A ‘Robo-Nose’ Could Give K-9 Officers a Break

Robonose golden retriever

Golden retriever Rudy, wearing military dog tags and a U.S. flag, is being trained by the U.S. Army to use his amazing nose to find human remains. (Army photo)

Every day, thousands of trained K9 dogs sniff out narcotics, explosives and missing people across the United States. These dogs are invaluable for security, but they’re also very expensive and they can get tired.

Duke researchers have taken the first steps toward building an artificial “robot nose” device made from living mouse cells that officers could use instead of dogs.

The researchers have developed a prototype based on odor receptors grown from the genes of mice that respond to target odors, including the smells of cocaine and explosives. Their work appeared earlier this month in Nature Communications.

It turns out, there are a couple of very big differences between testing things in a lab dish and testing them in an actual nose.

“This idea of an artificial nose has been present for a long time,” said senior study author Hiroaki Matsunami, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the Duke School of Medicine. “The receptors were identified in the 1990s, but there are significant technical hurdles to produce all these receptors and monitor the activity so that we can use that in an artificial device.”

“E-noses” that exist now use various chemical compounds to detect smells instead of receptor stem cells, Matsunami said. He said those devices are “not as good as a trained dog.”

“The idea is that by using the actual, living receptors, maybe we can develop a device similar to animals,” Matsunami said. “Nobody has achieved that yet, but this study is moving toward that goal.”

Human, dog and mouse genomes contain around 20,000 genes, which contain instructions to create proteins that smell, taste, feel, move and do everything that our bodies do. About 5 percent of mouse genes have been identified as instructions to make odor receptors, Matsunami said. In contrast, humans only use about 2 percent of their genes to make odor receptors.

“These animals invest a lot of resources for this purpose,” Matsunami said. “Mice and rats are very good smellers; we just don’t use mice for detecting explosives in real life. There are some practical problems to do that.”

The first step of the study was to identify the best odor receptors to respond to target odors like cocaine or marijuana.

The researchers created a liquid medium primed with molecules that could light up from reactions. Next they copied about 80 percent of the odor receptors from mice, and mixed those receptors with seven target odor chemicals in the medium.

They measured the resulting luminescence and chose the best-performing odor receptors for the second part of the study, which monitored receptor activation in real time.

Previous research had done this by exposing selected receptors to odor chemicals in a liquid. But there are several differences between the petri dish and the nose. For one, we rarely submerge our noses into liquid baths of odor chemicals. Instead, our noses detect smells from wafting perfumes or stenches borne on the air. And our noses are full of mucus.

So, for the second half of the study, which was supported by the National Institute of Health grants DC014423 and DC016224 and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency RealNose Project, they attempted to mimic how we use our noses by exposing odorants to vapors and a few enzymes.

The researchers tested the receptors they had identified against two odor vapors for this study.

“We only tested two of them in the paper, but it’s showing the proof of principle of how it can be used,” Matsunami said.

The researchers hope they can fine-tune the device to test all receptors against many different smells.

“We have a panel of receptors so we can monitor how different receptors respond differently to various smells, including ones that are similar to each other in chemical structure or ones that might be related to real-world use, like something associated to explosives or drugs,” Matsunami said.

The researchers also tested various enzymes that one might find in mucus to see how they aided or impeded reactions. This process is more true-to-life than vapor molecules directly interacting with odor receptors.

“You’d think when we smell a chemical, the chemical would bind to the chemical receptor in the nose, but actually it’s not so simple,” Matsunami said. “When the chemical dissolves in the nasal mucus before binding to the receptor, it might be converted to another chemical by enzymes in the nasal mucus.”

Mucus is an unknown frontier in understanding how we smell. Reconstructing the key components of nasal mucus may be the next step toward building an artificial nose, according to the paper.

“It’s not like our paper will be immediately applied to a portable device used in the airport soon, but this is an important step forward to show that it is possible,” Matsunami said. “We can more clearly see what kind of hurdles to pass in order for the community to create such a device.”

