Starting to feel like spring? Groom away those wintery coats with these tips!

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Monk and DogSpring is nearly upon us!!  For many of us in Canada it still means a month more snow, but for many parts of North America, we are well on our way!  Flowers are growing, bees are buzzing and FUR IS FLYING!

For us, spring time means shed time.  Our Labrador, Zoom, begin to molt out his downy fur from winter and we start to see more and more tumbleweeds of Zoom-fur blowing around signaling yet another sweeping!

Shedding is a totally natural and healthy part of a dogs life and while it can be an indicator for some underlying conditions is it happens chronically, seeing an upswing in the amount of fur your are cleaning up is totally normal! Keeping on top of it can be a real challenge, and for some of us, nearly impossible. This can especially become a problem when guests come to stay who are not necessarily “dog people” themselves and seem to have a knack for picking out outfits that not only attract the fur like flies to flypaper, but also for those guests with allergies. Here are a few easy steps that can be taken to minimize the impact for your family on a regular basis and also for those special guests:

  1. Daily Grooming: Brush your canine’s fur everyday. Especially true for those of us living in flea and tick country, make sure to groom it all: top to bottom, legs, belly, tail, neck, arm-pits, etc.  A rule of thumb for the mainstay tick-born diseases is that they require 24 hours of attachment time to transmit to the host (dog).  This will also help keep matts from occurring, and massage the skin to help remove dead skin and loose fur.  There are many products out there for general and specific breeds’ grooming needs. From rubber to metal, bristle to flea comb, there is something out there that will work for your purpose. I find certain combs and brushes work better for particular body regions (e.g. the rubber Kong brush works best for me around the head), so consider having a few different brushes on hand. Need help deciding? As part of our product review services, Canines By Design can help you pick out the right grooming tools and show you how to use them.

Pro-tip: Bring your brush to the park and do your grooming outside to avoid generating extra dander in your home’s ventilation system.

  1. For quick “tumbleweed” touchups, use an electrostaticlly charged broom (e.g. Swiffer) that will make your life oh-so-much easier when guests are arriving soon. Many options are re-useable and green as well (Save the Planet!) Electrostatic dusting cloths are also available.

Pro-tip: With a daily sweep, one static cloth can last over several days. Keep the in-use cloth on the broom wrapped in a plastic bag for easy use.

  1. For guests and family members with more serious allergy issues, I would recommend dusting and sanitizing surfaces (helps with saliva allergies), vacuuming of all chairs, couches, carpets, etc., washing any bedding and towels they will use, and also changing out the furnace filter if possible to one that offers HEPA-level filtration to decrease allergy-related particulates in the air. If you have a severe case, then renting a carpet cleaner for any bedroom carpets will be useful as well.

Pro-tip: After cleaning, keep the guestroom door closed before their arrival to avoid more hair buildup.

Part of being a proactive canine caregiver is keeping in tune with your canine’s hygiene. Regular veterinary checkups, teeth cleaning, and nail clipping are all very important aspects of care giving, but one aspect that can be neglected is regular dog bathgrooming, and dermal (a.k.a skin) inspections. Our skin is our largest organ and its function (e.g. maintaining a homeostatic balance within our bodies) is essential for life – and the same applies to our canines. Unusual and rapid onset of shedding can be an alarm bell for changes in health, or health-related issues. Stress, bacterial infections, contacts with toxins, pregnancy and even organ disease/failure can all cause rapid shedding. By being proactive caregivers, we will see these changes faster. By performing daily grooming rituals we can minimize any “surprises” hiding under our canines fur, ensuring their skin and coat remain healthy.   Dermatitis, hot spots, parasites, growths, cuts and scrapes hide under a fur coat, but can all easily be found and monitored with daily routine.

Being a canine caregiver is an active process. Balancing the needs of your canine with the demands of life can sometimes be challenging. Constantly having those furry tumbleweeds blowing around is annoying (to say the least), but your dog’s shedding shouldn’t be a deterrent or source of undue worry when welcoming allergic guests. Following the few suggestions above and taking the C.B.D. approach of “setting up for success” will help minimize both the hair and the stress, and finally nix your grandmother’s idea about knitting a sweater out of all the fur blowing around at tea time.

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Dog-safe Christmas! Know the facts!

