Tag Archives: stress

Search and rescue dogs do their job despite travel stress

When disaster strikes, you want the very best tools, functioning at their peak. In the case of catastrophic earthquakes, tornadoes, or even bombings in war zones, those tools are search and rescue dogs. But researchers have found that getting dogs to disaster sites can add to the animals’ stress.

“We’ve spent $16 billion in this country trying to come up with a machine that can sniff better than dogs, and we haven’t done it yet. Search and rescue animals can save lives, protect our soldiers in the field, and locate survivors after a disaster. We want to know how we can manage them so we can protect their performance, because their performance impacts human lives. That’s the reason behind what we do,” says Erin Perry, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition at Southern Illinois University.

Perry, who has also been a canine handler in the Department of Homeland Security for the past 14 years, teamed up with University of Illinois animal scientist Kelly Swanson and others at U of I to learn how stress affects the animals’ performance on the job.

Search and rescue dogs fly on a moment’s notice to the site of a disaster, where they are expected to perform at the top of their game. But, just like for humans, flying can be stressful for dogs. The research team designed two preliminary studies to evaluate the effect of air travel stress on the animals’ physiology and job performance.

“Some dogs are like, ‘I’ve flown before, no big deal,’ but others, even if they’ve flown before, still show stress behaviors, and can have elevated body temperature or diarrhea,” says Swanson, Kraft Foods Human Nutrition Endowed Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.

Dog owners may be familiar with the tendency towards loose stools when their animals are stressed. One of the reasons for that may be a stress-induced change in gut physiology and shift in the gut microbiome, the community of microbes that inhabit the mammalian gut. Paired with a more permeable [or leaky] gut lining, also triggered by stress, “bad” microbes can gain an advantage and cause upset stomachs. These symptoms have been observed in search and rescue dogs when traveling to a work site, but no one had ever studied the dogs’ microbiome.

In one of the studies by Perry and Swanson’s team, search and rescue dogs were flown for 2.5 hours in the cabin of a commercial airliner to the job site. In the other, dogs were “hot loaded” into a helicopter – blades whirling – for a quick 30-minute flight to the site. The team looked at slightly different factors in each study, but for both, they examined changes in the makeup of the microbiome and performance on the job.

Helicopter Study dogs approaching_1

Dogs being loaded into a helicopter

The helicopter flight caused spikes in body temperature and the stress hormone cortisol, but the researchers didn’t observe changes in the makeup of the dogs’ microbiomes. Dogs that entered an airport, went through security, and flew for a longer period on the commercial flight showed an interesting microbial shift.

“Microbial beta diversity, which is a measure of the presence and abundance of bacterial taxa, was different between dogs that traveled compared to those that did not. Travel led to greater relative abundances of Clostridia and Bacteroidaceae populations, two of the more predominant microbial groups in the gastrointestinal tract,” Swanson explains. He says more research is needed to understand how such changes may impact the long-term health of search and rescue dogs.

But the most impressive finding in both studies was the fact that there was no effect of air travel stress on the dogs’ job performance. “They showed behavioral stress, their gut was completely turned upside down, their bloodwork showed significant effects, and it didn’t matter. They still went to work and performed beautifully,” Perry says. “Even though we see physiological impacts on these dogs, they’re such amazing athletes that they overcome the physical and environmental stress and just do their job.”

Although travel didn’t impact the dogs’ performance in these preliminary studies, the researchers emphasized that stress can occasionally cause search and rescue dogs to miss work. But gaining new insight into canine stress responses, particularly the way stress affects the microbiome, may pave the way towards potential solutions for both working and companion animals.

“We’ve all owned dogs that were scared of lightning, vacuum cleaners, those innocuous day-to-day experiences,” Perry says. “Having a better understanding of what causes stress and how to compensate for it helps every dog, not just the ones that are out there saving lives.”

