Sunday, December 30, 2012


Welcome to the last issue of 2012 for Questions On Dogs and Cats.  It doesn't seem that long ago that I was typing the same thing for 2011, does it?  On balance, it's been a really good year for Desperado and Helpful Buckeye, both individually and collectively.  We hope that your year was equally rewarding...for you, your family, and your pets.  Helpful Buckeye will get into more thoughts on the year's end and the New Year ahead of us toward the end of this issue.

It has been said that, amongst all mammals, the dog species (Canis familiaris) shows the most diversity in body shape and appearance:

Dogs are the most diverse-looking mammals
From the droopy Bassett Hound to the sleek-and-slim Weimaraner, dogs show an amazing diversity in body shape. A study published in The American Naturalist in 2010 found that the differences between dog breeds' skulls are as pronounced as the differences between completely separate mammal species. A Collie skull, for example, is as different from a Pekingese skull as a cat's skull is from a walrus's.

Adapted from:

Along with that amazing diversity in body shapes, dogs have also been described by almost uncountable adjectives...ornery, playful, vicious, frisky, smelly, cute, "ugly," stubborn, slow-witted, can fill in the adjective of your choice.  However, with all that diversity in descriptions of dogs, they still can be found doing the darnedest things you'll ever see from a mammal.  So, sit back and enjoy reading about some truly exciting and interesting exploits of "Man's Best Friend"....

The Relationship Between A Battlefield Bomb-
Tech And His Dog Is Unlike Anything Else In
 The World
Army Specialist John Nolan’s heart pounded as he stared into the wadi in central Afghanistan. He wasn’t sure what lay beneath the loose, granular dirt.  Was there a 500-pound bomb buried beneath him? If that thing detonated, he would be dead.  Maybe there were some homemade explosive or land mines? If they exploded right now, he might live. He might not.
Man, this was crazy. Searching for something that could end his life instantly was insane. What the hell was he doing?  He missed his wife Cara. She was pregnant with their first child. He wanted to see his little girl born. He didn’t want to die in this Godforsaken pothole of a country.
He looked over his shoulder at Master Sergeant Johnny Ramey who nodded to him. Then he looked past Ramey to the others, the men of the Green Beret team he was assigned to.  Lean, mean and focused—these nine men had nearly 100 deployments among them. The country saw the Green Berets as supermen.  He knew better though. The Green Berets were just men like he was.  They have families.  They have children.  They would die for you, John Nolan. Now you need to make sure they get home safely to their families. Focus, Nolan.  They are your countrymen. They need you.  They need the Bear.  Focus on The Bear.  Be one with Honza Bear.
He looked down into the wadi which followed the natural contours of the land. During the rainy season the wadi probably carried water. Now it was just another place for the Taliban to set up explosives. Just another place to kill him and his countrymen.  But he had a secret weapon.  The squarely-built, tan, muscular, 100-pound Labrador Retriever moved slowly across the wadi. His nose was low and his tail wagged. He could have been any of the Green Beret’s family dogs back at Fort Bragg North Carolina. But he wasn’t.  A sniff here. A sniff there. Tail wagging. The Labrador appeared to be foraging picnic sites for picnic baskets. But he wasn’t.
Army Specialized Search Dog Honza Bear was on the hunt for explosives.  John followed Honza cautiously. Honza Bear’s yellow stomach was splotched with dark dirt marks. And he looked like he had dark brown mittens on.  What the hell is Honza doing? John wondered.  The local Afghanis said the explosives were in the wadi. Why was Honza Bear leaving the wadi?  Honza Bear paused, his tail wagged more quickly, and his nostrils flared quickly.  John shivered with fear and excitement because he knew that Honza Bear was “on scent.” Honza Bear could smell an explosive.  Honza Bear moved back up into the grape field. He sniffed the three-foot high thick dirt mounds but apparently didn’t like what he smelled. He went back down into the wadi and then back into the grape field.  He knew Honza Bear was trying to pinpoint the exact spot of the explosive. They called this “bracketing” in the dog world.  Honza Bear brushed by him, moving at a trot.  John froze. He didn’t want to step on the explosive. It could be set up to blow with a pressure plate. His weight would certainly set the explosive off. And he didn’t want the men to step on it either.
“Master Sergeant Ramey, Honza is on scent. Back away,” John said.  Ramey nodded and placed the team into a secure perimeter, allowing John to focus on Honza Bear.  Honza Bear entered the wadi with his nose low and nostrils flaring quickly. He suddenly stopped and craned his neck up and out.  Had he found it? John wondered.  Honza Bear bolted up and out of the wadi, ran to a mound of dirt near the grape field, and disappeared.  What was going on?  “Honza,” John called as he followed Honza’s path. He knew chasing Honza Bear was risky.  It didn’t matter.   Honza Bear was his partner.  He hated losing sight of his dog. John began searching the mounds but couldn’t find him. After a minute or so he caught a glimpse of a yellow tail.
Honza Bear had crawled into a hole half his size and was lying down in a final response. The John saw the five-gallon jugs wrapped in plastic inches from Honza’s nose.  John wanted to pump his fist in excitement. Honza and he had found an explosive. It was their first find. But there was no time to be proud or pat himself on the back.  They needed to get the hell out of there before it exploded.  “Honza, leave it, come,” John said.  Hearing his emergency recall Honza leaped up and jumped out of the hole. He rumbled towards John with his tongue nearly dragging on the ground.
John pulled out the dog’s reward–a ball on a rope–and tossed it in the air. Honza caught it in midair and chomped down. John hooked him up to the leash and dragged the euphoric dog from the spot.
Ramey had the team engineer, Sergeant First Class Kingston, inspect the hole and the explosives.  Ten minutes later Kingston returned and reported, “It is 25 pounds of Ammonia Nitrate Aluminum. We can blow it in place.”  It was confirmed. John’s and Honza’s first find! They had just prevented those 25 pounds of explosives from being used to kill or maim their countrymen.  It was an amazing feeling to remove something so destructive from the battlefield. John had just proven their worth to the Green Berets.
Maybe he could do this for a year.  John knew there was much more to find and remove.  And he knew one thing for sure. Today’s find was relatively simple. They wouldn’t all be like this.
But John wasn’t worried. He had Honza Bear.