Three of the authors have filed a patent application for the work.

Source:  Duke University

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Unleashing success

Pets bring joy, companionship and comfort to people’s lives every day, but new research found business leaders believe pet ownership contributed to their success. A survey conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital® discovered a correlation between pets and professional achievements: 93 percent of C-suite executives surveyed in the U.S. grew up with a pet, with 78 percent attributing their career success in part to owning a pet as a child.

“At Banfield Pet Hospital, we’ve long recognized the special bond between people and their pets, as well as the positive impact pets have on our society,” said Brian Garish, president of Banfield Pet Hospital. “From the pet ownership lessons we learned as children, to the ways our four-legged friends currently help us evolve, connect with others, and stay grounded, our latest research supports the notion we’ve had all along – that there may be a link between pets and their ability to help shape us as people.”

Unleashing success

WHETHER FELINE OR FEATHERY, PETS MAKE AN IMPACT
Banfield’s survey found childhood pet ownership may influence business success, and it isn’t just dogs and cats that have a positive impact. While more than four in five (83 percent) C-suite executives surveyed grew up with a dog, and almost three in five (59 percent) grew up with a cat, nearly two in five (37 percent) grew up with pets like birds, rabbits or rodents. Regardless of the pet, top business leaders agree their pet companions taught them valuable lessons as a child, such as responsibility, empathy and creativity – qualities they believe helped them to thrive as leaders in the workplace.

SIT, STAY AND SUCCEED
Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of those surveyed said their childhood pet taught them more valuable lessons than their first internship. C-suite executives feel their pets also helped them to develop other important leadership skills, including discipline (92 percent), organization (79 percent) and the ability to identify and anticipate business needs (38 percent).

CUT TO THE (CREATIVE) CHASE 
Many leaders surveyed also felt having a childhood pet unlocked vital lessons in creativity. Eighty-four percent of C-Suite executives who grew up with a pet said they’re creative, and almost three in five (59 percent) credit their childhood pet for having a positive impact on their ability to think outside the box. More than three in four (77 percent) C-suite executives said walking a pet helps them brainstorm business ideas and boosts creativity at work.

TEACHING AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS
Didn’t grow up with a pet? Not to worry, as Banfield’s survey also suggests current pet ownership can go a long way in the workplace. Nearly all current pet owners surveyed reported they stick to a schedule or routine (86 percent), have better time management (86 percent) and are good at multitasking (86 percent) because of their pets. Sixty-two percent of C-suite executives surveyed believe pets had a positive impact on their ability to build relationships with co-workers and clients—and that’s true of both working professionals and C-suite executives, with 80 percent of those surveyed reporting they feel more connected to colleagues who are pet owners, and nearly the same number (79 percent) think co-workers with pets are hard workers.

A FUTURE WITH FIDO
When it comes to future generations, almost all (90 percent) of C-suite executives surveyed feel children would be more successful at school if they cared for a pet. And some business leaders shared they were responsible for taking care of their childhood pet, including grooming (54 percent), training (42 percent) and health needs (36 percent). Whether career-related or otherwise, it’s clear pets can make a huge impact on our lives, so it’s no wonder nearly one in five (19 percent) of C-suite executives who grew up with a pet would go back in time and add another to their pack. 

Source:  Banfield Animal Hospital

Dogs know when they don’t know

When they don’t have enough information to make an accurate decision, dogs will search for more – similarly to chimpanzees and humans.

Researchers at the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have shown that dogs possess some “metacognitive” abilities – specifically, they are aware of when they do not have enough information to solve a problem and will actively seek more information, similarly to primates. To investigate this, the researchers created a test in which dogs had to find a reward – a toy or food – behind one of two fences. They found that the dogs looked for additional information significantly more often when they had not seen where the reward was hidden.

