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"Shelter Me" Celebrates the Beauty of Shelter Dogs

posted May 24, 2012, 5:49 PM by Charles Henderson   [ updated May 25, 2012, 1:18 AM ]

Steven Latham's PBS documentary takes a positive approach to shelter dogs. It's currently airing throughout the U.S. -- and hitting big on social media.
Shelter Me, hosted by actress Katherine Heigl, is told in three parts: the rescue of two dogs off the streets, prison inmates training service dogs for disabled people, and Iraq War veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder whose service dogs literally saved their lives.

Every day we're bombarded with messages about dogs who are doomed without our help. We see commercials showing animals being rescued from horrible situations, sad faces peering from behind kennel doors, and so on. Does this raise awareness? Well, yes, in a way -- but it also leaves many of us feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

Steven Latham believes there's a better way to encourage people to reach out and help animals in need, and he’s created a documentary to prove it.

Latham, the producer and director of Shelter Me, grew up in a family of animal lovers, and he's always felt a very deep connection to the animals who shared his life. Once he settled down, he says, "The first thing I did was adopt a dog, and another, and another." His home is also filled with a rotating array of foster dogs -- three of them at the moment. His experience working with shelters and fostering was the genesis of the project.

"I saw all these really big-hearted people who care about the animals, and I thought about all the people trying to improve lives of pets. I saw the constant stream of animals coming in and asked, 'Why is this still an epidemic?'" he says.

His "aha" moment came when he realized that shelter pets have been marketed the wrong way. It's always about pathos and gloom, he says, but he feels these animals should be celebrated, not pitied. "I think that change comes from a positive place, not a negative place. Instead of 'Look how wretched these animals are; now give us your money,' why not say, 'These beautiful animals are wonderful and they'll be a great part of your family' instead?"

Latham has worked with PBS for about 13 years, but this project has the most personal meaning and significance of any documentary he's made. "It's very rare that as a filmmaker you see your vision carried out exactly as you planned it," he says. "It was really about empathy, about connecting."

"The first story happened right in front of us. What's most important is that it dispels the rumors that stray dogs are unpredictable. We take them into the shelter and follow their journey through the shelter. This was so important, because this is the first time many people have ever seen the inside of a shelter, to see the care that goes on there. That was really the foundation to set the tone for the project.”

In the second story, he says, "What I really responded to was all the lives the shelter pet touches on his or her journey," from the shelter workers to the inmates to the disabled people who end up having wonderful service dogs.

The third story had the whole crew in tears, Latham says. "These veterans were a little reluctant to go on camera because their story was so painful. What got them to say yes was that they could reach other veterans who were also suffering."

Tattoo, an inmate who has been incarcerated for 20 years at the California Institution for Women in Southern California, training her shelter dog, Alto. Every woman who has participated in the canine program and then was released, has never returned to jail for any crimes. That's right -- ZERO recidivism.

Latham hopes Shelter Me will also help the public appreciate shelter workers and raise morale -- and get people to actually enter shelters, whether they come to volunteer, drop off newspapers or blankets, or adopt an animal. "There's a stereotype that shelters are scary places, that shelter animals are dangerous. But these workers are wonderful and these animals have been failed by people."

There's more to Shelter Me than just a documentary, though. Latham's production company is also using social media to help make the goal of no more homeless pets a reality. 

 Sharing shelter-pet success stories is apparently a big hit. The Shelter Me Facebook page has more than 10,000 likes, and it's only been up for a couple of weeks. 

Latham hopes to be able to air future Shelter Me documentaries as quarterly specials on PBS. "We're researching our next two stories right now," he says. "We are 100 percent in preproduction, and as soon as we get funding we're going into production. We are in the midst of finalizing deals with other sponsors." 

Speaking of sponsors, Latham is quick to praise the pet food company Halo, which sponsored the first episode. Because he knew Halo does a lot to support shelters, he contacted CEO Steve Marton to see if he would back Shelter Me. "From the first time I discussed it, he expressed interest. This project would not be possible without them; they've been unbelievably supportive. I love that this project has stayed pure and authentic because of great partners."