Adapted from:

Aren't you glad those guys are on our side? 

Army’s Automated Dog Whisperer Will Train
Puppies of War
The U.S. military already has a kennel-load of bomb-sniffing dogs. But getting those four-legged explosives-hunters ready for war requires a ton of time and patience from a human trainer. No more, the Army hopes. They want an automated system that can prep dogs and rodents to spot bombs. Good call, Pentagon! As they surely learned on the Internets, dogs love computers.
In the military’s latest round of small business research awards, the Army doled out three contracts to create computerized animal coaches. Their plan is to come up with “a rugged automated trainer system” that would prep “large quantities of animals” to seek out explosives and landmines.
The initiative, Rugged Automated Training System, or, yes, RATS, is the latest in a series of Pentagon-backed ventures to turn furry mammals into mine hunters. Dogs remain the military’s best explosives detector – boasting an 80 percent success rate – much to the chagrin of top brass who’ve doled out more than $19 billion for high-tech bomb-detection research since 2004. Rodents, including giant African pouched rats, have sniffed out land mines across Africa and are undergoing military-funded study for their potential to track down mines in warzones.

But for all their explosive sniffing potential, animals — as anyone who’s used a puppy pee pad can attest — are kinda tricky to train. Right now, dogs typically train with a single human handler for up to two years before being deployed on a detection mission. The pups are conditioned to treat explosive hunting like a game, with balls, treats and human affection acting as the reward. The process is simpler for rats and other rodents, but still relies on a human trainer and hours of Pavlovian conditioning. Plus, the animals require refresher training on an ongoing basis, making it a full-time job just to keep the sniffing squad in top shape.
If RATS is successful, human trainers would be off the hook. Instead, an automated system would run several animals through detection drills, and then submit “detailed data on training status and performance feedback” to human supervisors. The computerized systems would probably operate a lot like the human training process: Animals experience “an involuntary physiological response” to odors they’ve been trained to recognize. So stimulus like food would be distributed whenever the system detected, via sensors, that an animal had found an explosive. Researchers at the University of Virginia, one of the institutes pursuing the Army’s plan, anticipate plopping each animal into an “automated chamber, controlled by custom software.” Each animal would be decked out with a “sensor backpack” to relay data on their progress.
The systems could very well train up more animals, more quickly. But it’s highly unlikely that RATS could entirely replace every human trainer. For one thing, we kinda doubt those automated chambers are gonna be completely pee-proof.
Vapor Wake Dogs trained at AU
A growing new breed of counterterrorism specialists are being used across the country, from  Los Angeles to the nation's capitol.  They're one of the newest weapons against explosive threats.
Auburn University Vapor Wake detection dogs on assignment in a local mall....
Of the many seemingly innocent shoppers, the so called "super dog" is challenged to identify a decoy bomber.  “Our dogs are proactive in that they have no reason to look for anything other than that trained odor and when they encounter it, they're able to take it to the source and identify potential suspects,” said a trainer.
For years, bomb detection canines have been highly effective at identifying the presence of explosives...But here's the catch: the package had to be stationary.  But this so-called "super athlete of dogs" is after the bomber on the move.  “As the person moves through they do develop a wake of air behind them and the dog is scenting that, if the dog identifies an explosives material then it would give a response...From that we came up with the terminology vapor wake,” said Dr. Robert Gillette, AU Veterinary College of Medicine.