Metacognition study

In this study, dogs showed some of the signs of metacognition, specifically that they searched for more information when they had not seen where a reward was placed. © Juliane Bräuer

In the field of comparative psychology, researchers study animals in order to learn about the evolution of various traits and what this can tell us about ourselves. At the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, project leader Juliane Bräuer studies dogs to make these comparisons. In a recent study published in the journal Learning & Behavior, Bräuer and colleague Julia Belger, now of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, explore whether dogs have metacognitive abilities – sometimes described as the ability to “know what one knows” – and in particular whether they are aware of what information they have learned and whether they need more information.

To test this, the researchers designed an apparatus involving two V-shaped fences. A reward, either food or a toy, would be placed by one researcher behind one of the two fences while another researcher held the dog. In some cases, the dog could see where the reward was placed, while in others the dog could not. The researchers then analyzed how frequently the dogs looked through a gap in the fence before choosing an option. The question was whether, like chimps and humans, the dog would “check” through the gap when he or she had not seen where the reward was placed. This would indicate that the dog was aware that he or she did not know where the reward was – a metacognitive ability – and would try to get more information before choosing a fence.

Experiment set up

The overall set-up of the experiment, showing the two V-shaped fences, the experimenter who places the reward, the experimenter holding the dog, and the dog in starting position, without a curtain to block the view. This dog was participating in the third variation, with a time delay. © DogStudies. Belger & Bräuer, 2018. Metacognition in dogs: Do dogs know they could be wrong? Learning & Behavior. DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0367-5.

Some researchers argue that some animals, such as dogs, may only look for extra information when searching as a routinized, instinctual behavior, and not as a result of a metacognitive process. To control for this, Bräuer and Belger tested whether dogs show the so-called “passport effect,” originally described by researcher Joseph Call. When humans are looking for something very important, for example, a passport, they will engage in more active searching and will check for it more often than if they are looking for something less important or generic. Great apes display this same behavior – they will search more for a high-value food. Thus, Bräuer and Belger varied whether the dogs were looking for high- or low-value food, in order to test whether dogs also had the searching flexibility displayed in the passport effect. In another variation, they tested whether it made a difference to the dog when they had to search for a toy or for food.

The dogs “checked” more often when they did not know where the reward was hidden

The researchers found that the dogs did check significantly more often for the reward when they had not seen where it was placed. “These results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden,” explains Belger. “The fact that dogs checked more when they had no knowledge of the reward’s location could suggest that dogs show metacognitive abilities, as they meet one of the assumptions of knowing about knowing.”

Checking, however, did not always make the dogs very much more successful. In the first variation, with food or a toy as a reward, when dogs checked they were correct more often than when they did not check. However, in the second variation, with high-value or low-value food as the reward, even when dogs checked, they were not correct more than one would expect based on chance. The researchers theorize that this could be due to inhibition problems – the dogs get so excited about finding the reward, that they cannot stop themselves from approaching the closest fence even when they have seen that the reward is probably not there.

Additionally, the dogs did check more often for the toy than for the food in the first variation, suggesting that they do show flexibility in their searching and are not just engaging in a routine behavior. However, they did not check more often for the high-value food in the second variation, although they did look for it more quickly. Overall, the researchers concluded that the dogs, while showing some degree of searching flexibility, are not as flexible as primates.

In a third variation of the test, the dogs could always see where a food reward was placed, but were subject to a delay of 5 seconds to 2 minutes before being allowed to retrieve the reward. Interestingly, the dogs did not check more often with a longer time delay, even though they were slightly less successful. “It’s possible that this was due to a ‘ceiling effect,’ as dogs overall selected the correct fence in 93% of trials in this variation, so the pressure for seeking extra information was low,” suggests Belger.

Do dogs have metacognitive abilities?

The results did not allow the researchers to say definitively whether dogs possess metacognition, although they displayed some evidence for it. “For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case our experiment was based on a ‘checking’ action relying on sight – but the dogs probably also used their sense of smell when checking through the gap. We know that smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it,” states Bräuer. “In future, we would like to develop an experiment investigating under what circumstances dogs decide to use their sense of smell versus sight. This may give us additional insights into their information seeking abilities.”