Halo co-owner Ellen DeGeneres is also doing her part to support Shelter Me. She's going to spread the news about the documentary through her social media presence.

Check out the Shelter Me trailer:

"Shelter Me" Video

Shelter Me is currently airing on PBS stations throughout the U.S., and broadcast dates are listed on the Shelter Me website. If your local PBS station doesn't appear in that list, I'd encourage you to contact them and see when and if they plan to air the documentary. Latham says a lot of stations are definitely airing the program, but the information isn't on the schedule yet. The DVD is currently available at, and Shelter Me will also be available on iTunes and Netflix later this year.

Jane Kelley, May 24, 2012,


Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs

posted May 15, 2012, 10:54 PM by Charles Henderson   [ updated May 15, 2012, 11:04 PM ]

Julie Hecht,  Applied ethologist
Dog owners ascribe guilt to dogs, and we explored this attribution with pet dogs and their owners using a questionnaire and experiment. The questionnaire found that the majority of owners perceive dog behavior as guilty in certain situations and believe that dogs know when they have committed a disapproved act. As a novel finding, the questionnaire revealed that dog presentation of guilty behavior could lead owners to scold dogs less.

The experiment aimed to investigate the owner-reported anecdote that dogs sometimes greet owners displaying guilty behavior. Owners claim to be unaware of a dog's misdeed and assert it is the guilty behavior that informs them of the dog's infraction. We studied whether dogs that were disobedient in owners’ absences showed associated behaviors of guilt (ABs) upon owners’ return to a room. We also assessed whether owners could determine their dog's disobedience by relying solely on the dog's greeting behavior.

Behavioral analysis revealed no significant difference between obedient and disobedient dogs in their display of ABs after having the opportunity to break a rule in owners’ absences. Analyses at the individual level, however, revealed a significant increase in CROSS SITUATIONAL presentation of ABs only by dogs that transgressed in owners’ absences. While owners appeared able to determine whether or not their dogs ate in their absences, a subset of owners—those whose decisions were most likely based solely on dog greeting behavior and not earlier experiment-generated cues—were not better than chance in their determinations. Taken together, our findings suggest that dog presentation of ABs during greetings is not necessarily a reliable indicator whether or not a dog engaged in a misdeed. The investigated phenomenon appears to be very sensitive to the social condition, which includes owner prior experience with their dog in specific contexts.

What's lost in translation from research to headlines

posted Oct 13, 2009, 12:54 AM by Charles Henderson   [ updated Apr 22, 2012, 3:57 PM ]

 When science meets media
What's lost in translation from research to headlines
Published on August 10, 2009 by Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D. in Minds of Animals

All of us working in the behavioral sciences face a similar paradox when our research gets featured in the traditional media (i.e., not an abstruse journal read by forty of our colleagues): while it is surprising and delightful to have attention paid to our work, we may feel some apprehension too, since misunderstandings about the work fly fast and furious.

When one's research subject is as familiar a creature as the domestic dog, the fast-and-furiousness is upped a notch. I was reminded of this last week, when I read an article in the New York Times about recent genetic research on African village dogs. "(T)heir samples, "the paper reported, "...have called into question a finding on the origin of dog domestication from wolves."

Wow! I was stunned. Dogs are not in fact ancestors of wolves (or a wolf-like canid)? The most accepted story of dog domestication is that a split from wolves occurred anywhere from 14,000 years ago (as far back as archeological evidence goes) to even 145,000 years ago (per mitochondrial DNA samples). Most researchers believe that dogs began loitering near early human settlements, scavenging, and being tolerated by the human population (and sometimes eaten by them). More tame than their forebears, those who were most agreeable to the local humans may have been allowed to live, and reproduce...and after some time, we began breeding them ourselves to suit us.

