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Tag: training

Questions swirling about VA’s ongoing, slow-moving study of psychiatric service dogs

It has been more than five years since Congress approved a $12 million Veterans Administration study into whether veterans with PTSD can benefit from psychiatric service dogs.

Since then hundreds of veterans with PTSD have been learning first hand of those benefits — but either on their own dime, or with help from nonprofit agencies.

Meanwhile, the study hasn’t gotten too far. It has been suspended twice, and reinstated twice, moving along at a snail’s pace. Or what some might call the VA’s pace.

There are even those, such as Rick Yount, executive director of the nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection, who have questioned whether the study had been set up to fail so that the VA wouldn’t have to pick up expenses for psychiatric service dogs, as it does for service dogs helping veterans with physical disabilities.

The VA’s chief veterinary medical officer, Michael Fallon, called that insinuation “ludicrous.”

And yet, during the past five years, the study has gone anything but smoothly.

ptsd2The study began in late 2011, with three nonprofits contracted to provide up to 200 service dogs for veterans, who would be compared against a control group that did not receive dogs.

The VA cut off two of the three dog vendors following biting incidents involving participants’ children. Only 17 dogs had been placed with veterans when the final contract was terminated in August 2012 amid allegations of lax veterinary care and placement of dogs “with known aggressive behavior,” according to VA records.

Meanwhile, questions have arisen about how the dogs that have been placed are being trained, and whether the tasks they are learning to perform benefit a veteran with PTSD or only reinforce their paranoia, according to the Associated Press.

Specifically, the dogs are being trained to do things like sweeping the perimeter of a room before a veteran enters, or protecting the veteran by “blocking.”

“Isn’t that saying that al-Qaida could be behind the shower curtain? That’s supporting paranoid, pathological thinking,” said Meg Daley Olmert, chief research adviser for Warrior Canine Connection and author of a book on how contact with a dog can create a sense of well-being.

Warrior Canine Connection, a Maryland-based nonprofit that uses veterans to train service dogs for other veterans, believes the dogs should be trained to pick up on cues from PTSD sufferers and then provide the appropriate support, such as learning to wake someone up during a nightmare or detecting when a veteran is anxious, and interacting in a way that helps calm him.

ptsdThe VA’s training protocol “reinforces the cognitive distortions that accompany PTSD,” said Robert Koffman, a retired Navy psychiatrist and chief medical officer for the organization.

Between the questionable training protocol, all the studies delays (only about 40 dogs have been placed with veterans), and the VA’s ongoing contention that the benefits for service dogs for PTSD sufferers has not been proven, some wonder how objective the study is going to be.

Not everyone is willing to wait for the study to run its course.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis recently introduced a bill that would take $10 million from the VA’s budget to immediately begin pairing service dogs with post-9/11 veterans for whom traditional PTSD treatments hadn’t worked.

At a hearing before a Congressional committee last week, Dr. Michael Fallon, Chief Veterinary Medical officer Fallon, repeated that “the benefits of service dogs in assisting people with mental health diagnoses have not been established in scientific literature.”

But Rory Diamond, the executive director of K9s for Warriors, told the committee that research already shows veterans with PTSD receive extraordinary benefits from service dogs, including allowing them to elminate their use of medications, handle anxiety better, and reduce suicidal thoughts, nightmares, and night terrors.

“There are thousands of veteran suicides that could have been prevented if they would have had access to a service dog,” Diamond told Congress.

(Photo: Army veteran Joe Aguirre with his service dog Munger; by Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

D.A.’s office not bringing charges in the case of Cesar, Simon and the pot-bellied pig

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Cesar Millan will not be charged with animal cruelty in connection with an episode of “Cesar 911” in which a dog he was training attacked a pot-bellied pig.

Los Angeles County animal control authorities said Monday that they’d completed a month-long investigation into the complaint and found no evidence of neglect or harmful intent, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“After a comprehensive investigation by our officers, we presented a very thorough and complete report to the District Attorney’s office and they were unable to find anything to charge Mr. Millan with,” said Aaron Reyes, deputy director for animal care and control. “It’s a fair decision.”

Reyes said investigators watched the full video “several times,” interviewed people involved in the episode and reviewed veterinary reports.

“You can tell that it was not intentional and [Millan’s] reactions were swift and effective,” Reyes said. “The injuries to the pig looked worse than they really were, and they got immediate veterinary care.”

In the episode, which aired Feb. 26, a French bulldog Millan was training bit a pot-bellied pig standing nearby.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney David Jacobs wrote in a case evaluation statement that “there is no evidence that the pig was used as bait, and all parties who witnessed the incident felt it was an accident. Although in the video the pig is seen bleeding, the dog’s act was merely a nip and did not tear or bite the skin off.”

The dog, named Simon, remains with his owner.

“The clip caused some concern for viewers who did not see or understand the full context of the encounter,” National Geographic Wild said in a statement. “The pig that was nipped by Simon was tended to immediately afterward, healed quickly and showed no lasting signs of distress.”

Millan said in a statment he was pleased with the investigation’s findings.

“My team and I are 100% dedicated to the proper care of all animals, including the farm pig in this case,” he said. “I am continuing my work rescuing and rehabilitating even the most difficult problem dogs, which has saved the lives of thousands of animals that otherwise would have been euthanized.”

(Photo: National Geographic Wild)

Trainer tries to find dog by zapping her

millerIf you’ve ever been unable to find your car at a shopping mall, you’ve probably done this: You pull out your key, hit the remote alarm button, and then follow the sound of the blaring horn.

A man in Oklahoma decided to use a similar hi-tech strategy to locate a missing dog. He walked through the neighborhood, repeatedly punching the remote that operates the dog’s shock collar, assuming any reaction that produced might help him track her down.

And the man was a dog trainer, no less.

His strategy resulted in one woman being bitten, and in animal cruelty charges being filed against him.

Lukas Miller, who owns the Sit Means Sit franchises in Oklahoma City and Edmond, called Edmond Animal Services after the two-year-old boxer mix chewed through a leash and ran off while being trained.

Miller admitted that, as he searched, he repeatedly triggered the remote, according to a News9 report.

What he didn’t know is that the dog, named Nala, had stopped outside a house, where a woman, seeing the dog in pain, went to her aid.

“She’s an animal lover, so first her instinct was to come outside to see if the dog was OK. As soon as she came outside, the dog got aggressive and lunged at her,” said the woman’s husband, Justin O’Feery.

O’Feery said his wife quickly realized an electronic training collar around Nala’s neck was being activated. When she tried to remove it, the dog bit her.

Miller and the animal services officer arrived at the home after the dog bite had been reported to 911.

“We don’t blame the dog one bit. We’re not mad at the dog. We are mad at the trainer,” O’Feery added.

A spokesperson for Miller said Nala, who he was training for the dog’s owner, was being taken for a bathroom break when she chewed through her leash and ran off.

He called animal control and began searching for the dog immediately because she had a reputation for being aggressive with humans and other dogs. It was Nala’s first training session, the spokesperson said.

A lawyer representing the dog trainer said he plans to fight the charge. A court hearing is scheduled for later this week.

According to the Sit Means Sit website, Miller was an Air Force fire protection specialist for eight years before becoming a dog trainer.

Sit Means Sit says it sometimes uses a “a proprietary remote electronic training collar” that gives dogs a “slight tingle” when necessary to get their attention. The collar works for up to half a mile.

According to the spokesperson, Nala, after being held in quarantine, finished up her training sessions, and that her owner was “super happy” with the results.

Cesar Millan under investigation after dog he was training attacked pig on TV show

Cesar Millan is being investigated by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control after a dog he was training attacked a pot-bellied pig during an episode of his TV show.

Investigators say they will determine whether a crime was committed after reviewing the video and interviewing those who took part in the Feb. 26 episode of National Geographic Wild’s “Cesar 911.”

Millan said no crime occurred.

“We know what we saw, and if you saw the entire video, then you know what we know,” said Aaron Reyes, deputy director for the animal control department, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s no question that what happened, happened. A dog under Cesar Millan’s control escaped and attacked another live animal, in this case a pot-bellied pig.”

“The dog that was in question, that Cesar was attempting to train, broke away from him in the video, and immediately charged the pig. Now, what we’re hearing from the [complaining party] is that the biggest concern is someone had that pig, a male adult was holding one of those pigs, those rear legs, and holding the pig up, which made the pig squeal, which made the dog [go] into a frenzy. And it immediately charged at that pig. And the dog attacked,” Reyes added.

The complaint was filed by an animal rights activist who viewed the episode.

“I do have a large group of fans and a small group of people who don’t agree with me. They are taking this the wrong way and blowing it way out of proportion,” Millan said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Animal control officers and sheriff’s deputies visited Millan’s home Thursday night and spoke with his son, Reyes said. The son contacted Millan, who was out of state.

The incident took place at a 45-acre dog-training ranch in Santa Clarita, Reyes said.

In a statement, National Geographic Wild explained what happened in the episode:

“Millan was working with Simon, a French bulldog/terrier mix, who frequently attacked other animals, including his owner’s pet pot-bellied pigs. A short clip from the episode was shared online and showed Simon chasing a pig and nipping its ear, causing the ear to bleed. The clip caused some concern for viewers who did not see or understand the full context of the encounter. The pig that was nipped by Simon was tended to immediately afterward, healed quickly and showed no lasting signs of distress.”

The dog’s owner, identified only as Sandy, told 10News that Millan only helped her dog, Simon.

“Nothing but good came out of this episode,” she said.

“The deal that everyone’s making about animal cruelty and animal rights and everything is absurd,” she said. “It’s not what happened.”

Who wouldn’t be distracted by Pluto?

Testing how calm he could remain amid the crowds and distractions was exactly the reason Ace, a guide dog in training, was taken to Disneyland.

But throwing Pluto into the mix seems almost unfair.

Ace, who began his formal training with Guide Dogs of America at the end of January, was with his caretaker, Sandy Steinblums, when they bumped into Pluto.

While he might not have followed his training to the letter, Ace did calm down after some initial excitement and, once directed to stay a few times, he did a pretty good job, given Pluto was egging him on.

Steinblums said that, though it’s not in the video, Ace remained in the stay position for several minutes.

A video of the meeting was posted on Disney Dorks, a Disney fan page on Facebook, and it has been shared more than 15 million times in three days.

Ace will undergo six to nine months of training before he graduates and is matched with a human.

White God: It’s not the nerds getting revenge in this haunting Hungarian film

In terms of its story line, White God isn’t too different from any other movie in which the bullied rise up and get even with the bullies.

What makes it different — and makes it shine — is that in this case the bullied are abused and mistreated dogs, a species that already knows (perhaps better and more instinctively than us) that there is strength in numbers.

Perhaps the most talked about scene in the much talked about Hungarian film — winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Prize Un Certain Regard Award and an official selection of Sundance Film Festival — is when a pack of 250 dogs, all mutts, stampede through the streets.

And what makes that scene even more impressive is that it was achieved not through computer graphics, but with dogs.

Director Kornel Mundruczo first issued a casting call for 100 dogs for the scene, then decided bigger would be better. More than 200 dogs ended up being involved, many of them from local animal shelters.

The scene serves as the movie’s climax, and it was a first of its kind achievement for the dog trainers involved.

Under the leadership of Hungarian dog trainer Árpád Halász, a team of humans was able to train the dogs to stampede in a pack in what was, in reality, a massive rush for treats.

One of the dog trainers involved, Teresa Ann Miller — daughter of a trainer who worked on films like Beethoven and Cujo — was interviewed about the movie on NPR this week.

Miller helped cast and train the two dogs who shared the role of Hagen.

The movie’s story begins when a young girl is forced to give up her dog, Hagen, because it is of mixed-breed heritage. Her father, unwilling to pay the fee required to keep a mutt, abandons Hagen in the streets.

Young Lili tries to find him, and Hagen tries to find her, but eventually he joins forces with, and becomes the leader of, hundreds of other abandoned, abused and mistreated dogs living in the streets.

As a pack, they rise up to seek revenge for the indignities they’ve suffered at the hands of humans.

(If the film has one fault, it’s the notion that dogs would seek revenge. They’re better than that.)

Miller told NPR that director Mundruczó wanted the stampede scene to look as real as possible — a goal complicated by the fact that no one has ever seen hundreds of domestic dogs running as a pack.

It was first rehearsed with 100 dogs running together.

Trainer Halász watched and then said, “What about 150?” Miller recounted. “And 150 looked so good that he says, What about 200? And each time Árpád learned, as he acquired the dogs and introduced other dogs into the pack, that it was possible.”

It took four months to prepare for the scene, she added.

“And that was amazing to see; that was fascinating. I’ve never seen it done. I’ve never seen such a large pack of dogs run together. And, quite honestly, I don’t think we’d ever do it here (in the U.S.) just for the time that it takes. It’s so much easier just to CGI it, but the director didn’t want that effect at all.”

Who’s the fool: Why do we humans persist in our efforts to trick the dog?

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Most of us have probably tried a version of this at home — be it with the fake tennis ball toss, the hidden treat or the imitation door knock.

How easily, and how many times in a row, can we fool the dog?

For some reason — maybe to test their intelligence, more likely because of the puckish tendencies of our own species — we seem to like to prank our pets.

Even many of your more admirable dog owners aren’t above punking their pugs, confusing their corgis, tricking their terriers or discombobulating their dachshunds.

My dog Ace has fallen victim to most of them. I’ve rapped against the wall to make him think someone’s at the front door. I’ve pretended to throw sticks and balls and hidden them behind my back as he gives chase. (This may explain why he’s not great at fetch). And, in perhaps the cruelest torment of all, I’ve made him think I’m holding a treat in one of my hands, holding out two closed fists and letting him pick one, then the other, only to find both are empty.

With each, he quickly caught on to the fact he was being played, and, despite my attempts to continue teasing him, moved on to something more interesting than me — like a shrub, or a rock, or the couch.

Dogs, due to their trusting nature, can be pretty easily fooled the first time. But you’re not likely to fool them with the same trick more than once or twice, according to a new study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Thirty four dogs were involved in the study, conducted at Kyoto University in Japan. One at a time, they were taken to a room where a researcher pointed to where food was hidden in a container. All the dogs followed the cue and got the treat. The second time around, the researchers pointed to an empty container, and all the dogs followed the cue , only to be disappointed.

The third time around, when the researcher again pointed to a full container of food, hardly any of the dogs bought it.

When a new experimenter came in to try again, the dogs initially trusted him — at least until he duped them, too. (Thank you, dogs, for not judging our entire species based on the acts of one.)

The leader of the team that conducted the study, Akiko Takaoka, says its findings suggests dogs are pretty good at determining how reliable an individual human is.

“Dogs have more sophisticated social intelligence than we thought. This social intelligence evolved selectively in their long life history with humans” she told BBC. Dogs understand what it means when a human points at something. If a dog’s owner points in the direction of a ball, stick or food, the dog will run and explore the location the person is pointing to.

But Takaoka said she was surprised that the dogs “devalued the reliability of a human” so quickly.

I wonder if the results might have been different if dog owners — rather than strangers — were the ones trying to fool them. Would they, based on the bond they have with their owners, be a little more trusting, and follow the cues a few more times before giving up?

Maybe … assuming their owner hasn’t raised them with a steady diet of pranks.

Fun as they may be, they should probably be done in moderation, and not during puppyhood. And, when it comes to training, it’s probably best to avoid duping our dogs into doing what we want them to do — as in tricking him into a bath, or into the crate, or using the word “treat” to get him to come. Deception — with the possible exception of putting his pill in a shroud of cheese — shouldn’t be something we regularly practice to control our dog.

Dogs like things to be predictable, John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol notes in the BBC article, and not knowing what’s going to happen next can make them stressed, fearful or even aggressive.

“Dogs whose owners are inconsistent to them often have behavioral disorders,” he said.

Still, many of us (perhaps due to our own behavioral disorders) persist — even those who know fooling the dog runs counter to good training, and works against building a relationship of trust.

Why we’re that way might be equally worthy of a study. Why, long after the dog has lost interest and moved on to something else, do some of us humans continue to try and amuse ourselves by tricking them?

Maybe those people are scientists at heart, and want to test their dog’s cognitive abilities. Maybe they justify it by telling themselves — as I did when teasing my little brother — that it’s building character, or teaching our dog that life isn’t always fair. Maybe they’re trying to establish their dominance, or at least their feeling of mental superiority, or re-establish the fact they are in control. Maybe they have a tiny cruel streak.

More likely, they are just seeking a laugh, or feel the need to confirm how much their dogs trust them.

The occasional prank, I think, is OK, but pulling too many of them might be an indication we’re not worthy of that trust, leading it to erode, as maybe — based on the experiment in Japan — it is already.

Dogs are continuing to figure us humans out (no small task). They learn our schedules. They predict our actions. Apparently, they have also learned when, amid our trickery, to turn us off, in which case the joke just might be on us.