Is Virtual Fun in Your Dog's Future?

Browse the aisles of your local pet store these days, and you’ll see the evolution of the dog toy, from synthetic bones constructed of new-age materials to flying discs that dispense treats. What you won’t find -- just yet -- are computer games for your pooch. But could you one day have to not only fight the kids for computer time, but wrestle with man’s best friend as well for a spot in front of the screen?

In a new study, researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria conducted research on dogs that identified and differentiated images using touch-screen computers. The study offered intriguing insights on a couple of fronts:

  • The ability of dogs to use computers In the experiment, dogs used touch-screen monitors at doggie-eye level, shielded by screens on both sides to prevent distraction. A hidden automated feeder device dispensed food pellets as a reward through a small hole underneath the screen. A human was in the room to help ease the dogs’ nerves. Researchers used clicker training to teach the dogs to touch their noses to the screens in response to images. “I think we are all surprised how well this new method works and especially how much the dogs like it!’’ says researcher Friederike Range. “It would not work unless the dogs enjoy this kind of work.’’
  • The ability of dogs to form abstract concepts Range and her colleagues found that dogs could classify complex photographs into categories, much as you or I would. Researchers showed the dogs photos of landscapes and dogs. The dogs were rewarded with pellets when they selected a dog photo. Then, when shown different dog and landscape photos, the dogs were still able to select dog photos. In a second test, dogs were shown new photos of landscapes without dogs and landscapes with dogs; they still selected the dog photos. It’s uncertain whether the dogs in the experiment recognized the dogs in the photos as actual dogs, but they were able to categorize the images.

    “It shows dogs can form some fairly esoteric concepts,’’ says Dr. Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind (Free Press).

The age of the doggie computer geek has not dawned quite yet, though, say Coren and other experts. They cite several reasons for this:

  • Vision limitations “Dogs are all nearsighted,’’ says Coren. “If they were human beings, and they could drive, they would have to wear glasses.’’ While dogs have enhanced night vision, they also have less color perception, says Carolyn Georgariou, a dog behaviorist in upstate New York. Your dog processes sensory input with its nose first, ears second and eyes last, says Georgariou.
  • The need for companionship While we all know people who are quite content to spend hours in the company of their computer, your dog isn’t likely to sit in front of a screen when it could be frolicking with you.
  • Training time It could take time and patience to train your pal to operate a touch screen, not to mention you’d need a touch screen to begin with. As Coren wryly puts it, “A dog’s paws are not good enough to make it a decent typist.’’

Still, the concept of dogs using computers has potential. “It shows the computer is adaptable for certain kinds of cognitive testing on dogs,’’ Coren says. Some day, says Range, it might help latchkey dogs pass the time while their owners are at work.

Computer games could offer mental stimulation and help keep dogs alert and engaged, says Range. There might be a useful component for humans, too. Some training, particularly for assistance dogs, might be conducted using computer games or programs that teach the dogs to recognize certain symbols. While the experts don’t know of any dog computer games in the works, Range’s research opens the possibility for some enterprising company to take on the challenge.

But, of course, no virtual world will replace the sort of old-fashioned, time-tested play your dog needs. Technology can’t improve on a good ol’ romp outside for a game of fetch or Frisbee with your dog.

Dating Services for Dogs and Their Owners

Arlene and Frank met in 2007 through the online dating service DateMyPet.com. They not only fell in love with each other, but they also fell for each other's dogs. "He met my little dog, Batman (who HATES everyone new) … and Batman instantly sat on his lap and gave him kisses," wrote Arlene, who didn't use her last name, on the Web site. "Our dogs get along famously together. … Most importantly, SO DO WE!!!"

A variety of pet-themed dating Web sites and social networks have launched in the last few years on the premise that pet owners share a special something that they seek in a spouse -- or even in a good friend. The pet focus of these Web sites helps to avoid a common experience in which you meet a special someone, only to discover that person is allergic to -- or just doesn’t like -- dogs.

It often comes down to a choice: my dog or my date. "In the majority of cases, people choose their pets," says Robert Yau, who founded DateMyPet.com five years ago with his Samoyed, Hershey.