Reading on in the Times, I picked up a skeletal outline of the study. A Cornell researcher named Adam Boyko and his colleagues sampled the genetic diversity of African village dogs, and found that they were as diverse genetically as a previous sample of East Asian dogs. That high level of diversity was considered to be argument for a Eurasian origin of dogs.

I did a little scanning of other news reports. Discovery News added, "Modern humans originated in Africa, and now it looks like man's best friend first emerged there too."

Then I looked up the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For anyone not comfortable with mtDNA, microsatellite, and SNP marker genetic measures, it is not an easy read. But the authors' stances on the above points are clear:

On the matter of whether they have "called into question a finding on the origin of dog domestication from wolves", here's Boyko et al: "Dogs were probably domesticated from wolves". Hmm.

How about "now it looks like man's best friend" emerged from Africa? Boyko et al.: "we do not suggest that Africa is actually the site of dog domestication." In a quote in a much better National Geographic article, he elaborates: "...because there are no gray wolves there [in Africa]."

What has happened here? The same kind of thing that happened when a study of mine, on the prompt for the familiar "guilty look" in dogs (discussed more in this post), got picked up on the wires. Many reporters correctly interpreted the results (some by reading the actual journal piece!, bless them, and not just the press release), which were that "disobedience" didn't arouse any more guilty looks than "obedience" did. Instead, owner scolding was the prompt to the biggest "guilty look". That is, the guilty look may be a learned response to cues from the owner that the dog is about to be, or is being, punished.

Some news reports, however, would have you believe otherwise. " 'Guilty look' in dogs mostly owners' fantasy, study finds", one headline declared. Others claimed that the guilty look was either "a myth", "all in your head", or "the owner's fault". My favorite came from FOX News, who trumpeted: "Dogs don't feel guilt at all".

I got plenty of emails from indignant dog owners: how could I say that dogs don't have a guilty look? Here's a picture! Or informing me that their dogs clearly felt guilt, so I should reconsider my results...

Given that I was using the very existence of the guilty look as a premise for my study, the claims of its mythic status were simply wrong. And I also say nothing in the piece about whether dogs can or do feel guilt: I was just studying what prompted the look (which does give many owners the impression that dogs feel guilt...perhaps inappropriately).

In the case of the domestication study, most news articles I saw got it right. But so much research relies on nuances, well discussed in the journal articles but overlooked in summaries of the work, that small misrepresentations constantly occur. Often these snowball, as in the guilty-look study, into ridiculous claims. (I kept waiting for the climactic "Dogs have no conscience at all!" headline...)

It is too much to ask everyone to read every journal article before forming a judgment of what the research is about. And that is what the many very good science journalists do well: they distill the essence from the article and make it readable to a non-expert. But do take what you read with a grain of salt.

Even this post.

Inferring dog domestication history

posted Oct 13, 2009, 12:53 AM by Charles Henderson   [ updated May 2, 2012, 6:18 PM ]

Complex population structure in African village dogs and its implications for inferring dog domestication history

High genetic diversity of East Asian village dogs has recently been used to argue for an East Asian origin of the domestic dog. However, global village dog genetic diversity and the extent to which semiferal

village dogs represent distinct, indigenous populations instead of admixtures of various dog breeds has not been quantified. Understanding these issues is critical to properly reconstructing the timing,

number, and locations of dog domestication. To address these questions, we sampled 318 village dogs from 7 regions in Egypt, Uganda, and Namibia, measuring genetic diversity >680 bp of the mitochondrial D-loop, 300 SNPs, and 89 microsatellite markers.

Research Study: Penn Vet Working Dog Center

posted Oct 13, 2009, 12:52 AM by Charles Henderson   [ updated May 2, 2012, 7:53 PM ]

Research Study: Puppy-raising Foster Programs
Monday, Apr 02 2012

Dr. Cynthia Otto of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center is conducting a research study of puppy-raising foster programs for working dogs.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center is hosting its third conference:

“The Art and Science of Training: Dog & Handler”

April 8-11, 2013, Purina Event Center, St. Louis, MO

The goal for this conference is to explore training from an open-minded perspective and include leading trainers and scientists from all disciplines to bring the best ideas and practices to the table. This conference will incorporate didactic presentations and hands-on sessions with the goal of arming attendees with the best each discipline has to offer to improve performance.

As leaders in the canine community, we invite you to attend. 
Details on the conference can be found at
For more information about Penn Vet Working Dog Center:

Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Advancing Detection Dogs through Research & Education

  • Serve as a consortium to unite programs that employ detection dogs to benefit society throughout the US and around the world.
  • Collect and analyzes genetic, behavioral and physical data; and integrates the latest scientific information in order to optimize the success and well-being of detection dogs.
Prepare for future demands and facilitate research by developing a detection dog breeding/training program that will implement, test, and disseminate the knowledge gained.
Established in 2007, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, is part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine and serves as a national research and development center for detection dogs.

With the United States national security under constant threat from attacks, detection dogs are still the best tool that we have to detect and mitigate potential threats. Search dogs are also critical for the detection of victims of natural and manmade disasters.

Our goal is to increase collaborative research, scientific assessment, and shared knowledge and application of the newest scientific findings and veterinary expertise to optimize production of valuable detection dogs.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center's Focus

Practical Focus
  • Determine optimal strategies for screening, rearing, and training detection dogs.
  • Provide tools including genetic material, breeding stock, and semen.
  • Design physical health screening and conditioning programs
Academic Focus

Leverage expertise in the following to generate advances in detection dogs:

  • canine genetics
  • orthopedics
  • nutrition
  • behavior
  • rehabilitation
  • emergency medicine
  • reproduction
  • clinical trials



Societal Focus
  • Collaboration with successful community based programs to involve prisons and youth-at-risk programs in the puppy socialization and early training of the dogs from our program.
  • Enhance the ability to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center's Team
Cynthia M. Otto, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVECC
Director, Associate Professor of Critical Care |

Dr. Otto, a member of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 from 1994 to 2010, began monitoring the health and behavior of Urban Search and Rescue canines in October of 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. This work inspired her to establish the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

She has also been involved in disaster medicine as a member of the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team – 2 since1999.

Dr. Otto is a board-certified emergency and critical care veterinarian and a tenured associate professor of Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine and was named Pennsylvania’s 2002 “Veterinarian of the Year” and received an Alumni Recognition Award in 2006 and the OSU Distinguished Alumus Award in 2008 from the Ohio State University.

She is actively involved in dog sports (flyball, agility, and tricks), and also provides pet therapy in the Philadelphia area, with her rescued Bichon mix, Dolce.

Kathleen M. Kelsey, MS, MBA
Research Coordinator |

Kathleen graduated from the University of Missouri with an MS in Animal Science and her MBA from Columbia College. Before joining the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, she worked with Purina Mills providing nutritional programs for dog owners across the Midwest.

She has been involved with Urban Search and Rescue since 2003 as a Canine Search Specialist with Missouri Task Force One. Her experience as a trainer combined with her interest in research drew her to the mission of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Kathleen continues to deploy with Missouri Task Force One with her current partner, an American Bull Dog Mix, ChicoDog. She is also training her GSD, Zach, in Human Remains Detection and is enjoying the new sport of Nosework with her retired USAR partner, a Dutch Shepherd named Calvary.

Megan E. Brown
Research Assistant

Megan graduated cum laude in 2009 from West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Psychology. It was there she became interested in veterinary medicine and research and decided to pursue a career as a veterinary assistant.

She joined the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in the summer of 2010 and has been involved with the various projects at the center since.

When not working on data for one of the studies or as a veterinary assistant, she enjoys her 7 animals: 2 dogs, Marley & Fez; 4 cats, Lynx, Lumen, Lily and Mia; and a ball python named Sheldon.

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