In 2004, a massacre in Madrid...184 people killed.  And more than 50 people lost their lives in 2005 during coordinated attacks in London.  But it was the 2009 attempted airplane bombing over Detroit on Christmas day- -the so called "underwear bomber"- - that prompted counterterrorism officials to consider a change in tactics and they turned to Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine for vapor wake dogs.
“We developed the whole package if you will.  How the dog is utilized.  How the dog is trained. Once we showed that it was usable people came to us and said we'd like to use this in our different environments,” said Dr. Gillette.
There are two training locations: One, in Auburn and the other, in Anniston (both in Alabama).  The latter is where News 3 met with veterinarian Dr. Robert Gillette.  “As the growing security concerns of the nation have come, we found that we can utilize these dogs in areas where we have mass groups of people,” said Gillette.  Dr. Gillette says Labrador Retrievers are used for the program, partly because of their ability to focus, yet stay friendly in highly populated social settings.  “Not every dog can be a vapor wake dog, usually 1 in 8 dogs will be vapor wake dogs. The other dogs will be typical detection dogs,” said Gillette.
The dogs go through a variety of obstacle courses until they are comfortable climbing over baggage and searching a range of diverse locations.  In one room, dogs practice recognizing the scent of explosive devices.  And her trainers get the results they've been hoping for....
Then it's time for some on the job training.  The mission at hand, detecting explosive devices on the move at a local mall.
“Then we will have a decoy walk through and what we hope to see is a good change in behavior and that dog to follow the decoy,” said a trainer.  And in no time, the vapor wake dog nabs the potential bomber.  A job well done for the vapor wake dog.

Adapted from:

In addition to researchers trying to learn more about how dogs can smell and detect these dangers, other researchers are working toward building a robotic "nose" that mimics the ability of the canine sniffer.

The (Dog's) Nose Knows: Sensor Mimics Canine
Sniffing Cells For Smells
Dogs’ amazing sense of smell can help police officers find lost people, illegal drugs or smuggled food, or locate explosives as described in the above articles.  Scientists use trained sniffer dogs to track pythons in the Everglades or find whales by smelling their floating poop. And some dogs can smell cancer too.
Scientists are working to build devices that can detect odors as sensitively as a dog’s nose. Now researchers in South Korea have built a sensor that works like a dog’s nose, without using canine sniffing cells. The new device combines a simplified version of the cells in dog’s nose with tiny transistors similar to those in our computers. It senses hexanal, a chemical commonly released by rotting food.
When a dog takes a whiff of something (possibly stinky to us!), chemical vapors bind to matching proteins on the surface of different cells in its nose. Binding of the aroma molecule sends a cascade of charged ions coursing through the cell. Those ions create an electric field that travels through the cell. This chemical and electrical wave travels along connected cells and neurons until it reaches the dog’s brain as a nerve impulse, signaling that the animal encountered that particular smell.
Tai Hyun Park and Seunghun Hong, of Seoul National University, with their colleagues, recreated a simplified version of the detecting cells in a dog’s nose using tiny bubbles made from cell membrane. The scientists engineered human kidney cells to produce the canine receptor protein for hexanal, a chemical released by rotting food.
These cells naturally contain a handful of accessory proteins that generate the ion cascade once the smell molecule binds to its receptor. The researchers shook the engineered cells and tiny bits of membrane pinched off into tiny bubbles that contained the dog receptor protein and the accessory proteins.
Hong says that these sensors could be used to evaluate the quality of wine, coffee and perfume by standardizing and quantifying their smells. Dogs have 220 million different smell receptors. But there’s no need to make one sensor for each smell receptor in a dog’s nose, Hong says. Perhaps scientists would need 10 to 20 different sensors that correspond to the characteristic odors of the wine or coffee, he says.
Somehow, I cannot envision this potential simulator device being able to ever "wag its tail"....