Source:   Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

I’m thankful

On Thursday, Americans will celebrate another Thanksgiving Day.  There will be lots of food, family gatherings, parties and – hopefully – if you take the time to observe the true reason for the holiday – you will pause and give thanks for what you have been able to achieve and have been given over the last year.

I’m in New Zealand.  We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (although I wish we did, because I think New Zealand is a great place to live and we are endowed with so much in terms of quality of life.  It wouldn’t hurt us to stop and take a moment to give thanks.)

I am thankful and here’s why:

  • I work in a field that I am passionate about.  Yes, I have worked hard to establish my practice, but I am grateful that the effort has paid off.
  • My customers trust me to work in their homes with their dogs.  I am always aware that, as an in-home specialist, I am entrusted not only with the dog’s care but also access to homes.  You can’t get more personal than that.  I am grateful for the opportunity that these dog owners have given me.
  • My work enables me to travel and meet other people who work with dogs, too many of these dogs are homeless and in need of care.
  • My work also allows me time to visit with my family overseas and we are able to spend quality time together.
  • I have friends, most of whom are also dog people, and they give me support when I need it.  Like recently, when Izzy was hurt and she needed looking after during the work day.  My friend Marie stepped up to do this for me.  (My friends, Izzy and I also do fun dog things together – like beach walks and visits to dog-friendly cafes.)
  • Izzy, my greyhound, is healthy.  Although she is aging, she is aging gracefully and still loves to be my demo dog at workshops and public events.  When the weather is cooler, she also travels with me and visits with the customers.  She’s a true ambassador for canine massage and natural care.
  • People engage with me on Facebook, through this blog, and through the columns I write for NZ Dog World.  I love to write and it is satisfying knowing that people like you are reading what I have to say and to share and take the time to get in touch.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day please take the time to give thanks – even if you are not in a country that officially celebrates the day.

Remember to hug your dog, too!

Izzy resting

Obligatory photo of Izzy, The Balanced Dog’s demo dog and mascot.

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

No link between hypoallergenic dogs and lower risk of childhood asthma

Growing up with dogs is linked to a lower risk of asthma, especially if the dogs are female, a new study from Karolinska Institutet and Uppsala University in Sweden shows. However, the researchers found no relation between ‘allergy friendly’ breeds and a lower risk of asthma. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

asthma and child

Children growing up with female dogs, but not with ‘allergy friendly’ dogs have a lower risk of asthma. Photo: iStock

Earlier studies have demonstrated a link between growing up with dogs and a lower risk of childhood asthma, but it has not been known whether this association is modified by dog characteristics. In this new study, the researchers have interrogated how variables such as sex, breed, number of dogs or size of dog are associated with the risk of asthma and allergy amongst children raised in a home with a dog during their first year of life.

“The sex of the dog can affect the amount of allergens released, and we know that uncastrated male dogs express more of a particular allergen than castrated dogs and female dogs,” says Tove Fall, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Medical Sciences – Molecular Epidemiology at Uppsala University, who led the study with Professor Catarina Almqvist Malmros at Karolinska Institutet. “Moreover, some breeds are described anecdotally as ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘allergy friendly’ and are said to be more suitable for people with allergies, but there is no scientific evidence for this.”

Classified by different traits

The study included all children born in Sweden from 1 January 2001 to 31 December 2004 who had a dog in their home for the first year of life (23,600 individuals). Data from the Swedish population and health data registries were linked anonymously to two dog-owner registries from the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Swedish Kennel Club. The dogs were classified by sex, breed, number, size and alleged ‘hypoallergenicity’.

The researchers then studied the relationship between the dogs’ characteristics and the risk of asthma and allergy diagnosis or the prescription of asthma or allergy drugs at the age of six. The statistical analyses controlled for all known confounders that could affect the risk of developing asthma or allergies, such as parental asthma/allergy, geographical location and number of siblings.

