Sunday, October 23, 2011


To take the concept of service and/or therapy animals a bit beyond the topics of the last 2 weeks, this concluding chapter will deal with some of the more unusual areas of "expertise" shown by pets.

Two weeks ago, Helpful Buckeye presented information on just how sensitive the sense of smell is developed in dogs. We went on to describe how specially-trained dogs could use their sense of smell to detect certain types of cancer in humans as well as being able to smell the increases or decreases in blood sugar of diabetic patients. The lead story in this week's Questions On Dogs and Cats deals with a dog's sense of an entirely different arena...that of the environment:

Dogs will be used to sniff out contamination in Lake Macatawa near Holland, Michigan

Some dogs use their sense of smell to ferret out illegal drugs or help hunters find their game.  The Ottawa County Health Department will turn to a canine with a different sniffing affinity in hopes of trying to find out what’s causing contamination of Lake Macatawa at Dunton Park, in Holland Township.  The Health Department plans to contract with a Michigan company, Environmental Canine Services, to study water quality in the lake, thanks to a $22,705 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“They have dogs that are trained to scent human sewage and soaps (in water),” said Addie Hambley, environmental health manager for the county.

In addition, the county plans to boost a 32-hour-a-week environmental health specialist position to a 40-hour position for one year to assist in the study, paid for from the grant. County commissioners are expected to consider the expansion next Tuesday.

The Health Department has banned swimming at Dunton Park numerous times in recent years because of high levels of E. coli contamination. As a result, the park is scheduled to be listed as a contaminated beach by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2017, according to a county memo.

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There are many programs involving dogs and the environment occurring in the world today. The following examples highlight a few ways to dogs are helping safeguard the planet:

The Power of Green Paws - Canines Working in the Field of Conservation

Conservation Canines, a program with the University of Washington is led by Dr. Samuel Wasser. Wasser developed the first scat detection dog program in 1997. Tucker, a black Labrador mix with the program and other rescue dogs, are trained to sniff for fecal samples of threatened and endangered animal species worldwide as tigers, giant anteaters, killer whales, spotted owls, bears, jaguars and the Pacific Pocket mouse. Samples obtained by the teams yield information that reveals critical facts about dwindling species, including details on species abundance, distribution, resource use, and overall physiological species health. "Dogs greatly increase accessibility of these corroborative measures, providing powerful tools to partition the multitude of human impacts on wildlife," Wasser explains.

Environmental Canine Services (ECS) is a program in Michigan, training rescue dogs to detect illicit water discharge. "Our dogs provide a low-tech solution to a huge problem-storm water pollution caused by contaminants like detergent and sewage," explains Scott Reynolds, founder of ECS. Sable, a German shepherd mix, is joined by two more canines, Logan and Sky, plus a small team of handlers to work in densely-packed urban or rural environments. The environmental teams are able to move into an area and efficiently conduct a number of tests thereby eliminating the need for expensive and cumbersome tests as whether or not a fecal sample is human or canine--Sable and the other sewage sniffers know the difference immediately!

Dr. Donna Shaver, wildlife biologist with the National Parks Service and her trained Cairn terrier, Ridley, hunt for elusive nests of the highly endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle on Padre Island seashore. The pristine beach is located at the southern tip of Texas and the Kemp's ridley nesting season runs from April through July. The turtle eggs are difficult to spot and are often covered in sand, but Ridley has been trained to recognize the distinctive scent of the mucous covering coating the fragile eggs.

"Ridley helps find nests that humans are unable to locate after hours of searching" explains Dr. Shaver, "Thanks to his work, hundreds of eggs have been found, protected and hatched." Due to efforts of Dr. Shaver, Ridley and a dedicated crew of volunteers, Kemp's ridley sea turtles are on the rise once again!

Big furry Maremma sheepdogs are protecting tiny blue Fairy penguins on Middle Island in Australia. The penguins eat fish, squid and krill during the day and overnight return to their nest to burrow in for the evening. Thousands of tourists visit this island in Australia just to witness the unique penguin parade. But when the penguins began falling victim to foxes and wild dogs, local farmer Swampy, took the matter into his own hands by recruiting two Maremma sheepdogs, Eudy and Tula, to protect the 'little blues.' The sheepdogs were such a hit that the idea of adopting Maremma sheepdogs has been officially incorporated by the Warrnabool City Council.