Dog Sniffs Out Deadly C. diff Infection

Dec. 13, 2012 -- A 2-year-old beagle named Cliff may hold the key to preventing an infection that kills thousands of Americans each year.  Researchers in the Netherlands taught Cliff to sniff out the intestinal bacteria Clostridium difficile (C. difficile or C. diff) in stool samples from infected patients and even from the patients themselves.
C diff is commonly spread in hospitals and long-term care centers, causing diarrhea that can be mild to life-threatening. It is responsible for as many as 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, the CDC says.  The hope is that other dogs can be trained to identify the infection far faster than it is found through current tests, preventing potentially deadly outbreaks in these settings.
“This study proves the concept, but we have to confirm that this approach will be useful in the real-world setting,” says researcher Marije K. Bomers, MD, of the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Dogs Can Smell Better
Hospitalized older adults who have recently had a course of antibiotics are most at risk for C. diff infections.  Early detection can prevent the spread in hospitals and other care facilities, but current tests can take anywhere from two days to up to a week to confirm infection, Bomers says.  She says the idea for the study came from the observation that the diarrhea of patients with C. diff infections has a particular smell that she and her colleagues could sometimes detect.
It occurred to them that if humans could smell the infection some of the time, then dogs, with their superior sense of smell, should be able to smell it all the time.  To test the theory, they enlisted psychologist and dog trainer Hotsche Luik, who was also Cliff’s owner.  Over two months, the beagle was taught to identify the C. diff toxin in smaller and smaller quantities and in different samples, including human stool.  During one test, he correctly identified 50 of 50 C. diff positive stool samples and 47 of 50 negative samples.  In a separate test, he was taken to two hospital wards to examine his ability to sniff out the infection in patients.  He correctly identified C. diff in 25 of 30 infected patients. He also identified no infection in 265 of 270 non-infected patients.  He completed this task in one of the wards in less than 10 minutes.
New Type of ‘Pet Scan’
The researchers write that highly trained dogs like Cliff may one day patrol hospital wards to seek out C. diff infection.
“I love dogs. I think they are amazing,” says infection disease specialist Bruce Hirsch, MD, of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. “But I’m not sure I see this being deployed in an efficient way in a large hospital setting where there are many distractions.”  Despite his skepticism, Hirsch says the research is definitely worth pursuing even though confirmation of the infection has already been shortened from a few days to a few hours in many hospitals, including his.
“One big question for me is, ‘What else can a dog’s amazing sensory apparatus be utilized to detect?'" he says. “There are already studies suggesting that they can smell some cancers. There is no telling what else they may be trained to sniff out.”
This account has a personal connection for of the causes of death for my mother was C. diff, although diagnosing the infection wasn't the problem with her, but rather not being able to get the infection under control sooner.

