Category Archives: special dogs and awards

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

A new twist on couples massage

This year, I signed on to become a sponsor of the inaugural 4 Paws Marathon in Christchurch.  This event is the brainchild of a sports medicine doctor who loves to run with his dogs – but found that while his dogs could train with him, they weren’t allowed to join in on race day.

Yesterday was race day.

And I was set up at the finish line working alongside Rachel, a friend and colleague who is a human massage therapist at Bodyworks Massage Therapy.

IMG_4134

The massage tent at the 4 Paws Marathon

We decided to promote our joint sponsorship with the couples massage theme:  human + dog.   By working together,  not only did our services keep ‘in theme’ of the event, but we also showed the mutual respect we have for one another in our respective fields.

Rachel is qualified to massage humans; I’m qualified to massage canines.  Since canine massage is a relatively new field in New Zealand, I appreciated the opportunity to showcase the benefits of the modality in front of the runners and other sponsors at the event.

Here are just a few photos from the day:

Hand holding at the massage tentIMG_4159IMG_4189IMG_4158

We look forward to sponsoring again next year!

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

It will soon be a crime in Alabama to misrepresent a pet as a service animal

Note from DoggyMom:

It’s been fairly easy to buy fake service dog gear online and too many people think that that’s okay – to get their pet dog into a restaurant or onto a plane.   I love dogs; I particularly love well-mannered and trained dogs (which are a reflection of their owners).  Whenever a fake service dog causes a problem, it undermines those of us who want a more open and dog-friendly community which promotes and supports responsible dog ownership.

Most importantly, the people who rely on service dogs have come under suspicion and have been denied access to the places that they lawfully have a right to go. Given the investment and support needed to train a legitimate service dog, and the proven benefits to their human recipient, these incidents are tragedies for all involved.

It’s good to see penalties for those who misrepresent their dog as a service dog.


People who falsely claim their pet is a service animal could soon face criminal charges in Alabama.

Alabama comfort dog

Fido may provide comfort but Alabama is cracking down on people who misrepresent pets as service animals.

Starting Sept. 1, there will be a criminal penalty for those who misrepresent a pet as a service animal or animal-in-training in public spaces or when seeking housing accommodations in Alabama. Making false claims will be a Class C misdemeanor resulting in a $100 fine and 100 hours of community service to be performed with an organization that serves people with disabilities or one approved by the court.

The Alabama act stipulates that a service animals are limited to two types: a dog or a miniature horse. The animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks that benefit a person with a disability, such as a guide dog for someone with visual impairments or an animal trained to provide help to someone with post traumatic stress disorder. The ADA does not restrict service animals to a particular dog breed and service animals are generally allowed in all public areas and private businesses.

Animals that provide comfort or emotional support just by being with someone are not classified as service animals under the ADA.

“A service animal may not be a pet,” the Alabama law states. “The crime-deterrent effect of the presence of an animal and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship may not constitute work or tasks…”

The law also allows for signs to be posted in public places with the message: “Service animals are welcome. It is illegal for a person to misrepresent an animal in that person’s possession as a service animal.”

The bill makes Alabama one of 25 states that have laws related to fraudulent representation of service animals. Penalties range from up to six months in jail and fines of up to $1,000 in California to fines of $100 in New Jersey.

Source: AL.com

The growing trend of emotional support animals

A dog in the grocery store; a cat in the cabin of an airplane; a bird in a coffee shop – companion creatures labelled as Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are showing up more and more in places previously understood to be animal-free. It’s part of a growing trend which includes “certifying” animals to provide emotional assistance to a person with a diagnosable mental condition or emotional disorder.

emotional support dog

Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at The University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, recognized the growing trend presents an ethical challenge for therapists asked to certify emotional support animals for their patients. “Emotional Support Animal Assessments: Toward a Standard and Comprehensive Model for Mental Health Professionals” outlines the ethical challenge and offers possible solutions to better serve both people who feel they need ESAs and those who must comply with the animals such as landlords and airlines.