Their results showed that the prevalence of asthma at age six was 5.4 per cent. Children with only female dogs at home had a 16 per cent lower risk of asthma than those raised with male dogs. However, living with a male dog did not correlate with a higher risk than living with no dog at all. Children living with two or more dogs had a 21 per cent lower risk of asthma than those who only lived with one dog.

Hypoallergenic dogs linked to higher risk of allergy

Children of parents with asthma/allergies more often had breeds described as ‘hypoallergenic’ than children of parents without asthma/allergies – 11.7 per cent versus 7.6 per cent. Exposure to these breeds was associated with a 27 per cent higher risk of allergy but no increased risk of asthma.

“The likely explanation for this higher risk is that families with a history of allergy to furred pets more often choose these dogs, and also that ‘allergy friendly’ dogs do not in fact release less allergens,” says Catarina Almqvist Malmros, Professor at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet and Consultant at Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital.

“The finding should be treated with caution as we can say nothing about any actual causality,” she continues. “More studies are needed to monitor differences over time, measure the risk of allergies using biomarkers, and take account of the microflora.”

The study was financed with grants from the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Initiative for Research on Microdata in the Social And Medical Sciences (SIMSAM), Agria, Forte, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas), the Swedish Heart and Lung Foundation, Stockholm County Council (ALF funding) and the Strategic Research Programme in Epidemiology (SFO-epi) at Karolinska Institutet.

Source:  Karolinska Institutet media release

Izzy’s toe – recovery and enrichment

It’s been quiet on the blog – more so than usual – over the last few weeks because it’s been a bit chaotic here.  You see, Izzy dislocated a toe on an evening walk and her rehab has been my priority.

The medical description of her injury was a ‘medial dislocation of the 5th digit.’  That’s the outside toe for those laypeople out there and it meant that the toe decided to go towards the centre of her body and at one point was completely tucked under the pads of the toes on the foot.  Ouch!

The most immediate concern was pain relief and I am grateful that we have an After Hours vet in our city.  Not all locations have this and you have to wait until morning to see a professional.

Home from the After Hours

Izzy had her toe padded and wrapped and was given a Metacam injection for pain relief. So tired I didn’t want to wake her to take her harness off

We were back out at our vet in the morning for an exam and they agreed with me to treat it conservatively which meant putting the toe back into place under anesthesia, restricted exercise (going to the toilet only) and NSAIDs for pain relief.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of enrichment activities for a dog that must rest.  Boredom can quickly set in and enrichment keeps their minds active so they are less likely to want to exercise and, in Izzy’s case, do zoomies in the house.

She taught a massage workshop with me on 27th October just 2 days after having her toe re-aligned; she simply had to sit out the gait analysis part of the agenda.  Otherwise, she was my perfect demo dog as usual and the change of scene was good for her.  She came home happy and tired.

Teaching Massage

Izzy was happy to rest on the massage table during class

And later in the week, my hairdresser allowed her to come with me so she could have another change of scene and enrichment.

At the Hairdressers with Therapaw Bootie

Izzy at the hairdresser’s who gave her a sheepskin to lay on. She’s wearing a Therapaws bootie to help protect her paw

After my hair was done, Izzy had her short toilet walk in a new neighborhood with new and different smells – also enrichment.

I’ve been taking her for short toilet breaks to other parks, too.  And rides in the car are also stimulating activities for her.

In between, I’m lucky that I had a friend who looked after her for two days while I was working and during this time she also had the company of another greyhound.   It really helps to have friends who understand and can help out when you dog is injured.

I’ve been lasering Izzy’s toe daily to help with blood flow and tissue healing and she is back to walking, although I am increasing the distance of her walks slowly to ensure we don’t over do it.  Also, after a period of rest, the physical condition of a dog declines.  So it’s wise to manage the re-introduction of exercise to avoid other strains and injuries.

Izzy has arthritis in her carpus (wrist) and toes, and so this injury is probably also a sign of the vulnerabilities that we will need to manage as she gets older.

The good news is that she is on the mend and we haven’t had any set back so far.

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

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