All of My Dogs Have Been Geniuses. Yours Too?

A white golden retriever holds a teal running shoe
Jana, my first golden retriever, knew the names of many items

Who remembers Chaser, the border collie who learned English grammar? Chaser’s first moment of fame came from the recognition that she knew the names of more than 1,000 toys. Her dad, Dr. John Pilley, meticulously documented her training. He then demonstrated that she could apply different verbs to each toy (e.g., bring, take, give) and that she knew the difference between the object of a sentence and the indirect object, a mastery of English grammar that puts many high school grads to shame.

In the years since Chaser’s accomplishments became known, other dogs have demonstrated proficiency in learning names of objects and showing basic linguistic comprehension.

But not, apparently, in Hungary.

Bizarrely, a dog cognition researcher at a well-known university — whose dog cognition group has published reams of amazing research — found that the dogs she worked with could not learn any words.

Dr. Claudia Fugazza told Modern Dog: “We started investigating and we found that irrespective of the age when you start training, most dogs do not learn the name of objects. We trained a group of dogs very intensively for three months—we included a group of puppies around three months old and a group of adult dogs—and none of them could learn any words.”

I find that strange because every dog I have ever lived with understood many, many words. Some in two languages. Even without any training at all — simply as a byproduct of living with humans who used words and phrases over and over.

“Want to go for a walk?”

“Who wants a cookie?”

“Let’s get you some dinner.”

These — or variations on these — sentences are known to nearly all well-cared-for dogs.

But Dr. Fugazza was specifically interested in and focused on teaching dogs the names of specific items.

Fair enough.

But here, too, all the dogs I know have learned the names of at least a few favorite toys or items — ball, bone, hedgehog (a nearly universal favorite toy). With minimal effort, intention, or knowledge of dog training, many dogs’ families teach them dozens of words.

Service dogs routinely learn to bring multiple items by name — shoes, slippers, keys, glasses, even tissues or pill boxes. By the age of one, Jana (the original Thinking Dog!) could choose the requested snack — “chips” or “Bamba” — from our pantry and bring it to us in the living room (potato chips and Bamba, a peanut-butter snack, smell very different).

Yet a two-year, global search by the Hungarian research team for their “Genius Dog Challenge” identified only six dogs, all Border collies, who could retrieve items by name. I missed their search somehow. Which is unfortunate, since I could name six dogs just in California who can do that, and not one of them is a Border collie.

I guess those dogs are all geniuses, as are Cali and Orly (and probably thousands more Missoula dogs). Is yours?

Orly’s First Camping Adventure

Cali and Oly, both golden retrievers, play in a rocky creekOrly and Cali spent a chunk of Labor Day weekend at the Grizzly Campground in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. It was Orly’s first camping adventure, so Cali had to show her the ropes a bit. Not that Cali has a lot of experience … she may have exaggerated a bit when telling Orly her campfire stories.

A view of sunset and trees from the tent window
The view from the tent window

They did not get their own tent; we all shared. Our tent has a huge window, and Orly spent most of the first night looking out the window at the treetops and the stars. We were all pretty relieved that she did not spot any bears.

As the temperature dropped overnight, the girls crept closer and closer, until we were all cuddled into a single mass. They also tried to steal the sleeping bag.

Both girls spent hours hiking, running along the trail and splashing in Rock Creek and Ranch Creek. They gnawed bones, wrestled, grumbled at the dogs in the neighboring campsites, and gobbled treats.

Cali and Orly lick a bowl clean
The girls helped with the dishes

It wasn’t all play, of course. In addition to their responsibility to watch for bears and supervise meal prep, the girls had chores. They energetically tackled keeping the campsite “floor” clean, for example, by removing all sticks, pine needles, and dirt — and unselfishly carrying it around in their fur. Cali does have extensive experience with this and could be seen coaching Orly in the finer points of the roll, with tips on how to wriggle the hips and shoulders just so for maximum pickup efficiency. They also helped clean the dishes after every meal.

Needless to say, their first activity upon returning home was a bath. That may have soured them on future camping trips, but I doubt it!

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Clear Scan Is Great News!

Cali had her post-surgery follow-up liver scan, and the vet saw no tumors!

