Newsletter Winter 2019

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Winter 2019

What's New?

Nicole DoreyKudos to ABI Professor Nicole Dorey, for her recent publication on the use of clickers in training, “Function matters: a review of terminological differences in applied and basic clicker training research.” This paper reviews the few studies that have compared clicker training to a control group and then discusses how trainers and basic researchers use the same terminology in functionally different ways. Read the clicker training article


Dr. Dorey recently published another scientific paper with implications for the use of jackpots, “Any reward will do: Effects of a reverse reward contingency on size preference with pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)”. Her publication appears in the scientific journal, Learning & Behavior. The article will be of interest to trainers working with dogs or other species.  Read the rewards article 


The Tradition of Groundhog Day

Ah Groundhog Day.... that wild and wacky tradition in which Americans and Canadians pin their hopes of a shorter winter on whether a sleepy groundhog sees his shadow. But why groundhogs? And where did this whole notion that this hibernating, furry creature could predict the weather come from?

The roots of Groundhog Day come from the ancient Christian tradition know as Candlemas Day, which was the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Clergy would bless candles and distribute them to the community. It was believed that if the day was sunny, the winter would be long and cold, but if the skies were cloudy, spring would soon be arriving..

The Germans introduced the hedgehog into the mix of this tradition. They believed that if the hedgehog saw his shadow and went back underground, six more weeks of winter would occur. German settlers in Pennsylvania kept this tradition alive through the 18th century, substituting the plentiful groundhog for the hedgehog.

In 1886, the newspaper Punxsutawney Spirit printed an article about the observance of the groundhog tradition. The following year, the first Groundhog Day was celebrated by The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club at Gobbler’s Knob. The editor of the newspaper declared that Phil, Punxsutawney’s groundhog, was the official weather-forecasting groundhog of America. And today, Phil (or rather one of his descendants) is still on the job.

Groundhog DayGroundhogs are one of the many animals that hibernate during the winter months. Although the idea of sleeping through the winter holds a certain appeal for some people (can’t I just skip winter?), hibernation isn’t really sleeping. It’s actually an extended form of torpor, a state in which an animal’s metabolism is decreased to less than five percent of its normal rate. During this state, heart and breathing rates slow to just a few beats or breaths per minute, which helps the animals conserve energy. Unlike hibernating, during periods of sleep, unconscious functions are still performed, so in fact an animal’s body is much more active during periods of sleep. Hibernating is not exclusive to the cold weather, either. In tropical climates, animals may hibernate during times of food scarcity or to beat the heat.

Many species, like the groundhog, wake from time to time during hibernation periods in order to warm up or even catch some actual sleep. Groundhogs typically hibernate until March, but the males actual emerge from their burrow in early February to find the burrow of a possible female companion. While matting doesn’t occur until March typically, the male groundhog will hang out and take a little time to get to know the female, as well as have a possible sleep over.

So while the beloved ground may emerge willingly from its peaceful state in the burrow, it’s really all about finding a mate and not about predicting the weather. Better not tell Phil!

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Presidents and Their Pets

President’s Day was originally established as the celebration of George Washington’s birthday, on February 22nd. In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, passed by Congress in 1968, went into effect. This act was designed to move several Federal holidays to specific Mondays, including the celebration of Washington’s birthday, in order to provide more 3-day weekends. The shift to celebrating the holiday on the third Monday of the month led many to believe that the holiday was now in honor of both Washington and Lincoln (as it falls between their birthdays). In the 1980s, the term President’s Day began to come into fashion, and many states now refer to it that way (even through the official name is still Washington’s birthday), and use it as a holiday to honor all presidents.

Being president is a tough job, to say the least, but having a pet can help reduce the stress that comes along with the position. In modern times, most presidents have had a dog or two as a friendly companion. But dogs have not always been the preferred presidential pet of choice. In honor of our presidents, here’s a look at some of the unusual pets that have called the White House home:

TaftWilliam Howard Taft had a pet cow. He was one of the last presidents to keep a cow on the White House Grounds. At the time, Washington D.C. had no dairy or milk delivery companies, so the cow was more than just a pet. Named Pauline Wayne, the cow became a celebrity in her own right, and was later named Queen of the Capital Cows. Incidentally, while Taft was our fattest president, at 350 lbs, there is no evidence that Pauline was ever killed and eaten by the president.

President Warren Harding had a pet squirrel named Pete. Pete lived on the grounds but could often be seen running through the White House halls, as well as dropping into press conferences and news briefings. He was so friendly that he would eat directly out of people’s hands. Harding is considered America’s worst president by many historians. His administration was overshadowed by the criminal activities of his cabinet. He has often been labelled weak, soft, and indecisive; however, he has never been described as “squirrelly.”