Man’s best friend thwarts environmental
enemies in the Florida Everglades
Burmese pythons, released into the Florida Everglades by irresponsible pet owners, have become a serious threat to birds and mammals. But specially trained canines from Auburn University’s EcoDogs program have been able to sniff out the invasive reptiles in places humans overlook.
“Pythons are very cryptic,” said Christina Romagosa, a research fellow at Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Their pattern camouflages them very well in the grasses and things the snakes are found in. People are quite limited because we can’t see them. But the dogs will use their sense of smell to find the snakes.”
The EcoDogs program collaborated with several government agencies, non-governmental organizations and educational institutions on a pilot study involving six months of intense searches for Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. On average, the dogs were able to locate snakes two-and-a-half times faster than humans.
“These dogs can be used as another tool in biologists’ tool boxes to help them gather data to help out the environment,” said Bart Rogers, an EcoDogs trainer.
In addition to locating nuisance animals, the EcoDogs canines can sniff out traces of rare and endangered species and detect fungus in tree roots deep underground.
“A person has to go out and take a sample from each tree,” said Jason DeWitt, another EcoDogs trainer. “They don’t really know if a tree has a fungus until it’s showing aboveground symptoms.
"With a dog, we can go in and find an initial infection and tell them right away before they already have mortality in their stand.”
Training is intense and requires a dog able to work independently for long periods of time and motivated by a simple reward, such as a game of fetch or tug-of-war.
“If we take the target odor that we’re looking for and associate that with a reward, then it becomes a game for the dog and it’s just really easy to work with them,” said trainer Lucas Epperson.
Once the dogs locate items, they’re trained to sit down and point their snout toward the location. In the case of finding Burmese pythons, the dogs have been trained to do this from a distance of five yards. For their safety, the dogs are placed back in their kennel trucks before professional snake handlers remove the pythons.
While many of the pythons discovered in the Everglades were euthanized, some were tagged with radio tracking devices and released for further study. Others were donated to the Nature Conservancy for use in training personnel in how to catch snakes. 
Dogs alone won’t eliminate the snake infestation in the Everglades. However, researchers believe they could play a vital role in locating, studying and ultimately controlling the problem there, as well as environmental threats elsewhere.
“As a conservation biologist, one of the most difficult aspects about my job is just finding the animal that I want to learn more about,” said Todd Stuery, an assistant professor at Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “That’s where the dogs come in.”
There is a really interesting video at this web site of a dog locating a python.
How Do Dogs Sense Oncoming Storms?
By: Alex Lieber
A few clouds begin to gather overhead on what otherwise is a sunny day. You wonder somewhat dreamily whether that thunderstorm Channel 6 had been predicting will actually arrive. Your dog already knows the answer, and he's getting frantic about it.
Dogs seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to predicting storms. Long before the skies darken and the rain falls, thunderstorm phobic dogs become agitated, fearful, and clingy. Before we know that a storm is on its way, our dogs may have felt it, heard it, or even smelled it.
How can they do this? And why aren't they doing the weather on the news?
Canines are more sensitive to drops in barometric pressure than humans. Barometric pressure is the pressure of the atmosphere. A drop in pressure means that conditions may be ripe for a storm to develop. A dog may learn to associate this pressure drop with the arrival of a storm. Changes in the static electric field may trigger the same anticipation. Dogs may also pick up the subtle vibrations that precede a storm. A small rumble may be almost imperceptible to us, but not to a dog.
It is also possible for a dog to hear a storm. Dogs can hear at much higher and lower frequencies than we do. A dog can hear a low rumble that a person would miss. Another possibility is that dogs may smell storms coming. Dogs' noses are so sensitive that they can detect concentrations of chemicals in the low parts-per-million range. In fact, dogs' noses are said to be more sensitive than a mass spectrometer. Lightning ionizes air with the formation of ozone – which has a characteristic metallic smell. Perhaps dogs detect this odor, or some other odor associated with the storm.
Finally, a dog may learn to interpret darkened skies and cloud patterns with a storm. You may only learn of the storms imminent arrival through observation of your dog's behavior. For some dogs, thunderstorms are cataclysmic events. They are so frightened by the storm that they may bark, hide, urinate, or defecate, and some dogs become destructive, particularly when forced to endure a storm alone. Others may react to the sound, but may remain relatively calm. The more anxious the dog in thunderstorms, the more he may react before the storm actually arrives.
Dogs, humans team up to help eradicate Dyer's
 woad in Montana
A Labrador Retriever that's trained to find cadavers, and a Border collie plucked from a Bozeman animal shelter are now helping rid Montana of noxious weeds.