That is fantastic news, because dogs who have tumors large enough to see on an ultrasound (a half-centimeter) generally have a very bad prognosis (a few weeks).

With hemangiosarcoma, no visible tumors does not mean no tumors. There are almost certainly hundreds or thousands of tiny hemangiosarcomas all over Cali’s body.

Golden retriever Cali sits patiently with a chemo drip monitor in the backgroundBut they are small. Very small. And with her magic mushrooms and her chemo, we’re slowing their growth. That could buy her anywhere from several months to a year — or more. Our acupuncture vet knows a dog who was diagnosed 3 years ago … the mushrooms seem to be working for him!

With that good news, Cali bravely completed her second chemo treatment. She had mild stomach upset a few days later that could be related … or not. She’s also been over-indulging in the abundant blackberries on the bushes in her garden.

And ice cream of course. Always ice cream.

Cali’s Magic Mushrooms

Cali is fighting her hemangiosarcoma with magical mushrooms. No, not that kind of mushroom! At least, I don’t think that turkey tail mushrooms are hallucinogenic …

They reportedly do have properties that both boost the immune system and slow the growth of tumors, though, and have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries.

A small study on dogs with hemangiosarcoma found that turkey tail mushrooms could extend their survival by significantly lengthening the time until tumors grew large enough to be seen on a scan. (The study has a terrible title but the text is very user-friendly and fascinating!)

So Cali is taking a large dose of turkey tail mushroom powder daily. She and Orly are both getting a blend of mushrooms that also might slow or prevent tumor growth while also boosting their overall immune responses.

We’ll probably never know whether the mushrooms actually helped. But … as my vets agree, taking the mushrooms won’t hurt anything. And could help.

The dogs in the study had all been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma following a splenectomy, like Cali. None of them was doing chemotherapy, though that is an option.

Cali's face with hanging bag of orange chemo behind herCali has had a single dose of chemo, and we’re waiting for her post-surgery scan to decide whether to continue. It is administered in a 2-hour infusion; we spent the time working and hanging out in the vet’s office. She didn’t have a bad reaction to it at all (she didn’t have any reaction that I noticed). It, too, can slow the tumor growth — unless there are already visible tumors.

If she continues, she’ll have up to three additional treatments, three weeks apart. Her friends at my workplace sent her flowers the first time she had chemo. She’d never gotten flowers before and was very excited when the delivery person came!

arrangement of colorful flowers

Cali’s Bucket List

Golden retrievers Cali and Orly play in a shallow river near our house.As we wait for Cali’s next ultrasound, we’re filling in the time doing things on Cali’s bucket list.

For example, we head to the river to play in water almost every day. Deeper water for actual swimming is a little more tricky. I’m trying to take Cali to a little spot nearby a couple of times a week, but I can only manage it when Orly is busy elsewhere.

Cali sits on grass holding a green disc toyAside from swimming, much of Cali’s bucket list involves eating ice cream and playing with her beloved flying disc and tennis balls. Those are pretty easy.

9-month-old Orly, a golden retriever, licks a frozen treatShe’s visited Dairy Queen and Big Dipper. I’m also making frozen treats at home with Greek yogurt, fruit, and peanut butter. And pupsicles with coconut water and berries. Since the weather has remained absurdly hot (for Montana) for weeks, the frozen treats are popular. Honestly, though, I think that Cali would be just as excited about them in February.

When Deni was in town, we even took the girls to a baseball game, where everyone shared popcorn and had fun … for a few innings. They enjoyed drinking from a cup (water!) and people-watching.

Goldens Cali and Orly enjoy a drink at the ball game

Cali’s Village

It takes a village … to care for an aging dog.

One of the things I like best about living in Missoula is the wonderful community I have here. I tell myself that it extends to Cali (and now Orly) as well; in truth, it’s their community, and the kind members are welcoming to me as well …

Cali recently had some unfortunate medical news. She had had an ultrasound where the vet saw suspicious lesions on her spleen. The spleen had to come out.

It’s a serious surgery, and Cali’s community rallied. Friends visited her the weekend before; I took her swimming; a friend and I took Orly and Cali to Dairy Queen.

Two friends stopped by post surgery to comfort Cali. Still groggy, she was reclining on her bed and unable to get up without help.

