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Southern Illinois University

Researchers at SIU are working to better understand caring for service animals

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Erin Perry, an associate professor in the SIU School of Agricultural Sciences, uses her dog, Zorro, a FEMA certified search dog, to demonstrate just one of the many types of working dogs during a presentation to a class on Tuesday. The school is leading the way in researching and expanding the human-dog partnership and finding new ways to benefit both.

The relationship between people and dogs is unique. Not only do canines provide loyal companionship, but a growing number of dogs work with humans as therapy animals, part of law enforcement, on rescue teams or in support environments.

Sometimes a dog’s work is to help humans recover from dangerous situations, but how do the humans help their canine partners with their own dangerous situations?

Southern Illinois University Carbondale animal science Professor Erin Perry has some ideas.

Perry first realized the need to look out for working dogs when she accompanied her search dog, Pic, in efforts following the Joplin, Missouri tornado more than a decade ago. Pic eventually developed sever liver failure as a result of contaminant exposure during of the search assignment.

“After I almost lost her and as a scientist, I started digging a little bit more into the methods and procedures we use to decontaminate or wash our dogs at the end of a mission like that,” Perry explained. “I discovered there was really no data that really validated the recommendations that were in place at the time.”

She said her experience led her to improve the way working dogs are cared for after their shifts.

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Erin Perry, an associate professor in the SIU School of Agricultural Sciences, uses her dog, Zorro, a FEMA certified search dog, to demonstrate just one of the many types of working dogs during a presentation to a class on Tuesday. The school is leading the way in researching and expanding the human-dog partnership and finding new ways to benefit both.

“I’ve made it a mission that no one else will ever have to suffer that same devastating experience and I am determined to provide evidence-based hygiene and decontamination recommendations for working dogs,” she explained.

Perry’s efforts are rooted in common sense related to hygiene and nutrition.

When people are exposed to potentially toxic conditions such as may be present in the aftermath of a storm or a search-and-rescue operation, they wear a variety of protective gear which they can take off at the end of the shift, prior to showering. Dogs don’t always have that option.

“We could take off our dirty clothes, but dogs can’t take off their fur. Search dogs need specialized procedures, specific types of shampoos and such, to really keep them safe,” she explained.

Perry said her work is trying to identify the most appropriate methods and products for bathing dogs after potential exposures. The goal is to benefit both dog and handler.

“We’re working to make sure the dog is clean and it's not bringing home those contaminants and then getting on the couch or getting on the bed. We’re doing it in a way that is effective, safe for the dog and keeps the dog from potentially bringing home contaminating pathogens,” she explained.

She said the recommendations under development will be especially important given that many working dogs such as those trained as companions for humans with specific medical concerns.

“Often medical service dogs are assigned or that partner with people who have a medical need; maybe they are immune-compromised, and immune compromised situation could be potentially very, very dangerous for them,” she outlined. “We have to make sure that those dogs are safe when they come home.”

After traveling to new places or working in extreme conditions, people also can debrief and find other ways to de-stress following an assignment. Again, canines may not be able to do that and often the stresses show as illnesses, Perry said.

 “These environments where dogs are working are very stressful,” Perry explained. “I’ve seen problems or issues from stress – gastrointestinal problems and issues related to exposure – these issues may be amplified in these disciplines. Part of what we are trying to understand is how we can change or manage their nutrition to prevent some of those problems.”

Perry said her research not only improves the health of working dogs, it also makes them more efficient in that work.

“The work that we do is certainly targeted towards working dogs whose very performance impacts human lives. When those dogs do their jobs that usually means a human's life is on the line,” she said.

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