Hats off to ‘Thoughts of Dog’

Book cover of Thoughts of Dog shows simply drawn yellow dog with stuffed elephant

Thoughts of Dog is more than a book or a calendar. It’s a peek into the mind of a loving, sweet, sometimes silly golden retriever and their human. The dog, who is nameless, has a constant companion named Sebastian (Sebastian is a stuffed elephant). Dog also has a human of course.

That human is named Matt Nelson.

And they are simply brilliant.

Nelson & dog capture the human-dog relationship perfectly. They’re poignant, laugh-out-loud funny and sardonic in turns. Always spot-on.

Nelson got started sharing his uncanny dog wisdom a couple of years ago (don’t know HOW I missed it …) with “We Rate Dogs.” You can see some examples on this blog post: 50 Times People Asked To Rate Their Dogs, And Got Hilarious Results.

Calendar page showing dog saying "Today I waited patiently while the human checked little boxes to try to change the world"I first heard of Thoughts of Dog when a friend shared a page from last year’s calendar. I immediately ordered the 2021 calendar.

Highly recommended whenever you need a lift or a laugh.

Do Dogs Miss Their Friends?

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back
I miss my sister (sometimes)

Koala and Deni left Montana a few weeks ago, and recently a friend asked me whether Cali misses Koala. He then jumped to the next level and asked whether dogs understand that someone has left temporarily versus having “crossed the rainbow bridge.”

Those are pretty big existential questions for dogs to consider, but I think they are up to the challenge.

First, does Cali miss Koala? I think that she misses Deni more and that there are lots of aspects of being an only dog that Cali thoroughly enjoys. Cali has regular play dates with her pal Maisy — and the two of them play better together than the pack of three did. Cali always gets to choose where we walk, as well as where we stop so she can sniff. She gets all of the dog eggs at breakfast and can have her snuffle mat whenever she wants (within reason).

But yes, I think she does miss Koala. Life is quieter and more boring when Koala is not here, and Cali rarely has a playmate. Not that Koala is always the nicest playmate, but the girls do often have a lot of fun together. When Koala is not pulling on Cali’s tail, that is, or scheming to steal her treat ball.

I also think that Cali understands that Koala and Deni have gone somewhere else — and will come back. Cali goes to the airport to see them off; they are healthy; and, I am guessing, Koala lords it over Cali for days before a trip: I get to go on an airplane and I get eggs in the Delta lounge and I get to meet the security team … that kind of thing. Cali knows that Koala isn’t simply ghosting her.

When Jana died after a period with many health problems, Cali’s reaction was completely different. She knew that Jana was gone. She cried and moped and grieved for days.

So, yes, I think dogs do understand different types of separations and have appropriate reactions to temporary versus permanent ones. Though if she did think that Koala was ghosting her, I do not know what an appropriate reaction would look like …

Please leash your dog

Golden Cali and Lab Koala enjoy a fall hike. On leash.
Hiking on leash is fun!

On a single walk last week, Cali and I were approached by two unleashed dogs. One, a young, friendly, waggy mix, telegraphed youthful enthusiasm and friendliness and even wary Cali was happy to say hello. The second was far more territorial, larger and, to both of us, a bit scary. Neither listened to their human’s call. Nothing bad happened, but things could so easily and so quickly have gone wrong.

Those two were dogs I’d never seen before, but on our usual walking route, there are many frequent flyers. Or runners. The dogs who “always” stay in their yards … except for every single time I have walked by. The ones who growl menacingly when we approach — even where we already know to cross the street and make a wide detour. Walking in our beautiful neighborhood park, we’ve met multiple off-leash dogs, including the young golden who never fails to growl at Cali. Always off leash.

We’re often greeted by loose dogs, gamboling about in their (unfenced) front yards or “just” going from home to car or car to home. Doesn’t matter. During that 30-seconds of freedom, terrible things can happen. I live on what passes for a busy street in Missoula, and too often to count, across-the-street neighbor dogs, heading to the car, have been distracted by Cali (on leash). These dogs don’t look both ways before plunging into traffic.

It’s not only the danger to the loose dog that bothers me.

The dynamic between a leashed dog and an unleashed dog is very different from two leashed dogs meeting, though I generally try to keep my distance from unfamiliar leashed dogs as well.