Dog-themed Social Networking Sites
Joining a Web site that features profiles of a person with his or her dog helps screen out the dog averse and assists those looking to use a common interest to date or just meet other dog aficionados.

But as with meeting any strangers, it's important to be cautious. Experts advise that you guard personal information and go to a public place for initial get-togethers.

Networking Success
"If you put into your profile that you have a French bulldog, and you find someone else with a French bulldog, schedule a meeting when you take the dogs out for a walk," suggests Michael Carter, president of PetPassions.com, a pet-themed dating and social networking site. Also, try adding some humor to your profile and postings.

Here is a rundown on a few pet-themed dating and/or networking Web sites:

  • The Right Breed This Web site features instant messaging, chat rooms, topic forums, streaming video from webcams, and an online magazine on pets and dating. Singles can search for prospective partners by region, age, animals and dog breed. The service is free for the first 60 days. After that, it’s $14.99 per month.
  • Pet Passions This free online dating and social networking site launched in 2004. It features photo personals; blogging; email; and text, audio and video chat. Inside, the site is segmented so that dog lovers can stick with their own breed, and fish lovers and horse lovers can mingle among themselves.
  • Must Love Pets Members use personals, chat, matchmaking services, forums and photo galleries to get to know other dog lovers. You can meet dog fans from around the country or just those in your neighborhood. Basic membership, with which you can create a profile and post pictures of you and your pet, is free. If you want to contact other members, you can sign up for a premium membership with a one-time fee of $44.95.

  • Date My Pet Members fill out two profiles -- one for themselves and one for their dog(s). The site can be used for romance or friendship. It also has suggestions for “pet dates,” which are meetings or activities that involve your dog. The basic membership is free and allows you to post a profile; with the next level of membership, which costs $15 per month, you can initiate contact or a chat with another member.

Signs Your Dog Is Lonely
You may not be the only one in your household who’s lonely this Valentine's Day. If you see signs of lethargy, depression or boredom in Rover, maybe it's time to introduce your dog to some new friends. You may consider whether you are ready to adopt another furry companion from a shelter. Or maybe you can satisfy your and your pup's need for socializing with a walk around the neighborhood or a trip to the dog park. "Dog parks are great places to meet people," says Yau. "Being dog people, the first thing you usually talk about is dogs."

Love Dogs? Consider Becoming a Veterinary Technician

Most people take a long time to choose their career path. Rebecca Rose, author of Career Choices for Veterinary Technicians: Opportunities for Animal Lovers (AAHA Press 2009), on the other hand, hit the ground running after she left school. “My mother worked for a veterinarian in the early 1970s,” says Rose. “I can remember helping her with the animals after school. When I was in high school, I researched my career options, and becoming a veterinary technician was the most appealing option.”

If you too enjoy working with dogs and other animals and relish being part of a team that takes care of them, becoming a veterinary technician is a great way to do what you love.

What Do Veterinary Technicians Do?
Most veterinary technicians handle basic medical tasks within an animal hospital. These tasks can include recording a canine’s, or another animal patient’s, medical history; assisting with surgeries and other medical procedures; collecting blood, urine or stool samples; developing radiographs; preparing animals and equipment for surgery; and processing laboratory tests. Some veterinary technicians also serve as office managers for animal hospitals.

However, technical skills aren’t all a vet tech needs to succeed. “The most overlooked skill is that of great communication,” says Rose. “When a technician can properly communicate with clients, other team members and veterinarians, that technician will reach higher levels of success.”

Many veterinary technicians work in a single animal hospital. Others find work in zoos; research laboratories; or at several veterinary clinics, filling in as relief vet techs, depending on where they’re needed. Others parlay their skills into related dog-oriented businesses, such as grooming and dog day-care ownership.

And just as veterinarians can specialize in certain types of medicine or species, so can vet techs. Among the specialties available to veterinary technicians are animal behavior, anesthesiology, emergency and critical care and dentistry.

Additionally, some vet techs like Rose work as consultants to help others in the field develop their careers and reach their goals. In some states, technicians can even become practice owners.

Becoming a Vet Tech
Not surprisingly, the skills a vet tech needs aren’t acquired overnight. Education and certification are a must. To gain hers, Rose attended Colorado Mountain College, a two-year college in Glenwood Springs. There, she earned an associate degree in applied sciences.

