Lost-dog Recovery Service

Roscoe, a 2-year-old Boston terrier, made his escape by busting through a screen door. Owner Josh Sorkin became frantic when Roscoe didn’t show up in early canvases of the neighborhood.

Sorkin, who works in the tech industry, resorted to a new service in his quest to find his feisty pup. He placed an order through FindToto, an online pet search service that sends an automated call out to neighbors within a certain radius from where the animal disappeared. “As soon as we registered, my phone rang,” Sorkin says. “We got a lot of calls back from concerned people. There were people out there who were trying to help.”

Roscoe turned up two days later on ranch land some distance from Sorkin’s home. FindToto not only helped with Roscoe’s recovery, but it also gave Sorkin peace of mind throughout the ordeal, knowing his neighbors were on the lookout.

How It Works
FindToto began little more than a year ago when Dustin Sterlino and his girlfriend lost their cat. They found knocking on doors and posting flyers ineffective but couldn’t afford a pet detective.

Sterlino came up with the idea to formulate a database of home phone numbers, and to charge for placing automated calls when users purchase FindToto’s service. An entry-level package calls 500 neighbors for about $125, and packages run up to approximately $875 for an alert that reaches 10,000 homes. The database of phone numbers is updated monthly, so customers have the assurance the service is calling current numbers.

“You can’t alert too many people going door to door,” says Sterlino. “If you lose a dog or cat, chances are they’re roaming around the neighborhood somewhere. It’s more compelling for that message to be right there in your neighbor’s ear when they get home from work.”

FindToto dials each number up to four times in an attempt to reach a person or answering machine. The call offers a description of the pet, the owner’s phone number and contact information for FindToto.

So far, Sterlino estimates that FindToto found 1,000 pets out of 3,000 orders. Some pet detectives use the service themselves and recommend that prospective clientele try FindToto first, says Sterlino. “I think we got lucky with this simple concept of life that the more people you touch, the more successful you become.”

Dog Safety Tips
Protecting your dog at home is more than a matter of luck. Vicki Kirby, of The Humane Society of Fairfax County, Va., offers these tips:

  • Spay or neuter “Most stray or lost animals brought into area shelters are unaltered,” says Kirby, who has worked with The Humane Society for 30 years.
  • Buy a collar “Your animal’s ID is his ticket home,” Kirby says. Make sure the collar fits securely and your pal can’t easily slip free. The ID tag on the collar should include your phone number with the area code.
  • Watch closely Your dog can dig under a fence or slip through a loose board. Gates may accidentally be left open. Dog theft is also common in many areas, such as around Kirby’s home in Northern Virginia.
  • Use microchip technology Shelters, rescue organizations and veterinary hospitals will check for a microchip when a dog comes in, Kirby says.

If you do lose your dog, it’s important to act immediately. A quick response greatly increases your chance of recovering your furry pal. “Most animals will stick around the same area for approximately three days,” Kirby says. “After that, they will start to wander farther. Look for your pet while the trail is hot.”

Apps for Dogs

Our pets are often interested in what grabs our attention, so it’s no surprise that dogs and cats show interest in tablet devices like the iPad. Perhaps the size of these high-tech gadgets has app creators targeting cats more often than dogs. Dogs, however, are clever enough to find their own fun -- even if the game was originally meant for another species.

Case in point: The dog that loves to play air hockey on its owner’s iPad. A video showing this clever canine went viral a few years ago. In the video, you can see how the dog keenly watches the puck movements, controlling each shot with incredible precision. Many dogs -- depending on the breed and individual -- are good at tracking, so it makes sense that a game such as this would work for certain dogs.

In addition to dogs playing human games and even games meant for cats, there are indeed interactive apps for dogs. Here are just a few:

As the name suggests, this app turns your phone or electronic device into a squeaky toy. Different types of balls and other toys appear on the screen. You just press down on the picture of the object and, like a real toy, it squeaks and reacts to your push. Your dog might be compelled to push down with its paw too.
Cost: $1.99

Pet Acoustics
You may spend time grooving to music stored on your electronic device, but what about your dog? That’s where Pet Acoustics comes in. This app offers music that has been specifically designed for the hearing sensitivities of your pet, both in frequency, volume and rhythm. The manufacturers claim it will “calm and soothe your pet anytime, anywhere.”
Cost: $1.99

Dogs and cats may have found the real value of electronic devices, however. During tests of these apps and more, pets often discover that the gadgets get warm over time, prompting some cats and dogs to lie on top of the tablets and take a nice nap.

Does Breeding Impact Dog Behavior?

