Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part one)

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the kitchen doorway

I’ve recently heard not one but two experienced trainers, trainers I admire greatly, say that dogs don’t generalize.

What?!

The most recent incident was in a training class. The trainer was talking about practicing at home and said that dogs don’t generalize as a way to explain why the dog’s reaction to a cue or a piece of training equipment might be different at home than at the training center.

Generalization, in a dog-training context, means that the dog can recognize a cue in different environments. Some examples:

  • Your dog has been to your  neighborhood dog park a bazillion times. She’s been to the dog park near your parents’ house a half-bazillion times. When you take a road trip and stop at a dog park you find near your hotel, she immediately recognizes it as a dog park and runs off happily to play.
  • Your dog has a toy box. Your sister’s dog has a toy box. Your parents’ dog has a toy box. Your dog happily helps herself to toys from the toy box at each home. You visit a dog-owning friend for the first time. Your dog homes in on the toy box, grabs a toy, and the dogs start playing.
  • Your dog knows to sit quietly and wait while you prepare her dinner, waiting until you say, “OK” before gobbling her food. She does this whether you’re at home, in a hotel, at your mom’s, or anywhere else.
  • You’ve taught your dog not to jump on visitors. A new visitor comes into the house. Your dog has never met this person before, yet she knows not to jump on him.

I could go on, but I am guessing that you get the picture.

Of course dogs generalize. They could not possibly learn otherwise. No one could. There is simply no way to create and practice every single scenario where the dog will be asked to sit or lie down or wait for food or not jump —  or do / not do anything you might imagine.

Dogs learn to generalize as they learn to learn — with repeated practice. With a new puppy (or newly adopted dog of any age), you start teaching the dog house rules. You also (one hopes) teach basic manners, things like not jumping on people, not mouthing people, not barking every time the next-door neighbor walks past the window. Then, other members of your family ask the dog for the same things. And visitors do. You ask for them when you are in the kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the back yard. And on a walk or a road trip.

Your dog learns, after experiencing this phenomenon a few times, that the cue applies everywhere. The dog then generalizes that knowledge to other cues. Verbal cues: “Sit,” or “Quiet.” Visual cues: the toy box or dog park. Routine cues: you putting on the shoes you always wear for walks or closing down your laptop at 5 pm. These cues, and similar cues, take on meaning that applies even if you are not in the same room or you’re visiting someone else’s house or the toy box looks and smells different.

By the time you’ve taught your dog a few cues, she’s figured out generalization.

You can also teach your dog to specialize, which I will talk about in next week’s post.

 

The saddest sounds

10-week old Cali, a golden retriever, lies on a brown dog bed
Don’t leave me …

A recent Bark column muses on humans’ susceptibility to manipulation by dogs. Specifically, by the sounds they make in sadness. Sadness that occurs only because we humans are not meeting their expectations.

Boy do I know how that works.

When Cali was a tiny pup and Jana a beleaguered 8-year-old with a new baby sister, I made a point of taking Jana for a (very short) solo walk each day. This was partly to get Cali used to being alone briefly. The first time we did this, within seconds, the saddest, most mournful howl I have ever heard wafted out through an open window. I was probably a whole 10 feet from Cali but, you know, there was a wall in between.

Cali has deployed this mournful howl a few additional times over the years. (She’s 7 now.) She’s added to her repertoire, too. She has a range of sounds, including sighs, snorts, scowls (ok, those are silent), exasperated exhalations, grumbles and mutters under her breath, and more. And, yes, a whine. It’s a tiny whine, very soft and short. It’s also very, very sad. Heartbreakingly sad. This whine is used only when Cali is outside and wants to come inside, and no one is there to make the door magically open.

This, naturally, happens only when Cali has refused to come inside despite being offered several opportunities, and I have given up(!) and gone upstairs to work. Within oh, about 3 minutes, there’s that tiny whine. I could easily miss it but somehow it penetrates whatever fog of concentration I am in. When I go back downstairs to let her in, Cali is always happy, relieved, and reproachful, all at once.

