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Tag: attention

You’re just the cutest little audience ever … Yes … Yes … Yes, you are!

A business professor at American University is using dogs to help students overcome their fear of public speaking and hone their oratorical skills.

Bonnie Auslander, the director of the Kogod Center for Business Communications, started the program on a trial basis last year, pairing anxiety-prone business school students with patient canine listeners.

The thinking behind it is similar to that of programs around the country in which much younger students read to dogs to gain confidence in their reading skills.

“Addressing a friendly and nonjudgmental canine can lower blood pressure, decrease stress and elevate mood — perfect for practicing your speech or team presentation,” says the program’s promotional material.

For now, evidence of the benefits is mostly anecdotal, reports the New York Times.

With therapy dogs arriving on campus regularly during finals, Auslander got the idea to use dogs as a practice audience and she recruited six dogs with calm personalities.

They included Teddy, a Jack Russell terrier, and Ellie, a Bernese mountain dog.

We think it’s a great idea — assuming the dogs are willing to put up with all those speeches. On top of gaining confidence, students can learn the importance of inflecting their voices and gesturing to hold audience attention — though treats are proving to work better than either of those.

Auslander joked about having “an audience cat program some day that will be for speakers who are overconfident and need to be taken down a peg. The cats will turn away and lick their paws.”

Although we feel a little sorry for them, we wish the best to those dogs taking part in the program. And having had our own issues with public speaking, we wish great success to those students taking part.

We’re confident they will get their MBA’s and become great orators — identifiable only by their tendency to throw Milk Bones to their audiences.

Which motivates more — food or praise?


A study at Emory University suggests that dogs aren’t strictly the food-obsessed beasts they’ve traditionally been seen as — and that many, maybe even most, prefer attention and praise over a chewy treat.

While only 13 dogs participated in the study, there were only two of them who — judging from their neural reactions — showed a distinct preference for food over praise.

The study, published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioral experiments to explore what kind of rewards canines prefer.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory and lead author of the research.

“Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”

Berns heads the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology. It was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation.

Their previous research using the technique identified the ventral caudate region of the canine brain as a reward center and showed that region responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

Phys.org reports that, in the new study, researchers trained the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes. A pink toy truck signaled a food reward; a blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signaled no reward, to serve as a control.

The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an fMRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.

Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

Berns says the findings run counter to the old view that dogs “just want food and their owners are simply the means to get it … Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

In another part of the study, dogs were put into a Y-shaped maze in which one path led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner.

The dogs were repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths.

While most dogs alternated between the food and their owner, dogs who showed a greater response to praise in the first part of experiment chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time.

Berns said the study “shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”


(Photos: At top, Kady, a Lab-retriever mix in the study who preferred praise from her owner to food; at bottom, Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix who chose food over his owner’s praise / Emory University)

Another fun thing to do with your dog that won’t require your actual presence


Here’s another special report from your favorite worry wart.

No sooner do I bemoan one high-tech invention for dog owners than another comes rolling along, equally worth fretting about.

This one is a 3-inch remotely controlled orange ball, with a high-def camera inside, that you can watch and listen to on your cell phone.

Its makers boast it will “usher in the future of human-pet interaction.”

Let’s hope not.

It’s called PlayDate, now in the Indygogoing stage, and like many other contraptions hitting the market, it’s designed to make all the time your dog spends alone more bearable for him, and more entertaining and guilt-free for you.

The problem I have with that, as I’ve stated before, is how it lets dog owners shrug off the responsibility of dog ownership and diminishes the bond between dog and owner.

What I fret about is that the “future of human-pet interactions” could be long-distance, computer-assisted, virtual and heartless — exactly opposite of what dogs need, and exactly opposite of the reasons for having a dog in the first place.

A Manhattan inventor has come up with what the New York Post called “the next big thing for man’s best friend.”

Company co-founder Kevin Li says he got the idea for PlayDate after adopting his Rhodesian ridgeback-Lab mix, Hulk, three years ago.

“Looking at his sad face every time I left for work, I realized he … needed more time with his best friend.”

So Li (and we hope he worked from home at least a little bit) invented a ball for Hulk to play with — one he could control remotely, issue commands through, observe his dog through, and make squeak.

An adjunct computer-science professor at Columbia, Li described the $249 gadget as “Fitbit meets iPhone localization.”

He has already raised more than $200,000 on Indiegogo and has sold out of pre-orders.

With the rechargable ball, a pet owner can watch and listen to their pet, take photos, and record video, all from their iOS or Android device.

