Dogs and Autistic Children

April 2, 2008

Here’s a story we’d like desperately to believe is true: the benefits of service dogs assisting parents raising autistic children.

The evidence so far is anecdotal but heartfelt and persuasive; we’d love to see a double-blind study back up these wonderful stories with some hard data.

Parents claim that specially trained service dogs help make their autistic children “calmer, more social and more comfortable in the world.” The problem with self-reporting like this is that the parents are hardly disinterested parties and they’re not trained observer’s to boot.

The wife of a friend who works with autistic children has told me how eagerly they call her to report some sign of progress. But when she had her next session with the child the ‘breakthrough’ was just. . . a misinterpretation, wishful thinking, something you want so badly that you convince yourself you’ve seen it even though it was never there.

I must admit that I’m not a disinterested party either. I would very much like this be true. Helping a severely disabled child and giving rewarding work and love to a canine, what’s not to like. But we must be careful not to impose our wishes on reality. A case in point is the Facilitated Communication fiasco of a few years back.

The story here was that acutely disabled people, mostly children, could communicate if a trained person helped move their hand where they intended it to go on a keyboard or another surface with multiple options. It turned out to be wishful thinking and self-delusion when subjected to properly controlled conditions. Unconsciously, the facilitators were the ones providing both the intelligence and communication, not the subjects.

There’s something called the ideomotor effect, the kind of phenomenon that is behind such things as dowsing rods and Ouija boards. Your motor control is influenced without your awareness and the only information thus obtained comes from the user, not their environment or the Spirit World.

So the fact that I want this to be true makes me call all the more strongly for independent verification. College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, are you reading this?

You know, instead of buying a hand-embroidered suede lounge cushion “Lotus Bed” for your dog (see previous post “Doga: Dog Yoga”) I’d ask you to please send that money to 4 Paws for Ability.

Their mission is to enrich the lives of people with disabilities by training and placing service animals to provide companionship and promote independent living.

Your dog doesn’t need a luxury Lotus Bed (trust me on this one), and these good folks could use your support to help make a real difference in people’s lives.

Unless you think that buying a Shanti stick inscribed with the mantra of Peace for your pooch is a better deal.

Security Dogs Poisoned in South Africa by Peanut Butter-Covered Batteries

April 1, 2008

The South African Daily News ran a piece on the a current wave of dog and pet poisonings. For the complete article, go here.

It appears as if this may be related to burglary attempts as the targeted dogs appear to be large breeds used as guard dogs and security for homeowners. The two methods mentioned were meat laced with rat poison and batteries covered in peanut butter. Most large dogs would swallow these whole.

Once the battery is ingested, it begins to break down in the stomach and the battery acid is released, killing them. It also has the sad advantage of ingredients that are cheap and readily available.

This struck me particularly because I know that our two Labs would gobble up anything smaller than a car battery if it were slathered in peanut butter.

If you have dogs on Long Island or Why Col. Sanders is like Hitler

March 29, 2008

Newsday has a nice piece on living on Long Island with your dog, complete with videos. For the compete article, go here.

Although I have to cringe at reporter Corris Little’s opening line, “For some, dogs are the new kids.” To conflate the roles of parenting human children with being the owner/guardian of a dog is an abuse of language and genetics.

Dogs are not substitute children; children are not replacements for dogs. Anyone who says that they would run into a burning building and rescue their dog first and leave their child behind to die an agonizing death, should be contacted by Child Protective Services immediately for a fitness evaluation.

Can you even imagine such a scenario?

Local TV news reporter: “Mr. Morrison, it looks like your house has been totally destroyed by this spectacular blaze. How do you feel right now?”

Homeowner: “Well, Cyndy, the important thing is I was able to rescue Margarite, our little Chow-Chow.”

Local TV news reporter: “But your wife and three children died horribly in the inferno.”

Homeowner: “Cyndy, a house can be rebuilt. I can always get married again and have more children. But how could I ever replace this sweet little snookums? Here, she wants to give you a kiss. Isn’t that sweet?”

Oh silly me, of course, that’s not what Corris meant at all. What Corris meant to say is that chickens are equal to human children; Col. Sander’s is their Hitler and KFC is their Auschwitz.