When an unleashed dog approaches, the leashed dog can’t get away. Even when the approaching dog seems friendly, one of the dogs could decide there’s something unsavory about the other and the encounter can turn ugly, fast. Or maybe the leashed dog is inherently anxious — or dog aggressive. Or simply having a bad day. The owners of the unleashed dog have no way of knowing, even if they’re 100% certain that their dog is universally friendly, cheerful, and loving toward all of dogkind. And humankind. (Note: this is not possible; not even Cali is that perfect.)

Unable to escape the oncoming dog, the leashed dog’s only recourse is aggression — a growl, maybe a lunge.

But, if both dogs are leashed, either human can quickly head away. The dogs can get out of one another’s range. Ironically, with both dogs leashed, neither feels trapped by the encounter. Neither feels trapped because the encounter is avoidable.

Dogs don’t need to say hello to every dog they see. Mostly, they don’t want to either.

Cali is very specific about which dogs she wants to greet. Goldens and most Labs are ok. Anyone smaller than she is, preferably female, is ok. Doodles of all sizes, though, are out. She’s got a bizarre set of rules, true. But that’s her right. She doesn’t have to be social with anyone on four feet. By leashing your dog, you keep your dog safe and respect both dogs’ right to choose not to say hello.

When the approaching dog is attached to a human, both dogs can choose: They can stay close to Mom or head out to say hi.

The same is true when humans approach without dogs. Some dogs want to greet every human on the planet (hi, Cali!); others do not. If Cali weren’t leashed, she’d run up to every single person we encountered.

The human has choices too, when the dogs are leashed. While I choose not to let Cali get close to unfamiliar dogs, I confess to letting her greet humans who seem amenable (which means they look at her, talk to her, reach out a hand to the nose that is straining toward them). But when humans seem immune to her charms, we give them a lot of space (who’d want to meet those people anyhow?).

Please leash your dog. Cali will thank you. And your dog will be safer.

Default Behaviors

A back view of golden Cali and lab Koala as they watch the human prepare their dinner
Both dogs sit while they supervise meal prep

In a recent conversation about puppy training, Deni mentioned trainers that “teach puppies false beliefs” about humans. One example she gave was that some puppy trainers “teach puppies that they can control” what the person does — by their own behavior.

I thought about that for a minute, then responded that I didn’t think that was what was happening. Instead, I describe that as teaching default behaviors.

Cali tries her magic sit by the back door
Cali hopes that the magic sit (or lie down) will produce results — even when no humans are nearby

My example was the “Magic Sit.”

I don’t see that as teaching puppies that they can control the human’s behavior (though that belief may be naive …). I describe it more in behavioral terms: The puppy learns that good things happen when she sits. If her trainers or human family members are consistent, the puppy also learns that those same good things do not happen when she jumps, whines, paws, or does other unwanted behaviors.

If puppy training starts very young (3-4 weeks of age), as it does for some service- and guide-dog puppies, the puppy catches on very quickly. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll have a tiny puppy who sits as hard as she can, placing herself right in front of you, to show you how good she is being. In hopes of getting a cookie, of course. This is where Deni’s reading of the situation comes in. The puppy (and older dog) does try to use this “good” behavior to get rewards on demand.

Who’s in charge here?

But that’s not how it is supposed to work. The human is supposed to retain some modicum of control. (Hey, it’s a nice idea, right?)

If the human is paying attention, they will ask the puppy to sit in many situations: Before going out an open door; while the human is getting meals ready for the puppy; for grooming; when greeting visitors or returning family members. You get the idea.

When the sit is paired with predictable situations and equally predictable rewards, the puppy internalizes the idea that the thing she wants — dinner, access to her yard, attention — arrives when she sits. And only when she sits. So sitting becomes the “default” behavior — what the puppy tries when she wants something the human has or controls.

Soon, the human doesn’t even have to ask the pup / dog to sit. When we’re about to get dinner for Cali and Koala, a meaningful look is enough to get them to sit at the kitchen doorway, quiet and not underfoot.

Unfortunately, most humans have a tough time being consistent. And puppies will always remember very fondly that one time (or one hundred times) she got rewarded when she jumped, barked, or whatever. And try it again. And again.

Dogs are pretty good at getting us to do what they want and need. Luckily for us, though, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

If your dog’s usual way of getting you to play with her or feed her or let her out is too rough or pushy, start teaching her a new way to ask. (Enlist a positive trainer if you need some help getting started.)

Once the old way stops working, the dog will eventually stop trying it. Remember, though, if your dog has spent years successfully getting you to play with and pet her by jumping up on you, for example, it could take a very long time to convince her that that no longer works.

Good luck!

