Monday, December 28, 2015

Emotional support animal fraud pits those with a legitimate need against fellow travelers

Those who know me are aware of my enthusiasm for travel, and it's something I take the opportunity to do whenever I can. In fact as I write this, I'm aboard a flight to warmer climes.

No matter if I'm visiting a locale near or far, traveling is a great way to engage with others. Invariably, I'll find myself in conversation with other visitors about our respected travels, where "home" is, etc. I most often travel solo, which piques people's curiosity when they realize that I don't have friends or family that I'm waiting on or need to consult before heading to the next activity. It's never too long before someone asks about what I do for a living (something that is more common amongst Americans than those in other cultures) – something I try avoid letting out of the bag completely, as the topic then gets stuck solely on pets, animal behavior or "I've noticed my dog is doing this or that, how do I get them to stop?". 

I often only disclose that I'm a freelance writer, which is more neutral and easy to navigate conversationally.  

Though I love what I do, shutting off the work that I do directly with animals for a few days is often a goal. Quite honestly, it can be frustrating to be bombarded with a stranger's tales of noncompliance with their veterinarian's care recommendations or their qualified (and sometimes not qualified) dog trainer or how they are involved with what is clearly a poorly-run dog rescue.

Regardless of any of that, I have to say that I must be a magnet for people that love talking about their pets – it always happens. It's not a surprising thing, really, considering how much a part our companion animals are of our lives. 

That said, I admit there's one aspect of that togetherness that I find especially irksome: Emotional support animals. 

It's not the fact they are happily accepted in the broadest sense and beneficial to folks that have a legitimate need for them. It's the blatant skirting of the system and nose-thumbing that people engage in so that they can keep their pet with them, no matter where they go. I'm floored by the devil-may-care attitude of many of the pet owners I meet who have no problem telling me - despite my not asking - that though they really don't need to have their furry companion with them, they do it because they can. 

"I have a little anxiety. But my psychiatrist just wrote me a note to allow me to have my dog with me, it was as simple as that," one woman casually told me on a recent trip to Venice, FL a few weeks ago. 

Smirking all the while, she added,"...and there's nothing anyone can do keep me from having him with me as I travel."

On each trip, I'll have at least one person say something like this to me. A psychiatrist can draft a letter detailing the need, end of story. I'm befuddled, and yes, surprised each time, though I reply neutrally and do my best to change the topic. One doesn't even need their own doctor's help to do so: websites providing licensed psychiatrists to write these letters so long as one has the money to fork over are gaining popularity.

The biggest problem that I see with this trend is the animal's welfare: Is the pet capable of handling themselves in social settings period, not to mention those clogged with bustling airline passengers and the like? Do they have behavioral issues, like fearfulness? Putting a dog in a situation like that could be detrimental to their emotional and physical well-being.

Further, are they healthy? Have they received the proper vaccinations? Are they reasonably clean? 

As importantly, those that have a legitimate reason to have a support animal – and yes, they're out there – feel slighted because of any backlash caused by people scamming the system. 

As well they should.

A recent piece in the New York post highlights the problem and really, how easy it is to pass oneself off as needing an emotional support animal. 

Anthony Berklich, of the travel site Inspired Citizen had a telling statement about travelers and their fakery.
Consumers who are being nickeled and dimed for every little thing don’t feel badly about getting through the system.”
I agree with Berklich's comments in the piece in that's a positive thing that emotional support animals are allowed on flights. However the privilege of that is accompanied by mindfulness and responsibility, something that in my experience isn't always packed along with the other essentials that one with a support pet decides that they need on their travels. Skirting the system extends beyond emotional support animals, unfortunately, though it's probably the easiest loophole since their premise reflects a need that can seem invisible to people.
Though it can be comforting to a human to have their pet close, it's vital that the largest piece of the equation is there: Can the pet handle what their humans are asking of them, and is it fair? 

Lorrie Shaw is an avid traveler, freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Understanding a cat's preference for using sight or smell to locate food might enhance their well-being

It's long been thought that cats rely more on their sense of smell when it comes to locating food. 

Evy Mayes, along with a handful of other researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, set out to see if that was the case in a recent study. But as it turns out, cats can have as individual a preference for using their vision or sense of smell to home in on food. 

To try and create an environment where the cats chosen for the study could demonstrate behavior and where the results measured reliably, the team decided to use a T maze that had "decision points". In essence, the cats had to select which way they would go – based on their preference for using an olfactory (scented) or visual (an image) cue.

Eight cats were trained using a two-alternative forced choice procedure, meaning one combination of stimuli (again, visually or scent-based) resulted in the food reward while the other lead to no reward at all. 

Six cats were successful in catching on, and from there, the team was able to extrapolate the data in how each cat figured out the exercise. 

The results were published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Curiously, four of the six cats chose the visual cue to get the food reward. One had a preference for using their nose, while the sixth displayed no preference. 

The sex of each cat was not stated, which is a detail that could offer some insight into each cat's preference. (An earlier study on dogs indicated that female dogs have enhanced visual skills. This might explain why with regard to tracking, the trend is to train male dogs for their keen olfactory abilities.)

The takeaway with regard to a feline's use of sight or smell is ever-important, despite the study being so small: cats have the inherent ability to use both senses to figure out what's going on in their environment, but some have a clear preference for one. Paying attention to what those preferences are on an individual basis could have implications in the rehoming process, or even how a feline's needs change in their dotage.

Interesting factoid: kittens, like puppies, are born functionally blind (and deaf). Read more by clicking here on how the gestational period of our furry friends may be the reason why. 

Click here to read the study, Individual differences in visual and olfactory cue preference and use by cats (Felis catus). 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bravo recalls several pet food formulas citing Salmonella concerns

A pet food recall by Manchester, CT-based Bravo has been put in place. The recall involves several products that were distributed to retail stores, internet retailers — even directly to consumers, between November 21, 2014 and January 15, 2015.
Here's the information on the recalled product:
Bravo Blend Chicken Diet for Dogs and Cats
Product Number: 21-102
Size: 2 lb. (32 oz.) chub
Best used by date 11-13-16    

UPC: 829546211028

Recalls like this reiterate two important points when handling pet consumables: the need for safe handling and handwashing techniques, and saving the UPC code information from product packaging.
Salmonella, also referred to as salmonellosis, causes digestive problems, and dogs will typically present with fever, diarrhea, vomiting and weakness. Other symptoms can occur.
Salmonella can affect other animals —  not just the dogs who consume the treats. There is risk to humans just the same, from handling contaminated pet products. People handling dry pet food and/or treats can become infected with salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the food or any surfaces exposed to any contaminated product.
The recall was initiated after routine testing of a sample from a 2 lb. chub of Bravo Chicken blend diet by the Colorado State Department of Agriculture revealed the presence of Salmonella.
It's important to note that out of "an abundance of caution," Bravo has decided to also include a handful of other products on a voluntary basis, though the company indicates that there has been no evidence of an issue involving the following products with "best by" date of November 13, 2016.
  • Bravo Blend Chicken diet for dogs and cats

  • Bravo Blend Turkey diet for dogs

  • Bravo Balance Turkey diet for dogs

Consumers that have purchased any of the recalled items are urged to not offer them to their pets. Rather, they should be disposed of safely. Products can be returned to the point of purchase for a refund or store credit along with 
a refund claim form, which can be downloaded from the Bravo company website by clicking here.
Questions about the recall can be answered by calling Bravo at (866) 922-9222 on weekdays between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm (EST).
Click here to read the company's press release, which includes more detailed information on the additional three products included in the recall.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

'Do as I do' poised to be a credible method in training, highlights dog's capability as social learners

One unseasonably-warm spring day in 2000, I was knelt down in a soon-to-be flourishing flower bed. Having ditched the hand shovel that I had been using, my gloved hands seemed a more efficient tool to dig small pockets in the soil in order to get the items that I'd picked up planted. 

Unbeknownst to me, Gretchen – who was about 8 months old at the time – had been spying me instead of chewing on the bone that I'd given to occupy her mind. Her curiosity got the better of her it seemed, since before too long she had claimed a spot next to me, peering over at my methodic digging and mounding. 

Suddenly, she set to jabbing one front paw at the freshly cultivated earth, then the other. Looking over at my work, and back to her own poking and digging, tail wagging all the while and her face wearing an expression as if to say, 'you and I – we're doing the same thing!'. 

It's not just a fond memory for me, but an illustration that dogs are fully capable of social learning. 

This type of learning has been studied in different non-human species (including lizards

Social learning, as the name implies, bears the hallmark of one learning a new behavior by watching someone else perform it, then copying that behavior. It was first thought that only humans were the only species capable of the processes that are considered to be high-order. 

Seeing how in-tune Gretchen was even at that age, I was excited to use her willingness to follow my lead to help me facilitate better communication and our training process. It was a fun way interact with her and proved to be an effective tool in unfolding her. Little did I know that years later, it would become a recognized asset in the world of canine behavior.

Any positive direction that dog training takes is a good one, and an interesting method called "Do as I do" (DAID) is an example of this and is catching on. By using a dog's ability to learn socially, DAID enables the handler to demonstrate a set of actions to the dog that can then be imitated (thusly, learning by doing). 

In a recent study done by researchers Adam Miklósi and Claudia Fugazzi from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary, set out to see how a more traditional positive reinforcement method using clicker/shaping training (which uses individual learning) stacked up against DAID. 

Fugazzi, who created the DAID method, is also author of the book Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs

Most interestingly, the results from the study indicate that DAID is more effective than shaping/clicker training when it comes to learning things that involve interacting with an object. For the study, opening a sliding door on a cabinet was chosen because for each dog involved, as it was a novel behavior.

Dogs who were trained with DAID learned faster than the dogs who were only exposed to clicker training for the skill. They also retained the ability to perform the behavior when later cued verbally better than dogs in the clicker group – even after 24 hours had passed from first exposure to learning the skill. Furthermore, the DAID dogs could apply the same skill more reliably in a new context. (This could prove to be helpful in "proofing". For more on that, click here.) 

Though DAID incorporates social learning, it's a more simplified form than is seen in other instances. 

Social learning often plays out by way of an individual learning a new behavior simply by observing others in a group setting, and without any cue to reinforce that they're getting it right.

In DAID, the dog learns by observation, then performs a behavior and has positive reinforcement – that all important form of communication – when it is performed correctly. (The positive reinforcement is a hallmark of operant conditioning.) In essence, a handler - treats in hand, ready to reward - gets the dog's attention and performs an action with the animal paying close attention. Next, the handler exclaims, "Do it!", at which point the dog mimics the action and if performed accurately, is rewarded with a treat and a verbal affirmation.

Using this multifaceted approach is fun, engages dogs in a positive way and enhances their natural learning style, since they are social animals.

More research is needed on how reliably dogs can learn body-movement behaviors (another area of importance in canine training) as was referenced in the study. I think it'll be interesting to see how reliable this kind of training is for those desirable behaviors.

The best part of this research is that it highlights the importance of establishing a solid human-animal bond between a dog and their people, and how we can make it work to enhance our communication with our canine counterparts.

Watch the video below to see a DAID training in action.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.