Category Archives: special dogs and awards

New sniffer dog research

A team of scientists has provided the first evidence that dogs can learn to categorise odours and apply this to scents they have never encountered before.

The research reveals how the animals process odour information and is likely to have a profound impact on how we train sniffer dogs.

Sniffer dog research
Training a sniffer dog (photo courtesy of University of Lincoln)

The study, led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, and funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global in the US,
found that dogs are able to categorise odours on the basis of their common properties. This means that dogs can behave towards new smells from a category in the same way as smells that they already know.

As humans, we do not have to experience the smell of every fish to know that it smells ‘fishy’; instead we use our previous experience of fish and categorise the new smell in the correct way. The new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that dogs can do the same.

Researchers separated dogs into two groups and then trained them to respond to 40 different olfactory stimuli – or smells – half of which were accelerant-based. The dogs in the experimental group were trained (through a reward) to offer a behavioural response, for example “sit”, when they were presented with smells which fit a specific category, but to withhold that response for other non-category stimuli. The remaining dogs were trained on the same stimuli but were not rewarded for the categorical variable.

The researchers found that only the dogs in the category group were able to learn the task. Even more significantly, when presented with completely unknown smells, the dogs were able to place them in the correct category and to remember the odours six weeks later.

The researchers concluded that this means that dogs can apply information from previous experience to novel – or new – scents in order to apply an appropriate response.

Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln said: “As humans, we are very good at assigning different things to different categories; for example, we know something is a chair because there are identifiable aspects such as a flat space to sit on, or four legs. Categorising odours works the same way, and we were keen to discover whether dogs would be able to learn those skills.  

“This was an extremely hard task for the dogs as the odour stimuli varied in strength, so animals were never trained on exactly the same stimulus. As such, it is even more impressive that the experimental group dogs learned and retained the information.

“These findings add substantially to our understanding of how animals process olfactory information and suggest that use of this method may improve performance of working animals.”

The findings have implications in the field of working dog training as it implies that it may be possible to improve the way we train detection dogs.

Source:  University of Lincoln press release

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Therapy dog vs service dog

There are differences between a therapy dog and a service dog, but the two are often confused.

That’s why I really liked this graphic, produced by the Las Vegas Sun:

Therapy vs Service Dog

The difference between a therapy pet and a service animal (courtesy of the Las Vegas Sun)

The newspaper interviewed Sue Grundfest, Lead Animal Therapist at Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, for its article.

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

A chicken-flavored electrolyte drink could help sniffer dogs stay hydrated

The first comparison of three common hydration methods for sniffer dogs shows that while all are effective, dogs drink more and are more hydrated when given a chicken-flavored electrolyte drink compared to plain water or when injected with electrolytes under the skin. The study, published in open-access journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, also shows that the dogs did not suffer from a buildup of electrolytes from the drink, suggesting that electrolyte drinks are a safe hydration alternative for sniffer dogs, who are at risk of heat stroke in hot weather.

Working dogs, such as search and rescue dogs or police dogs, are crucial assistants when authorities respond to disasters or check for contraband at border crossings. These dogs often work in challenging environments, and can sometimes exert themselves to the point of exhaustion and heat stroke. In fact, hot weather can be dangerous for working dogs, as dogs don’t sweat much and rely on panting to cool themselves, meaning they can overheat easily.

detection dog

The risk of heat stroke increases with dehydration, so one effective way to help working dogs stay safe is to keep them hydrated. However, there are different ways to do this. “People use different techniques to hydrate working dogs,” says Cynthia Otto of the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in the study. “Dog handlers disagree about the most effective method, and since there was no data on the safety or effectiveness of each technique, we wanted to provide some clarity.”

The classic hydration technique is to provide free access to plain drinking water. A second technique involves delivering water and electrolytes through a needle under the skin, which is known as subcutaneous hydration. Drinks containing electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, are a third option, but these are controversial. Such drinks make sense as a rehydration aid for humans, as we lose electrolytes when we sweat. However dogs sweat very little, leading critics to say that the drinks could cause an unhealthy buildup of electrolytes in dogs.

The research team investigated these three common hydration strategies in a group of Border Patrol sniffer dogs who inspect vehicles at the Texas border, during the hot summer months. The team took a variety of measurements for each dog, including their hydration levels, fluid intake and work performance.

Happily, all three hydration strategies appear to be effective, and the dogs showed similar behavior, body temperature, and work performance regardless of the way they were hydrated. “In this controlled setting, all the hydration techniques were safe and effective,” says Otto.

However, dogs receiving a chicken-flavored electrolyte drink drank significantly more fluid and had greater hydration levels. Interestingly, these dogs did not suffer from a buildup of sodium, a component of electrolyte drinks that could have negative effects in the body in large quantities. The dogs who drank electrolytes excreted the sodium in their urine, meaning their blood levels remained normal. Overall, the dogs handled the electrolytes well, suggesting they are a safe and effective hydration method.

These results surprised the researchers, as a previous study had reported that dogs who were offered a non-flavored electrolyte drink, drank very little of it. The chicken flavoring may have been key, making the dogs think they were having a tasty treat, but the team will need to investigate this further.

“If a dog is reluctant to drink, then a highly palatable flavored electrolyte solution may give them a boost,” says Otto. “However, these are healthy dogs in a controlled environment, and we don’t know if all electrolyte or flavoring approaches are created equal, so we will need to do further work.”