When I mentioned that to another friend, she very kindly offered to come over and help me carry Cali out and back in, a wonderful offer. Cali weighs 56 pounds and is pretty awkward to carry. Even so, I had gotten her in from the car, as well as out and back in that afternoon and evening.

Golden retriever Cali holds a tennis ball
One day post-op, Cali asks to play ball

The next morning, I got Cali outside and set up a bed for her on the grass. She had a water bowl, shade — everything she needed. A little while later, I saw that she’d gotten up and made it up onto the deck. I put her bed on the deck and she happily spent the day outside, mostly sleeping on her bed, but occasionally napping on the grass.

Though Cali’s recovery went quickly after that first morning, her friends continue to rally ’round, checking in on her, stopping by to visit, and offering walks. Within a couple of days, though, the biggest headaches were trying to keep Cali from playing too roughly with Orly and resisting her pleas to play ball.

More bad news

Then we got the biopsy results. Cali’s going to need her village.

Cali has a very aggressive type of cancer called hemangiosarcoma. It spreads through the blood and generally, by the time it’s found, there are small (or large) hemangiosarcomas throughout the dog’s body.

We’re “luckier” than many who get this diagnosis, though. For most dogs, the cancer is found only after one of the tumors ruptures, causing internal bleeding. that didn’t happen.

We’re figuring out treatment, and we will know more after Cali’s next ultrasound, which will take place a month post-surgery.

The “good” thing about hemangiosarcoma is that the dog doesn’t have any symptoms or pain unless/until a tumor bursts. Cali’s definitely not feeling sick, and she’s enjoying the extra attention she’s getting from her community of friends.


Cherry Season

Golden retriever pup Orly has a cherry dangling from her mouth
Orly tries to figure out how to eat a cherry

It’s the tail end of cherry season in my yard. I’m providing this hyper-local report because cherry season in this part of Montana is just getting going, but the cherry tree in my yard is done for the year. And I did not get a single cherry.

The birds and squirrels got most of them, but Orly and Cali had their share too.

Cherries are not great for dogs, so for a couple of weeks, I battled the dogs over this. I lost.

I spent a lot of time cleaning up fallen cherries and dropped partially eaten cherries from the ground. This is indeed as much fun as it sounds like it would be.

Nevertheless, those cherries get into every corner, under every leaf and vine, and into the far reaches of the yard. I even saw one hiding under the deck stairs.

Cali is pretty laid back and eats the ones she finds. She’s fully adopted the Koala approach to gobbling them whole, and that is what she taught to Orly.

Orly gazes up at the cherry treeOrly is a whole different animal. Orly became especially adept at finding cherries; she has an admirable tenacity that I wish she’d apply to more beneficial ends. She spent long stretches of time nosing around the weed-filled, overgrown patch around the cherry tree, apparently with much success — and much effort. Then one day, a cherry fell at just the right moment.

And Orly discovered gravity.

Or she discovered that if she waited long enough, the cherries came to her. The end result is the same: She’d sit, rapt, watching for falling cherries to land in her mouth. Or on her head …

The cherries weren’t even fully ripe at this point, and there were a lot of them. I was looking forward to picking a few pounds; this was the first year the tree has had any fruit at all in a while.

One day, I looked up and saw the perfect shade of red. I called on some friends and we planned to pick the cherries.

But … that afternoon, the squirrels, the birds, and Orly were all very busy.

The next morning, I got out the ladder and looked into the branches. Not a single flash of red. That’s right; the tree had been picked clean!

And, like clockwork, the first few ripe raspberries appeared that very afternoon.

The girls aren’t getting too many of those, unfortunately, because they destroyed most of the raspberry bushes in the yard. I’m getting a nice amount from the surviving canes in the back alley, though, safely out of dog reach.

Up next will be a bumper crop of blackberries, many of which are in dog reach. I’m training to prepare for the competition …

Orly eats cherries that have fallen onto a silver tarp near the tree

Ball Dogs for Tennis Matches? What Could Go Wrong …?

Golden retrievers Cali and Orly stand on grass, surrounded by tennis balls
Wait, we have to give them back?

This is at the top of my “What were they thinking?!” list.