Swanson adds, “These small studies are just a starting point. In the future, we hope to apply these findings to larger studies focused on various stressor types and a longer duration of stress, similar to that experienced in the field during times of emergency. Our goals will be to develop and evaluate nutritional interventions and/or management strategies that avoid negative physiologic effects and maintain performance.”

Source:  University of Illinois media release

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Pet dogs help kids feel less stressed

Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

boy-and-dog

Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study – the gold standard in research.

“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.” 

For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.

“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”

Source:  University of Florida News

Using therapy dogs to prepare for the Olympics

Olympic dog

The Summer Olympics in Rio are not far away and it’s a stressful time for athletes as they prepare and aim to qualify for the competition.

In the United States, the swim team is using  dogs to help manage the stress! A Havanese named Holly and a Goldendoodle named Larry are among the crew supporting the swimmers.

Read more in this New York Times article – US Swimmers Using Therapy Dogs to Relax Before Races

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

Adjusting stress levels for mellow vs hyper dogs

People aren’t the only ones who perform better on tests or athletic events when they are just a little bit nervous — dogs do too. But in dogs as in people, the right amount of stress depends on disposition.

A new study by researchers at Duke University finds that a little extra stress and stimulation makes hyper dogs crack under pressure but gives mellow dogs an edge.  (These findings will be relevant to any owner who is competing in agility or obedience with their dog.)

The findings appear online in the journal Animal Cognition.

According to an idea in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson law, a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point.

A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard to stay engaged and perform at one’s peak. But when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.

The idea is the relationship between stress and performance follows a Goldilocks model:  Both people and animals function best when the level of stress is not too much, nor too little, but just right.

When you’re taking a test, for example, it helps to be a little bit anxious so you don’t just blow it off,” said study co-author Emily Bray, who was an undergraduate at Duke at the time of the study. “But if you’re too nervous, even if you study and you really know the material, you aren’t going to perform at your best.”

Researchers first observed this pattern more than a hundred years ago in lab rats, but it has since been demonstrated in chickens, cats and humans. In a new study, a Duke team consisting of Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center wanted to find out if the conditions that enable certain animals to do their best also depend on the animal’s underlying temperament.

In a series of experiments, the researchers challenged dogs to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier that was six feet wide and three feet tall. To get it right, the dogs had to resist the impulse to try to take the shortest path to reach the treat — which would only cause them to whack into the barrier and bump their heads against the plastic — and instead walk around the barrier to one of the open sides.

In one set of trials, an experimenter stood behind the barrier holding a treat and called the dog’s name in a calm, flat voice. In another set of trials, the experimenter enthusiastically waved the treat in the air and used an urgent, excited voice. (See YouTube video at https://youtu.be/j6bfo5IlCEY – the video has been protected and so I’m unable to link it directly to this blog post).

The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, ranging in age from an eight-month-old Jack Russell terrier named Enzo to an 11-year-old Vizsla named Sienna. They also tested 76 assistance dogs at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California, a non-profit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

The researchers studied video recordings of each dog and estimated their baseline temperament in terms of tail wags per minute. “The service dogs were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction, whereas the pet dogs tended to be more excitable and high-strung,” Bray said.

Both groups of dogs were able to solve the puzzle. But the optimal amount of stress and stimulation depended on each dog’s disposition.

For the dogs that were naturally calm and laid-back — measured by how quickly they tended to wag their tails — increasing the level of excitement and urgency boosted their ability to stay on task and get the treat.

But for excitable dogs the pattern was reversed. Increasing the level of stimulation only made them take longer.

In one high-arousal trial, a two-year-old spaniel named Charlie Brown lost it and shut down, barking and zipping around crazily until she almost ran out of time.

“In the first five trials she did fine and solved the puzzle quickly with no problems,” Bray said. “Then when the high-arousal trials started she choked. She just couldn’t figure it out.”

“Adding more excitement pushed the pet dogs over the edge and impaired their ability to perform at their peak,” Bray said.