"I must admit that I was very skeptical," admits graduate student Amanda Peucker, "luckily I was wrong! The Maremmas worked, they deterred the foxes." The program is garnering headlines around the world and several governmental agencies want to duplicate the program in their community.

Believe it or not, quagga and zebra mussels are becoming more than a mere nuisance in California, the spread of these invasive species has cost the state million of dollars in lost revenue and more than a few headaches for boaters. After realizing just how pervasive these non-native aquatic species were becoming, Warden Lynette Shimek, supervisor of the K-9 program with the California Fish & Game Department, began training the department's police service canines for invasive species detection work. Once the dogs alert to the possible presence of zuagga and/or zebra mussels, they will sit and their handler then seals off the boat for future decontamination.

So the next time you think of dogs as "Man's Best Friend," remember that there are some working dogs in the field helping to preserve the planet with the power of green paws.

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What’s on your dog’s reading list? Not that Helpful Buckeye is suggesting that your dog might be actually reading a best-seller...but, rather that your dog might be able to help someone by "listening" to them read a book out loud:

Reading to dogs may have benefits for children

A small pilot study by researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University provides preliminary, but suggestive evidence that reading aloud to man’s best friend can have positive effects on children’s desire and ability to read.

“The benefit of the dog is they’re not judgmental, and they are great listeners,” said Lisa Freeman, a professor in the department of clinical sciences at Tufts, who said the study was spurred by observations that having a canine audience seemed to increase children’s engagement with reading. “It really builds their confidence.”

The health effects of pet ownership have been the subject of a number of small studies, which have been far from definitive. Some research suggests that pet ownership provides a wellness boost -- one study found that dog owners who walked their dogs were 34 percent more likely to get 150 minutes of walking exercise per week compared with non-dog owners. But others have found pet ownership correlated with negative health outcomes, like a study of 424 patients admitted to the hospital with acute coronary syndrome, which found that pet owners, especially cat owners, were more likely to die or be hospitalized again.

For years, Freeman said, she had observed what appeared to be the beneficial effects of a reading program that paired children with canine listeners. But there was no evidence to support the anecdotal observations. So the Tufts researchers designed a simple study.

Over a five-week period last summer, 18 second-graders at the Grafton Public Library were randomly divided into two groups: for 30 minutes each week, half read aloud to a dog and half read to a person.  The children were allowed to choose whatever books they wanted, and read to the same dog each week, settling in on a large dog bed with their canine companion. Freeman noted that children seemed to prefer to read books about animals, seeming to want to choose stories the dogs could relate to.

“The kids seem to particularly like the dog-themed books; they seem to think the dogs really enjoy hearing about those,” Freeman said. Those who read aloud to a person might be corrected or prompted if they made a mistake, while the children reading to the dogs would be corrected through the dogs, meaning that the handler might say something like, “I don’t think she understood that last word.”

At the end of the five weeks, the children’s abilities were measured. This was a small sample, and the results were not statistically significant, but researchers saw a signal of a difference, with an increase in the words read per minute by the children in the dog group, and a decrease among children who spent the time reading to humans.

The researchers also measured the change in the children’s attitudes toward reading using a survey that involved a cartoon cat -- Garfield. The survey showed Garfield in a range of moods, from extremely satisfied to very upset, and was used to judge childrens’ attitudes toward reading. The dog reading group showed a slight favorable increase in their feelings toward reading, and the control group underwent a slight decrease. No children dropped out of the dog program, whereas a third of the children dropped out of the control group.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to expand the study to a larger group, to see whether the effects hold up.

“Many dogs -- my dog, when she recognizes the building that the reading program is in, she gets very excited, really excited to go, so they seem to enjoy this too,” Freeman said. “That’s important -- having everybody happy on both sides of the leash is going to be very important.”

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As it turns out, dogs aren't the only animals being trained to "listen" as someone reads to them:

Miniature horses come to University of Missouri lecture about animal therapy

Carol Parmenter led two well-behaved miniature horses into a veterinary classroom Tuesday to meet 100 MU students. Only waist high, the horses were wearing red or blue sports shoes to prevent them from slipping and had forgone breakfast to prevent accidents. Cookie, 12, and Molly, 7, were part of a lecture on human and animal companion interaction.

Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, invited them to her class to demonstrate the ways horses, like dogs, can be therapeutic to those with mental or physical challenges. "I hope Carol can show you a whole picture of animal therapy visiting including the training and safety issues related to it," Dr. Johnson said to the class.