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Christmas Zoom

Zoom Getting Ready For Christmas

It is hard to believe that we are wrapping up 2015!  As we all get ready for the holidays, we wanted to just remind everyone of a cornerstone concept for Canines By Design – Setting Up For Success – and how employing this thought process will help you and your dog stay happy and healthy as you embark on the New Year.

Deck the halls with dog-safe practices!

The holiday season usually brings with it a change in décor in the house, with decorations, garland, candles, wreaths, and sometimes Christmas trees being introduced into the home environment. Some of our favourite decorations are very toxic and very dangerous to canines and are especially important to keep at a safe distance from their inquisitive mouths.

  • Poinsettias, Lilies, Holly, and Mistletoe are all very toxic to dogs and can kill. If you have a canine that is new to a house full of holiday
    poinsettia

    Poinsettias Getting Ready For the Holidays!

    cheer or you are entertaining guests and cannot monitor your canine effectively, DO NOT use these in your house. If you feel they must be there, try using the faux (silk) variety of the plants to eliminate the risk.

  • Snow globes can contain ethylene glycol (antifreeze), which is inviting to dogs because it tastes sweet, but is a serious player in unintentional deaths from poisoning. Place them where they can’t be looked at as balls to play with.
  • tinsel

    Tinsel

    While Tinsel isn’t “toxic”, it is extremely dangerous. It grabs and cuts at the walls of the intestine and can be deadly if ingested. Keep all tinsel out of reach or try a new decoration with less serious consequences.

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    Tethered Tree

    We have all seen pictures of the fallen Christmas tree and offending dog looking guilty beside it. Instead of inviting disaster (and broken ornaments) into your home, tether your tree to the wall if possible.A couple of nails and some baling twine will eliminate a big risk. If you think it looks “ugly,” you can decorate the twine with ribbon or hang your Christmas cards along it to hide it!

  • Chocolate Cake

    Chocolate Contains Theobromine

    Holiday Foods: Grapes, Raisins, and Currants can all cause
    Kidney failure in canines. Chocolate contains theobromine, which is highly toxic to dogs. Fatty Foods such as skin and gravy in large quantities can cause inflammation of the pancreas, abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody, loose stools. If turkey is being served, everyone should have a little piece at Christmas (ok, not those with a poultry allergy), don’t give your dog the scraps. Save them a little piece of lean meat that they can snack on later for good behaviour and make sure that you don’t feed them at the dinner table. Try to also avoid putting snacks and treats on low counters and tables as they might be just a little too inviting for those new puppies and rescues that have recently joined the family.

T.A.P. A better Relationship:

One of our first posts ever, T.A.P. stands for Train, Appropriate Activity, and being Positive, positive, positive. Remembering this acronym is an easy way to remember to work with your canine throughout the holiday season and how you can make sure their needs and requirements are still being met amongst the celebrating and family time.

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T: Train

Take time everyday to work through the various commands that your canine already knows.  Two 10-minute sessions a day with my Labrador are enough to run through the expansive list of behaviors that my boy knows (and even includes helping me tidy up the recycling around the house, and putting plastic bottles into the appropriate bin!).  Also try changing up the location when you are doing the training session.  Maybe one day you will work on the commands at home, and the next you will perform them while out on your walk.  See any differences?  Behaviors can change depending on the environment so “proofing commands” in different locations with different environmental factors will help ensure that your canine will listen the next time it wants to run across the field to say hello to their best buddy.

A: Appropriate Activity

Daily exercise is as important to a canine’s health as it is to ours.  All breeds, small, large, flat-nosed, round, or dainty, will benefit from activity every single day.  The key to this is appropriate activity. Dogs come in quite a spectrum of sizes that have a direct impact on their physical capabilities.  So think of activities that are appropriate to the physical limitations of the canine (e.g. age, size, and breed related restrictions) as well as positive for their development and behaviour (e.g. non-destructive behaviour). It is important that these limitations are taken into account while partaking in daily activities to ensure that your daily play sessions are fun, productive, and free from harm.

P: Positive, Positive, Positive

The third, while arguably the simplest, can be the most difficult to embrace 100% of the time.  It is to keep interactions, activities, and environmental situations positive for both you and your canine.  Just like in our human education system, encouraging and constructive environments develop well-adjusted individuals keen to contribute positively to those around them.  The same goes for you and your dog: keeping interactions positive will ensure that you both are willing and ready the next time a training situation arises.  I like to tell clients that they should always “set up for success.” Set up your canine to succeed as best he can, as often as possible.  You will be happy your dog is succeeding, and he/she will be happy that they are doing the appropriate, and rewarding, thing. Most importantly, your canine will be willing to “play-ball” again as they learn that success feels GREAT!!