I’m not the only one to be expertly and repeatedly manipulated by a sad dog.

My doggy cousin, Jaxson, has created a magical combo, a unique whining sound plus guilt-inducing look, that gets him the most coveted seat in the house: Literally in between his mom and dad. The one space on the sofa he’s theoretically (very, very theoretically) not allowed. There’s nothing unique about dog whines, of course. Whole orchestras could be woven out of different dog whine. Jaxson’s whine is unique in that this specific note is deployed only when he’s on the sofa but not between them. That is, only one pair of hands can reach him to pet him and only one person’s attention is focused on him. The unique sound effectively terminates this intolerable condition.

The Bark column mentions research that found that humans with pets are more susceptible to animal distress vocalizations than other people and that “dog whines sounded saddest of all, and sadder than cat meows.” Other research has found huge changes in canine vocalizations as a result of their domestication. Sure. They’ve got our number. They’re pulling out all the stops in their quest for the upper hand … er, paw … in the household.

 

When your little girl no longer needs you …

Hangin’ out with the humans
Cali and Dora, golden retriever sisters
Cali and Dora wait to be served at their favorite microbrewery

Cali is so grown up. She has an entirely separate life that I know little about.

For example, the Morris Foundation Golden Retriever study’s latest newsletter featured a poem that I am sure that Cali wrote. It starts:

Well, the weather outside is frightful
But the snow is so delightful!
And even if mom (or dad) says no…
I will roll, I will roll, I will roll!

I had no idea that she was a writer!

Cali and Dora supervise breakfast prep

Even more poignant, she just took her first solo vacation. We dropped her off at her sister’s house in Berkeley. All she took was her leash and some food. (I could learn a lot about packing light from Cali.) She never looked back.

Cali and Dora had a wonderful time hiking, snacking, supervising, and hanging out with Dora’s humans. They even visited their favorite neighborhood microbrewery.Cali and Dora sit by the Christmas tree

She probably posted a bunch of selfies on her Instagram, too, but … I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for that.

I’m torn. I miss having her here, but I am glad that she’s independent and able to get out and enjoy herself — even if she does always seem to need a ride to wherever she’s headed. Next thing you know, she’ll want a credit card so she can have her own Lyft account. Oh, and she’ll need a GizmoWatch, of course.

(All photos by Cathy Condon)

 

Dog News Round-Up

Conan, a Belgian Malinois, smiles for his portraitLet’s wrap up 2019 with a look at a few good-news stories about dogs!

1. More dogs have great jobs

A 2-year-old Labrador in Chicago that solemnly swore to uphold the law and comfort children is working hard in the Cook County courthouse. Hatty, the dog, was trained in part by inmates. And her job is to comfort children or others with anxiety or mental illness who are testifying in court cases. Hatty is a role model for dogs everywhere.

2. Dogs who travel for their jobs are getting better working conditions

Slowly, slowly airlines, the FAA, and others in the airline and transportation arenas are coming to their senses and enforcing some (very minimal, but there’s hope …) rules around which non-humans are allowed to fly and what behavior is acceptable. Service dog teams are involved in the struggle as more and more horrifying stories of untrained emotional support animals interfering with their work emerge. Everyone deserves a safe and respectful work environment, including service dogs.

3. Dogs are teaching humans about compassion and empathy

The heartbreaking story of an ill, orphaned giraffe was made a tiny bit less awful by the dog. Hunter, a guard dog, befriended the young giraffe immediately. And when Hunter realized that his friend was ill, he remained with the baby giraffe night and day, even keeping vigil after the giraffe died.

4. People with dogs live longer, happier lives

It’s long been known that dog ownership alleviates loneliness and social isolation and encourages people to get more exercise. Now we can add improved longevity after a heart attack or stroke to the list. A Swedish study found that individuals who had had either a heart attack or a stroke and who lived alone had a 33% lower risk of death following a heart attack and a 27% lower risk of death following a stroke.

5. Romance thrives

Sometimes, the girl next door is just the one. A romantic at heart, Harry just knows that Holly is the girl for him. This golden boy has been courting his love for seven years. He politely asks her parents if she can come on dates, and he even brings her presents.