Most of the students in the class are interested in human and animal connections. "I appreciate this lecture because it's novel," said Katie Molitor, a psychology major at MU. "You don’t really think of horses as being therapeutic animals. You usually think them of pulling your car or doing field work."

Later Tuesday, the horses went to Tiger Place, a retirement center where they interacted with residents.

Cookie has been working with Parmenter for six years as a professional therapy horse. He is also the first horse taking part in a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, which is designed to improve children’s communication skills. The program encourages students to read to and with animals, as researches show that while having physical connection with animals such as petting or stroking them, children feel more comfortable in communication. "Animals are non-judgmental," Johnson said. "Children are relaxed and they don’t feel stressed reading in front of them."

Parmenter first took a therapy dog to children in the reading program, but found them reluctant to talk to it. The next week she brought Cookie with her and said she was amazed that every single child came up and read to the horse. One parent told her she had been trying for two and half months to get her son to read to her. The horse did it in two minutes, Parmenter told the class proudly.

Parmenter has 22 horses on her farm in El Dorado Springs, but only three of them are therapy horses. She said that there is no cost for her to visit nursing homes and schools with the horses. She keeps her trips within a 50-mile radius around her farm because of gas expenses.

"It's all about disposition and attitude," she said of the horses. "Just like people, some are good nurses, and some people are not good nurses."

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How many of you have seen security dogs walking through the crowds in an airport?  A fairly common sight if you fly regularly.  However, how many of you have seen security dogs in a train station?  This might be more common in the near future, as more people resort to train travel:

Amtrak's Four-Legged Security System Works, Gets Rave Reviews 

In a nation divided on almost every issue, there is one topic which brings almost universal agreement: travelers hate the experience they face at America's airports. Security is slow, inefficient, and at times downright humiliating, they complain. Surely there must be a way to protect the system, without insulting the very customers that system is designed to serve.

Welcome to Amtrak.

Every day, thousands board trains across America, without ever passing through a metal detector, subjecting themselves to a full body scan, or feeling the probing hands of a surly security guard. Indeed, on most routes, passengers are left to wonder if they have been screened at all.

"The machines would literally shut the system down," says John O’Connor, the Chief of the Amtrak Police. "You can put a canine in literally thousands of people moving through very quickly. And that dog will be able to detect if somebody has explosives."

That's right; with few exceptions, Amtrak's "scanners" are dogs. Often unnoticed by most of the rail agency's passengers, the four-legged security guards relentlessly scour the crowded concourses and platforms, looking for trouble.  The animals are specially trained "vapor wake" dogs, custom-bred to serve a very specific function: detecting the microscopic traces of explosives, which trail in the air behind would-be bombers.

"We don’t stop anybody, or intrude on anybody's path, or rights," says Inspector William Parker, the chief of the Amtrak K-9 program. "Like I tell people, 'Come to Amtrak; we don’t undress you, we don't mess with you.'"

On a recent morning at Chicago’s Union Station, two different Amtrak dogs were working the concourses, circling in and out of the commuters. But the dogs weren’t sniffing the passengers. They were sampling the molecules those passengers left behind.

"He’s smelling the air," Parker said, watching his animals work. "As you see, that dog pulls to wherever somebody's walking, because he wants to search people. He knows what the mission is."

And the dogs can be remarkably accurate. On that morning in Chicago, decoys sent through the crowds, carrying real explosives under their clothing, were quickly identified. Often, that identification came after the bombers passed. But at that point, the dogs caught the telltale scent of explosives, swiveled, and locked in on their prey, leading handlers to the danger.

"They can work a crowd of a thousand people, moving, whereas you can only put a couple hundred people through a machine in an hour," said O'Connor says. "If you’re a bad guy, and you're planning something at this station, you don't know where we're going to be. And you may think, this is not the station I want to attack."

To be certain, the dogs aren’t everywhere on the system. Amtrak officials argue that the randomness and unpredictability of the K-9 program adds to its effectiveness.

Indeed, in a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, the Amtrak dogs were held up as the gold standard of what security could be. At the height of a blistering tongue-lashing delivered to a seemingly bored Transportation Security Administration official, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah pointed to Amtrak’s Parker and issued a challenge.

"You take a thousand people and put them in a room. I'll give you 10 whole body imaging machines. You give me 5,000 people in another room. You give me one of his dogs, and we will find that bomb before you find your bomb."

TSA officials argue that the dogs don't come cheap and require a full complement of handlers. The TSA supports Amtrak's program, but critics note that officers at the nation's airports are looking for a lot more than just bombs.

"I think the dogs could be used effectively at the airports," O'Connor said. "It may not replace what's there now, but it can supplement it. And in some cases, substitute for it, in places where it might be more efficient to use the dogs than the machines."

Watching his dogs work the concourses in Chicago, Parker didn't flinch when asked about the congressman's challenge.

"I know I would have won it," he said. "With the dogs I have at Amtrak, we would have won it."

Adapted from: 

A dog from long ago, the late 1800s to be exact, is finally getting some recognition...from the U. S. Postal Service:

Longtime Postal Service pal gets his own first-class stamp

Have you heard of mail dogs?

Not male dogs, as in the masculine half of the species. Dogs that actually carried letters and packages in the days of the Old American West. And pooches that tagged along with mail carriers so loyally that they became the stuff of legend.  A scruffy mixed terrier named Owney, for instance. He just got his own U.S. Postal Service stamp - one of the so-called “forever stamps” that will be good for first-class postage no matter how high rates go in the future.

Owney and his postal buddy. Owney’s the one on the right.

Owney was a pal of the clerks at the Albany, New York, post office in the late 1800s. He even spent the night there and would tag along when the clerks went to the railway station to pick up incoming mail pouches.  Before long, he was catching rides in the mail-sorting cars aboard the trains and soon was touring the entire country by rail - a sort of canine hobo, given a lifetime pass by the entire postal service. He even traveled the world on mail-carrying steamships.

Here’s Owney, before his recent makeover, after a taxidermist was through with him, wearing many of the tags his human pals gave him.

After Owney’s death, his body was preserved. In fact, it has recently been fixed up a bit and is now the favorite attraction at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.  The late postal pal is displayed there along with several of the dog tags and other tokens given to him by his human buddies over the years.

 The Owney 'forever' stamp. It may even outlast the Postal Service’s favorite dog.

That’s not just because mail clerks liked the little mutt. He was also a good-luck charm. Busy mail trains had their share of accidents. But never once did a train derail with Owney aboard.

So Owney remains an enduring postal mascot.

So much so that, later this month, the Postal Service will launch an interactive e-book about him and an app for handheld devices in which a three-dimensional Owney lookalike jumps and barks.

He doesn’t sort the mail, though, so far as we know.

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A leading American anthropologist claims our prehistoric ancestors' intense relationships with other creatures – including those we hunt, keep as pets and use for food – propelled humanity towards global domination.  Read about how our "Love of Animals Led to Language....":

Humans became masters of the planet for a startling reason: our love of animals gave us unsurpassed power over nature. This is the claim of a leading American anthropologist who says our prehistoric ancestors' intense relationships with other creatures – including those we hunt, keep as pets and use for food – propelled humanity towards global domination.

Interacting with animals on an intimate basis led humans to develop sophisticated tools and evolve enhanced communication skills, including language itself, Dr Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University told the Observer. Animals also taught us that others – even other species – have emotions, needs and thoughts, while they also helped us to evolve the vital skills of empathy, understanding and compromise.

"The longest and enduring trend in human evolution has been a gradual intensification of our involvement with animals," she added. "But now our world is becoming increasingly urbanised and we are having less and less contact with them. The consequences are potentially catastrophic."

Shipman traces humanity's animal connection to the period 2.5 million years ago when our hominid ancestors first made tools. These crafted pieces of stone still litter sites in eastern Africa, including the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, and bear testimony to the mental transformation in our ancestors' brains.

"These apemen didn't just pick up stones and use them to hammer or pound prey or plants," said Shipman. "They shaped those rocks for specific purposes. They had a mental image of the kind of tools they needed and created them by chipping away at a large piece of stone until they got what they wanted."

And what they wanted were tools for cutting up carcasses. In other words, the sharp stone flakes spread over Olduvai were not used primarily as weapons to kill animals or to hack down plants, but to process dead animals that had already been brought down by other carnivores. Apemen had begun to scavenge for meat from carcasses of prey killed by leopards, cheetahs and other carnivores. Armed with sharp blades, they could cut off chunks of antelope or deer and escape quickly before being eaten themselves by an enraged lion, they discovered.

