Tag Archives: Canine Companions for Independence

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

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Brain scans of service-dog trainees help sort weaker recruits from the pack

Brain scans of canine candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a rigorous service training program, a study by Emory University finds.

The journal Scientific Reports published the results of the study, involving 43 dogs who underwent service training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California.

Dogs with MRI machine

Some of the service dog trainees that were involved in the study pose with an fMRI scanner. (Photo by Gregory Berns.)

“Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided a modest, but significant, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates,” says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who led the research. “What the brain imaging tells us is not just which dogs are more likely to fail, but why.”

All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala – an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program.

“The brain scans may be like taking a dog’s mental temperature,” Berns says. “You could think of it as a medical test with a normal range for a service dog. And the heightened neural activity that we see in the amygdala of some dogs may be outside of that range, indicating an abnormal value for a successful service dog.”

The findings are important, he adds, since the cost of training a service dog ranges from $20,000 to $50,000. As many as 70 percent of the animals that start a six-to-nine-month training program have to be released for behavioral reasons.

“There are long waiting lists for service dogs, and the training is lengthy and expensive,” Berns says. “So the goal is to find more accurate ways to eliminate unsuitable dogs earlier in the process.”

The study found that fMRI boosted the ability to identify dogs that would ultimately fail to 67 percent, up from about 47 percent without the use of fMRI.

“This type of approach is not going to be feasible for individual trainers and their dogs because of the expense of fMRI,” Berns says. “It would only be practical for organizations that train large numbers of dogs every year.”

CCI is a non-profit that breeds, raises and trains dogs to assist human partners. Its service dog program, designed for disabled people, provides dogs to do tasks such as turn on lights, pick up dropped keys, open a door and pull a manual wheelchair.

Golden retrievers, Labradors — or crosses between the two — are the usual CCI service dog breeds, due to their generally calm and affable natures. After the puppies are weaned, they are adopted by volunteer puppy raisers for 15 months, before returning to CCI to undergo behavioral tests. Those that pass begin training.

For the Scientific Reports paper, the researchers taught the dogs how to remain still while undergoing an fMRI at the start of the training program.

The Berns’ lab was the first to conduct fMRI experiments on awake, unrestrained dogs, as part of an ongoing project to understand canine cognition and inter-species communication. In an early experiment, dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a food treat, and another signal meant that the dog would not receive one. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation when the dogs saw the signal for the treat, but not for the non-treat signal.

The researchers adapted this experiment for the current study — the largest yet involving dogs undergoing fMRI. The dogs were taught hand signals for “treat” and “no treat,” but sometimes the signals were given by the dog’s trainer and other times by a stranger.

The results found that dogs with stronger activity in the caudate in response to the treat signal – regardless of who gave the signal – were slightly more likely to successfully complete the service dog training program. However, if a dog had relatively more activity in the amygdala in response to the treat signal – particularly if the signal was given by a stranger – that increased the likelihood that the dog would fail.

“The ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn’t get excessively excited or nervous,” Berns says. “The two neural regions that we focused on – the caudate and the amygdala – seem to distinguish those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt behaviors.”

Berns hopes that the technology may become more refined and have applications for a broader range of working dogs, such as those used to assist the military and police forces.

Source:  Emory University

Southwest Airlines teams up with Canine Companions

Southwest Airlines has committed its support to Canine Companions for Independence by allowing volunteer puppy raisers and their puppies to travel at no additional charge (a savings of $95 per puppy per trip).

The company has instituted this benefit as a standard policy after a very successful six-month trial.  The puppy raisers were professional and the puppies were well-behaved.

The puppies gain valuable experience with commercial flying even before they are fully trained and graduate.  So the Airline is supporting the Canine Companions’ training program with practical skills.

Founded in 1975, CCI is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly-trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. CCI is the largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs, and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs, and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. CCI trains four types of assistance dogs: Service dogs, Hearing dogs, Skilled Companion dogs, and Facility dogs—all of which provide specialized assistance to those in need.