Andrew Jackson owned an African Grey parrot named Poll. The parrot was a gift for his wife, Rachel, but after she passed away, Jackson became Poll’s caretaker. Jackson was a tough and temperamental man as evidenced by his nickname, Old Hickory. He often cussed; thus, it’s only natural that Poll learned to swear as well. At Jackson’s funeral, Poll caused quite a disturbance with his a string of obscenities and had to be removed form the proceedings.

Woodrow Wilson may have been sheepish when it came to American isolationism; yet this didn’t prevent him from keeping a herd of sheep on the White House lawn during World War I. The wool from the sheep was sold and raised over $52,000 for the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the sheep were often frightened by cars driving by the White House, and they were a bit overenthusiastic about keeping the grounds trimmed, so Wilson had to let them go.


Theodore Roosevelt was renowned as a hunter. But he didn’t just enjoy shooting animals, he also kept a few of his own. His White House family included a small bear, a lizard, guinea pigs, a pig, a badger, a blue macaw, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, a barn owl, a rabbit, a pony, and, oh yes, a few dogs as well. Roosevelt was said to have loved all the animals as much as his six children did.

How Do Animals Find a Mate?

Long walks on the beach. Romantic candlelit dinners. Beautiful flower bouquets. Expensive jewelry. We humans have many fun (and sometimes expensive) ways of courting a mate.

The wildlife community has its own set of mating rituals as well, and those rituals can vary greatly, depending on the species. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at how some species pull out all the stops in order find that special someone.

When a male giraffe is ready to mate, he approaches a female and nudges her behind. This in turn stimulates her to urinate. The male smells and tastes the urine, determining whether the female is in heat. If she is, the male follows her and wards off any other males until she allows him to mate. However, gentlemen, we’re not suggesting that you adopt this technique on Valentine’s Day.

penguinsPenguins take a much softer approach when attempting to find a mate. They may not go in for diamond bracelets; yet, penguins get romantic by giving gifts. Male penguins spend time searching through piles of pebbles in order to find the smoothest, prettiest one. Once found, the male presents it to a female. If she approves of the pebble, she will take it back to her nest, and well, that’s when the romance begins!

While pebbles may seem superior to urine, hooded seals really know how to one-up the giraffes and penguins with the fun, romantic gift of balloons. Male hooded seals have specialized nasal cavities, which are a pinkish-reddish color, that they can inflate to roughly the size of their heads. To attract a female, the male will inflate their “balloon” and wave it around. May the prettiest and largest balloon win!

Unlike the hooded seals, there’s a distinct lack of romance in tortoise courtship. The male tortoise usually circles the female, bobbing his head and biting at the outer edges of her shell and legs. He also may ram into her in an attempt to trap her so she can be mounted. It’s a pretty noisy affair, with lots of hissing, grunting and foot stamping.

flamingosThe sloths are not big romantics, either. But in this case, the females call the shots. Female sloths reach their sexual maturity before the males do, and they don’t mate for life. When the females are ready, instead of whispering sweet nothing’s into a male sloth’s ear, they attract a mate by screaming and shouting. All this commotion attracts multiple males, who may then fight each other in order to earn the female’s affection.

What the tortoises and sloths lack in fun and imagination, the flamingoes more than make up for. They know that a night of dancing can be a great way to find a mate. Flamingoes are highly social animals that live in large colonies. To attract a mate, both male and female flamingoes participate in a complex group dance that has quite a few moves. It’s not known whether the quality of the dancing has any impact on the mate’s choice - it is suspected that it has more to do with plumage color. But when the female is ready, she will walk away from the dance group and her mate will follow.

Every species has a set of rituals for finding a mate, just as we do. From messy and aggressive to flamboyant and flirty, these rituals vary wildly; every species seems to have its own version of And while there are a few techniques we could be inspired by, there are definitely some we should leave to our animal friends. Unless, of course, your goal is to remain single this year.

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What's the Deal with Comfort Animals?

Service animals play a wonderful role, helping those with disabilities live a fuller and more independent life. Service dogs (and occasionally horses) are highly trained animals that assist those with vision, hearing, mobility or medical issues. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), stipulates that service dogs be given access to anywhere their handlers are allowed, even if these are typically places that are off-limits to animals, such as restaurants and grocery stores.

service dogAnimal assisted therapy animals (AATs) are usually dogs, although other species are also used, such as miniature horses, cats and rabbits. These animals and their handlers visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes and disaster areas. They are calm and gentle animals that are accustomed to being around groups of people, and they can provide comfort and affection to those in need. AATs are also used more rigorously by therapists and mental health professionals to improve the social, emotional, and cognitive functioning of their patients. They differ greatly from services dogs in their level of training as well as the tasks they perform. While therapy dogs are on-duty, people are encouraged to pet and interact with them, as opposed to services dogs that should not be touched by anyone other than their owner. AATs are not protected under federal law as they are considered pets, but they are often allowed into settings that pets are not, such as hospitals.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) or comfort animals, as they are commonly called, have received a great deal of attention in the news in recent years. You have probably heard about the woman that attempted to board a United Airlines flight with her emotional support peacock last January. The airline refused to let her board, and a flurry of media coverage ensued.

ESAs are typically defined as companion animals (not necessarily a dog) that a medical professional says provides benefits for a person that suffering from a psychological disability, such as anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder or panic attacks. Although not protected under the ADA, ESAs are protected in residences under the Fair Housing Act and on airplanes via the Air Carrier Access Act. Landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against or charge a pet deposit for ESAs since they are not technically pets. Airlines can’t charge a fee either, but can require passengers to carry documentation that states that they have a disability and that the animals must travel with them.

Service dogs are working animals that have been trained to perform specific functions. AAT animals have been trained for their functions and are usually registered as a team with their handler. ESAs do not require any training; they provide comfort through their presence. Unfortunately, issues with their toilet training and unruly behavior can pose a problem for others, especially on airplanes.

peacockAlthough ESAs may be medically necessary, concerns can arise when individuals attempt to pass off pets as ESAs. Airlines and hotels are not allowed to charge extra fees for services animals or ESAs, but they are allowed to add cleaning fees or services fees for those travelling with pets. Some thrifty travelers abuse unclear guidelines for dealing with ESAs, and take advantage of the fact that they don’t need to provide any proof of the ESA status of their animal (even if they have a letter from a medical professional, there is no way for an establishment to verify its validity).

Emotional support animals serve an important role, improving the quality of their owners’ lives. However, additional guidelines, and perhaps legislation, may be necessary so the public and business owners can respectfully navigate this system. Future clarification will help protect the status of these animals while preventing abuse and the inevitable backlash that will follow.

How Does a Forest Bounce Back After a Fire?

Over the last year, it seemed like every time you turned around another wildfire was burning out of control in the United States. The 2018 wildfire season was the most destructive on record; 8,527 fires destroyed an area of 1.8 million acres in California alone (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). While the media usually focuses on the loss of human life and property damage, one can’t help wondering what happens to all of the wildlife that inhabits those areas as well.

wildfireAnimals have an innate ability to flee an approaching fire, and most can sense the danger from miles away, typically before humans can. Mammals such as bears and deer have the ability to retreat to other areas of the forest. Amphibians and reptiles will hide in wet areas or burrow under logs and rocks until the danger passes. And of course birds can just fly away. Studies have shown that the animals that do die in fires are usually caught up in fast-moving flames.

While we tend to concentrate on the destructive properties of wildfires, they can be beneficial for the creatures of the forest. Black fire beetles can only lay their eggs in freshly burnt trees, whose defenses have been scorched away. The fire acts as reset button, removing dead trees and adding rich nutrients to the soil, giving new vegetation a chance to grow. Birds, pollinating insects and insect-feeding birds will slowly return to the area. And herbivores such as mice and deer are drawn to the new vegetation that, in turn, attracts predators such as wolves and bears. While many animals are displaced by wildfire, fires can positively impact the forest community by increasing biodiversity and bolstering the health of the forest.

recoveryClimate change is now playing a role in the natural recovery process following a fire. As the planet warms, research shows that the rising temperature of the planet is contributing to larger-scale forest fires. Data gathered from nearly 1,500 forests burned between 1988 and 2011 demonstrates that there has been a reduction in tree regeneration. The percentage of trees regenerating to their prior density fell by nearly half. And a third of the sites didn’t experience any tree regeneration. A reduction in tree density affects the types of wildlife that return to the area, especially if there is no tree growth at all. And fewer trees means a decrease in the planet’s defenses - trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and thus reduce global warming.x

So what can we do to help? There is much debate in the scientific and forestry communities as to whether humans should intervene in the regeneration of a forest or simply leave it to bounce back on its own. New guidelines could be in order for agencies that help revegetate burned areas. Current guidelines may not account for the changes to the environment brought on by climate change; warmer temperatures and drier soil making it more difficult for trees to regenerate. The way we manage the land can also play a role in the future health of our forests. A prescribed or controlled burn is one technique that is used to reduce weeds, undergrowth and forest debris. This can help reduce the risk or severity of a future forest fire. Forest fires can pose a threat to human life and may cause severe property damage. The solutions on how best to prevent them, or what to do afterwards, will continue to be researched and debated.

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