This is a very busy time of year. As forward-thinking canine caregivers, we attempt to balance the needs our families including our four-legged members. Holidays provide a break; a chance to have fun, smile and remember what we are grateful for. Incorporating this list is just a small step to ensure that your canine stays safe and has as much fun as you! Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone!

Zones Of Comfort: Finding Canine Comfort in Uncomfortable Situations

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An ever popular topic here at Canines By Design, this week we bring up “zones of comfort”, what it means, how it affects your canine and how you can use it to help your canine through stressful situations.

Are you asking yourself “what does that mean?”… or “isn’t that some prop from Get Smart!?”.  Well, we aren’t talking about a Hollywood TV prop, but, like the safe learning space that the (awesome) “cone of silence” was designed to create, building a comfort zone means working with the environment around us to create a positive and, most importantly, educational, experience. And unlike Maxwell Smart’s device, I’ve found a much simpler approach that actually works to achieve the desired outcome!

We all have zones of comfort.  These imaginary force fields around us help dictate our level of ease in social situations, strange environments and when we test new experiences.  Depending on the individual, these zones will vary depending on previous exposure, comfort level, etc. and it is critical to take all factors into account.

Let’s use an example:  Since I work with dogs, sitting on the floor in the middle of 10 full grown canines playing together doesn’t evoke feelings of stress or fear. However, for someone who isn’t used to large dog fests, or only interacted with guard dogs, their perspective on the situation will be totally different.  For someone fearful of canines, such a situation could be so overwhelming that they might shut-down and glean nothing positive from the experience or not even be able to remove themselves from the environment because they are so overwhelmed.  Some dog trainers like to call this “the red zone.”  For the human analogy, we can say this person has started the “flight-or-fight” response.  This response, also known as the acute stress response, is when the sympathetic nervous system responds to the physical or the strong emotional state that has been presented to the body, coordinating various bodily functions (adrenal gland secretion, pupil dilation, increase heart rate, etc.) in order to create the optimum situation for that individual’s survival (1).

Now imagine the situation where we are beginning to expose a newly adopted canine to various environmental factors.  Maybe that dog had spent its first year locked in a backyard, without environmental enrichment.  Maybe that backyard didn’t even have grass or any trees. Now, when we take that pup out and begin to work through different training scenarios, the environment can become very overwhelming, very quickly.  For this particular example, the canine will enter the “red zone” fast – inhibiting their response to our training programs and damaging their overall personal growth.  Part of my graduate thesis examined this phenomenon, and many examples arose in which increased levels of stress (in particular example it was related to training methodology) directly resulted in a decrease in working ability of canines trained for service (2,3,4).

It is therefore very important as caregivers that we keep our canines’ “zone of comfort” in mind when we are out training and setting out educational experiences for success.  Here are some easy ways to keep this in mind while we are out and about:

One to avoid...

In the “Red” Zone

  1. Keep your dog’s history in mind!
  • If they have had previous negative experiences with something in the environment, their zone for this object/person/dog will be less secure.
  1. Slow and Steady!
  • Fear can be incredibly powerful and debilitating.  We cannot learn when we are in fear for our lives or someone’s well being.  The same goes for canines. Flooding canines emotionally is a very dangerous practice.  Working within what the canine is comfortable with, as slow as it may be, will allow you and your canine to gradually build confidence with that once-scary scenario, and also help you both build a stronger, trusting bond.
  1. Keep it Fun!
  • We always strive to make every situation and experience for canine and caregiver as positive and rewarding as possible.  Success gives everyone a good feeling, and those positive feelings go a long way to help overcome hurdles we encounter and give us further motivation to keep going.

Canines By Design is here for you!  Contact us today to see how our customized approach can help you and your canine work together and create success everyone can see!

1. TheFreeDictionary.com (Medical Dictionary) (2015).  Fight-or-Flight Reaction Definition.  Retrieved from: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/fight-or-flight+reaction.  Accessed on: July 22. 2015.

2. Hilby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004).  Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behavior and welfare.  Anim. Welfare, 13: 63-69.

3. Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M., & Diederich, C. (2008). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team’s performance.  Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 113: 110-122.

4. Haverbeke, A., Messaoudi, F., Depiereux, E., Stevens, M., Giffroy, J.M, & Diederich, C. (2010).  Efficiency of working dogs undergoing a new human familiarization and training program.  J. Vet. Behav., 5: 112-119.

The Black Lung, Pop… No Wait… Kennel Cough

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Doctor DogNot every one of us has been there. But for those of us that have experienced the cough, hack, mucous, and other unpleasantness associated with Kennel Cough, hearing that sneezey, hacky cough means we are in for a long week. Unfortunately, this highly contagious canine cold is hard to avoid 100% and if it does creep its way into our lives, it means preparing, changing plans, and making sure our canine is as comfortable as possible. Why am I talking about this? Well, remember how I said it is 100% impossible to avoid (unless you live in a bubble)? Our Labrador, Zoom, came down with the cold last week, and it sadly meant that Leah and I had to change our vacation plans to visit friends and family. Don’t worry, we were into the veterinarian last Friday, and he is much better today than he was the last 5 days. But I thought it important that I talk about the experience, how it came about, and how we can be prepared as canine caregivers to make sure they are being well taken care of.

  1. Vaccination Does Not Equal 100% Protection:

We have heard of vaccinations for Kennel Cough. So you maybe asking why does it still exist? With fear of simplifying it too much, think of Kennel Cough like human influenza (flu). We syringehave flu shots, and many op to receive them yearly, but many of us still get sick despite this “protection”! Well small variations between the flu vaccine and the flu bug we receive in our environment mean that this environmental bug can settle in and cause all fun stuff that comes along with the flu regardless of the vaccine. Same for Kennel Cough.

  1. Symptoms:

What symptoms or signs appear first also vary between dogs and the bug they were exposed to. For some, sneezing starts, for others it can be a dry hack (like clearing the throat), and for others it can be an increase in mucous load in their sinuses causing a “stuffed nose” sound. Pretty variable isn’t it? Could it be difficult potentially to tell the difference between Kennel Cough and Seasonal Allergies? You Bet! This is why keeping a canine health record is really important! Read all about canine health records here. If you think your canine MIGHT have a sneeze, a cough, above average mucous production, then DO NOT expose them to any other dogs until you have it diagnosed.

  1. Diagnosis:

Kennel Cough is VERY contagious. This means if you think there might be something up, it is time to make a vet appointment. Why? Because you don’t want to go about your daily routine for a few days or a week before realizing it is worse than you thought. Think how many people and dogs you come across every day? Let them know you think it might be kennel cough as many vet offices have policies to avoid contamination and can make sure you get in right away!

  1. Treatment:

For some dogs, such as those that are immune-compromised, older dogs and young dogs without their vaccinations, and dogs already sick with other ailments can all be prone to having a more serious reaction to the bug and might be less able to fight it off with their own immune system.antibiotics For others cases, its just like a cold in humans… time will heal. Again, it is critical to seek your veterinarians advice for the best course of action. It could just be the right environmental cues existed to allow the cough to settle in, which can cause fever, a more severe reaction, and longer recovery. For these dogs, antibiotics might be necessary to get everything under control again and ensure they are safe. Some signs that antibiotics maybe necessary: worsening of symptoms, fever, change in mucous colour (e.g. going from clear to milky/green).

  1. Making Their Lives (and yours) A little Easier:

Lets not kid anyone, you have a sick child on your hands. Best thing we as a parent can do is be prepared. Just like for us, maintaining fluids, continuing to eat, getting lots of comfortable rest, and sanitary practices are really important in speeding up recovery.

FLUIDS: If your canine is not drinking you can help encourage them by adding a little stock to their water to make it a little tastier. Zoom’s protein base is chicken, so we picked up a container of no salt added, organic chicken broth. Zoom had quite a dry hack from the Kennel Cough, so having a little water around to “wet his whistle” helped to keep irritation down and helped him sleep more through the night.

FOOD: For some, the irritated throat, feeling sick and even being on antibiotics can affect their desire to eat. Have a few alternatives around before you need to go get them and you can’t because your dog is coughing up mucous. If they normally eat dry kibbles, dry pulverizing them in a food processor and adding water to make it a little less dry and easier to eat. Don’t have a food processor? Just wet the kibbles and let it sit for 20-25min to soak up the water. Add water as needed and mash with a fork. You can also have a few cans of the “wet version” of their food, or even pick up some low residue food from the vet while you are there. Discuss what is best with your vet!

