Category Archives: special dogs and awards

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

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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

 

Roles of emotional support animals examined

Airlines are not the only organizations grappling with the complexities surrounding emotional support animals. Colleges and courts are also questioning the need for these animals and the effects they may have on students and juries, respectively, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The recent, rapid rise of emotional support animals has left colleges and universities struggling to understand the laws and how they can be applied to best support their communities, said Phyllis Erdman, PhD, professor at Washington State University, who chaired a symposium on emotional support animals and service dogs.

Emotional support animal photo by esadoctors

Emotional support animal on campus (photo by esadoctors.com)

College and university counseling centers are seeing an uptick in the number of students seeking mental health services, as students report anxiety, depression and stress about relationships and academic performance, she said.

“It’s not surprising that many schools are confronted with the growing phenomenon of emotional support animals. For many, the topic is a contentious one centered on whether students are taking advantage of the laws,” said Erdman. “This is further compounded by the fact that laws pertaining to emotional support animals are different from those governing disability service animals and therefore schools may need to develop new policies.”

A service animal falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and is usually a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disability, Emotional support animals are not trained in specific tasks and are not recognized under the ADA. Although emotional support animals are allowed in campus housing, they may not necessarily be allowed in classrooms or elsewhere on campus, according to the study Erdman presented.

Erdman and her colleagues wanted to understand the state of emotional support animal requests on campuses and how colleges and universities are responding. They surveyed 248 university counseling centers about student requests for letters to allow them to have emotional support animals. The survey questions included how often the counseling centers received requests from students, how the schools handled those requests and how they handled requests to diagnose a disability in order to obtain an emotional support animal. It also asked counseling centers if they had emotional support animal policies in place.

Fifty-seven percent of the centers reported almost never receiving such requests. Thirty-one percent did several times a year and only 2 percent got requests more than once a week, according to the study.

Despite the lack of an overwhelming demand, a majority of university counseling centers reported concern about having policies in place to handle such requests, according to Erdman.

“Even a limited number of requests for emotional support animals can cause stress for student affairs offices, housing offices, counseling centers and disability offices,” she said. “Most schools wanted guidance and support for developing guidelines and navigating requests that come through.”

Erdman suggested that schools establish general definitions of the terms disability, service animal and emotional support animal when crafting a policy. The definition of a disability should adhere to ADA guidelines, she said. Any policy development must follow federal and state laws and should include the perspectives of various campus constituencies, including counseling centers, accessibility services, general counsel’s offices, campus safety departments and students themselves, according to Erdman.

“College students today are facing a great deal of stress and emotional support animals may help some students,” said Erdman. “We hope our study can serve as a guide for colleges and universities to develop policies that help students thrive.”

Uncertainty about emotional support animals is also occurring in courts, according to Dawn McQuiston, PhD, of Wofford College, who presented her research at the symposium. While objects such as dolls or teddy bears have been used for decades to calm vulnerable witnesses, courts began to include dogs in the mid-1990s to provide emotional support to alleged victims of child abuse. At least 144 courthouse facility dogs are now included in about three dozen states, she said. These dogs are provided by the court at the request of prosecutors to assist victims with the anxiety of testifying and reliving traumatic events.

Supporters say the dogs have made a huge difference in helping children and vulnerable adult witnesses open up on the stand, but some defense attorneys say having a friendly, sweet-looking canine in the witness box can prejudice a jury against a defendant by making the witness appear more believable and sympathetic, according to McQuiston.

“The concern is that the presence of a courthouse dog emphasizes that the witness is a victim, thereby playing to jurors’ sympathies. As a result, witnesses may be viewed as even more vulnerable or likeable, thus conflicting with a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” said McQuiston.

She cited two notable appeals cases involving courtroom dogs. In both cases, the victims had a support dog during testimony, the defendants were convicted and the convictions were subsequently appealed on the grounds that the presence of the dog led to undue sympathy for the victim and violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. In both cases, the courts found no sign of prejudice due to the dogs’ presence.

McQuiston and her colleagues investigated whether courthouse dogs, compared to inanimate comfort items, resulted in more prejudice against defendants involved in two hypothetical crimes: A child sexual abuse case and a robbery of a child. They set up mock trials in which participants, in the role of jurors, read transcripts of the testimony and were shown several pictures depicting the child witness with a dog, with a teddy bear or with nothing.

They found that the presence of the dog had no significant effect on the juries’ outcomes, which McQuiston called surprising because the researchers had expected the dog to prejudice the jury against the defendant. Interestingly, their findings showed some biasing effects when the child clutched a teddy bear.

“Across two studies utilizing mock jury paradigms we found that, contrary to popular beliefs and our own predictions, courthouse dogs did not exert undue influence on juror decision-making regardless of the severity of the crimes tested, and did not differentially impact perceptions of child witnesses,” she said.

Source:  American Psychological Association

Empathetic dogs lend a helping paw

Many dogs show empathy if their owner is in distress and will also try to help rescue them. This is according to Emily M. Sanford, formerly of Macalester College and now at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Learning and Behavior that tested whether there is truth in the notion that dogs have a prosocial and empathetic nature. Interesting to note, the study found that dogs specially trained for visitations as therapy dogs are just as likely to help as other dogs.

Helping paw

Many dogs are ready to lend a helping paw if needed. Credit: © Mat Hayward / Fotolia

In one of their experiments, Sanford and her colleagues instructed the owners of 34 dogs to either give distressed cries or to hum while sitting behind a see-through closed door. Sixteen of these dogs were registered therapy dogs. The researchers watched what the dogs did, and also measured their heart rate variability to see how they physically reacted to the situation. In another part of the experiment, the researchers examined how these same dogs gazed at their owners to measure the strength of their relationship.

Dogs that heard distress calls were no more likely to open a door than dogs that heard someone humming. However, they opened the door much faster if their owner was crying. Based on their physiological and behavioural responses, dogs who opened the door were, in fact, less stressed than they were during baseline measurements, indicating that those who could suppress their own distress were the ones who could jump into action.

The study therefore provides evidence that dogs not only feel empathy towards people, but in some cases also act on this empathy. This happens especially when they are able to suppress their own feelings of distress and can focus on those of the human involved. According to Sanford, this is similar to what is seen when children need to help others. They are only able to do so when they can suppress their own feelings of personal distress.

“It appears that adopting another’s emotional state through emotional contagion alone is not sufficient to motivate an empathetic helping response; otherwise, the most stressed dogs could have also opened the door,” explains co-author Julia Meyers-Manor of Ripon College in the US. “The extent of this empathetic response and under what conditions it can be elicited deserve further investigation, especially as it can improve our understanding of the shared evolutionary history of humans and dogs.”

Contrary to expectation, the sixteen therapy dogs in the study performed as well as the other dogs when tested on opening the door. According to Meyers-Manor this may be because registered therapy dogs, despite what people may think, do not possess traits that make them more attentive or responsive to human emotional states. She says that therapy dog certification tests involve skills based more on obedience rather than on human-animal bonding.

“It might be beneficial for therapy organizations to consider more traits important for therapeutic improvement, such as empathy, in their testing protocols,” adds Meyers-Manor. “It would also be interesting to determine whether service dogs show a different pattern of results given their extensive training in attentiveness to their human companions.”

Reference: Sanford, E.M. et al (2018). Timmy’s in the well: Empathy and prosocial helping in dogs, Learning & Behavior DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0332-3

Source:  Springer media release