Journal reference:  Cynthia M. Otto, Elizabeth Hare, Jess L. Nord, Shannon M. Palermo, Kathleen M. Kelsey, Tracy A. Darling, Kasey Schmidt, Destiny Coleman. Evaluation of Three Hydration Strategies in Detection Dogs Working in a Hot Environment. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 2017; 4 DOI: 10.3389/fvets.2017.00174

De-stressing airport passengers – PUPs

I flew through LAX earlier this week, and the Las Vegas shooting happened when I was in the air on my way home to New Zealand.  LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) has had a dog therapy programme in place for a few years.

The airport announced this week that in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, it had added more of its PUP teams to support passengers at a time of intense stress and grief.

PUPS

Volunteer PUPs Jack and Chance with their “moms” Debra Mindlin and Heidi Huebner at LAX’s terminal 4 on Monday, Oct 2, 2017. (Photo courtesy Heidi Huebner)

The PUP teams are made up entirely of volunteers who enjoy sharing their dogs with passengers and staff at the airport.  Yet another way that our dogs can work for us, and use their unique gifts of unconditional love and support.

I wrote about the PUPs programme in August 2014, by the way:

August 2014

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

Bernese Mountain Dog is a golf ball retriever

Davos is a Bernese Mountain Dog who lives in Minnesota.  He helps his owner, Al Cooper, retrieve his wayward golf balls and in the process, finds lots of others.

The pair re-sells the balls for 25 cents each at their local golf course and recently made a donation to the Humane Society in Golden Valley.

Golf Ball Retriever – a whole new job description for an assistance dog?

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

Research dog helps scientists save endangered carnivores

Scat-sniffing research dogs are helping scientists map out a plan to save reclusive jaguars, pumas, bush dogs and other endangered carnivores in the increasingly fragmented forests of northeastern Argentina, according to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

Scat sniffing dog Train

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)

The study explores options for mitigating the impact of human encroachment on five predators who cling to survival in isolated pockets of protected forest surrounded by a mosaic of roadways, unprotected forest, plantations and pastures.

“The study details a least-cost plan for the development of a multispecies biological corridor that connects protected areas in the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest Region of Misiones, Argentina,” said co-author Karen DeMatteo, a biology research scientist and lecturer in environmental studies in Arts & Sciences.

DeMatteo, who has spent 10 years working on the project,  said completion of the corridor model will allow researchers and community leaders to begin working with property owners to establish the habitat corridors.

“This plan is exciting not only for the future of the local biodiversity, but also because it involved a lot of collaboration from the local government and universities to make it happen,” she said.

Recent studies have argued that establishing small, protected reserves for endangered species, even in the best of habitats, is not enough to ensure long-term survival because species must move across their range to breed with other scattered populations and maintain genetic diversity.

Using dogs trained to detect the scat of specific species, DeMatteo’s team searched for evidence of the carnivores’ presence across a broad swath of northeastern Argentina, including public and private wildlife reserves, privately owned plantations, farms and pastures, and along roads and pathways leading to scattered communities.

DNA analysis of more than 900 scat samples collected over several summers allowed researchers to develop detailed maps of the species frequenting these habitats, including a sense of how their movements were influenced by habitat quality, topography, roadways and other human disturbances.

For species such as the jaguar, which rarely crosses into territory disturbed by humans, survival may hinge on the creation of habitat corridors linking isolated population pockets. Because the jaguar is so averse to human interaction, some studies have suggested that habitat corridors designed for it also would cover the needs of other predators.

DeMatteo’s study, which examined the habitat needs of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, oncillas and bush dogs, offers a more nuanced approach, suggesting that the optimal footprint for habitat corridors should be drawn with the overlapping needs of many species in mind.

While some species were less intimidated by the presence of humans, each had its own unique requirements in terms of what constitutes a suitable habitat and the length and width of possible corridor connections.

“Despite variation in body size, the jaguar, puma, ocelot, oncilla and bush dog overlap in their ecological requirements,” the study said. “However, this is not without variation in the degree of habitat flexibility. Puma, oncilla, and bush dog have comparatively higher levels of modified habitats in their potential distributions compared to the jaguar and ocelot.”

By combining data on all five of these species, researchers developed a model that provides maximum habitat connectivity for all species while minimizing the cost of establishing these corridors through privately owned lands and communities.

“The findings illustrate the benefit of using multiple species versus a single species to develop corridors, because using only the highly restricted jaguar to develop the corridor would mean that the potential distributions of the other four carnivores would be restricted and decreased by as much as 30 percent,” DeMatteo said. “So, it appears that, at least in the Misiones province, the jaguar should not be modeled as an umbrella species because the results fail to capture the varied requirements of coexisting species across the breadth of potential habitats.”

DeMatteo and colleagues hope the study provides a methodology for identifying the optimal footprint for proposed habitat connection corridors, while incorporating enough flexibility to ensure that the needs and desires of private landholders can be incorporated into the process.

“The approach in making a corridor a reality is multi-pronged and involves a strong investment from the local community, especially when developing corridors that use existing protected areas as ‘stepping stones,’ as private land will inevitably be involved to varying degrees in and around the corridor,” the study concludes.

Source:  Washington University media statement

Audience dogs

There seems to be no end to the list of jobs that can be given to a good dog.

Next up:  Audience dogs

You’ve probably heard of Toastmasters, which are groups that meet where participants practice their public speaking and presentation skills.   But did you know that the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, DC has introduced Audience Dogs into their program?

Students practice their speeches in front of a dog, who has been selected to be secure, calm and confident to make eye contact.  The service is provided free-of-charge.

A non-judgmental, cute, and attentive audience!

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