SANITATION: As I have mentioned, Kennel Cough is very contagious. Keeping floors clean and sanitized, washing blankets and bedding regularly, and ensuring that their toys are cleaned will help stop the bug from spreading. Avoid public places such as dog parks or places where you will meet with another dog. Don’t forget we act as vectors, so washing your own hands, and clothes is really important. washing handsCancel play dates, don’t go stay in hotels, and make sure you let anyone that may have come in contact know what is up so they don’t go and spread it around unknowingly. My veterinarian said that the exact time that canines are no longer contagious isn’t known so she said to be safe wait for 3-4 days after they stop showing symptoms before reintroducing them into public spaces.

COMFORT: No one likes to be sick. We all feel rotten and just want to be in bed. Well dogs will do better if they get good rest as well so make sure they are comfortable.sick zoom Give them items they can lay on that are easily washed, make sure they are not in room that is too hot or cold, and even the humidity can have an effect (e.g. air conditioners dry the air making them more likely to cough and hack at night). Don’t leave them exposed to the elements in any way, and as much as they might want to go out and play, keep them quiet!!  Zoom dealt a lot with mucous in his sinuses and I found elevating his head with a blanket underneath it made it a lot easier for him to sleep and breath.

If you are ever in doubt, always contact your veterinarian. The price of a checkup is well worth knowing what is going on. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience and there isn’t anything more frustrating and scary when it comes to sickness than not understanding the root cause!!

Beat The Heat: Avoid Unnecessary Stress and Danger With Your Canine

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Dog in CarUnfortunately every year the news catches wind of children and dogs who have fallen victim to heat-related stress due to being locked in a vehicle exposed to sun and heat.

Ever see a dog in a locked car in parking lot?  Did they look warm?  Panting and staring at you as you walk by?  Well the issue of leaving canines and children in vehicles while their caregivers run to do that “quick” errand is not a new one.  In fact, it seems every year we are reminded of why this can be such a dangerous thing.

Studies looking into what happens inside a locked vehicle are well documented these days.  Concerned by continuing cases of human and animal deaths related to being in this very scenario, researchers have been pushed to analyze the situation experimentally from a variety of angles.  Temperatures inside and out, in different spots in the car (foot well versus chair versus dash), the color of the car, the color of the interior of the car, whether or not the windows are sealed, cracked, or open to varying amounts, and also the impact of humidity and direct sunlight have been assessed in relation to the question “how warm does the inside of a car actually get”?

Some of the studies:

http://gizmodo.com/how-hot-does-it-get-inside-a-parked-car-spoiler-so-f-654302290

McLaren, C., Null, j., Quinn, J. (2005).  Heat stress from enclosed vehicles:  Moderate ambient temperature cause significant temperature rise in enclosed vehicles.  Pediatrics: 116: 109-112.  Retrieved from: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/116/1/e109.full.pdf+html.  Accessed on: May. 20th, 2014.

Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society: http://www.injuryprevention.org/states/la/hotcars/hotcars.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2013/07/31/dont-leave-your-child-alone-in-a-car/

What is the take-away message from these and other studies? That regardless of the above variables (or excuses)… it is “really” warm out, or only “moderately” warm,  whether you park your white car, with cloth interior in the direct sun, or your dark-coloured car with its black interior in the shade with the windows down, vehicles act much like an oven, quickly trapping heat inside, causing temperatures to rise very quickly into a dangerous zone.  Compound this scenario with the inability of both young children and canines to thermoregulate like an adult human does (who would still also find themselves in a very dangerous situation), and what you think is “only a 5 minute errand” could turn into a life altering decision.

The best thing to do is plan ahead.  We tell our clients “set yourself up for success“.  Make sure you plan out your day to avoid having to leave your canine unattended in a vehicle to just avoid “it” and the dangers all together.  Ensure you understand your municipalities laws and bylaws surrounding leaving animals unattended as different locations have developed varying levels of enforcement and punishment schedules to attack the issue and prevent it from occurring.  Don’t take any chances by thinking that because you have parked in the shade, the inside of the vehicle won’t superheat.  For those of us up in the Great White North, vehicles can also act like refrigerators on cold, wintery days, where hypothermia can be a factor.  Either way, taking a risk to save a few minutes isn’t worth becoming one of the statistics.  There is always a way to keep things positive for both you and your canine, so keep things safe, and keep them cool.  #caninesbydesign

Don’t Believe Me?  Watch this video done by a veterinarian.