What I object to here is the sloppy thinking behind this very wide-spread notion. And I say this as someone who both loves his dogs and considers them a part of our family.

I think it devalues both children and dogs to consider them in the same class of beings. You have absolutely no genetic investment in your dogs, but all of your children carry half your genes. Which is why, genetically, it makes sense for a woman to rescue her children from a disaster and leave her husband behind.

Given how most of our history with canines is the story of utility and horrific abuse, I think it a terrible mistake to swing the pendulum the other way and elevate dogs into “fur kids.”

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I knew a woman who considered herself a feminist and an intellectual and would substitute the word “Goddess” in place of “God.” When I tried to explain to her that replacing one gendered fantasy figure with another was hardly progress, she told me, “Of course, you can’t understand. You’re a man.” Here all along I had mistakenly thought my brain (and not my specific genitalia) was responsible for any thinking I was likely to do.

My point is simply that words and language do matter and we should be careful about how we label things. And if you don’t agree with me, my personal God, who is presently incarnated as the Duff Beer Man on The Simpsons, will make you chug-a-lug Duff Lite until you do.

OT: As far as feminism goes, I’d align myself more with Camille Paglia than Gloria Steinem. Steinem once compared Paglia to Hitler and her seminal work, Sexual Personae to Mein Kampf. Steinem is also against pornography, transsexualism and so-called ‘snuff films,’ a non-existent genre that allegedly features the torture and actual murder of women on screen.

The term first arose in connection with the Charles Manson ‘family’ murders and in the almost 40 years since not a single actual snuff film has ever been found. But it doesn’t have to exist for Gloria Steinem to oppose it, I guess. Just like the wide spread sexual abuse of children in day care centers and ritual Satanic abuse panics that Steinem was convinced were real in the mid-1980s to early 1990s.

I’ll let the transsexuals defend themselves, but as far as porn goes, Americans spend $2.6 billion to $3.9 billion a year on it, based on Forbes magazine’s 2001 estimate, so that’s a lot of voting with their pocket books going on. (When was the last time you saw a copy of Ms. magazine on a newsstand?).

I was always taught to judge people by what they do, not what they say. And you can’t go far wrong in any field if you simply follow the money.

I wonder if the porn industry is recession-proof in the way that economists traditionally say women’s make-up and children’s toys are? Let’s put those Freakonomics guys to work on that one.

Leather Leashes vs. All Others – Part 1

March 27, 2008

I’ve always found that a six foot leather leash — nothing fancy, but something well made with brass fixings and reinforced stitching — is my favorite, as many times as I’ve used other leashes.

I never thought I would be one of those dog owners with an extendo-leash, the kind that has a hard rubber or plastic shell with a hand grip and a tough woven fabric 16 foot leash like the Flexi Soft Grip Comfort 1 retractable Cord Leash.

I’d see other people using them, or misusing them, barely keeping their dogs under control, and I formed a prejudice against ’em. These people were not ‘managing their dogs.”

It’s a line that has been drilled into my head by my favorite dog trainer, “Manage your dog.” I’m responsible for my dog’s safety and well-being. I should teach her good, polite behaviors and enforce them whenever we are outside or when company arrives. Any failure, any slice of wanton household destruction, any breach of protocol that puts my dog in jeopardy IS MY FAULT because I’m not properly Managing my Dog.

We recently added a new pooch to our permanent pack, Luna, a black female American style Labrador. Huxley, our chocolate Lab will be 6 this year. Our best guess about Luna is that she’s somewhere between 18 months and 2 years. After several months it became clear that her presence was having some effects on Huxley.

There were two noticeable behaviors: he began drinking exclusively from ‘her’ water bowl. And when we made the trip from out side door to our back yard – essentially the width of our one-car garage — he began asserting his independence by wandering down the drive way to pee over by our over-sized Christmas tree.

Next he’d saunter over to our 90 year old neighbor’s house across the street, position himself in the middle of her front lawn, squat and take a huge dump for all the passersby to see. He loves our neighbor Peg and she loves him and he wanted the world to know he was leaving her a brown token of his affection. Worse yet was when he’d lope across Prospect Drive and obliviously put himself in the path of mini-vans & SUVs.