In their third paper on this topic, published by the American Psychological Association, Younggren and his coauthors propose a four-prong standard assessment model for practitioners to follow when asked to provide a patient with an ESA certificate. These guidelines include:

  1. Understanding, recognizing and applying the laws regulating ESAs.
  2. A thorough valid assessment of the individual requesting an ESA certification.
  3. An assessment of the animal in question to ensure it actually performs the valid functions of an ESA.
  4. An assessment of the interaction between the animal and the individual to determine whether the animal’s presence has a demonstrably beneficial effect on that individual.

“In this model, you have to take the animal into consideration. Somebody has to certify that the animal is able to do what you’re asking it to do. And there are avenues by which animals can be evaluated regarding their capacity for these kinds of experiences,” Younggren adds.

For example, a patient with an anxiety problem can takes a pill to calm down, and the effects of the drug are measurable and backed by scientific testing and research. But Younggren says there is very little evidence to scientifically support that animals ameliorate a patient’s symptoms.

By making such guidelines and practices standard, the hope is that there will be fewer instances like the one recently, which resulted in a flight attendant needing stitches after being bitten by an emotional support animal.

According to Younggren, service animals must be trained to provide a function otherwise inaccessible to their owner. But ESAs are not held to that standard, which is partially what his new research aims to correct.

“Our research has nothing to do with service animals. Seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs are animals that help individuals manage their disabilities in certain situations – but that’s not what an ESA is. An ESA is an example of a well-intended idea that has metastasized and developed into a world of nonsense,” Younggren said.

“One of our biggest goals is to disseminate this information in order to better educate mental health providers, as well as policy writers, about the need for ethical guidelines around ESAs,” Boness said.

In addition, Boness said her hope is that this paper will encourage others to pursue research on the impacts of ESAs on patients, so that there is a more scientific pool of data to cite.

“Mental health professionals who lack full awareness of the law will likely fail to recognize that writing such letters constitutes a disability determination that becomes a part of the individual’s clinical records,” the paper states.

Currently, in order to receive waivers for housing or travel purposes where animals are banned, the law requires patients must have a mental or emotional condition diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). If patients are given certifications for an ESA, it means they, and the therapist signing the certification, are declaring the patient to be psychologically disabled with significant impairment in functioning.

“[The guidelines] will require that those individuals who certify these animals must conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the individual to determine that they have a disability under the DSM-5,” Younggren concluded. “That disability has to substantially interfere with the patient’s ability to function, which is what the ADA requires. And the presence of the animal has to ameliorate the condition, which means you have to see the person with the animal.”

Should this proposal influence an industry standard, Younggren says it will become more difficult for people to receive certification, but on the whole safer for society.

Source:  University of New Mexico media release

Medical detection dogs help diabetes patients regulate insulin levels

New research by the University of Bristol in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs has found that the best trained alert dogs have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of people living with Type 1 diabetes.

As reported in PLOS One, on average trained dogs alerted their owners to 83 per cent of hypoglycaemic episodes in over 4,000 hypo- and hyper-glycaemic episodes that were examined. A hypoglycaemic episode is where blood sugar drops dangerously low and if left untreated, can lead to unconsciousness or even death.

medical alert assistance dog

Claire Pesterfield holding her dog Magic’s paw. He’s a medical alert assistant dog and has been trained to detect a minute shift in Claire’s blood sugar levels. She thinks he’s alerted and potentially saved her life 4,500 times in the five years they’ve been together. Photo by Trevor Martin

The findings confirm that alert dogs can help Type 1 patients regulate their blood sugars in a non-invasive way and avoid the risks of hypoglycaemic episodes and hyperglycaemia.

Lead author Dr Nicola Rooney from the Bristol Veterinary School, said: “We already know from previous studies that patients’ quality of life is vastly improved by having a medical detection dog. However, to date, evidence has come from small scale studies. Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.”

In this study, researchers from Bristol, assessed the reliability of 27 trained glycaemia alert dogs, whose owners provided six to 12 weeks continual worth of blood records detailing every time the dog was alerted.

Medical Detection Dogs train pet dogs to respond to respond to the odour of human disease and help owners live with life-threatening diseases. Familiar with their owners, dogs are conditioned to respond with alerting behaviours when their owners’ blood sugar levels fall outside a target range.

Encouraged by the alerting behaviour of their pet dog, if such out-of-range (OOR) episodes occur, the patient can take appropriate action, usually by administering insulin or eating to retain the right glucose levels.

Dr Rooney, Teaching Fellow in Animal Welfare and Behaviour, added: “Our research shows a dog’s effectiveness is affected by the individual dog and its connection with its human partner. Since the usage of such dogs is growing, it’s important that any dogs used for these purposes are professionally trained, matched and monitored by professional organisations like Medical Detection Dogs.  It’s also vital that research continues both to assess true efficacy and determine ways to optimise their performance.”

Dr Claire Guest, Chief Executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “The findings are fantastic news for all those who are living with Type 1 diabetes and other conditions. Medical detection dogs primarily serve patients looking for more effective and independent ways of managing their condition.

“Our dogs also serve the wider medical community by offering proactive solutions that are natural, non-invasive and have been shown to provide countless psychological benefits.

“As our natural companions, and with a highly refined sense of smell, why shouldn’t they be able to detect changes in our personal health?”

Paper:

How effective are trained dogs at alerting their owners to changes in blood glycaemic levels?: variations in performance of  glycaemia alert dogs by Nicola J Rooney, Claire M Guest, Lydia CM. Swanson, Steve V. Morant in PLOS One [open access]

Source:  University of Bristol media release

What Makes A Good Working Dog? Canine ‘Aptitude Test’ Might Offer Clues

The canine labor market is diverse and expansive. Assistance dogs may be trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, or with people in wheelchairs. Detection dogs may be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs. Other pups even learn to jump out of helicopters on daring rescue missions.

Despite the wide variety of working roles available for man’s best friend, those jobs can be tough to fill, since not every dog will qualify. Even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 percent that start a training program will successfully complete it, while the rest go on to be very well-trained family pets.

As a result, the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.

Working Dogs

Shelby Smith was matched with her assistance dog Picasso through the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. UA researcher Evan MacLean is looking for ways to help organizations like Canine Companions identify promising assistance dogs sooner. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, is exploring ways to identify the best dogs for different jobs – before they start the long and expensive training process — by looking at their cognitive abilities.

He is lead author of a new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science that looks at whether canines’ cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.

While a dog’s physical characteristics and temperament are often considered when thinking about which dog will be right for a given job, cognition is an area that’s received far less attention.

“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” said MacLean, assistant professor in the UA School of Anthropology. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”

MacLean’s study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs in training, which will go on to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy.

MacLean and his colleagues looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play.

What they found: A different set of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog.

In the case of assistance dogs, social skills — including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans — appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success.

“Dog jobs are just about as diverse as human jobs are,” MacLean said. “People sometimes think of working dogs as this general category of dogs that have jobs in society, but they actually have to do really, really different things, and because these jobs are so diverse, we didn’t expect that there was going to be one litmus test for what would make a good dog. It’s like if you think about aptitude testing with people – there are certain questions that will tell you something about one job but not another.”

The study involved 164 dogs from the California-based organization Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs, and 222 dogs from the Navy.

The researchers tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Dogs in the study were considered “successful” based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training. Through cognitive testing, MacLean and his colleagues were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.

The success of the Navy dogs, whose training is ongoing and not marked by a single graduation date, was measured based on trainers’ records of the dogs’ performance on training exercises, as well as questionnaires with people who trained or deployed with the dogs.

MacLean’s findings suggest that cognition could be considered alongside temperament and physicality to predict working dog success.

If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it could save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs and also ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, MacLean said.

He and his colleagues are now working on determining if cognitive testing could be informative even earlier — when a dog is just 8 weeks old. They also are looking at whether these skills have a genetic basis that could be targeted in breeding programs.

“One of the most exciting parts of all this is that it tells us cognition does something in animals,” MacLean said. “We study these abstract questions about how animals think about the world and how they solve problems, but there aren’t always a lot of situations where you can say, ‘Why does that matter? What does it allow an animal to actually do?’ This is some of the first evidence that suggests that these processes that we measure, which differ between individual dogs, have some real consequences related to something that’s quite worthy in society.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

Sniffing out error in detection dog data

A new study in the journal Scientific Reports gets to the bottom of it: Why do dogs that are trained to locate poop sometimes find the wrong kind of poop?