And that was the crucial point that began our special relationship with the animal kingdom, said Shipman, whose book, The Animal Connection, is published this week. "Until that point, we had been a prey species. Carnivores ate us. Then we began scavenging before going on to hunt on our own behalf. Meat provided our ancestors with a wonderful, rich source of sustenance. However, scavenging for it left us in a very vulnerable position. We were still just as likely to be consumed when confronted by a carnivore as we were to kill in our own right. To survive, we had to learn about the behaviour of a vast number of different species – the ones we wanted to kill and the ones we wanted to avoid.

"For example, we would have learned to spot when lions were preparing to mate – when a male was showing off to a female – so that we could take some its prey while it was otherwise occupied. We would have also built up knowledge about the migration of species such as wildebeest and other animals."

In the end, this expertise would have become crucial to human survival, a point illustrated in the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet in France and the other caves painted by humans 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They show us that after 2 million years of evolution, humans had become utterly fixated by animals.

"These paintings are stunningly beautiful and superbly crafted," said Shipman. "Sometimes scaffolding was erected in the caves. At the same time, artists went to enormous lengths to get their pigments mixed with the right binding agents and placed in exactly the right spot. And what did they depict when they got things just right? Animals, animals and more animals.

"There are no landscapes and only a handful of poorly executed depictions of humans. By contrast the paintings of lions, stags, horses, bulls and the rest are magnificent. We were besotted with animals because our lives depended on our relationships with them."

Not long after these paintings were created, the first animal – the dog – was domesticated, followed some time later by the horse, sheep, goat and others. The development was crucial. In each case, humans had to learn to put themselves in the minds of these creatures in order to get them to do our bidding. In this way our senses of empathy and understanding, both with animals and with members of own species, were enhanced.

Our special relationship with animals is revealed today through our desire to have pets. "Humans are the only species on Earth to have one-to-one relationships with a member of another species," said Shipman. "No other creature would waste resources on a member of another family, let alone a member of another species. But we do and that is because we have evolved such close ties with specific animals over the millennia and because we are adapted to empathise with other creatures. It is a unique human attribute. We get so much from animals, much more than we appreciate."

Unfortunately, as society becomes increasingly urbanised those ties are being stretched and broken, added Shipman. "Our links to the animal world are precious and shouldn't be taken for granted," she said.

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Helpful Buckeye hopes that this 3-part series on service and therapy pets has helped bring more awareness to our readers of the many diverse talents of our pets, particularly dogs.  They really do make our world a much better place in which to live.

Any comments, questions, or ideas can be sent to Helpful Buckeye at: 

The Pittsburgh Steelers came to Arizona to play the Cardinals today and put on a very impressive performance!  With the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens coming up the next 2 weeks, it would have been easy for the Steelers to be looking ahead.  However, they were well-prepared for this game.  Now, we'll find out just how ready we are to get back to the Super Bowl.

As for the World Series...the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers...ahh, who cares?

The bike training for Helpful Buckeye has gradually accelerated this week.  I've been riding more miles and using the most difficult gears.  Today, I rode the 4 longest, steepest, and toughest uphills on my regular circuits...all without my calf bothering me.  Hopefully, this improvement will result in me being ready for the Tour de Tucson in 4 weeks.  Just yesterday, I found out that the distance I am entered for in the race has been increased from 79 miles to 85 miles...something about re-locating the finish line?  I feel like a blend of the tortoise and the hare as I go through this re-hab...some of me wants to regain my stamina and the other part craves strength in my leg.  I can only hope that I arrive at the right combination....

A good friend has asked me to go with him to the Arizona State/Colorado game this Saturday down in Tempe.  It will cost me a day of bike riding's homecoming and ASU is ranked in the Top 25, so it's worth it.  Go, Sun Devils!

Desperado and I prepared one of our favorite Fall soups the other night.  Roasted Red Pepper Soup...the Red Bell Peppers coming over from New Mexico this time of year are huge and beautifully formed...and cheap!  It made a great meal on a cool evening and left us plenty for a couple more servings.

Desperado and Helpful Buckeye are finally going to take a short trip this week.  We'll hit Sedona, Cottonwood, and Jerome...all places we've visited many times but this time, we'll be looking for those little out-of-the-way "special spots" that we missed in the past.

Don't forget to keep your pets as safe as possible with Halloween coming up this weekend.  Pets can get into a lot more trouble than normal during all the fuss and activity surrounding the black-and-orange festivities.

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

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