There could not be a more public demonstration of my failure to Manage My Dog. And Huxley, is, by general consensus, a well-trained, polite canine. My analysis: He knows his behavior is transgressive and he persists because I believe it is status-related. She has to go right into the back yard to do her business while I, being senior, have more freedom than her! This independence is a part of Huxley’s character, he’s not your velcro-dog type at all.

But when this recently led to Huxley nearly getting hit by a van, I was totally freaked out, heart pounding, breath coming in short hyperventilating bursts — and resolved to get back to leashing him AT ALL TIMES!

Fortunately, the circumstances were all in our favor that morning. It was broad daylight, I was a few feet behind Huxley with a leash and a treat, yelling his name. The driver clearly saw both of us and slowed to a stop as I rushed passed, yelled jumbled apologies and gratitude over my shoulder, and continued after Huxley.

I was clearly Not Managing My Dog. I was failing spectacularly to Manage My Dog, in fact. This was my well-trained, polite Labrador? The one who never before was adamant about refusing to take that short walk across our drive way in the back yard, the fenced and secure and happy back yard? This starts happening when it becomes clear that Luna is here to stay and not another one of our many foster dogs; clearly her presence must be the triggering factor? Robert Park, author of the terrific Voodoo Science would say my belief engine is going into over drive here.


Disclaimer: I cringe when people anthropomorphize their dogs, but find that it is an impossibility for me to to completely avoid. All such statements should be understood in this context. It helps me to parse my beast’s behavior in terms that I can understand.

This interpretation is my own invention and may or may not correspond with the internal analytics going on in my dog’s brain. That it’s useful for me does not equate with its accuracy for representing Huxley’s thinking. I do think Huxley is thinking. I’m convinced of it.

I’m equally convinced that our mental syntax is so different, canine to primate, that all my interpretations of his internal mental states should be offered only as heavily qualified guesses.


But we talking about leather leashes and extendo-leashes, weren’t we? We now own two extendo-leashes and I’ve learned how to operate them without slicing off my own (or anyone else’s) fingers and extremities or causing blindness to anyone. Yet. These are some of the actual cautions from the packaging. Seriously, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end if your dog’s collar came loose and the ribbon and metal clasp were speeding rapidly back to you.

They do certainly give your dog more freedom to explore further away from you. But you have to pay attention and anticipate when you want to draw your dog nearer because she is always more than an arm’s length away. These extendo-leashes can be used properly, even if many people operate them at the far end of the safety spectrum.

But for control and all around functionality give me the dead animal skin every time.

More to Come

The Pet Psychic: $300 an hour for a phone consultation? Sadly, Yes.

March 11, 2008

Robert Todd Carroll, author of the excellent The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions and the website, recently posted an expansion of his article on “Animal Quackers” that’s must reading for all dog owners.

Carroll defines an animal quacker as someone “who applies quackery to animals, such as holistic massage therapy for dogs and horses; reiki and therapeutic touch for pets; and acupuncture, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy for animals of all sorts, and either the ability to communicate psychically with pets or to do scientific tests that prove the psychic ability of dogs.”

Read about Sonya Fitzpatrick’s incisive, revealing consultation for the Cleveland Plain Dealers‘ Dog Lady columnist, Monica Collins, plus a good collection of links to the explore the topic further.

Fitzpatrick, a former model with no credentials in animal behavior or nutrition, uses her psychic readings to push her line of pet food, Sonya Fitzpatrick’s Omega Natural and HealthGUARD Dog vitamins, was once visited by St. Francis of Assissi, assures you that via reincarnation your beloved pets can return to you, and can do a psychic reading of your dog from a photograph.

That last part I completely agree with: Sonya’s “reading” whether from an in-person, or in-pet interview, or from a blurry snap shot will have precisely the same accuracy and value. (I’m thinking of a round number here, are you psychic enough to read my mind? Why, yes, you’re absolutely correct: Zero!).