The Quick Fix: Should You and Your Canine Be Skeptical?

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canine jump!Being together, training together, playing together, smiling together. Canine Companionship…. It’s the life!! But occasionally, funny little things happen and certain behaviours can arise that become disruptive (in a “nails on a chalkboard” sort of way) during our special time with our canines.

Sometimes this behaviour starts off cute, but then veers toward the dangerous or destructive, and we might find ourselves in a state of confusion, anger panic, sadness, or helplessness… Our human nature takes over, and we rush to our nearest source of information (WebMD, anyone?) and attempt to label, define, and understand what is going on. It’s perfectly logical that we would want to know why our dog is doing said behaviour, especially if we aren’t confident in the appropriateness or safety of it all.

And, in a way, this attention to the situation is good! Canines are not mindless automatons without feelings or personalities. They are dynamic – and their resulting behaviours are not automatic responses to environmental cues. But what isn’t helpful when you are concerned is all the BAD information that is out there. There are pages and pages of misleading, wrong, and downright dangerous advice out there!

Have you ever watched one of those “As Seen on TV” adverts and said “Ya right….” Or “if only it actually did that or worked…” – maybe we would all have 6-pack abs and amazing golf swings. The reality is, the majority of these products don’t work, or they only work as a small portion of a larger plan.

Canines and their behaviours are dynamic, and the causes for their actions are as equally dynamic, with environmental and internal factors contributing to the “whole” behaviour. And yet there are umpteen people and products out there offering the quick fix. “Try this and your dog’s barking will be solved first try,” or “this collar will get your dog walking right.” The reality is, good behaviours take time to mold and fine-tune and bad behaviours take time to correct – because your canine needs time to learn what is right! Quick fixes attempt to treat the “visible” behaviours and in doing so can cause other inappropriate behaviours to arise, can harm the welfare of the animal, and can actually have no effect at all (except on your wallet).

So be aware of those “quick fix” promises! (But don’t feel hopeless!) This is the part of the change we are seeing in the Pet Industry, specifically the canine world. I, like my student cohort from Bergin University, are some of the first academic minds to have their post secondary and graduate education focus entirely on canines, understanding their history, development, physiology and psychology. We are being trained to treat the underlying emotions and behaviours that result in the “visible” behaviour and it is from this new wave of academic focus that we will move away from the “quick fix” concept to creating useable and successful programs that work, while putting the needs of the canine at the forefront.

Lose that stress TODAY! How? Pet a Dog!

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IMG_2222Daily, one can read headlines about “Big Pharma’s” advancements on a groundbreaking drug (and subsequent increase in market share) on one page, and the recently discovered harmful side effects of a trusted treatment on another. This is the development of the medical field at its best and worst, delivered in digestible coffee break morsels.

To be newsworthy is powerful, and yet, so is acknowledging the importance of enduring positive influences on our minds and bodies that we, all too often, take for granted. Shouldn’t it be front-page news that we have a time-proven, stress-busting treatment that is all natural, readily accessible and low cost at our fingertips? (A warning though – addiction is likely.) This revolutionary treatment is: Pet a dog!

You are unlikely to receive this prescription written in your doctor’s illegible scrawl, with the advice to proceed to the nearest Lab, Poodle or Labradoodle. However, the effects are undeniable. The question is: How do we reconcile the laboratory and the dog park?

The bond between human and animal has been one that has fascinated us and, in many ways, eluded our efforts to dissect and understand its complexities. We can inherently feel this connection, and yet it is incredibly difficult to replicate, reproduce, and report in a laboratory setting. Laboratory scientists are confined to structure their studies in such a way so that a direct relationship between action and response can be drawn. Controls are put in place to keep external factors at bay in order to produce “pure” results and “good data.” My undergraduate background in Animal Biology was built in this safe and sterile environment: laboratory-based physiological research on a cellular level, where every step, exposure time, and protocol was developed to ensure controlled experiments in hopes of understanding very specific processes.

