Tag Archives: assistance dogs

Puppies are Wired to Communicate With People, Study Shows

Researchers evaluated social communication skills in 375 budding service dogs with Canine Companions. Courtesy of Canine Companions

Dogs may have earned the title “man’s best friend” because of how good they are at interacting with people. Those social skills may be present shortly after birth rather than learned, a new study by University of Arizona researchers suggests.

Published in the journal Current Biology, the study also finds that genetics may help explain why some dogs perform better than others on social tasks such as following pointing gestures.

“There was evidence that these sorts of social skills were present in adulthood, but here we find evidence that puppies – sort of like humans – are biologically prepared to interact in these social ways,” said lead study author Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Bray has spent the last decade conducting research with dogs in collaboration with California-based Canine Companions, a service dog organization serving clients with physical disabilities. She and her colleagues hope to better understand how dogs think and solve problems, which could have implications for identifying dogs that would make good service animals.

To better understand biology’s role in dogs’ abilities to communicate with humans, Bray and her collaborators looked at how 375 of the organization’s 8-week-old budding service dogs, which had little previous one-on-one interaction with humans, performed on a series of tasks designed to measure their social communication skills.

Because the researchers knew each puppy’s pedigree – and therefore how related they were to one another – they were also able to look at whether inherited genes explain differences in dogs’ abilities. Genetics explained more than 40% of the variation in puppies’ abilities to follow human pointing gestures, as well as variation in how long they engaged in eye contact with humans during a task designed to measure their interest in people.

“People have been interested in dogs’ abilities to do these kinds of things for a long time, but there’s always been debate about to what extent is this really in the biology of dogs, versus something they learn by palling around with humans,” said study co-author Evan MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. “We found that there’s definitely a strong genetic component, and they’re definitely doing it from the get-go.”

At the time of the study, the puppies were still living with their littermates and had not yet been sent to live with a volunteer puppy raiser. Therefore, their interactions with humans had been limited, making it unlikely that the behaviors were learned, Bray said.

The researchers engaged the puppies in four different tasks. In one task, an experimenter hid a treat beneath one of two overturned cups and pointed to it to see if the puppy could follow the gesture. To ensure that the pups weren’t just following their noses, a treat was also taped to the inside of both cups. In another version of the task, puppies watched as the researchers placed a yellow block next to the correct cup, instead of pointing, to indicate where the puppy should look for the food.

The other two tasks were designed to observe puppies’ propensity to look at human faces. In one task, the researchers spoke to the puppies in “dog-directed speech,” reciting a script in the sort of high-pitched voice people sometimes use when talking to a baby. They then measured how long the puppy held a gaze with the human. In the final task – a so-called “unsolvable task” – researchers sealed a treat inside a closed container and presented it to the puppy, then measured how often the puppy looked to the human for help opening the container.

While many of the puppies were responsive to humans’ physical and verbal cues, very few looked to humans for help with the unsolvable task. That suggests that while puppies may be born knowing how to respond to human-initiated communication, the ability to initiate communication on their own may come later.   

“In studies of adult dogs, we find a tendency for them to look to humans for help, especially when you look at adult dogs versus wolves. Wolves are going to persist and try to independently problem solve, whereas dogs are more likely to look to the social partner for help,” Bray said. “In puppies, this help-seeking behavior didn’t really seem to be part of their repertoire yet.”

In many ways, that mirrors what we see in human children’s development, Bray said.

“If you think about language learning, children can understand what we’re saying to them before they can physically produce the words,” she said. “It’s potentially a similar story with puppies; they are understanding what is being socially conveyed to them, but the production of it on their end is probably going to take a little bit longer, developmentally.”

MacLean said the next step will be to see if researchers can identify the specific genes that may contribute to dogs’ capacity to communicate with humans.

“We’ve done some previous studies that show that dogs who tend to be successful as service dogs respond to people in different ways than dogs who aren’t successful,” MacLean said. “If you could identify a potential genetic basis for these traits, you might be able to predict, even before the puppy is born, if they are part of a litter that would be good service dog candidates, because they have the right genetic background. It’s a long way down the road, but there is potential to start applying this.”

Source: University of Arizona

Emotional support animals

10+ years ago when I was working as a science manager in a local council, I recall that a member of staff had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant.  Her doctor suggested that she and her husband adopt a dog (which they did) because he felt that caring for the dog would help relieve the anxiety about not getting pregnant.