A pet insurance company in the UK had a great idea to highlight Britons’ love for dogs, dogs’ love for balls, and a general love for Wimbledon tennis: Ball dogs.

Their thought was to replace ball boys and girls with “ball dogs,” who would be trained to retrieve tennis balls during matches at Wimbledon. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as the linked video illustrates.

The first thing that I thought of was what Cali and Orly would do: Hoard the balls. Plenty of retrievers … don’t. Not to mention other breeds. The Dalmatian in the video seems to be wondering what, exactly, she is expected to do with that round yellow thing.

The flip side, of course is the overachievers. We’ve all known one — a Lab or maybe a German shepherd — who would retrieve until she dropped from exhaustion. Between the slobbery balls and the risk of the dog racing out to meet and catch the ball before it even sailed over the net … well.

Spectators might love the lively antics, but I don’t think the human tennis players would enjoy the experience quite as much.

I am sure that some dogs — Koala comes to mind — would excel at this job. The spokesperson for the ManyPets insurance company calls it a “work in progress,” and admitted to some chaos in the training.. Let’s hope they find the right dogs for the job!


Hiking? Don’t Forget the Doggy Trail Mix!

Bag of Mud Pie Oh My dog treats from Bocce's BakeryI have a Dog Hiking Backpack that is always ready for our next adventure. Problem is, it weighs more than Orly does!

So I select essential items for each hike. Number one on that list is doggy trail mix.

6 small heart-shaped dog treats
The heart shape is a nice bonus

This homemade delight was invented by Deni. And, dare I say, perfected by me, with copious input from Cali. Perfected for our hikes, that is. Your recipe needs to be created and tweaked by your dog(s), of course.

Doggy trail mix is simply a mix of treats. The base, as in any trail mix, is some basic and relatively inexpensive ingredients. I don’t use peanuts (choking hazard) or raisins (dogs can’t eat them); instead, the base mix is about two parts Cheerios (generic are fine) to one part Charlee Bears — any flavor that doesn’t include chicken, for my girls.

To that I add generous amounts of medium-value treats. This mix changes every time. I am partial to the tiny treats from Bocce’s Bakery that my local dog grocer stocks. Cali and Orly love the Mud Pie and Duck flavors. Again, your dogs’ preferences may vary. I have also used many other kinds of dry and semi-soft treats. The key is to use small pieces or treats that are very small.

Topping off the mixture is a few handfuls of high-value treats. I often use freeze-dried liver.

The trick is to have enough good and great treats to

  • Keep the dogs interested and hopeful
  • Provide some variety in their rewards
  • Lend scent and flavor to the other treats as everything jumbles around together

That last point might seem a little deceitful. But come on, who doesn’t eat the bits of chocolate in their trail mix with a bunch of the peanuts or raisins to make it all taste better? If it works for us, why not for the dogs?

Leave out the BEST treats

Our highest-value treat is currently a duck jerky treat that I get in big bags from Costco. It’s soft enough to break into small pieces. But I don’t put it into the trail mix because I save it for the most important use. That’s right: When we’re hiking off leash, I always carry a lot of duck jerky. This ensures that whenever I call the girls, they come running at top speed, screech to a halt, and sit right in front of me, eager for their reward. Duck jerky is truly magic. (Orly’s hiking guide uses the same stuff).

Hiking trail mix, like many human-oriented snack mixes, has crept into daily use. I mix up enormous batches and keep treat jars filled with it on every floor. It’s the default reward for training, cooperation during grooming, and recall practice outside. Each batch is a little different, and no one has complained about (or turned up her nose at) the Cheerios yet.

What else is in the backpack?

The backpack has:

  • A first aid kit
  • Binoculars
  • Dog water bowl
  • Long leashes for swimming, recall practice, or hikes in places I don’t want to let them off leash
  • Insect-repelling dog bandanas
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Wet wipes & sanitizer
  • Strong wire cutters in case we run into traps or snares (I hope NEVER to use them)
  • Bear spray (ditto)
  • Flashlight
  • Extra poop bags
  • Extra leashes
  • Extra sunhat

Often, the pack stays in the car while we hike so the heavier stuff is nearby if needed. But a treat bag stuffed with trail mix and/or duck jerky is always with me. Happy hiking!