A stabilized camera inside provides real-time HD images. And a clear, replaceable outer shell protects the inner workings while allowing the camera — slobber aside — to see out clearly.

There are just three simple steps, its makers say: Download the free app, connect to wi-fi and “usher in the future of human-pet interaction.”

Sorry, but talk like that scares me, as do a few other things.

The shell of the ball is made of a strong, chew-resistant polycarbonate, designed to withstand rambunctious play, according to its makers.

I hope that has been well tested, because I’d prefer not to think about what swallowing a little camera and a lithium polymer battery might do to a dog (or cat).

In the world of pet products, many a toy marketed as indestructible has proved otherwise.

Even PlayDate’s makers are saying that part might take some fine tuning:

“As we put PlayDate’s smart ball in front of more dogs and cats, we may discover the need to make aspects of its design more robust; any pet owner will tell you there’s no such thing as an indestructible toy. We have purposefully designed features like the replaceable outer shell with this in mind. Additional design changes may be required as we perform more testing.”

And what, I wonder, will be the effect of communicating with — and issuing orders to — your dog via an orange ball? Seeing an orange ball wandering around the house on its own, and hearing a disembodied voice come from it would, at the very least, be confusing, I’d think.

I’m all for keeping a dog active, engaged and feeling loved when the owner is away. But it’s a mistake to assume that technology can make up for failing to give your dog adequate attention.

And — needless to say — one shouldn’t get a dog in the first place if one is unwilling or unable to give him or her their time.

Face-time, I mean, with no cameras, or wi-fi, or remote controls involved.

Before we usher human-pet interaction “into the future,” it might be wise to question whether we really need to take that trip.

Didn’t we pretty much have it down just fine already — most of us, anyway?

(Photo: from PlayDate’s website)

Making New Year’s resolutions for our dogs is more popular than ever, survey finds


A survey conducted for Milk-Bone says more Americans than ever are including their dogs in their New Year’s resolutions.

To which dogs, could they respond, would probably do so with a sarcastic “Gee, thanks.”

But fret not canines. Putting you on a diet ranks all the way down at nine in the top 10 list, and the most popular resolutions are mainly ones dogs would wholeheartedly support.

And keep it mind, we humans hardly ever carry out our resolutions, anyway.

Three thousand pet owners were surveyed, and the most popular resolutions were:

1. I will spend more time with my dog. (52%)

2. I will help my dog to have better health and wellness. (42%)

3. I will take my dog on more trips with me. (34%)

4. I will brush my dog’s teeth regularly. (31%)

5. I will help my dog get essential vitamins and nutrients.(30%)

6. I will help my dog become less anxious and stressed. (29%)

7. I won’t feed my dog food from the dinner table. (25%)

8. I won’t leave my dog home alone for quite so long. (23%)

9. I will help my pet lose weight. (21%)

10. I will take my dog to dog training class. (15%)

(Photo: Instagram)

Shut up and pet me: Study says dogs prefer petting over anything you might have to say

SONY DSCLess talk, more petting — that’s what your dog wants, according to a new study.

Based on tests with dozens of dogs — some from homes, some from shelters — researchers found that, when it comes to interacting with humans, dogs seems to prefer physical contact to anything you might have to say, praise included.

One possible exception — verbal pronouncements that dinner, or treats, are about to be served.

Two scientists from the University of Florida, who in a previous study determined dogs prefer eating food to being petted, have published the results of another research project, showing dogs prefer physical contact over verbal praise.

Neither conclusion seems that surprising to me, but one has to bear in mind that scientists prefer having their work published to having their bellies rubbed, dinner at a five-star restaurant or even verbal praise: “Good scientist. Yes! Yes! You’re a very good scientist.”

“I spend half my day talking to my dog,” study co-author Dr. Clive Wynne, who is now professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, told The Huffington Post. “She always looks like it’s valuable to her. It’s quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn’t seem to be rewarding to them after all.”

For one part of the study researchers observed 42 dogs as they interacted one at a time with two people in a room. One person petted the dog, while the other praised the dog verbally. The researchers measured how much time the dog chose to spend interacting with each person.

Next,  72 dogs were, one at a time, placed in a room with just one person and their behavior was observed as the person spent time petting or praising the dog, or not interacting at all.

Dogs showed the most interest in people who were petting them, while they seemed to show no more interest in spoken praise than in having no interaction with the human at all, according to the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

“I was surprised that when only one alternative was available, dogs still did not engage with the human for vocal praise,” said study co-author Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, now assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She conducted the research while earning her doctorate degree at the University of Florida.

The scientists say dogs never seem to tire of getting petted, and they note that previous studies have shown a dog being stroked, like the human who is stroking him, reaps some health benefits, including a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure.

We won’t go so far as to suggest dogs realize that petting is a more honest form of interaction; that words can be less sincere, or even deceptive; or that words can even be annoying — like when they go on too long, are ridiculously repetitious, or they’re uttered in that high-pitched baby talk tone some of us use when talking to our pets.

But we won’t rule it out, either.

For his part, researcher Wynne says that, even if his own dog doesn’t fully appreciate all he verbally passes on to her, he’ll probably keep talking to her anyway.  “I just recognize better that I’m doing it more for my benefit than for hers,” he said.

(Photo: Ace seeking some physical contact in Kanab, Utah / by John Woestendiek) 

Making friends doesn’t always come easily

Hang around long enough — whether you’re a YouTube video or a Labrador retriever — and you might find some love.

This video of a yellow Lab persistently trying to gain the attention of a three-year-old boy with Down syndrome, was posted on YouTube in June 2012, but only recently has its popularity soared,  topping 4 million views.

Ana Marta Vegas says her son, Hernan, usually avoids any kind of physical contact.

In this video, shot by his family, you can see the boy, after grabbing the dog’s paw, continuously backing off and at times seeming to push her away.

But the Lab is calmly persistent — nuzzling, licking, nibbling, pawing and inching ever closer to the boy.

At one point, she sits and gently puts her paw on his shoulder.

Eventually, nearly four minutes into the video, Hernan responds and gives the dog, named Himalaya, what appears to be a hug.

How many dogs can a dog walker walk?


How many dogs should a dog walker walk at once?

After half a century as an amateur dog walker, and three months as a professional one, I’m prepared to give a qualified answer to that question.

It depends on the dogs. It depends on the dog walker. But three at a time should be plenty.

Many a dog walker might scoff at that — and view the idea of limiting the number of dogs a person can walk at one time as cutting into their profit margin.

It would be nice if dog walking was the one industry in the world not obsessed with upping its profits. But it’s not.

Many dog walkers balked when San Francisco — one of very few cities that regulates professional dog walkers — suggested limiting them to walking no more than eight dogs at once.

I can’t imagine doing that.

I can’t even imagine walking all three of the small dogs I walk for residents of at an assisted living facility all at once.

bgdogs 042Their leashes would get tangled, I’d trip and fall, and, given a couple of them tend to snarf up anything that resembles food — including Punkin, the handsome Boston Terrier to your left — I wouldn’t be able to monitor all three at once.

So — even though it takes three times as long — I opt for walking them one at a time. Bean counters and efficiency experts would say that’s stupid of me.

But then again, I’m 60, and not as agile and speedy, maybe, as once I was.

Here’s a news item that came out of Mill Valley, just up the road from San Francisco, this week:

A 71-year-old dog walker who fell more than 200 feet down a ravine in California was found by rescuers — with all six dogs she was walking huddled around her.

Carol Anderson fell into the ravine near a remote fire road during a storm Tuesday in Mill Valley, KTVU reported.

It’s not clear from news reports whether all six dogs fell with her, but she did manage to hold on to her cell phone during the tumble, and use it to contact one of her dog walking clients.

A Mill Valley Fire Department official said Anderson told the client, “I fell down, I don’t know where I’m at. I have the dogs. I’m dizzy. I’m nauseous, come help me.”

Authorities were able to track her down through her cell phone signals. The first rescuers to arrive found all six dogs curled up around her, which authorities said probably protected her from the cold. Firefighters climbed into the ravine and hoisted Anderson back up.

Anderson was hospitalized in fair condition. All the dogs were returned safely to their owners

It wasn’t the first time the dog walker has run into some bad luck.

In 2007, three of seven dogs Anderson had been walking — all at once — all got sick and died, just hours later, from what turned out to be strychnine poisoning intended to exterminate gophers.

After a morning walk on the Alta Trail above Marin City, the three dogs experienced high fevers and seizures. Two died at an area pet hospital, and a third was dead on arrival.

Walking six, seven, eight or more dogs at once strikes me as asking for trouble — no matter how well behaved the dogs are, or how experienced and physically fit the dog walker is.

I don’t think the rest of the country needs to go all San Francisco and regulate the industry. Dog owners can do that themselves, simply by asking, or insisting if necessary, that their dog not be walked in a group the size of a baseball team, or jury.

The dog walker who refuses to comply with such a request is probably more of a money seeker than a dog lover and may be better off avoided anyway.

(Top photo, a dog walker in San Francisco, by Mike Koozmin/ San Francisco Examiner; bottom photo by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)