”

With the recent rise in popularity of therapy dog reading programs in schools, libraries and community organizations, Rousseau says their research could help to develop ‘gold-standard’ canine-assisted intervention strategies for struggling young readers.

“There have been studies that looked at the impact of therapy dogs on enhancing students’ reading abilities, but this was the first study that carefully selected and assigned challenging reading to children,” she says.

Some studies and programs have children choose their own book, and while the reading experience would still be positive, Rousseau adds it’s the educational experience of persevering through a moderate challenge that offers a potentially greater sense of achievement.

She hopes the study increases organizations’ understanding of how children’s reading could be enhanced by furry friends.

Rousseau is continuing her research on how canine-assisted therapy can influence students in other educational contexts through UBC’s therapy dog program—Building Academic Retention through K9’s (BARK).

The study was published in Anthrozoös, a multidisciplinary journal focusing on the interactions of people and animals.

Source:  University of British Columbia media release

The dog in Marieke’s life

News broke this week that Paralympian Marieke Vervoort has carried out her wishes for euthanasia in her home country of Belgium, where euthanasia has been legalized.

Vervoort with Zenn

Passing at the age of only 40, Vervoort won medals at the London 2012 and the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016 in wheelchair racing.

By all accounts, this woman suffered terribly during her life with a form of progressive tetraplegia, losing more function as the days passed.  She was in constant pain and also suffered epileptic seizures.

Marieke also shared her life with a Labrador named Zenn.  Zenn was credited with helping her to carry groceries, bringing her items of clothing, and warning her of impending seizures.

So my thoughts are now with Zenn, who has lost her human companion.

There are many dogs working around the world as assistance and emotional support dogs  and – since they are sentient creatures like us – I’m quite sure that they feel the loss of their loved ones.

Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand