Tag Archives: working dogs

Impact of stress, temperament on working dogs to be explored in new research

A commitment to animal care and welfare—specifically in working dogs—is the driving force behind the newly funded research project

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has announced a research grant to Colorado State University (CSU). The pilot study aims to measure the Allostatic Load (AL) of dogs, which is understood as the ‘wear and tear’ on the body due to chronic or frequent stressors.

AL in humans is affected by genetics and personality, and high AL is a predictor of negative health outcomes including heart disease and cognitive decline. After successfully validating AL in primates, the research team seeks to validate canine AL for the first time.

“Developing a reliable method of measuring chronic stress will help ensure we are taking proper care of working dogs as well as pet dogs,” says CSU association professor, Barbara Wolfe, DVM, PhD, DACZM,, principal investigator of the project. “If successful, this tool could be utilized to predict success in working dogs and identify when working dogs are experiencing unhealthy levels of stress.”

The study will involve analysis of early life events and lifestyle factors that may influence AL in Labrador retrievers raised and trained to be as guide dogs, as well as in Labrador retrievers raised as pets. Researchers will use blood sampling to compare biomarkers associated with AL to these lifestyle and event factors to determine any association between AL and potential stressors.

While many studies to date have used a single biomarker, such as cortisol, to determine canine stress, measuring AL tests multiple biomarkers of stress which allows for a more accurate measure of the accumulation of stress over time.

“This project reflects HABRI’s deep commitment to animal care and welfare,” says the institute’s president, Steven Feldman. “Understanding how to improve the lives of our canine companions is crucial to strengthening the human-animal bond.”

Source: Veterinary Practice News

Your Kelpie is not a Dingo

Many kelpie owners wonder if their dog has a little bit of dingo in them. Some believe the kelpie was bred with the dingo to make them more resilient to the Australian climate. New research suggests this may be bush folklore.

Researchers at the University of Sydney have found no genetic evidence that the iconic Australian kelpie shares canine ancestry with a dingo, despite Australian bush myth.

The paper, published in the journal Genes, is the first peer-reviewed study of its kind to find that the domestic and wild dogs share no detectable common DNA in genes impacting coat colour and ear type.

Professor Claire Wade with Peppa and Cash (right). Photo by Vanessa Saines.

Some kelpie owners and “old-timers” believe the kelpie breed contains genes from the Australian dingo, said Professor Claire Wade in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

It has been said that the dingo was mixed with the kelpie, which originally came from Scotland, to produce a more-resilient and hardy dog that could withstand hot, dry Australian conditions,” Professor Wade said.

“Our analysis shows there is no genetic evidence for this from any genes affecting the way the domestic and wild dogs look,” Professor Wade says.

Professor Wade, who is an expert in dog genetics, said some people have come to believe there is a connection simply because the two dogs look similar. They both have pricked up ears, a similar body shape and hair texture, and some kelpies are yellow or cream in colour.

“There’s a bit of Australiana and sentiment here,” Professor Wade said. “We wish the Australian kelpie was somehow special or unique to us. But the breed has come from Scotland and the way we made it our own was by selecting it for our harsh climate.”

The study characterised known gene variants of both kelpie types (Australian kelpie —conformation; Australian working kelpie — herding) and compared the variants present with those in sequenced Australian dingoes.

Genes assessed included identified coat colour and ear type variants. None of the coat colour or ear type genes analysed offered support for a shared family history.

Kelpies in Australia

The kelpie was brought to Australia in the late 1800s from Scotland. They are a herding dog derived from the Scottish smooth collie or farm collie. There are two types of kelpies developed in Australia: the working kelpie, which has been selected specifically to handle the Australian climate and working conditions, and the conformational kelpie, which is usually a single colour all-over and is more likely to live in the city.

The best-known Australian kelpie in popular culture is Koko, the dog in the movie Red Dog.

Dingoes are believed to have arrived in Australia more than 4000 years ago, most likely with Asian seafarers.

The kelpie samples in the research were obtained as part of a larger genetic project helping breeders produce the best possible working dogs. Owners of working kelpies are invited to take part in a survey of current working dogs and their behaviours.

Source:  The University of Sydney

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

US stamps in honour of working dogs

The US Postal Service has a set of four stamps honouring service dogs.

The Dogs at Work set shows a guide dog assisting a blind woman, a tracking dog that is following a scent, a therapy dog visiting with an elderly woman and a search and rescue dog standing in a field.

In releasing the stamps for sale, the USPS said “Dogs have become more than just best friends — they’ve also become our coworkers. From guide dogs to therapy dogs to search and rescue dogs, these stamps from the U.S. Postal Service® honor the enduring partnership between dogs and people.”

“Currently, some 10,000 guide dogs in the U.S. and Canada serve as an extra set of eyes for people who are blind. Therapy dogs, chosen for their friendly dispositions, bring comfort and joy to the elderly and the ill. Dogs that work with police and military personnel are trained to detect drugs, guns, and explosives. Search and rescue dogs speed up search efforts, increasing the odds of survival for disaster victims.

Artist John M. Thompson created original paintings for the stamps, which were designed by art director Howard E. Paine. The Dogs At Work stamps are being issued at a 65-cent denomination, which is the price for single-piece retail First-Class Mail weighing more than one ounce and up to and including two ounces.”


