SIU researchers seek to improve the care and training of working dogs

Erin Perry, left, an associate professor in the School of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University, works with doctoral student Dakota Discepolo and her dog Topa at the brand new Center for Canine Sciences. The center is leading the way in researching and expanding the ancient human-dog partnership and finding new ways to benefit both. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

March 08, 2022

SIU researchers seek to improve the care and training of working dogs

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Erin Perry went to Joplin, Missouri, with her search dog, Pic, to help people who had lost everything. Instead, she nearly lost her beloved four-legged friend to the toxic wreckage of a home improvement store — an experience she applies to her research at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Whether it’s learning how to properly decontaminate search dogs like Pic after working at the scene of a disaster, or teaching other dogs how to spot a deadly fungus before it destroys everything a grain field, the brand new Canine Science Center at Southern University of Illinois is leading the way in researching and expanding the ancient human-dog partnership.

Perry, an associate professor in the School of Agricultural Sciences, focuses on the challenges and dangers faced by working dogs. She conducts her research at the Metabolism & Physiology Center at University Farms, where she and her students work closely with canine subjects to find ways to help them deal with stress in healthy ways, which also benefits their human partners.

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Everyday factors such as travel, temperature, exertion and new environments can combine to stress dogs, leading to poor health and performance, and possibly increased risks for their handlers.

“Service dogs, search and rescue dogs, and military dogs all face stressors associated with travel, the environment, and other hazards,” Perry said. “My research aims to provide solutions to these challenges.

Some of Perry’s research therefore focuses on diet, a key factor in dog health and a common indicator of their ability to handle stress. She is currently experimenting with various fiber supplements and examining the subsequent impacts on microbial changes and other impacts on the gastrointestinal tract of dogs.

Perry guides students through original research projects aimed at finding new opportunities for dogs to render valuable service, as well as ways to better keep them safe while doing so.

A close call

A dog handler for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for more than 15 years, Perry has witnessed first-hand the problems dogs face while traveling or in stressful situations. Such stressors can lead to serious gastrointestinal issues and can negatively impact dogs’ health and ability to perform their duties to their partners.

“If it’s a service dog with a partner who depends on their ability to provide service for a medical disability, that can be dangerous for the human as well,” Perry said.

A personal experience with Pic also underscored the need for dog-specific care measures during a disaster. Called by FEMA to work at the site of the deadly Joplin, Missouri, tornado in 2011, Perry and Pic were tasked with searching for the remains of a home improvement store, where a toxic soup of chemicals – thinners to fertilizer and weed killer paint – had been mixed and dispersed by 200 mph winds.

Although Pic received decontamination measures at the end of each search, she nevertheless began to suffer from liver failure. As a scientist, Perry analyzed the situation and realized that Pic’s disease probably stemmed from the practice of using human-centered decontamination measures on dogs, when dogs actually needed a decontamination adapted to their physiology.

“We could take off our dirty clothes every day, for example,” Perry said. “But dogs can’t take their fur off. We’ve learned that search dogs need specialized procedures, specific types of shampoos, etc., to truly protect them.

Perry’s current research focuses on protecting dogs and people from exposure to hazards in the environments where they work. Although inspired in part by Pic’s situation, the work has the potential to impact anyone who travels with their dog.

“Street chemicals, bacterial or viral pathogens and many other potential toxicants can seriously affect a dog’s health,” Perry said. “This is particularly important considering that dogs and humans share a skin microbial community. Keeping our dogs healthy is also keeping people healthy.

Pic survived his illness.

“It was a close call. We almost lost her,” Perry recalls. “But her near-death experience led to a big improvement in canine decontamination procedures.”

Sniffing out toxins, saving farmers money

Another research project involves PhD student Dakota Discepolo and master’s student Cierra Crowell. Discepolo, from Chicago, and Crowell, from Lincoln, train their dogs to detect vomitoxin (also known as deoxynivalenol, or DON), a mycotoxin that can occur under the right moisture conditions in cereal crops such as corn, wheat or barley. The toxin can be deadly to animals and humans, causing entire fields to be lost during harvesting and testing.

The students teach their dogs – their personal Labrador retriever and German shepherd, respectively – to detect the smell of the toxin in a field, preventing the farmer from harvesting that designated area so that the clean yield of the rest of the field will be saved.

Along the way, they learned to identify the types of traits that good working dogs possess, such as sociability, energy, attention span, and playfulness.

When it comes to biosensors — something engineers and scientists continue to try to perfect — an old dog’s nose, with its 250,000 olfactory cells, is hard to beat, Perry said. And students are excited about the possibilities.

“We’re learning to take this natural partnership between humans and dogs and unfold it in a new way,” Discepolo said.

So far, Crowell and Discepolo have succeeded in “imprinting” the scent of the toxin on dogs, which can now recognize it and signal its presence to humans. The next step is to teach them to identify the scent in the field – literally. The two will work with the dogs as they attempt to identify the toxin in standing cornfields with 3-5 foot accuracy.

“We’re talking about potentially saving farmers millions of dollars,” Perry said. “It’s just another way for dogs and humans to work together to improve each other’s lives.”

Bette C. Alvarado