Dogs (Back) in the White House

A photo of Major, a German Shepherd, is surrounded by drawings of flags and a podium

After four long years, there are once again dogs in the White House! That’s a clear sign of better times ahead. No one can effectively perform a stressful job without at least one dog by their side.

President and Dr. Biden have two German Shepherd dogs. While Cali and I think they ought to have at least one Golden Retriever, we agree that GSDs are better than no dogs.

Champ, the senior dog, might weigh in on whether the White House is preferable to the vice-president’s residence, One Observatory Circle, where he lived as a young dog.

Major, not quite 3 years old, was adopted from a shelter near the Bidens’ home in Delaware in 2018 as a young puppy. He’s the first shelter dog to reside in the White House. The shelter has celebrated their young alum’s fame and fortune, throwing him an Indoguration party and launching a children’s book dedicated to Major and his big brother, Champ.

Pets in the White House are a longstanding tradition; you can find a full list on the website of the Presidential Pet Museum. While mostly dogs and a few cats, some presidents had more unusual pets, such as President Hoover’s son’s alligators.

According to the New York Times, presidential dogs have helped former leaders through some tough times and helped them improve their image.

As anyone who lives with a dog knows, that’s just the beginning. Life with dogs is just better. And I certainly feel a lot better knowing that Champ and Major will be helping their humans run things from now on.

 

Take It Downstairs!

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When they get amped up playing inside — in the living room or dining room, to be specific — we tell them to “take it downstairs.” And they DO.

Downstairs is a mostly finished basement with a large room we inaccurately call the TV room. Sure, there’s a TV there, and a sofa. There’s also an open space and an overflowing toy box. And usually a half-dozen toys scattered around the floor. And, of course, a large dog bed. So it’s really the dog playroom, where we are sometimes allowed to watch TV. While cuddling one or more dogs on the sofa.

They are allowed to tug and play growl and wrestle and roll around to their hearts’ delight — downstairs. Not upstairs, where small rooms house my nice(r) furniture, my books, breakables …

In the summer, I have been known to shoo them outdoors when they start playing, but, as Koala points out (hourly): It’s Montana out there.

What’s impressive about the girls’ “taking it downstairs” is that their most energetic play sessions seem to coincidentally coincide with our phone or zoom conversations. Even so, even though they know we are distracted, they’ll take their toys and head downstairs.

A few minutes later, panting, happy dogs will reappear and settle down on the living room rugs for a nap. A tired dog is a good dog, after all.

Cali and the Magic Sit

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Cali believes in the magic sit. The magic sit is what causes humans to pet puppies — when they stop jumping and sit, magically, a treat and lots of fuss and petting happens. The magic sit is a great way for puppies to get cookies in other situations as well, as little Cali discovered those many years ago … It works when friends visit and she wants them to pet her and admire her toy, for example.

Her faith in the magic sit has never wavered.

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell my it is time to stop working
Quitting time

When it’s past dinner time and the clueless humans are still staring at their stupid boxes, a magic sit (often paired with some strategically dripped drool) can produce dinner.

When the humans are fixing dinner, the magic sit makes the bowl appear on the floor, full of delicious food.

When deployed at the back door, the magic sit can cause the door to open in a way that jumping and whining rarely do.

When the humans are eating breakfast, a magic sit (or occasionally the magic lie-down variation) can make a small portion of eggs for dogs appear.

Cali’s faith is so strong that she often deploys the magic sit when it’s not time for dinner or time to go out. She faces into the kitchen, positioned between the dining room and kitchen, as if waiting for dinner. Or she sits by the back door, gazing steadily at her back yard, tantalizingly close. But her humans are not there. They might be behind her in the dining room or in the living room or even upstairs. It doesn’t matter, Cali thinks. The magic sit will work.

So she sits. And hopes. And waits. Believing in the power of the magic sit to get her … what, exactly? We may never know.

Koala Struggles with Ethics

Golden Retriever Cali gently bats and noses her treat ball to get the kibble out.

Koala faces daily ethical dilemmas, as do many dogs. She’s a highly educated dog who loves to show off her smarts. She also tends to follow rules. But something about the puppy lunch routine is her ethical undoing.

The routine is predictable: Deni gets the girls their puppy lunch each day. Koala brings the treat balls upstairs; Deni fills them; and everyone heads downstairs for PL, as we’ve begun calling it (as if they girls don’t understand …). After PL, Koala puts both treat balls into their little box, and she gets an a cookie as payment for her work.