In effect, her doctor prescribed an emotional support animal.   This is an animal that, simply by virtue of its presence in the person’s life, provides companionship and support.

Such animals have been increasingly in the news for all the wrong reasons.  Untrained animals being brought onto US-based airlines and causing havoc including going to the toilet in the aisles and biting passengers.

Emotional support animals are not trained service dogs.   Whenever an incident occurs that makes the news, it makes life a little harder for people who truly need a service dog.

Denver International Airport

Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal must be trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, be it physical or psychiatric. Disabilities include things like being blind or deaf, using a wheelchair, relying on a dog to remind you to take meds, or having a dog around in case of an anxiety attack.

Under federal law, only dogs and miniature horses weighing less than 100 pounds qualify for the “service animal” designation.

The major airlines are responding with tightened rules for traveling with emotional support animals and I think this is a good thing.

Here are the steps passengers have to take to bring an emotional support animal into the main cabin on one of the three major US airlines:

  • American – Passengers must submit a document signed by a licensed doctor or medical health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health or emotional disability” and needs the animal “for emotional support or psychiatric service” on the flight or at the passenger’s destination. The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • Delta – Starting March 1, passengers will have to submit three documents if they wish to travel with an emotional support animal. In addition to a signed statement from a medical professional, passengers will have to provide vaccination dates and the contact information of the animal’s veterinarian and sign a statement that claims the animal is properly trained “to behave in a public setting” and take the passenger’s “direction upon command.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.
  • United – Passengers must submit a document from a medical or mental health professional which states that the passenger has a “mental health-related disability” and that the emotional support animal “is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment.” The document needs to have been signed within the past year and must be submitted at least 48 hours before the flight.

I’m not against the designation of emotional support animals, particularly if a health professional has prescribed one.

That said, let’s be honest that most of us don’t train our dogs to the standard of a service dog because we don’t have to.  Subjecting the traveling public to a dog that you love but isn’t properly trained is just wrong.

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

Source:  Business Insider

 

How dogs can sniff out diabetes

A chemical found in our breath could provide a flag to warn of dangerously-low blood sugar levels in patients with type 1 diabetes, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. The finding, published in the journal Diabetes Care, could explain why some dogs can be trained to spot the warning signs in patients.

Claire Pesterfield, a paediatric diabetes specialist nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has type 1 diabetes, which requires insulin injections to manage blood sugar levels. She also has a golden Labrador dog that has been trained by the charity Medical Detection Dogs to detect when her blood sugar levels are falling to potentially dangerous levels.

“Low blood sugar is an everyday threat to me and if it falls too low – which it can do quickly – it can be very dangerous,” says Claire. “Magic is incredible – he’s not just a wonderful companion, but he’s my ‘nose’ to warn me if I’m at risk of a hypo. If he smells a hypo coming, he’ll jump up and put his paws on my shoulders to let me know.”

Hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar – can cause problems such as shakiness, disorientation and fatigue; if the patient does not receive a sugar boost in time, it can cause seizures and lead to unconsciousness. In some people with diabetes, these episodes can occur suddenly with little warning.

Given the reports of dogs alerting owners to blood glucose changes, researchers at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge, believed that certain naturally-occurring chemicals in exhaled breath might change when glucose levels were low. In a preliminary study to test this hypothesis, the scientists gradually lowered blood sugar levels under controlled conditions in 8 women, all around their forties, and all with type 1 diabetes. They then used mass spectrometry – which look for chemical signatures – to detect the presence of these chemicals.

The researchers found that levels of the chemical isoprene rose significantly at hypoglycaemia – in some cases almost doubling. They believe that dogs may be sensitive to the presence of isoprene, and suggest that it may be possible to develop new detectors that can identify elevated levels of isoprene in patients at risk.

“Isoprene is one of the commonest natural chemicals that we find in human breath, but we know surprisingly little about where it comes from,” says Dr Mark Evans, Honorary Consultant Physician at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, University of Cambridge. “We suspect it’s a by-product of the production of cholesterol, but it isn’t clear why levels of the chemical rise when patients get very low blood sugar.