Sniffer dog reseawrcgh

Washington University researcher Karen DeMatteo and her scat-sniffing dog Train are on a mission to preserve jaguars, pumas, bush dogs and other carnivores in the forests of Northeastern Argentina. (Photo: courtesy of Karen DeMatteo/Washington University)

It happens anywhere from 4 percent to 45 percent of the time, said Karen DeMatteo, a biologist in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Her new research confirms that there are three viable, alternative explanations beyond errors in handler or dog training that can explain the collection of non-target scats with detection dogs in some ecosystems.

Detection dogs are trained to use scent, not their eyes, to locate specific kinds of scat. They’re useful partners in conservation projects as an alternative to camera photo traps or other more invasive means of identifying which individual animals are present in an area.

And while finding the wrong kind of poop doesn’t ultimately muck up research results — researchers who use scat to track animals usually use DNA tests to confirm the identity of target and non-target evacuators — collecting and testing false positives costs a project time and resources.

“To date, when non-target samples are found in detection dog studies, it is assumed it may be due to errors in detection dog or handler training; however, our study determined that this is not always the case,” DeMatteo said. “Instead, the complexity of ecosystems where a study is conducted can affect the perceived accuracy of detection dog studies because the natural behaviors of non-target species, like coyotes in our study, can alter the genetic profile of target scat, like that from a puma.”

In her own work, DeMatteo has successfully used scat-detection dogs to identify the routes traveled by endangered pumas and other reclusive carnivores along a biologically important corridor in Argentina.

Detection dogs are great at determining the presence of specific animals because they can find droppings hidden in grass, droppings that have been rained on and disintegrated into the mud — or even droppings that have been eaten and then recycled.

Yes, that’s right, and it’s a normal part of life for many animals, DeMatteo said.

“Humans have a natural aversion to coprophagy, which is reflected in the visual horror on an owner’s face when they see their dog gobble down their own scat or the scat of another dog or cat,” DeMatteo said. “Once this shock subsides, the owner typically worries that the scat will cause health problems or there is something psychologically wrong with their four-legged friend.”

“While the reasons underlying coprophagy in domestic dogs are still fuzzy, it is known in wild canids that coprophagy is natural and is often associated with territoriality or nutritional benefits,” she said. “So while the finding that coyotes will consume puma scat is novel and has various ecological implications, coprophagy occurs naturally under a variety of circumstances.”

The tendency of one animal to eat another’s scat is one of three behaviors that might alter the type of scat, or the state of the scat, that a detector dog might encounter, and thus affect the perceived accuracy of the technique.

Researchers also considered how urine-marking by non-target species might affect a detector dog’s ability to locate scat from a species of interest, and also what happens if one animal picks up another’s scat and moves it using its mouth, potentially bringing it into contact with saliva. Field trials were conducted in the St. Louis area and in northwest Nebraska.

The researchers found that each of the proposed behaviors alters the genetic profile of the scat in question, and all were confirmed to play a role in the detection dog indicating on non-target scats.

The pool of conservation-trained detection dogs is constantly growing in number, as are the types of target species and the areas where they are being used, DeMatteo said. One of the continuing questions surrounding their use for these types of projects is how to maintain a high quality standard for training detection dogs and their handlers.

“In reality, the dog is easier to train than the handler, with the latter having a higher chance of introducing error,” DeMatteo said. “Even with these variables, these results are extendable to other dog-handler teams with less experience, as long as consistency is used.”

While this study, “How behavior of nontarget species affects perceived accuracy of scat detection dog surveys,” demonstrates that there are alternative explanations for why dogs sometimes collect non-target samples, it also shines a light on behaviors that humans may not understand — but that could play a role in ecosystem functioning.

“Genetic testing can eliminate these samples and maintain accuracy in the [detection dog-assisted] studies,” DeMatteo said. “However, this non-target interaction with target scat potentially has important implications for other ecological questions, including parasite/disease transmission, zoonotic diseases and general health of wild populations.”

 

Source:  Washington University in St Louis media statement