All domesticated dogs have likely had their behavior and personalities altered as a result of breeding. “Breeding of the brain” has become a catchphrase among some scientists who study dogs.

But first, consider how just spaying or neutering impacts your dog. For example, the ASPCA reports that female dogs can become far less irritable and nervous after being spayed. That’s because un-spayed dogs experience hormonal changes that affect behavior. The surgery can make such dogs act in a more consistent, predictable manner.

Our impact on dogs goes back far earlier than modern surgical techniques. Selective breeding over thousands of years has influenced not only how dogs look, but also what goes on with them internally.

A 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, for example, found that when humans select for differences between skull lengths for breeds, the position of the brain within the dog’s skull can actually shift. To determine this, Michael Valenzuela of the University of New South Wales and his team used MRI to scan the brains of 11 recently euthanized dogs from a local Australian pound, along with two living English springer spaniels.

Analysis of the brain’s overall position in the skull determined that dogs with the shortest skulls -- such as a pit bull, Akita and Shih Tzu cross included in the study group – showed substantial reorganization of the brain. Parts of the brain rotated forward up to 15 degrees, to the point that the sections devoted to scent had shifted position from the front of the brain toward the base of the skull.

That one change alone could affect how dogs perceive their environments. This, in turn, could alter a dog’s behavior and personality. For this and other reasons, animal breeding should be done with care and in a responsible manner.

Faux Fidos Mimic Real Dog Behavior

Imagine the delight residents in several St. Louis nursing homes recently experienced when a dog, tail wagging cheerfully, pranced into their community rooms. Like all well-socialized dogs, this mutt, named Aibo, responded to the elderly residents’ petting and praise. 

But there’s a big difference between Aibo and the typical terrier. Aibo is a robotic dog. Although rover robots could never replace a real, live dog, new findings do suggest they might help alleviate loneliness when owning an actual dog is not possible.

Shake Paws with R2D2
The Aibo visits were part of a Saint Louis University study that evaluated how nursing home residents would respond to a gentle, live dog named Sparky, as well as the robot dog. The researchers were surprised to discover that the mechanical version could stimulate human and pet bonding.

William A. Banks, a staff physician with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, conducted the study with his wife, Marian Banks, RN. The couple lives in St. Louis, Miss., where they have two dogs and eight cats. Their dog, a rescue from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), is the live dog that was used in the study.

“Aibo was developed a number of years ago by Sony, but production discontinued a little over a year ago,” says Dr. Banks, who is also a professor at St. Louis University School of Medicine. “His software is quite sophisticated and you feel like he is really interacting with you and relating to you.” Like a real dog, Aibo wags his tail, turns his head and makes noises. Dr. Banks, however, compares this faux Fido’s actions to R2D2 from “Star Wars” rather than to a real dog. For example, Aibo also interacts by “flashing his lights in the area of his eyes” and by wiggling his ears. 

The couple conducted the research to determine program options for individuals who yearn for pets “but cannot otherwise have them (as in nursing homes, assisted living programs and other situations) and what benefits can or cannot be derived from interactions with animals,” Dr. Banks explains.

As a dog owner himself, Dr. Banks admits, “It is hard for me to think that I personally would trade my dogs for a robot.” He emphasizes, however, that the purpose of the animal-assisted therapy study was not to evaluate if robotics could serve as a substitute for live pets, “and that is not what we advocate.” The study was designed to focus on whether animal-assisted therapy could help nursing home residents. 

What it revealed is that “many residents in nursing homes have a lifelong association with animals as pets,” says Dr. Banks. Although those bonds ended when the residents moved into the nursing homes, “providing structured visits with a dog (robotic or not) can decrease loneliness. The real message here is that residents in nursing homes are lonely and miss their pets.”

Real Dog Warmth
For those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy 24/7 access to our beloved dogs, it is hard to imagine that a mechanical mutt could ever improve upon the real dog deal. Amber Burckhalter agrees. She’s the owner of K-9 Coach, a dog-training company in Atlanta that offers obedience classes, private training and board training. After training dogs for more than 20 years, Burckhalter says that her favorite aspect of her work is “both watching and helping build the bond between humans and their dogs. People often own a dog for the unconditional love and companionship and just the warm touch of an animal.”

In addition, she has noted that “for lots of people, a dog is the only thing in their lives that just loves them. Nothing can replace that.” Burckhalter has observed bonds so deep between a human and a dog that she felt “they can almost read each other’s minds.” She adds, “People often own a dog for the unconditional love and companionship. A robotic dog, while very low maintenance, will never completely fill that void for people.”