For extra credit, send an email to the Pet Parent’s Network and request the clinical trials that support their claims. Two that I found especially amusing were “Encourages Eye Development” and “Promotes Alertness and Brain Function.” How exactly were these results measured? Oh, and of course, their supplements will boost your dog’s immune system, though I defy you to find a single “nutraceutical” supplement that doesn’t make this specious claim.

” . . .the whole notion of ‘immune-boosting’ is seriously flawed: your immune system isn’t a muscle that you can strengthen by exercise or diet. The only remotely plausible step you can take to strengthen immunity is to get vaccinated.”  

This is from Steven Salzberg’s blog entry, Boost your immune system?Why should you take his word over Sonya Fitzpatrick’s?

Well, Salzberg is a Professor at the University of Maryland studying bioinformatics, genomics, and evolution. He’s also the Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. His Ph.D. is from Harvard University and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees are from Yale University.

Then again, although a handsome guy, Steve was never a model, so Sonya’s one up on him there.

How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

March 4, 2008

I think most people would be shocked when they add up the expenses and the time involved in dog ownership. I find myself actively discouraging people from adopting dogs without first getting a real sense of how much time and money is involved.

Potential owners who underestimate the cost and time inevitably wind up with under-exercised, under-trained dogs who, naturally enough, exhibit behavioral problems (excessive barking, destructive chewing, inappropriate elimination habits) and then wind up abandoned or in shelters.

A recent posting on the Fosters & Smith Pet Education site details the expenses involved over the life of a 50 pound dog over 14 years in the Midwest. The low number? $4,242.00. The middle number, which I consider to be closest to the true average cost? $12,468.00. The high end number? $38,905.00.

Surprised? Then you should read the entire article, here.

These totals are pretty shocking aren’t they? And remember, this is the cost for a 50-pound dog that lives in the Midwest. It is not uncommon to see some of these numbers double or triple in places like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas. Now granted most people do not end up spending $40,000 on their dog, but some spend a whole lot more. A dog with hip dysplasia or severe allergies can have significantly higher veterinary expenses and I routinely see people who spend over $2,000 on a single veterinary problem. Chances are your costs will be similar to those I incur, but even with the minimum required care, it is still over $13,000.00.

Alien Intelligence: UFOs or Dogs?

February 15, 2008


According to a poll reported in the New York Times in 2003, there are three million Americans who believe they have had some kind of encounter with an alien.

My opinion is that if Americans wanted to have an encounter with an alien intelligence they probably have one sleeping on a rug right in their own home. I submit that the family dog possesses a mind that is is at least as alien to most dog owners as any “grey” with huge black almond-shaped eyes and an unsettling tendency to probe human orifices.

My interest is to explore the canine mind and leave the extraterrestrial brain to the province of science fiction and needy fantasists.

People who claim they’ve met aliens, been aboard their space craft or given birth to alien-human hybrid babies are 1.) suffering from a delusion and 2.) have no understanding of the size of the universe.

How can I so easily dismiss the multitude of reports by millions of otherwise sane and sober folks? Let’s take a look at how big a place this universe is anyway.

Physics tells us that it is impossible to achieve speeds greater than that of light itself. The commonly used denominator light year is defined as the distance light travels in one Earth year, approximately 6 trillion miles. Let’s assume that we could actually build a ship capable of sustaining life that matches the speed of light.

Leaving Earth we pass the Moon in 1 1/2 seconds. Venus flies by us in 2 1/2 minutes. The recently down-graded Pluto would take us 5 1/2 hours. So far so good. It will now take us several months at this speed to leave behind the gravitational influence of the Sun and escape our solar system. To get to the closest star, Proxima Centauri we’ve got to travel for more than four years.

Here comes the problem. To get to the center of our own galaxy, one of billions observable by the Hubble Space Telescope, will take us 25,000 years. To get to the outer edge of the Milky Way requires 50,000 years at the speed of light. Wait, it gets worse. The closest galaxy to us is Andromeda. To get there we’d need to travel for 2.5 million years.

The farthest objects we can see with the HST would require a journey of 12 billion years. For comparison the age of the universe is currently believed to be 14.8 billion years.

So while the odds certainly favor the possibility of intelligent life out there among the stars, the distances between us and them are almost incomprehensibly vast. Which makes the thousands of reports of alien ships seen or boarded since 1947 seem highly unlikely. Instead, E.T., the greys and the rest of the intergalactic menagerie come from that universe between our ears, the human brain, than from the one we see when we gaze into the night sky.

In future posts we’ll explore the genuine mysteries and complexities of the canine mind; the alien at our feet.

Source: Hubble: the Mirror on the Universe, Robin Kerrod & Carole Stott, Firefly Books, 2007. (Above) A cluster of galaxies 2.2 billion light years from Earth. Photo from, the Best Hubble Images,

In Search of Memory by Eric R. Kandel

February 5, 2008

I’ve been fascinated by memory since, oh, I can’t remember when. One of the best books on the subject I’ve ever read was Daniel Schacter’s Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past from 1997. I would still recommend that book as a great place to start exploring this field. The sad truth is that the primary way in which researchers learn about memory is by studying people who for various reasons have memory deficits. Their personal stories can be heartbreaking, aside from the scientific information we can glean from their tragic situations.


Now, a decade later there’s another phenomenal book that deals with the discovery of the molecular basis for memory by Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory. Everything that make you, YOU is tied into memory: personality, emotions, skills, our likes and dislikes. Without that continuous chain of memory that stretches back to our infancy how could we know who we are, what we are capable of?

And don’t be afraid that this is one dense slog through a lot of mind-numbing statistics, experiments and discoveries. Kandel’s book is filled with hot sex, Hollywood orgies, porn stars, suburban exhibitionism and perverse, though intriguing, variations on intercourse.

OK, that last part I made up.

But don’t let the lack of sensationalism deter you. This is essential reading if you want to know how your mind works.

Kandel, who received the Nobel Prize in 2000, traces advances in understanding learning and memory. His own groundbreaking findings showed that learning produces changes in behavior by modifying the strength of connections between nerve cells. He conveys his immense grasp of the science beautifully, but it is his personal recollections that make the book especially compelling. He begins with his searing childhood memories of the German annexation of Austria and his family’s escape to the U.S. when he was nine. And he ends with a conference he organized in Vienna to examine the strange reluctance of Austria (unlike Germany) to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust. One comes away in awe of the scientific advances—and of a life well and fully lived.

–from Scientific American

Are Pet Owner’s Healthier? Maybe Not. . .

February 2, 2008

Fuzzy Science
By January W. Payne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

People spend billions annually on their pets — feeding, grooming, even clothing their animals. They play with them, sleep with them, approve surgery for them and mourn for them, much as they would for people.

But does owning a pet make people healthier? Popular assumptions notwithstanding, science is still out on that question.

A new study out of Finland suggests the answer may be no. Pet owners, the study finds, smoke cigarettes more but drink alcohol less than those without pets. They also have a higher body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight relative to height. Pet owners spend slightly less time playing organized sports than non-owners but take part more often in such activities as hunting, fishing and boating. Pet owners are also less likely to report having good health than non-owners.

The findings point in a different direction from many previous studies, which have suggested that pet owners enjoy such health advantages as lower cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure than non-owners, even after accounting for such variables as exercise. Previous studies also have shown that owning pets may relieve feelings of loneliness and encourage pet owners to exercise more, spend more time outdoors and socialize more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this area of research is filled with inconsistencies, with one study’s findings often contradicting another’s.

And because many of the studies are of poor quality and not much funding goes to finding new answers, said James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, “much of this is speculation”– meaning more research needs to be done to find definitive answers. What seems most promising, he said, is the idea that pets offer social support — something that can affect how people deal with stress, which is known to impact health.

“At some level it seems obvious to me [that pets are] providing exactly the same types of support as” other social networks, including family and friends, Serpell said. Still, “while we like our friends and our family, they’re likely a source of conflict, but most animals are not. Most animals give but don’t take much.”

Gold-standard evidence of pets’ benefits to human physical and mental well-being may be scant, but examples of their use for health purposes are not. For decades, household animals have been used to assist patients with medical conditions such as blindness or seizures, as well as to relieve depression and social isolation. But when the National Institutes of Health last thoroughly explored the health benefits of pet ownership 20 years ago, its experts hedged.

“Persuasive evidence was presented to conclude that pets are likely to be medically beneficial to some people’s health,” they wrote in a consensus statement. “However, much is to be learned about many of these relationships before broad generalizations of medical benefit can be made.” No comparable group of experts has since been convened to reexamine the question.

The health differences found between pet owners and non-owners in the Finnish study, published in December in the online medical journal PLoS ONE, were small and may not apply to Americans, the authors say. What’s more, the study found a “difference only in the proportions of people reporting ‘good perceived health’ and not in the proportion reporting ‘bad health,’ ” said lead study author Leena Koivusilta, a researcher at the University of Turku, in an e-mail interview.

“We wanted to report the slight differences” between the pet owners and non-owners who both reported good perceived health “but, at the same time, to make sure that no ‘larger than life’ interpretations could be made,” Koivusilta said.

Her analysis was based on a survey of more than 21,000 Finnish people who responded to a questionnaire as part of a 15-year health and social support study. Eighty percent of those who had pets reported good perceived health, compared with 82 percent of those without pets. Twenty-eight percent of pet owners smoked regularly, compared with 23 percent of non-owners; 33 percent of pet owners smoked occasionally, compared with 32 percent of non-owners; and 39 percent didn’t smoke, compared with 45 percent of non-owners.

But overall, pet owners in the study also were less educated than non-owners, suggesting that any health benefits observed might be due to socioeconomic status rather than pet ownership, the researchers said.

“The grand message of the study could be that pets provide us all with a vast potential for health promotion as has been shown previously,” Koivusilta said. “Walking your dog makes you feel better, for your sake and for your hairy friend’s sake, and perhaps also helps you to lose some weight.”

Some research has suggested that pets offer social support that acts as a stress reliever, which affects health. One such study, published in 2001 in the journal Hypertension, found that pet owners had lower blood pressure readings when undergoing mental stress than people who did not own pets.

A 1995 American Journal of Cardiology study reported that dog ownership by men was associated with decreased risk of death within one year of a heart attack, compared with those who didn’t own dogs. A 1999 Journal of the American Geriatric Society study found that men and women who owned a pet scored better on a scale that measures the ability to complete daily tasks — such as bathing and dressing themselves, preparing food and walking several blocks — than peers who didn’t own a pet.

In 2005 BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) published a review examining studies that helped popularize the idea that pet ownership positively affects human health. The review found that while some studies reported pet-owning benefits such as better physical and psychological well-being in the elderly and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, many later studies failed to confirm these findings.

Given this inconsistency, the BMJ review suggested that researchers focus less on whether owning a pet offers measurable health benefits and instead on how pets affect individual quality of life and how humans are affected by a pet’s death.

Future research also should tackle more specific questions, gleaned from what’s already known. “If pets are another form of social support, [then] we should start to ask more directed kinds of questions about the kinds of people who would be more likely to benefit from having a pet — maybe the kinds of people who don’t have a strong social support network,” Serpell said.

Descendants of Wolves

February 2, 2008

Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California plus and eight-person research team. Took mitochondrial DNA samples from 162 wolves and 140 dogs North America, Europe, Asia and the Arabian peninsula. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from mother to child. It is especially suited to analyze genetic lines that result from mutation over long periods. Dog and wolf DNA differ by only 12 mutations; dogs and jackals and prairie wolves differ in 22 places. This proves that contemporary dogs are descended from wolves exclusively. The split between dogs and wolves occurred around 135,000 years ago, about the same time as our own species appeared, Homo sapiens. However canine varieties that had a skeletal structure different form wolves show up around 14,000 to 20,000 years ago. The belief today is that the pre-canine ‘tame’ wolves differed at first only behaviorally from their counterparts in the wild.

– from If Dogs Could Talk; Exploring the Canine Mind by Vilmos Csányi, translated by Richard E. Quandt, North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 2005. Originally published in 2000 by Vince Kiadó Kft., Hungary

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