One week ago today, our special friend Bergie passed away. I say ‘our’ because Bergie was special to Izzy and any dog that captured her heart would have always been special.
Bergie and Izzy were adopted from Greyhounds as Pets around the same time and we often met at greyhound walks.
Izzy loved the water at the beach; Bergie didn’t at first. He would bark at her whenever she played in the waves. Eventually, though, Bergie came to enjoy his beach walks and didn’t mind getting wet. I’d like to think that Izzy taught him the joy of the beach, since the beach was her happy place.
Bergie was a regular at Izzy’s birthday party each year, including the year that we hired the Dog Swim Spa and invited her friends to come for a swim. He enjoyed the car ride out of town for that one, too.
Bergie even came along and had a swim session with Izzy once, where they rugged up afterwards and enjoyed the ride home together.
Bergie lived on the east side of town, within walking distance of some of the ‘red zone’ which is land that was cleared after the earthquakes and no one is allowed to re-build there. It’s a great place for dogs, though. Bergie would meet Izzy at his special park for off-lead exercise. On one day in particular, he showed off for her by digging her a hole.
In 2018, Bergie strutted the catwalk at our Greyt Fashions fundraiser, looking handsome in his Dr Seuss collar and other outfits, too.
As with Izzy, age and arthritis started to catch up with him. Unlike a lot of his black greyhound friends, though, Bergie hardly had any grey hairs right up to the time that he passed. He was a very handsome boy, as seen in this photo in February of this year, relaxing after his massage (this photo is my favourite):
What is it about the turning 12 and hoping your dog will make 13? Bergie was a year younger than Izzy and we celebrated his 12th birthday in early May. Looking back on it, though, he was withdrawn and didn’t engage much. By early June, he was in a lot of pain which the vet initially diagnosed as severe arthritic pain; a week later and with an x-ray, we had the news that it was the dreaded osteosarcoma and that his shoulder had been broken.
I gave Bergie his last massage on Saturday, 11th June. He was waiting for his Mum to arrive back from overseas that night so she could be there when it was his time to fly. It was a privilege to be able to make him more comfortable and, as I kissed him on his cheek, I told him to say hello to Izzy for me.
Rest in peace, Bergie. Another special dog that will not be forgotten.
Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand
A recent study by the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital confirmed that scent detection dogs can be taught to identify individuals with a coronavirus infection from skin swabs. In the experimental set-up the accuracy of the dogs in identifying the samples was 92 percent.
The rapid and accurate identification and isolation of patients with coronavirus infection is an important part of global pandemic management. The current diagnosis of coronavirus infection is based on a PCR test that accurately and sensitively identifies coronavirus from other pathogens. However, PCR tests are ill-suited for screening large masses of people because of, among other things, their slow results and high cost.
Researchers from the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Medicine at the University of Helsinki and from Helsinki University Hospital jointly designed a triple-blind, randomized, controlled study set-up to test the accuracy of trained scent detection dogs where none of the trio – dog, dog handler or researcher – knew which of the sniffed skin swab samples were positive and which negative. The study also analysed factors potentially interfering with the ability of the dogs to recognize a positive sample.
The three-faceted study has now been published in the journal BMJ Global Health. The study provides valuable information on the use of scent dogs in pandemic control.
Correct identification in over 90 percent of samples; only small differences in accuracy between dogs
In the first phase of the study, the dogs were taught to discriminate the skin swab samples of coronavirus patients from those of volunteers who tested negative. After a training period of several weeks, the dogs moved from the training centre to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport for the next stages of the study.
In the second phase of the study, four trained dogs completed a validation test to prove their discriminatory ability. During the experiment, each dog was presented with a series of 420 samples over a period of seven days. As several parallel samples had been collected from each sample donor, each dog received an identical set of 114 coronavirus patient samples and 306 control samples for sniffing. The coronavirus status of all sample donors had been confirmed by PCR. During each testing day, the dog sniffed 20 sample tracks with three samples each, with the tracks presented in random order.