Studying behaviour like emotional response poses very differentIMG_1837 challenges that must be assessed before, during and after the research is performed. For example, when research subjects are asked to describe the statement “I feel happy”, researchers receive a wide array of adjectives and metaphors that explain this topic. But how can emotion be measured? Using the control-based approach that scientific research is founded in, scientists now understand that there are markers in each of us that unite and relate our responses to “happy” situations. More importantly, there are markers that those of us in or from the laboratory-based research community can measure, quantify, publish, reproduce in another study, publish, and maybe even verify!

One of the approaches to how dogs make us feel has taken this very path. Using variables in our lifestyle (e.g. daily exercise amount) and physiological markers such as heart rate, as well as measuring a variety of cellular responses (e.g. cortisol levels) attained from study participants, all lead to the fact that the emotional impact of this human canine bond can, in a sense, be measured.

So where does petting a dog come into play? And how can this simple act help you feel better? Among many studies looking into the variables at play, researchers of two separate studies found that participants being monitored for physiological response to stressful situations actually had lower stress responses (measured through cortisol levels) when dogs were present than those participants that underwent the same test without dogs being present. In both cases, the presence of a canine during testing decreased the extent of the participant’s response to stress (Miller et al., 2009; Pohleber & Matchock, 2013). Researchers are now applying these positive results to the classroom and the office by studying various aspects in which the presence of canines, and the calming, pleasant effect they have, can be applied purposefully for therapeutic and educational options for children, and even in such a way to increase productivity in office and workplace settings (O’Haire, 2013; One Health, 2014; Fitzgerald and Kimberly, 2012).

It is also important to remember that the dog-human relationship is a two-way street. The benefits of a strong bond to combat stress and the unfamiliar are just as important for your canine. Just as petting a dog can lower stress in our own bodies, the same is being found true for canines. In one study, participating canines that were being touched by their caregivers during the presence of a stranger had marked decreases in their overall mean heart rate when compared to dogs faced with the same situation while separated from their owner (Gacsi et al., 2013). Another study looking at the benefits of brief petting and play sessions with a dog (30 minutes) from a shelter dog’s perspective found that this human interaction was effective in decreasing fear related behaviour (e.g. panting and vocalization,) and also had physiological benefits (a decrease in plasma cortisol level concentrations from the interaction) (Shiverdecker, et al., 2013). It is therefore possible for those of us who are not fulltime canine caregivers to still benefit from this therapy through volunteer and foster programs with local shelter and adoption services. It may also be possible for some of these canines to also benefit mentally and physically by participating in programs that offer therapeutic benefits back to humans through office and school education programs.

My research into the healthful benefits of interaction between our dogs and us does not pretend that canine ownership offers a medical cure-all for disease and health-related issues. Nor would I advocate for people to believe they should have a dog in their lives for the sole purpose of healing their mind and body. Rather this article, and the goal of Canines By Design, is to transform the field of dog owner education by integrating current scientific research with our everyday interest in the canine-human bond. Understanding these intricacies and being holistically educated on the topic of canines can have beneficial impacts socially, physiologically, and emotionally for both human and canines.

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References:

  1. Miller, S.C., Kennedy, C., DeVoe, D., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoos: A multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals. 22: 31-42.
  2. Polheber, J.P., Matchock, R.L. (2013). The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. J. Behav. Med.: DOI 10.1007/s10865-013-9546-1.
  3. O’Haire, M.E. (2013). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 43: 1606-1622.
  4. One Health- Mills, D., Hall, S. (2014). Animal-assisted interventions: making better use of the human-animal bond. Veterinary Record. Retrieved from: http://171.67.117.160/content/174/11/269.full.pdf+html. Accessed May 20, 2014.
  5. Fitzgerald, C., Kimberly, D.M. (2012). Evolution in the office: How evolutionary psychology can increase employee heath, happiness, and productivity. Evolutionary Psychology 10: 770-781.
  6. Gacsi, M., Maros, K., Sernkvist, S., Farafo, T., Miklosi, A. (2013). Human analogue Safe Haven Effect of the owner: Behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs.   PLOS One. 3: DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0058475
  7. Shiverdecker, M.D., Schiml, P.A., Hennessy, M.B. (2013). Human interaction moderated plasma cortisol and behavioral responses of dogs to shelter housing. Physiology & Behavior. 109: 76-79.