The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service dog training programs, for example.

Source:  Duke University media release

Moving house with a dog

Shifting homes is rated amongst the top 10 stressful life events.  And it is well documented that dogs are also affected by this stress.

Tips to help your dog settle in include:

  • Remove them from the house on moving day to a familiar place (at a friend’s or relative’s)
  • Keep to routine as much as possible (morning/afternoon walks, meal times)
  • Bring your dog’s toys, blankets and crate with you and set them up early in the new residence
  • Reinforce fences and gates to ensure your dog isn’t tempted to return home

…but I have another suggestion, based on our recent house move with Izzy…

Let your dog unpack boxes!

Izzy's unpacking job 29 June 2015

 

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

Kennels may not be something to dread

New research suggests that dogs who spend a short time in boarding kennels may not find it unduly stressful and – quite the oppositie – could find the change of scenery exciting.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Green Dog Rescue

Photo courtesy of Jerry Green Dog Rescue

The research team, which included academics from the University of Lincoln, UK, University of Birmingham, Queen’s University Belfast and The Royal Veterinary College, measured a range of stress parameters in 29 privately-owned dogs – both at home and in one of three private boarding kennel establishments in Northern Ireland.

This study aimed to test the validity of a range of physiological, physical and behavioural welfare indicators and to establish baseline values reflecting good dog welfare.

Physical measurements included skin dryness, nose temperature, core body temperature and amount of food eaten. Behavioural measurements included spontaneous behaviours such as lip licking, paw lifting, yawning, shaking and restlessness. Physiological measures included stress hormones (corticosteroids) and epinephrine (adrenaline).

The study revealed that dogs have higher levels of arousal, colder noses and were generally more active in kennels than when they were at home.

Based on existing research it was assumed that dogs would show higher levels of stress in the kennel compared to the home environment.

The most widely used physiological indicator of canine welfare is urinary cortisol (hormone secreted following activation of one of the major stress response systems) and creatinine (chemical waste product created by the liver) ratios (C/Cr), which is considered a valid measure of acute and chronic stress in dogs. However, the reliability of this has been questioned.

The study revealed that C/Cr was significantly higher in the kennel compared to the home environment but cortisol levels have also been found to increase after exercise and excitement, and appear to provide an indication of arousal without specifying the emotional reason of that arousal.

Dr Lisa Collins, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: “Many owners find leaving their dog at a boarding kennels a stressful experience.  However, this study suggests that although dogs appeared to have a higher level of overall arousal or excitement in kennels compared with their state at home, this arousal is not necessarily due to dogs experiencing kennels as negatively stressful. The emotional reasons for the behavioural and physiological responses of the dogs were ambiguous and no definitive evidence was found to suggest that dogs were negatively stressed by kennelling.”

“Our findings did strongly suggest that C/Cr, epinephrine and nose temperature are robust measures of psychological arousal in dogs. Nonetheless, these measures can be easily misinterpreted and do not provide unequivocal indicators of psychological stress. Findings appear to suggest that the dogs in this study did not perceive admission to boarding kennels as an aversive stressor and perhaps, instead, perceived kennelling as an exciting change of scene, at least in the short-term.”

The team recommends further investigation to determine the validity of measurements tested as indicators of acute and chronic stress in domestic dogs.

Their study has been published in the journal Physiology & Behavior.

Source:  University of Lincoln media release

Benefits of having a dog in your life

Daisy portrait

Some of the great benefits of owning a dog are:

  1. Reduction of stress
  2. They make you exercise
  3. They provide unconditional love
  4. And on top of this, they boost self esteem (even after a bad day at work, they love you!)
  5. When life is hard, they teach you the value of play
  6. Because they love you, they provide safety & security
  7. They provide a sense of belonging – you’re packmates!
  8. On top of everything, the act of petting a dog is proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate

Enjoy your weekend.  Have you hugged your dog today?