The dogs recognized the samples correctly 92 percent of the time. While their sensitivity to detect a positive coronavirus sample was 92 percent, their specificity was 91 percent. Only small differences in accuracy were observed between the four dogs. The coronavirus infection being caused by virus variants was the single largest factor contributing to erroneous identification by the dogs.
The study confirms previous reports suggesting that scent dogs can identify individuals with a coronavirus infection.
“Our study set-up was of a high scientific standard. The sample sizes were sufficiently large, and all dogs sniffed an identical set of samples, allowing comparison of their performances. The dogs also had to successfully indicate sample sets containing only negative samples – an important trait when screening individuals. Another significant advantage was that samples were collected from outpatients instead of hospital patients. In addition, the testing was performed under real-life conditions rather than in a laboratory”, says the leader of the DogRisk research group and docent of clinical research in companion animals Anna Hielm-Björkmanfrom the University of Helsinki.
“I was particularly impressed by the fact that dogs performed worse with samples we had collected from patients suffering from a disease caused by a coronavirus variant. The explanation is simple: the dogs had originally been trained with the initial wild-type virus, and thus they did not always identify the variant samples as positive. This reveals their incredible ability of discrimination”, says Anu Kantele, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Chief Physician at the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital.
Major help from scent dogs at airports and ports
The third phase of the study was conducted by screening passengers and staff at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in a real-life situation. The scent dogs correctly identified 98.7 percent of the negative samples. The low number of coronavirus-positive samples in real-life testing prevented a proper assessment of the dogs’ performance with positive samples. However, based on positive ‘work motivation samples’ regularly given to the dogs during this part of the study, the performance on the correctly identified positive samples also was evaluated at 98.7 percent. Work motivation samples are naive samples pre-collected from PCR positive patients, but not previously sniffed by dogs. They are provided to the dogs at regular intervals to maintain their interest in the target odour in situations and environments where the proportion of positive samples is otherwise very low.
“Scent dogs can provide an invaluable tool for limiting viral spread during a pandemic, serving for example at air- and seaports. Such a reliable, cheap approach to rapidly screen a vast number of samples or to identify passing virus carriers from a large crowd is of value particularly when the testing capacity with traditional approaches is insufficient”, says Anu Kantele.
“Our research group will continue to study how scent dogs can best help our society. We hope that this newly published study will help to allocate funds for the development of this new ‘tool’. There are many other diseases where research could benefit from the excellent sense of smell that these dogs possess”, says Hielm-Björkman.
The study was conducted with the support of the Finnish Cultural Foundation, Svenska Kulturfonden i Finland, Academy of Finland, Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, Finnish Medical Association, Veterinary Hospital Chain Evidensia, Nose Academy, Finavia, Vantaa city and deputy mayor Timo Aronkytö. The research group of Anna Hielm-Björkman has also been supported by private donations through the coronadog fundraising campaign, organized jointly by the Finnish Kennel Club and the University of Helsinki. The dogs were initially trained at the NGO Wise Nose trainings center.
For patients suffering from pain in the emergency room, just 10 minutes with a four-legged friend may help reduce pain, according to a study published Wednesday.
The results support what dog lovers everywhere have long suspected — canine affection cures all ills — as well as provides a bit of optimism for patients and health care providers frequently grappling with strapped hospital resources in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, asked more than 200 patients in the emergency room to report their level of pain on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 as the highest level of pain). A control group had no intervention for their pain, while participants in the other group were given 10 minutes of time with a therapy dog, and patients rated their pain levels again, according to the study.
Those who got the visit from the dogs reported less pain.
“The results of the study are promising,” she said in an email. “Our current understanding of the effects of therapy dog visits in emergency department settings is fairly limited. So, it is particularly important to have more research in this area.”
Dell hopes that research like this study means we can stop asking if therapy dogs are helpful in a medical context and start asking how they help and how to integrate them better with health care teams.
In the hospital
The emergency room experience might actually contribute to patients’ pain.
The bright lights, long waits, anxiety and focus on immediate, acute conditions can make the feeling worse, said Erin Beckwell, a dog owner who has experienced chronic pain for much of her life.
“It’s not a place that you usually get escorted to a comfy room that’s quiet and gives us any sort of specific interventions,” she said. “It’s often suggestions of things you’ve already tried, and then they send you home after a long time of distressing and anxiety-provoking, pain-filled waiting.
You may not come out feeling like you were even really heard.”
Some people have a misperception that utilizing therapy dogs can transmit disease and risk hygiene in a hospital setting, but Dell said there are ways health care providers can utilize them in sanitary ways to make the whole system operate better.
Mike MacFadden, a nurse practitioner based in Canada, said he sees a lot of potential in incorporating therapy dogs as part of a holistic approach to pain treatment in the emergency room, and that it could help everyone involved.
“Emergency service teams can feel conflicted and experience moral distress resulting from their inability to meet their own expectations for optimal care. With people’s experience of pain being multifaceted, we know that a multifacetedapproach is most beneficial to meet the needs of patients,” McFadden said. “The presence of a therapy dog not only has the benefits of supporting the patient’s experience, but I think it also serves as a comfort to the care providers.”
Anxiety, depression, having support or being dismissed can all have an impact on how we experience pain, she said. It makes sense that spending time with a creature that brings you joy and doesn’t invalidate your feelings can help you feel better.
“The things that you can gain from pets and some of the positive emotions that could be elicited from having the pet around you I think could have an impact on the pain experience itself,” she said.
Beckwell said she has experienced it personally with her 10-year-old cocker spaniel, Reilly, as she has experienced arthritis and autoimmune disorders.
“I feel more in control of the situation and less panicked or anxious about the severity of my pain, the duration of my pain, those sorts of things when I have that unconditional support from my dog,” Beckwell said. “She will come in, and she has learned over the years when I’m in pain she can’t sit on my lap.
“I don’t need to tell her — she knows,” Beckwell said.
Over 10,000 people in Europe use an assistance dog; think of guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired, hearing or signal dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing, medical response dogs and psychiatric service dogs.
According to European law, these dogs are welcome in stores, hospitals and other public places. However, in practice, many assistance dog users and their dogs are regularly refused entry. In the Netherlands, four out of five assistance dog users indicate that they regularly experience problems with this.
Often, hygiene reasons are given as the main argument for refusing entry to assistance dogs. Research by Utrecht University now shows that the paws of assistance dogs are cleaner than the shoe soles of their users, and thus, paw hygiene is no reason to ban assistance dogs from hospitals.
To investigate this, Jasmijn Vos, Joris Wijnker and Paul Overgaauw of Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine took samples from the paws of 50 assistance dogs and the shoe soles of their users. For comparison, they also investigated an equally large group of pet dogs and their owners. Vos and her colleagues examined the samples for poop bacteria (Enterobacteriaceae), which are very common outdoors, and for an important diarrhoeal bacteria (Clostridium difficile).
“The dogs’ paws turned out to be cleaner than the soles of their shoes,” says Jasmijn Vos, Masters student at Utrecht University. “This makes the hygiene argument that is often used to ban assistance dogs from public locations invalid.” Moreover, the diarrhoeal bacteria did not occur on the dogs’ paws whatsoever, and only once on a shoe sole.
81% of assistance dogs are refused
Dutch assistance dog users were also surveyed about their experiences. 81% are still regularly refused entry to public places with their dog, even though this is prohibited by law. This is mainly down to lack of knowledge on the part of the person refusing entry: lack of knowledge on what an assistance dog is, how it can be recognised, and about the rules of law.
The study also shows that assistance dog users constitute only a small fraction of the total number of patients in Dutch hospitals. Should they decide to bring their assistance dog to the hospital, or elsewhere, this should be made possible; assistance dogs are usually well behaved and are no more of a hygiene hazard than people!
Research publication Vos SJ, Wijnker JJ, Overgaauw PAM. A pilot study on the contamination of assistance dogs’ paws and their users’ shoe soles in relation to admittance to hospitals and (in)visible disability. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2021; 18(2): 513. Full text: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/2/513
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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