“Humans aren’t sensitive to the presence of isoprene, but dogs with their incredible sense of smell, find it easy to identify and can be trained to alert their owners about dangerously low blood sugar levels. It provides a ‘scent’ that could help us develop new tests for detecting hypoglycaemia and reducing the risk of potentially life-threatening complications for patients living with diabetes. It’s our vision that a new breath test could at least partly – but ideally completely – replace the current finger-prick test, which is inconvenient and painful for patients, and relatively expensive to administer.”

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre with support from the Cambridge NIHR Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility.

Source:  University of Cambridge media release

Reporting for Duty – book review

I have just finished reading Reporting for Duty, a coffee table book written by Tracy Libby.  This book is presented well, with small vignettes interspersed with text, photos, and profiles of 15 veterans and their assistance dogs.

Reporting for duty by Tracy Libby

The book’s first chapter explains  PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder, a term that didn’t come into use until after the Vietnam War), TBI (traumatic brain injury), and MST (military sexual trauma) – pretty gut-wrenching content.

The chapters that follow include coverage of therapy dogs in history, prison puppy programs and combat and operational stress-control dogs.  The final chapter is about how dogs read us, with references to the various research findings about canine cognition and the human-animal bond (a favourite subject of mine).

There are many photographs in this book, which are lovingly presented.  It provides a good selection of case studies – veterans and their dogs – with veterans from different wars and each requiring different levels of assistance and support.

But it is the book’s Foreward that will remain with me for some time.  Written by Karen D Jeffries (retired Commander in the US Navy, and co-founder of Veterans Moving Forward, Inc – a charity which will benefit from some of the proceeds of sales), the Foreward contains some sobering statistics and facts:

  • The US Veteran’s Administration is unable to meet the needs of the disabled veteran population
  • More that 540,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD or depression (or both)
  • More than 260,000 veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries
  • Even if all of the service dog organisations currently operating in the United States increased their annual output by a factor of 100, the mental health challenges of veterans would still not be met
  • The present policy of the Veteran’s Administration is to provide service dogs only to veterans with visual or hearing impairment or some selected mobility challenges – a small sub-set of the range of uses and support that can be given by trained dogs

This is a book that is best enjoyed in hard copy – flick through the photos and thank heaven for the people who volunteer, fund raise, and train assistance dogs.

My copy of the Reporting for Duty was provided free-of-charge by the book’s publisher.  I will cherish it as part of my dog book collection.

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

 

 

 

Even a short visit can improve the day

Snowy and Mum

A dog doesn’t have to be a certified therapy dog to brighten someone’s day – it just needs to be well-trained and sociable.

Here is Snowy, a Labradoodle, with my Mum.  Snowy lives next door and makes visits for cuddles and treats (but especially treats).

If you have elderly people in your neighborhood, consider reaching out to them with your well-behaved dog.  A visit by a friendly dog can really brighten the day.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Making cadaver dogs more efficient

A PhD student at the University of Huddersfield (UK) is conducting research to make cadaver and victim recovery (VR) dogs more efficient in their work.

These special dogs are probably not as well known as other working and assistance dogs, because the work they are associated with isn’t pleasant.  They are used to recover dead bodies (victims of suicide or murder), plus to find body parts and fluids that can help police track down the perpetrators of crime.  VR dogs were used to identify body parts from victims of the 7/7 bombings in London, for example.

Kip, a victim recovery dog from the South Yorkshire Police department, has been helping in the research (photo courtesy of University of Huddersfield)

Kip, a victim recovery dog from the South Yorkshire Police Department, has been helping in the research (photo courtesy of University of Huddersfield)

In her experiments using Kip, researcher Lorna Irish set out a sequence of vials containing different odours that she had prepared in the lab.  These chemicals are known to be produced from the body decomposition process.  Alongside these test chemicals were “positive controls” associated with human cadavers, such as human bone – from archaeological sources – and pork at various stages of decomposition.  Pork meat is used for training such dogs due to the ethical and legal problems associated with obtaining human material.  It is thought to be the closest analogue for human flesh for decomposition studies.  There were also “negative controls” – smelly chemicals not associated with decomposition, such as clove oil.

Kip correctly identified the odours derived from decomposition and was not distracted by the “negative control” smells.  It was a successful demonstration. In the field, VR dogs can sometimes be distracted by “false positives”, such as dead animals, or even mushrooms, explained Lorna.  If she can arrive at a greater understanding of the chemistry of odours from human cadavers, then VR dogs can be extra efficient.