Well done to Southwest Airlines!

Puppy raisers pre-board each aircraft at the same time that passengers with disabilities are given the opportunity to board.  The dogs must have a valid vaccination record and CCI identification must also be produced.

canine-companions-for-independence

Source:  The Companion, Northeast Region, Summer 2016

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

Barley is more than a pet

These are the introductory words to this video, another excellent one sponsored by the Kleenex brand.

Andi is a little girl with Down’s Syndrome and Barley is her assistance dog who has been trained by Canine Companions for Independence.

I love to share stories about assistance dogs like Barley.  No wonder this video has been called “A Girl’s Best Friend”

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

Service dog fraud

There’s a worrying and growing trend in the United States.  It’s Service Dog Fraud – when dog owners purchase fake service dog vests and then take their dogs into public places.

Under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with service animals must be allowed access to public places.  This is the Department of Justice’s definition of a service animal:

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

Yet, the sale of fake service dog products is unregulated.  On a recent flight through Los Angeles International Airport, the volunteers in their PUPs programme told me that they regularly see fake service dogs at the airport.  They can be spotted a mile away – dogs that are clearly pets with behaviors that are not characteristic of true service dogs doing things like jumping on people or stealing food.

CBS News has covered this type of fraud, which is causing people with genuine disabilities to be questioned about their right to enter establishments with their service dog:

Canine Companions for Independence is asking dog owners to take a pledge to stop service dog fraud.  You can take this pledge by clicking here. 

I encourage you to sign the pledge and circulate it to your friends and relatives.  If you know of someone who is illegally passing their dog off as a service dog, please ask them to stop and help them to understand what problems they are causing.

See also my earlier post on the sale of fake service dog products

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

Fake service dog products

Non-profit agency Canine Companions for Independence is circulating a petition to the U S Department of Justice to urge them to take action against fake service dog/assistance dog products.

These  products, mostly sold online, fraudulently portray a dog as an assistance dog.   As service animals, they will be permitted inside grocery stores, restaurants and other public places where family pets are otherwise not allowed.

As a result of these acts of fraud, people with disabilities who have a legitimate need for an assistance dog face added discrimination and are being denied access to public places, which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I’m a big supporter of dog-friendly workplaces, hotels, and shopping (as evidenced by the postings on this blog), but I do not support gaining access through fraud.  My biggest concern is that people with disabilities and their dogs may be discriminated against because members of the public will lack confidence in service dog certification systems.  (‘That’s a service dog?  Yeah, right.’)

As an example, check out last month’s publicity when Air New Zealand allowed access to two French bulldogs whose owners carried papers certifying them as psychiatric dogs.  Air New Zealand obeyed the law but the scepticism of the journalists and public who commented on the article was clear.

We simply can’t afford to have the public doubt the authenticity of assistance dog and service dog training programmes.  If you agree with me, please support this cause and sign the Canine Companions petition here.

The dog at the Presidential Inaugural Parade

The dog won’t be Bo…it’ll be this (not so little) fellow:

Independence, a dog balloon proudly wearing a Canine Companions assistance dog vest, will appear in the parade on January 21st.

Independence, a dog balloon proudly wearing a Canine Companions assistance dog vest, will appear in the parade on January 21st.

Independence will be the mascot for Canine Companions for Independence on their float in the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade on Monday, January 21st.

Canine Companions will have 132 marchers from 14 states, with nationwide participation including assistance dog teams, volunteer puppy raisers, National Board Members and staff.

“Canine Companions is honored to be chosen to participate in the Presidential Inaugural Parade. We’re grateful to be able to share in this historic day and to share our mission of serving people with disabilities worldwide,” says CEO Corey Hudson.

Canine Companions was one of 60 organizations chosen from over 2,800 applications. The theme of the parade is “Our People, Our Future”

Now, I wonder where Bo will be?