A daily dilemma

Black Lab Koala nudges her orange treat toy to empty and eat the kibble that’s inside

For a while, Koala did daily battle with her inner bad dog.

She’d quickly finish emptying her treat ball.

But Cali works more slowly. Koala couldn’t stand it. Cali had a treat ball and she didn’t! She began plotting. Each day, she’d try to steal Cali’s. She had to do it without attracting Deni’s attention, of course.

Cali got crafty. She took to batting her treat ball around a very small, sheltered spot. She was on a dog bed, up against a wall, and hemmed in by furniture, so there was only one open access point.

Deni ultimately caught on. She began giving Cali her treat ball inside the office (where Cali continued using the sheltered space) — and banned Koala from the office until Cali finished.

Well. Koala hated that. She’d whine outside the door in frustration.

Cali gets revenge

Cali, however, quickly figured out how to exploit the situation. It takes her longer and longer to slooowwwly empty her treat ball. She then tucks it under a paw, snuggles it gently, and takes a brief nap. All while Koala rages whiningly outside the door.

When Cali has tired of toying with Koala, she gently nudges Deni to let her know that she’s done. Koala then puts the balls away and gets a treat.

Deni has discovered that, even if she’s not there, Koala won’t go into the office to steal Cali’s treat ball. Koala is generally very good about following rules, even rules she hates.

But she will find Deni and badger her until Deni goes downstairs, takes the ball, and lets Koala put the balls away.

I don’t understand …

A related example: Let’s say the girls have finished their treat toys, and Deni is nowhere to be found. So I ask Koala to put the balls away. She knows perfectly well what to do; she does it every day. She puts other things away, too, like toys in the toy box.

Yet, it never fails: She flings the ball down outside of the box. Over and over. And demands a cookie each time. When I don’t give her one, instead repeating, “Please put the ball away, in the box, Koala,” she huffs, puffs, scowls, flings it harder, insists that she has no idea what I want her to do.

I figured out a way to cut this tantrum short. Today, each time she flung the ball anywhere except the box, I calmly handed a cookie to Cali, a willing sidekick in this exercise. I then asked Koala (again) to put the ball away.

Two Cali cookies later, amid disbelieving looks (and many more huff and puffs) from Koala, the ball was in the box. Koala finally got her cookie.

When a good dog behaves badly

Koala is generally a very good dog. So, why does she do bad things when she clearly knows what she’s supposed to do? Who knows? Why does anyone? Maybe it’s just a game the girls play. Or just sisters tormenting each other. When Koala heads back to Florida, she may miss this daily battle. Cali will; she doesn’t even get PL when Deni isn’t here. She does get her snuffle mat, though.

Treat Everyone Like a Dog

cover of Treat Everyone Like a Dog with a happy cattle dog puppy

While I do think that I’d like to come back as the dog of some of my friends and family members, this column isn’t about that. It’s actually a book review!

Karen London, a well-known (& wonderful) dog trainer’s book, to be specific: Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life. An added bonus: Patricia McConnell wrote the foreword.

It’s really a book about changing behavior, which is a topic I write about a lot in my real life, where I work for a bunch of online learning companies. Corporate training is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. Parenting is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. And dog training is pretty much about … shaping and changing behavior.

London does a brilliant job of explaining how to change specific behaviors (in dogs), why the techniques work — and how to apply them to similar situations with humans, whether those humans are your children, spouse, coworkers, friends … It sounds manipulative, but it’s no more (or less) so than the tactics we’re probably already using — and which are not working.

London talks about motivation, using positive reinforcement to motivate as well as reward, and why fear of failure can be so crippling in influencing what dogs (and people) do. Her emphasis is on positive methods of changing behavior and she draws a clear contrast between the shift to positive approaches in dog training — and the lack of a similar shift in human educational and workplace settings.

The book will teach you about things like the jackpot effect and intermittent reinforcement and why it’s so hard to change behavior when a dog (or human) is sometimes rewarded for the very behavior you’re trying to eradicate.

The book is filled with funny and familiar stories and examples. It’s got to be the best book on learning theory I have ever read. Her section on “learning styles” initially had me worried, but her take on it makes far more sense than the thoroughly debunked idea of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners! She talks about the value of short, spaced lessons, rather than trying to learn a new skill or complex material all at once — another topic I encounter over and over again in my work.

There’s a lot of great information packed into this book. I suggest reading and digesting it chapter by chapter — and trying out some of the strategies on your dog (or your kid!). You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah!