Dogsheep

Black Lab Koala relaxes on a dog bed
Would a Koala-wool blanket keep us warm in a Montana winter?

We all know about sheepdogs — dogs whose job it is (or was) to herd sheep, protect flocks, and herd small children … but what about dogsheep?

A recent New York Times article describes an ancient dog-human relationship: Coast Salish peoples, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, kept large numbers of small dogs … for their fur. The dogs were sheared like sheep (not killed for their fur), and the fur was used, along with fibers from goats and other animals, to make wool for weaving. The dog fur strengthened the yarn.

This is an intriguing possibility. Research indicates that these dogs, like their humans, ate a diet made up primarily of seafood. The dogs ate a lot of salmon, anchovies, and other Pacific fishes — much like Koala’s modern-day diet. Koala has a gorgeous thick, glossy coat. She appears to have far too much of this luxurious fur, as she leaves copious quantities of it … well, everywhere. Perhaps we should be gathering it and knitting it into warm blankets.

There’s another piece of this article that is interesting: The dogs were often buried with their humans or in the same burial grounds, and some graves are as much as 5,000 years old. As researchers dug into the evidence of the dog-human relationships, they realized that Coast Salish raised and bred animals far earlier than many history books reveal.

Unfortunately, the small woolly dog breed no longer seems to exist. As the NYT says, “with colonization” came imported textiles and reduced demand for the local wool. Though who knows? The recent re-discovery of New Guinea singing dogs offers some hope that a “lost” ancient breed could still survive … somewhere.

Shift Work

Both dogs are on duty to supervise meal prep

We’ve finally figured it out.

Cali and Koala have odd habits. For instance, one of them checks in with me if I fail to get up to minister to their needs by 6:30 am. That’s necessary because, although one or both dogs are usually curled up in their dog beds when I go to sleep, they’re not there when I wake. Or at least not both of them. Cali usually strolls in from the living room when my alarm goes off. Koala often makes it upstairs by the time I have let Cali outside.

Similar oddities occur when we are watching TV. Deni and I are on the sofa. Koala is often there as well, instructing us on where to massage her. Then, she’ll get off the sofa. And … moments later, Cali appears. She sometimes even allows us to cuddle her.

The other day, it finally dawned on me: They’re working shifts.

Someone is on duty at nearly all times to keep the needy humans occupied. Occasionally they both manage to creep off somewhere for a nap on a sofa. Either sofa will do, but they rarely share. Shift change can be subtle, but I figured it out when their timing was exact and, as Koala handed us off to Cali, they gave each other a little nod.

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

Cali is generally responsible for getting me away from the computer as dinner time approaches (or is about to approach in the next hour or two). Koala is in charge of the morning walk.

Koala excels at keeping us to the schedule and ensuring that we don’t forget our daily chores — putting kibble in the balls for puppy lunch, setting up the snuffle mats, walks of course, and meal preparation. Both are at hand to supervise meal prep; it’s far too important a task to risk errors.

They seem to take turns at entertaining the humans, but Cali enjoys the task more and puts her whole heart into it. She especially enjoys running in circles while playing keep-away with her ball, just to see how long it takes to make the human dizzy. Koala, in contrast, is clearly just doing her job when she halfheartedly runs after a tennis ball, counting on the silly human becoming distracted well before Koala has to actually pick the thing up in her mouth and, ugh, return it to the human. Who is only going to throw it again anyhow. Why?

When Koala heads back to Florida in January, Cali will have to work overtime to keep me in line. As will Koala; I am sure that corralling Deni is more than a full-time job. I guess we need to be understanding when they steal an extra nap on the sofa now and again, while they still have the luxury of shift work.

 

Just Watching the World Go By

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the living room, peering out a large window

Dogs just want to watch the world go by. And interact with it sometimes. Some dog owners clearly understand that!

A brown dog peers through a rectangular hole in a wooden fence
Photos by Ken Gagne

My first encounter with the idea of “fence dogs” came while my friend Ken was spending a few weeks in Missoula this summer. The fence between his AirBnB and the neighboring yard featured an odd window. The purpose of this opening quickly became clear on his first morning there, when a fuzzy canine head appeared.

It turned out that there were three “fence dogs” who liked to visit, supervise the goings-on next door, get nose scratches, Golden retriever Cali looks at the two dogs peering through a fence windowand occasionally bring Ken a tennis ball to inspect.

On a visit to Ken, Cali “met” the fence dogs — and probably wondered why her fence does not have such nice windows.

Several weeks after he’d left Missoula, I was reminded of Ken and the fence dogs when I saw an article about a family’s creative approach to letting their dog watch the world go by.

Then, just last week, I saw an even funnier post. These dogs apparently spy primarily on their mom’s comings and goings, and they have to line up just right with their viewing portals.

Cali, and occasionally Koala, also enjoy watching the world. They use the large window in my living room that looks out on the driveway — and gives them a great view of the road. Cali grumbles at people walking past, escalating to irate vocalizations when a dog dares to walk on her sidewalk. She looks out sadly, staring me right in the face, whenever I back out of the driveway in a dogless car.

Golden retriever Cali peers out a large windowCali just loves watching what’s going on, and dog-height windows were an appealing feature when I first saw what became our home.

She adopted this space immediately. I briefly put a bench with several plants in “her” window, partially blocking the view, and she let me know that this was unacceptable. Very unhappy, she paced, tried to peer out, gave me dirty looks. I soon moved the bench.

I don’t like walking past yards where dogs fence fight or go ballistic, barking and lunging as I pass, especially if the fence is mostly open. But I think there is a balance. For dogs who can handle the stimulation (and who are supervised and brought indoors when they bark at neighbors), a fence window (or an actual window) is a great idea! Dogs are curious about their world and, for the most part, their lives are contained. Many dogs spend a lot of time at home with no access to see or even smell the outdoors. If we can offer them a way to watch the world, why not?

The Risks of Obesity in Dogs (& Cats)

A once-a-year treat for fit (not fat) dogs!

The Morris Foundation, which runs the lifetime golden retriever study that Cali participates in, has also released new and updated findings about the health impacts of obesity on dogs and cats. First is the shocking statistic that in the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, as many as two-thirds of dogs and cats are obese! Cats are slightly more likely than dogs to be obese.

This contributes to many, many severe health problems and can drastically reduce lifespan. Some are surprising:

  • Inflammation, which affects many diseases, but is often most noticeable in dogs as osteoarthritis. Arthritis can affect knees and the back in obese dogs, but the inflammation can occur anywhere, causing pain in other joints as well, even those that are not weight-bearing.
  • The risk of diabetes is significantly higher in obese cats; it’s less of a factor in dogs.
  • Some types of cancer are more prevalent in overweight and obese dogs and cats.
  • Overweight dogs have a harder time breathing, which can be life-threatening for brachycephalic breeds — those with short muzzles and flatter faces,such as pugs, Pekingese, and bull mastiffs.

How can you tell?

Pretty much every vet’s office has some version of the dog and cat obesity chart on the wall. Generally, you should be able to see your dog’s waist and feel their ribs.

What do you do?

Taking off excess weight takes time. A crash diet is not healthy for anyone! The safest approach is to work with a nutritionist or a vet with credentials in nutrition, but you can also learn a lot from the Whole Dog Journal or Dogs Naturally, my go-to sites for dog health and wellness information.

Start by logging everything the dog or cat eats. Often, we don’t realize how many calories they consume in treats. Or we consume in treats … Your vet can help you figure out how many calories your dog should consume, based on ideal weight, age, activity level, and overall health. The right amount for your dog might be quite a bit less than the feeding guidelines on the dog-food package indicate!

A severely overweight dog may need a specialized diet; for many dogs, though, cutting back a bit on food, and a lot on treats, can be enough. I’m generally not a fan of prescription diets or weight-loss foods. I think they are often of poor quality and overpriced. With expert guidance, you can generally find a high-quality food and feed amounts that provide balanced nutrition — while also gradually bringing your dog down to a healthy weight.