“If you train a dog with a chemical that is specific to human decomposition, you can enhance its ability.  It is not about changing the way the dogs do it, but improving it,” she added.

Irish is approximately half-way through the research for her degree; she is traveling widely across the UK to observe dog training methods.

Source: University of Huddersfield media statement

 

The Dog in the Hospital

Great story from The Boston Globe which shows dogs are medicine for the soul.  In this article (linked below), read about Mike Hurley and his therapy dog, Dexter.  This pair worked behind the scenes with Boston bombing victims and their families and continue to spread cheer amongst patients at the Center.

Photo by Suzanne Kreiter, Boston Globe

Photo by Suzanne Kreiter, Boston Globe

The Dog in the Hospital – Metro – The Boston Globe.

Identification tags for Disability Assist Dogs

In the aftermath of the Christchurch 2011 earthquake, officials had difficulty identifying the status of dogs at civil defence centers.  If you were the owner of a disability assistance dog, this made things more difficult in what was already a stressful time.

Disability Assist Dog identification tag
In December 2013, the Minister of Civil Defence, the Hon Nikki Kaye, announce the production of a Disability Assist Dog tag that will be officially recognised throughout New Zealand.  The tags will be entered into the National Dog Database and provide unique identification for each dog, linking it to its owner/handler and the organisation that certified the dog.   These tags will be help match lost dogs and owners much faster and ensure that handlers and their dogs are allowed entry to official civil defence centers.

(Dogs are also micro-chipped in New Zealand; this is compulsory)

Seven organisations are authorised under the Dog Control Act 1996 to train and certify disability assist dogs. Only dogs certified through these organisations will qualify to wear the official identification tag:

  • Hearing Dogs for Deaf People NZ
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust
  • New Zealand Epilepsy Assist Dogs Trust
  • Royal NZ Foundation for the Blind
  • Top Dog Companion Trust (not currently operating)
  • Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust
  • Perfect Partners Assistance Dogs Trust

What programs are in place in your country to support owners/handlers and their assistance dogs?

K9 Flight School

Air Hollywood

Assistance dogs and small dogs that are allowed to fly in aircraft cabins are now supported with a training program specifically for them!

The training is provided by Air Hollywood, a studio where the television show Lost was filmed.  The K9 Flight School prepares people and pets to travel confidently by simulating a real aviation environment.  During the training, dogs are exposed to:

  • airport checkin
  • security screening
  • boarding
  • turbulence
  • landing
  • disembarking (no pun intended)

The one-day course costs $349.   Will your dog become a frequent flyer?

Harness fit in guide dogs

A research team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) have studied the forces that guide dogs are exposed to during their work to ascertain what types of harness are most suitable.

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

A proper harness that enables good communication between the blind person and the dog is an important factor to support the dog’s well-being, while a poorly fitting harness may result in health problems and impaired communication between dog and owner.

The team members, movement analysts and physiotherapists, examined the distribution of pressure in working guide dogs by placing pressure sensors beneath their harnesses. Eight guide dogs were filmed with a trainer while climbing steps, avoiding obstacles, turning left and right and walking straight ahead. To visualize the movements, the animals, the trainers and the harnesses were equipped with reflective markers. The positions of the markers were recorded by a total of ten cameras.

The results showed that the bottom right of the animals’ chests is particularly stressed. As Barbara Bockstahler explains, “Guide dogs walk under constant tension. They are usually on their owners’ right and in front of them.” The scientists found that the pressure on the right side of a dog’s chest may equate to up to 10 per cent of the animal’s weight. In contrast, the dog’s back experiences far less pressure. “It is important for guide dogs to exercise regularly without a harness to compensate for the lopsided pressure they experience in their work”, says Bockstahler.

Very rigid harnesses enable quick and finely tuned communication between dogs and owners but cause stress to the animals. The more stiffly the harness is anchored to the handle, the more pressure the animal experiences. The most comfortable harness relies on a hook-and-loop connection, which provides the least pressure on the dog, although for long-haired dogs a plastic clip version is favourable.

The researchers want to study guide dogs for a longer period of time to find out whether any of the harnesses are associated with long-term problems in the animals.   They require partners and sponsors for this work.

The results of this study have been published in the Veterinary Journal.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna press release