6. Heroic dog makes full recovery

Conan, the dog hero who took down an ISIS leader, made a full recovery from injuries suffered during the operation. The Belgian Malinois, who is a noncommissioned U.S. military officer, was also honored at the White House for his brave service.

Have a wonderful 2020, and please be on the lookout for good-news dog stories to share here!

Siberian Puppy a Link to Early Dogs

Domestic dogs may have evolved in several different areas of the world.

I enjoyed a recent Washington Post article about an 18,000-year-old puppy who might be a missing link between wolves and dogs.

The dog, actually a young puppy, was perfectly preserved in Siberian permafrost for 18,000 years. He’s so well preserved that his fur and teeth are intact!

Researchers first assumed that “Dogor,” a name recently given to the puppy, was a young wolf. Now, they’re not sure. They are sequencing his genome, but they are considering the idea that Dogor is neither dog nor wolf. Dogor might truly be a missing link, an actual example of a proto-dog from the still-mysterious period when many ancient wolf species were dying out and dogs were becoming domesticated.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how dogs came to be. It’s likely that domestic dogs evolved in several different areas of the world at different times.

Little Dogor might teach us a lot about the evolution of dogs in Russia and about the early relationship between dogs and humans. It’s an exciting find, and I am looking forward to learning more about this ancient puppy.

The Value of a Dog’s Life

Cali looks up, licking her lips
How much is your dog worth?

How much is your dog’s life worth?

Obviously, most people cannot answer that question, and the closest answer is that our dogs are priceless.

But, for a variety of reasons, it’s useful to have a number, and some researchers have come up with one. (For similar reasons, a number has been attached to human lives as well.)

The reasons one might need a value for a dog’s life include:

  • Calculating loss in case of death or serious injury
  • Calculating value in case of, say a divorce where one person has to give up the dog to the other
  • Performing a cost-benefit analysis for anything from public safety measures to developing products or medications

There’s more, of course. It doesn’t address working dogs, like police K9s or service dogs. Some states have laws that spell out a value for these dogs or mete out harsher punishments to anyone who harms them. And the value of the dog doesn’t address intangibles like distress that might factor into damage awards in a lawsuit.

Speaking of lawsuits, currently most courts will only consider market value of a dog. Which, if your dog came from the shelter, is very little. While the value these researchers came up with, $10,000, is far less than the value I would place on my dog’s life, I guess it’s an improvement — and a step toward treating dogs differently from ordinary, inanimate property.

Cali is 7!

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Cali turned 7 a few days ago!

Naturally, we celebrated at her favorite place in the world, conveniently located a short walk from home: Big Dipper ice cream. I know, it’s December. Cali does not feel the cold. Or have much sympathy for anyone who does.

We got our order (to go) and she collected and devoured her puppy cone.

The real treat was the cup of vanilla ice cream she got to eat at home. A few photos, above, show her delight.

Coincidentally, this week I heard about a new way researchers are calculating a dog’s human age equivalent. The common formula of a dog aging seven (human) years for each calendar year is too simplistic.

This new method looks at changes in our DNA over our lifetimes and compares dogs’ DNA changes to map a roughly equivalent human age onto the dog. There’s a calculator at the link above. The study used Labrador retrievers, but claims that the mapping is similar for all dogs. I am curious about whether they will repeat the research on smaller-breed dogs, because those dogs tend to have a longer lifespan so it seems like the mapping might turn out a little different.

In any case, Cali, a golden, is similar to a Lab in size and typical lifespan, so I checked out her age.

I was not happy with the results. Under the old mapping, she’d be roughly at the same life stage as a 49-year-old human; under the new mapping she’s 62!

The aging seems to slow way down after the first year, though. A 1-year-old Lab is roughly equivalent to a 31-year-old human, while a 13-year-old dog maps to only age 72.

Whether she’s 49 or 62 or 7, Cali is still a puppy at heart, silly and playful. And I hope she stays that way for many more years!