Before cutting too severely, though, you do need to be sure that your dog will still get the nutrients she needs. That’s why talking to a professional is important. And your vet can advise on whether and what types of exercise are safe, again, considering the amount of excess weight, any issues with joints or spine, and the dog’s age and condition. Best of all, the exercise program gives you new opportunities to walk and play with your dog!

It can take several months for a dog to lose excess weight. Be patient; you’re more likely to have lasting results if you take the time to do it right and make permanent, healthy changes in how your dog eats and exercises.

Learn more, especially about cats and obesity, from the Morris Foundation’s podcast!

 

Dog Mountain?!

How did I not know about this place?

Dog Mountain, in St. Johnsbury, VT is, according to the Washington Post, “a celebration of canines.”

I want to move in.

It’s got 150 acres, with leash-optional play areas including pools and hiking trails, a dog chapel filled with photos and memorials to dogs. It’s marking its 20th anniversary this year.

In non-COVID times, the Mountain hosts events and dog-friendly parties, and more.

A blue t-shirt with a graphic of a black Lab swimming after a red ball
Mine is yellow

I even have a t-shirt with a print by the guy who founded Dog Mountain.

We need a Dog Mountain out here in Montana. Near Missoula, perhaps.

While we’re dreaming about dog-friendly travel, there’s another place I’ve recently added to my list. I’ve always wanted to visit Best Friends in Kanab, Utah. I recently discovered the Best Friends Roadhouse — which creates a dilemma. Do I visit the Roadhouse with Cali, which would mean I couldn’t volunteer at Best Friends or foster a dog … or do I go to this cool and very dog-friendly hotel without my best friend?

I do not need to answer this question for a while, though, since road trips are on hold until … who knows when. It’s nice to dream, though!

Where’s your favorite dog-friendly place to travel?

Koala Discovers Her Inner Labrador

Koala is not a typical Labrador. Yes, she’s affectionate and cuddly and very, very food focused. But she’s also serious and rule-bound. She holds us to a schedule. She has no sense of humor.

She has her moments — she loves to play, but on her terms only. And she does love to stomp through puddles, but she’s not as eager to get into a body of water as most Labs. She’s usually indifferent to a ball tossed into the water. (Not Cali! Cali, a golden retriever, was born to swim after tennis balls. Over and over and over again.) Koala will fetch a ball on land, if you ask her to, but it’s clear she’s only humoring the silly human.

And Koala hates cold weather. She was born in Upstate New York and raised in Connecticut, so maybe by the time she moved to Florida, she was really just done with winter. At not-quite-2 years of age.

So, here she is in Montana, yet again. And yet again, it’s cold. It’s late October and … we had a blizzard. Somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of snow fell overnight.

When I opened the door to let Koala and Cali out in the morning, it was still snowing. She gave me her “are you nuts??” look, a look I know well. I convinced her to go out to pee.

Cali of course was delighted. But then Cali is usually delighted: She loves snow. She loves water. She loves rain. She loves sun. She loves grass. She loves summer. She loves winter.

Cali was a bit worried when she went to her toy box and all that was in there was a bunch of white powder, but she nosed around a bit and located a frozen tennis ball. She gave me her look … and I ventured out, in slippers and robe, to free the frozen treasure and toss it for her.

And Cali was off, racing around plowing through the snow with her nose to find her ball. Dropping it into the snow so she could find it again. Begging me to come out to play …

Koala looked on in disgust.

I beat a quick retreat indoors.

Then I looked out the window: Koala was racing around the back yard and — what was that? A wagging tail?! She made a couple of joyful, very Labrador-esque laps.

She must have sensed me watching.

She glanced over her shoulder, stopped running, and started sniffing the ground. She did her business and quickly came back inside.

Her burst of typical Labrador playfulness, her flash of joy as she played in the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. But Cali and I both saw it: Koala’s inner Labrador.

Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

They Did It!

close up of dog nose
The “big gun” to combat COVID-19 spread

The Finnish dogs win!

In late September, Finland launched a pilot program using dogs to detect travelers carrying COVID-19 at the Helsinki airport!

Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).

Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.

The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.

The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.

Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!

 

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!