In fact, most of the 160 veterinary technician education programs that are accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) are two-year programs. Another 20 are four-year programs that lead to bachelor’s degrees, and nine programs are distance-learning initiatives. Some institutions offer more than one program. For example, Northern Virginia Community College offers both a two-year on-campus program and a three-year distance-learning program. (The latter is tailored to individuals who already work in veterinary offices.) The AVMA Web site lists all vet tech programs accredited by the organization.

A typical two-year veterinary technician degree program includes course work in anatomy, behavior, chemistry, clinical practices, pathology, diseases and pharmacology, as well as writing, mathematics and public speaking. Admission requirements vary, but most programs seek applicants who have a high school diploma or equivalent, with passing grades in one course each of high school algebra, biology and chemistry.

After students complete the course work, they must obtain a license from the veterinary regulatory board in their state. Licensing provisions vary from state to state but often require an applicant to take the Veterinary Technician’s National Examination, a test administered by the American Association of State Veterinary Boards (AASVB). The AASVB Web site describes the examination and also offers contact information for the veterinary regulatory boards of every state.

Becoming a veterinary technician is not easy, but for those who love dogs and other animals, the profession offers a rewarding career path. Animal lovers with entrepreneurial skills can find success in this profession too. “There are numerous options and opportunities for veterinary technicians,” says Rose. “Truly, the sky is the limit, and technicians are limited only by their own imaginations.”

Digital Device Applications for Dog Owners

The same device you use to play your favorite tunes and stay in touch can now play a big role in your relationship with your pup. With the touch of a finger -- or in some cases a shake or two -- your iPod Touch or iPhone can help you get to know your pet better, keep it safer and even teach your old dog a new trick. Just visit the iTunes store for a number of software applications that target dog lovers and won’t put a dent in your wallet. Most are free or inexpensive.

Here are six worth checking out:

Bark Machine & Dog Tricks, $0.99 This dog-training tutorial offers step-by-step instructions along with 200 helpful photos. The application’s developers, Deidra Jones and Robert Maran, worked with their publishing house, which provided the source material for the app from the books Maran Illustrated Dog Training (Course Technology PTR, 2005) and Maran Illustrated Puppies (Course Technology PTR, 2006). Content covers basic commands as well as specific issues, such as chewing. The bark machine, a collection of noises that should attract your pup’s interest, is included as a bonus. Among the sound-producing objects are a squeaky toy, a clicker and a high-frequency whistle.

Dog-A-Log, $0.99 Justin Hall, an Australian, came up with Dog-A-Log while he was researching information about his bearded collie, Rufus, who kept escaping from Hall’s new house. Hall learned that this breed is known for its escape artist tendencies. “I continued to look through the dog breeds on Wikipedia and decided it would be great to have that information while I was walking at the park with Rufus,” Hall says. The app offers information and photos of dog breeds, culled from Wikipedia. “Now I can ask someone at the park what breed their dog is and find out all about it,” Hall says. “I think the simplicity of the app is what makes it appealing.” Since information in Wikipedia is open-source, coming from many contributors, Dog-A-Log should be considered a convenient resource rather than a definitive, expert look at dog breeds.

PetMD First Aid & Emergencies for Dogs, $1.99 This app offers clear, concise information about the symptoms and consequences of a number of medical problems your pet might encounter. Advice comes from PetMD, which offers pet health information gathered and presented by veterinarians. The goal is to give you enough data and advice to help your dog until you can get to a veterinarian or emergency clinic. The program rocketed to No. 3 in medical apps within three days of its release, according to a PetMD spokeswoman.

PetMD Pet Services Finder, free Traveling with your pet? Need help locating the closest veterinarian, emergency clinic, groomer or dog park? Here’s a great way to find dog-related services in unfamiliar locales. Users offer reviews and may add listings. You can see locations on a map and select the “Directions” function to receive detailed directions from your current location. Users have found the app a little buggy, but the developer says it will soon be releasing an update.

Dog Diary, $3.99 Store your buddy’s vital information with this app, which also lets you keep a photo gallery to show friends and family. There’s a section for medical information and another for identification, such as microchip number, registration, birth date and breed. A note-taking section allows flexibility.

Dog Whistler, free Turn your iPod Touch or iPhone into a fancy dog whistle with this app, which lets you choose your desired frequency by typing it in or by using a built-in slider. Judging from user reviews, dog owners have mixed success with response from their pooches. The Dog Whistler is one of several free dog whistler apps, so you can try your luck with your dog without spending a cent.

Look for more dog-related apps coming soon, say developers. “We dog owners really love our dogs,” says Hall. “We are getting a much better response than we expected.” Dog lovers want instant access to as much information about their pals as possible. Of course, we haven’t mentioned the virtual dog apps that let you adopt a cyberpup. After all, an iPod Touch or iPhone can do a lot of things, but it’s no substitute for your dog.

Software Matches Dogs With Humans

Lewis stares at the camera with soulful eyes sure to melt hearts. Finding an online match shouldn’t be that difficult for such a catch.

But in this case, the heartthrob is a 28-pound, 5-month-old Australian shepherd mix. The Oregon Humane Society (OHS), which developed an innovative online matching service, will make sure Lewis finds a new home based on more than the pup’s good looks. Stealing a page from online dating services, this nonprofit uses a database with extensive search criteria to improve the pet adoption experience.

“It’s a pretty unique feature,” says David Lytle, the OHS’s public affairs manager. “We are the only Humane Society I know of that has this find-a-match feature implemented so extensively.”

How Dog Matching Works
When a dog arrives at the OHS, a staff member photographs and weighs the pup and enters its information into a database. “Just as fast as our staff can enter this data, it’s posted live,” explains Lytle. “If a little cocker spaniel comes in the door at 10 a.m., usually by noon all of its data is up on the system.”

The database listing is updated every 10 minutes. Adopters can surf through listings that offer a photo, vital statistics and information about each dog’s personality. For instance, Lewis “is a social butterfly who really seems to enjoy meeting other people and dogs.” However, Lewis isn’t suited to a home with cats.

Successful Adoptions
When a dog is adopted, its status is changed on the database. People from far and wide seem to notice. “We get so many comments from around the world,” says Lytle. “People love the updates.”

Although fans from around the globe follow the service’s dogs and cats, almost all the adopters come from the Portland area. The questionnaire filled out by potential adopters not only asks about the breed or size of dog you want, but also about the suitable activity level and desired personality. The database searches for matches based on the criteria that would-be adopters provide.

If you see a pooch that you’d like, you can place a hold on the pup. If no matches are found, you can then request that the OHS send you an email notification when your doggie match is good to go. Since the service started last August, 3,000 people have signed up for email notification, says Lytle. The service is particularly valuable at OHS, where 10,000 pet adoptions are processed each year.

“We’re very happy with it,’’ Lytle says. “We’ve gotten good feedback from the community.”

Tips for Finding Your Dream Dog
Even if you don’t live near Portland, the find-a-match program can help with your search for the right dog. Look at the types of questions OHS poses to determine what questions you should ask before adopting a pooch. Factors to consider include:

  • Your activity level
  • Whether you already have pets in your household
  • The size of your home and any possible pet restrictions
  • Whether you have children

Simply taking dog breeds into consideration isn’t sufficient, says Vicki Kirby of the Humane Society of Fairfax, Va. “It is amazing to me how many people want a dog they know nothing about,” she says. “They see a picture and fall in love with the look of the dog and have no idea what this type of dog is really like. The most important quality to look for is the dog’s personality and disposition. Even if they know the traits of the breed, a particular dog may not have those traits.”

The Humane Society of Fairfax uses a questionnaire that can be downloaded online then faxed or emailed. The society also sends email notifications when a potential match arrives. Of course, it’s important to meet your potential new pup in person, say both Lytle and Kirby. And it’s never a good idea to fall for a pretty face.

“We always tell people you need to know yourself, know what your own lifestyle is,” Lytle says. “You might be seduced by a young border collie that is the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, but if you have knee or hip problems, and your idea of exercise is just one walk around the block, you and the border collie are not going to be happy.” Instead, devote time and care when selecting a dog, and that will vastly improve your chances of living happily ever after.