Dogs as workers – not such a bad idea according to NZ researcher

“Some people think that is cruel to use dogs as workers,” says Dr William “Deak” Helton, “but what these people don’t seem to understand is that from the dog’s perspective it is actually crueller if they are not allowed to work.”  Dr Helton, who is based at the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, is describing for me his experience with working dogs in Alaska.  I wrote about his research in my Canine Corner column this month (NZ Dog World), and here’s some more information about Deak and his research.

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(Photos copyright Eve Welch, University of Canterbury)

Deak has been studying dogs for over 12 years and, from those early days growing up in Alaska, he observed that sledding and racing dogs wanted to pull immediately when they were placed in harness.  Many people don’t realise, when watching coverage of competitions like the Iditarod, that a large metal snow anchor is used to keep the sled in place as the dogs are secured in their harnesses.  A handler that forgets to do this will quickly find his/her sled taken out for an unguided run!

Deak has a keen interest in seeing working dogs reach top performance.  He described one of his research projects, looking for a way to help screen dogs being considered for a working career:A recent study we did was one in which we measured dogs’ right and left ear temperatures and their ability (based on owners’ reports) to pay attention. The tympanic membrane’s (ear drum’s) temperature is highly correlated with the temperature of the brain on the same side. So differences between the ear’s temperatures may tell you if the dog is more strongly cerebrally lateralized than another. Dogs (like people) have two cerebral hemispheres, one right and one left. Most people are aware that they have a dominate hemisphere (are lateralized). Dogs also differ in their degree of lateralization (how strong one side is compared to the other). Neuroscientists have hypothesized that being strongly lateralized (having a dominate cerebral hemisphere) is actually helpful to the animal in coordinating its behaviour. Imagine having two brain hemispheres both trying to tell your body what to do, without having one as the “leader,” the system may be prone to confusion. Hence, dogs with stronger cerebral lateralization may be better able to pay attention. The less lateralized dogs may be more prone to conflicting cues (distraction). Difference in right and left ear temperature may be an objective measure of cerebral lateralization.

One area where dogs show promise is in the field of medical diagnostics, says Deak.  He goes into some detail about the role of the dog, its accuracy in detecting rates of disease, and his opinion that dogs would be used more widely than they currently are:

There have now been several studies showing that dogs can be used to detect various medical conditions, for example, cancers. When you compare detection capability across tests/technologies you have to look at both the correct detection rate and the false alarm rate of the different tests.

Dogs have been trained to detect the presence of breast cancer by smelling the patient’s exhaled breath. The principle is essentially the same as breath analysis to detect alcohol consumption. The patient breathes into a tube that traps the chemicals exhaled in their breath. The dog then is presented with these breath samples and has been trained to signal when one of them has cancer related chemical compounds (it might not be that the dog is smelling cancer per se, but some related chemical excreted by the body as a reaction to cancer). McCulloch and colleagues (2006) have trained dogs to do this task (detect breast cancer via breath samples), and the dogs after training demonstrated a correct detection rate around 88.0% and a false alarm rate around 2.3%. This is not perfect, but for comparative purposes, in the medical literature, mammography screening by professional radiologists for breast cancer typically has a correct detection rate around 86.6% and a false alarm rate around 3.2% (Banks et al., 2004).

A higher correct detection rate and lower false alarm rate means an overall better detector.

The dog definitely looks promising. Keep in mind mammography is also considered by many to be uncomfortable and some people are concerned that the procedure itself may have side effects. This may put off people from doing the test. The key with cancer is probably early detection. If people are afraid of the test, they aren’t going to do it until they feel so bad they have to and by that time it might be too late. Dog detection (since the dog doesn’t have to even be in contact with the patient) is generally non-invasive.

For detecting intestinal cancer the difference in screening may be between a stool sample and having a colonoscopy. The latter is much more uncomfortable than the former. Considering the preliminary evidence and the long track-record of dogs being used in other detection contexts (explosives, narcotics, invasive pests, etc.), I think the lack of using dogs in medical diagnostic work is mysterious. While dogs will not be a perfect system, people have to realize there are no tests that are perfect. Dogs (or other biological detectors) could be used in conjunction with other tests. There are companies trying to figure out what the dogs are detecting so that they can make technological tests for detecting cancer based on the dog’s ability to detect it, but that is not helping anyone now.

Dogs can probably do the job and if the track record in other contexts is informative (for example, explosives) then dogs will probably be able to do the job better than technology for the foreseeable future.  Of course we should develop other technologies, but if we want to save lives now, dogs could be used more in this context.

The Editor of Canine Ergonomics:  The Science of Working Dogs, a compilation of research from disciplines ranging from biology and veterinary medicine, to psychology and forensic medicine, Deak says “For me, this book filled a gap when you consider how extensive dogs are employed.”  The book, published in 2009 has had great reviews.

The cover of Deak's book

Deak describes his research as the field of engineering psychology, more popularly known as ergonomics.  His work in the field of human factors psychology has earned him the 2011 Earl Alluisi Award for Early Career Achievement by the American Psychological Association (APA).