Demonstrating her abilities on a frosty fall morning, Wibaux the Labrador scrambled up a Montana mountain and soon detected the scent of Dyer's woad over the smell of hikers, pets, deer, shrubs and other plants. Shaking with excitement but true to her training, Wibaux circled the weed, barked continually and finally sat down until her handler verified that she had, indeed, found Dyer's woad. "Good dog. Good girl," Deb Tirmenstein said as she handed Wibaux a biscuit. Tirmenstein marked the location on her GPS unit and said she would return alone later to spray the weed. It's a trip she has made many times since she, Wibaux and a Border collie named Seamus joined the Dyer's woad project in 2011.
The project grew out of research conducted at Montana State University and has multiple goals, according to weed experts at MSU, the University of Montana and Beaverhead County. One goal is to completely eradicate Dyer's woad from Montana by using dogs and humans together. Amber Burch, assistant weed coordinator for Beaverhead County and coordinator of a statewide effort to fight Dyer's woad, said the weed is native to southeast Russia and used to be cultivated in England as a source of blue dye and medicine. It was first identified in Montana in 1934. It is now classified as a Priority 1B Noxious Weed in Montana.
One Dyer's woad plant can grow four inches in a week and produce as many as many as 10,000 seeds, Burch said. UM Natural Areas Specialist Marilyn Marler said the roots sometimes go down for more than five feet. When blooming, the plant can grow waist high. Noxious weeds compete with native plants and can overrun pastures and wildlife habitat. Dyer's woad experts said the weed is extremely widespread in Utah and eastern Idaho, but it is a good candidate for eradication in Montana because it is far less widespread in this state.
People are good at finding large flowering plants and large patches of noxious weeds, but they can overlook individual weeds. Dogs work best in areas of low-density, high priority weeds. They can smell Dyer's woad even when the weed is a tiny rosette hidden by other types of plants. They can smell Dyer's woad when it's underground and a mere fragment of a root. "Through our research, we found they are able to detect twice as many small plants as the surveyors do," Goodwin said. The third goal of the weed experts is to find more locations for their applied weed-dog research. "We are interested in determining how to turn this discovery into something useful for land managers," Goodwin said. This year on Mount Sentinel, the dogs detected about 40 locations that humans missed, Goodwin said. The researchers discovered that by having humans look for Dyer's woad first. A day or more later, the dogs covered the same area. By comparing those numbers, they measured the dogs' usefulness. "It showed the dogs do have utility," Goodwin said. Goodwin said she got the idea for using dogs to detect noxious weeds after reading about the federal "Beagle Brigade." In it, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) uses beagles to inspect luggage and boxes at U.S. airports and ports of entry. Since dogs also detect land mines and have been used for thousands of years to hunt, she wanted to see if dogs could detect noxious weeds, too. Goodwin used German shepherds in her master's degree research because of their intelligence and scent-work experience, Goodwin said. The Mount Sentinel project shows that a Labrador and Border collie can also detect noxious weeds. In this case, the weeds are Dyer's woad. Goodwin's earlier research focused on spotted knapweed. Wibaux was already trained to find human remains when she was recruited to detect Dyer's woad, said her owner, Tirmenstein. She has searched for cadavers and has assisted law enforcement in Montana, Washington, Idaho, Arkansas and elsewhere. The training to detect cadavers, noxious weeds, narcotics and scat is all very similar, she added. Trainers introduced Wibaux to Dyer's woad by hiding the weed inside a box with holes in the lid and placing the box next to boxes containing other weeds. When Wibaux realized she would receive a treat or get to retrieve a ball every time she detected Dyer's woad, she started honing in on it. Her training became longer and more complex until she was able to detect Dyer's woad outdoors in a larger environment without getting distracted or confused. Seamus came to Working Dogs for Conservation from Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in Gallatin County, Hurt said. Noting that only one or two dogs in a thousand make good detection dogs, she said Seamus stood out from the others because he was playful even when surrounded by chaos. A closer look showed that he had other qualities that could be developed to make him into a successful detection dog. "These dogs tend to be highly energetic and easy to motivate with food or toys," Hurt explained. They also don't mind seeking the same thing over and over. They love working with a handler. They love rewards no matter if they receive them 60 times a day or once. They aren't confused by competing scents. They aren't distracted. "We are asking a lot of them, but they really love it," Hurt said. "We work with dogs that need a job to be happy."
Adapted from:

Dogs help researchers track turtles

It's sunny and cool morning in a quiet, mostly empty campground.  John Rucker sits at a picnic table next to his tent eating his usual in-the-field breakfast of oats and raisins. His turtle-hunting dogs spent the night close by in makeshift pens in the back of Rucker's well-worn 1992 red minivan that's logged more than 400,000 miles across 10 states, carrying Rucker and his dogs to various turtle-hunting jobs.
Sometimes oats are also lunch and supper for Rucker. It's difficult to take eight Boykin Spaniels to a local restaurant or hotel. So Rucker, who prefers "a tent to anything," makes do at local campgrounds, like the one at Kickapoo where he's spent the last three nights with little more than a tent, his van, a little food, a couple water containers, a few bags of clothes and a guitar.  "That's the key," he says of the guitar. "I couldn't stay alone this long on the road without it. It keeps me company."
Since Sunday, he and the dogs have been spending their days helping researchers from the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine and the Illinois State Natural History Survey find Eastern Box Turtles at two different parks in Vermilion County.  Rucker and his dogs are in demand because the high-energy, eager-to-please dogs can find more turtles in a shorter amount of time than a team of people. He says the beauty of Boykins is they don't mind thickets, don't overheat easily and have small heads with weak jaws that don't hurt the turtles.  Of the 46 box turtles the search team marked since Sunday, the dogs found 42. Their record, Rucker says, was 70 Ornate Box Turtles in one day near Savanna.
The dark, wavy-haired, bird-dog-bred Boykins use their natural hunting and retrieving abilities to track the scent of box turtles, gently clasping their dome-shaped shells in their mouths and delivering them to Rucker, or the nearest member of the search team, just for praise. Rucker doesn't reward with bones.  "They start hunting for the treat, not the game," says Rucker, who describes himself as an old bird-dog man. In his 64 years, he says, he has always had dogs at the center of his life.  Rucker waits at the campground each morning for Matt Allender, an instructor at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine, who leads him to the day's hunting spot. 
At the day's hunt site, Rucker is equipped with only a few worn leashes wrapped around his waist and divides the dogs into two teams of four, the A team — the better hunters — and a B team. The A team always starts the day. The dogs fan out across the woods, noses to the ground, with Rucker and the rest of the search team following, constantly encouraging the dogs to "find turtles."
When they do, team members take the turtles from the dogs and mark the spot with handheld GPS devices and a ribbon, so the students can return the turtles to the exact spot later in the day after blood samples and other information are gathered.  After successful hunts the first three days, finding more than 40 turtles, the last day proves to be slow-going. Allender, who's been on hunts with the dogs many times, believes "it's a turtle thing," not the dogs. The search area has been very dry this spring, he says, which may have caused the turtles to move elsewhere.
Rucker says there will be days like this — some low, some high — but if the dogs average a dozen turtles a day for a job, then he feels he's earning his pay.
Allender says his goal was to find 32 to 40 turtles in the four-day event, and they found 46. He says it's been tremendous to expand their information on the turtles, and the dogs were an integral part of their conservation efforts. Allender says the dogs will be back in June to continue the work.
"It's just remarkable to have the dogs help us with something so close to home," he says.
Why Dogs Really Do Feel Your Pain

Comforting distressed humans may be hardwired in dogs' brains
Dogs may empathize with humans more than any other animal, including humans themselves, several new studies suggest.
The latest research, published in the journal Animal Cognition, found that pet dogs may truly be man (or woman's) best friend if a person is in distress. That distressed individual does not even have to be someone the dog knows.  "I think there is good reason to suspect dogs would be more sensitive to human emotion than other species," co-author Deborah Custance told Discovery News. "We have domesticated dogs over a long period of time. We have selectively bred them to act as our companions."
"Thus," she added," those dogs that responded sensitively to our emotional cues may have been the individuals that we would be more likely to keep as pets and breed from."
Custance and colleague Jennifer Mayer, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of London Goldsmiths College, exposed 18 pet dogs -- representing different ages and breeds -- to four separate 20-second human encounters. The human participants included the dogs' owners as well as strangers.
The majority of the dogs comforted the person, owner or not, when that individual was pretending to cry. The dogs acted submissive as they nuzzled and licked the person, the canine version of "there there." Custance and Mayer say this behavior is consistent with empathic concern and the offering of comfort.
As for what could be going on in the dog's head, yet another recent study, published in PLoS ONE, showed how the brains of dogs react as the canines view humans. In this case, the researchers trained dogs to respond to hand signals that meant the pups would receive a hot dog treat. Another signal meant no such treat was coming.
The caudate region of the dogs' brains, an area associated with rewards in humans, showed activation when the canines knew a tasty food treat was coming.  "These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals," lead researcher Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, explained. "And these signals may have a direct line to the dog's reward system."
In that study, the reward was food, but Custance and Mayer think canines over the thousands of years of domestication have been rewarded so much for approaching distressed human companions that this may somehow be hardwired into today's dogs.
The phenomenon in some cases could even have a subconscious element. Consider what happens when a person yawns and a dog is in the room.  "Dogs show contagious yawning to human yawns," Matthew Campbell, an assistant professor in Georgia State University's Department of Psychology, told Discovery News.  He said that "we have selected dogs to be in tune with us emotionally."
Custance and Mayer next hope to determine how empathetic wolves may be.  "It would be interesting to see how wolves who have been raised in human households would respond if they took part in our experiment," Custance said. "Would they behave like domestic dogs or show less response to a crying human? It would be fascinating to find out."
Let's finish this up with a couple of examples of dogs being inside moving vehicles...sometimes as drivers and sometimes as a passenger.  You decide if this isn't the darnedest thing....
This video of a dog being trained how to drive a car will give you a few chuckles:
This couple's dog is pretty clear on who's the
better driver
Dogs really are a man's best friend, especially when he's driving. Redditor Zarmostill posted this side-by-side pic of what he says is his pooch in the car when his wife is driving and when he's behind the wheel. According to Zarmostill, "My wife believes she is a better driver, I let our dog decide." Maybe it's the sight of a rival canine in the distance that has his dog looking so alarmed in the photo and not his wife's driving skills (or lack thereof). But if not, the photographic proof is quite damning. Everyone knows dogs never lie.

You be the judge....
Now, as you sit there in your comfortable den with your favorite dog cuddling against you, remember that your pooch maybe can do the darnedest things, in addition to being ornery, stubborn, or smelly.

Helpful Buckeye would like to thank all of our readers who sent e-mails saying they really liked the Pet Snack Recipes from last week's issue of Questions On Dogs and Cats...just remember that your pets would probably enjoy them too!  Also, many of you reported that your dogs and/or cats do seem to be calmed by light classical music or even some of the smooth jazz that is popular right now.  Janey, from Bakersfield, CA, wrote that she had wondered why her normally quiet Basset Hound would periodically howl for no apparent reason...only to find that, upon further observation, it mostly happened when she was playing Led Zeppelin at high volumes.

Send any questions or comments to:  or submit them in the comment section at the end of this issue. 
Since the Pittsburgh Steelers are not going to be in the NFL playoffs, Helpful Buckeye is carefully looking at several of the teams that did make the playoffs in order to pick 1 or 2 of them to cheer for.  I'll name them next week.  The Steelers really need to make some drastic changes to their whole football process.  For a supposedly championship-level franchise, they were putrid on several levels this year.
Now, I have college basketball to look forward to, followed by Major League Baseball, which begins spring training in mid-February.  I'm already looking at seeing a few LA Dodgers spring training games in March with some of my baseball buddies. 
Desperado and Helpful Buckeye feel fortunate to have enjoyed a good year in 2012.  There were a few health considerations to be addressed but the good far outweighed the not-so-good this year.  We made several new friends, we started watching some new TV programs (Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Doc Martin, Boardwalk Empire, The Killing, Longmire, William & Mary, Deadwood, and the Wallander series), we took several short, 2-3 day, trips to interesting new places, and we found some new hikes that have beautiful trails.

Helpful Buckeye took part in 3 athletic endeavors that provided thrilling out-of-town opportunities.  Riding my mountain bike over Vail Pass (11,000 ft.) up in the Colorado Rockies was exhilarating, hiking the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim (24 miles) was dicey and at times a bit dangerous, and riding my mountain bike in the 60-mile portion of the Tour de Tucson was the most exciting athletic event I've ever done.  What 2013 holds for me remains to be seen but I've got a bunch of really good challenges I'm considering.  I set a personal record for total bike miles for the year in 2012.  My previous record was 5204 miles and I surpassed that by 40 miles for a total of 5244.  As I've said before, it keeps my cholesterol at normal levels and allows me to pretty much eat what I want.

It was a good year on the reading front as well...I read 10 more books this year than in 2011 (a total of 69), including 20 new authors.  I've had to look for new authors since a lot of the authors I've been reading over the years have either retired from the craft or passed away.  Most of these new additions appear to be "keepers" for me.

Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to show up on your computer screen once a week this past year.  I've appreciated all the feedback our readers have offered.  Hopefully 2013 will be a very good year for all of us and that we will be capable of taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to us.

Desperado and Helpful Buckeye are looking forward to being in downtown Flagstaff on New Year's Eve for dinner and the annual pine cone drop with some of our friends.

I'll leave you with some really good advice from a newsletter that my athletic club sends out:

Each January many of us take the opportunity to reflect on the past year and look forward to the year ahead. We consider where we've been and where we're going. It's a time to analyze and visualize. For some it's a call to set goals, for others it's an opportunity to celebrate progress, and there's no reason it can't be both. Regardless of how you approach the New Year's arrival, here are a number of ideas for making the best of this time for reflection and projection:  


Exercise in new ways

Get better at something

Overcome a fear or push outside your comfort zone

Schedule that appointment you've been dreading or putting off

Decide to be more positive about some category of situations  


Give yourself a pat on the back for all you endure

Thank your friends and family members for helping you through

Take a much-needed break and pamper yourself  

Whatever you do, take some time to listen to yourself. Hear what it is your inner person needs, whether it be challenge or comfort, and do something meaningful to feed that craving. 

~~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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