Wrong on So Many Levels …

a poster announces that service dogs are welcomeI was in St. Petersburg when the Tampa Bay Times ran this story about a “service dog” whelping a litter of puppies at the Tampa airport. Columnist Daniel Ruth’s response is spot-on. This is so, so wrong.

The initial article said that the dogs’ owner claimed both dogs (the puppies’ dad was present for the whelping) were service dogs; it also said the puppy-mom was a service dog in training. The initial article says that the owner has mobility issues; Ruth’s column mentions blood pressure. It’s impossible to know which is accurate or whether the owner meets the ADA definition of a person with a disability. It’s also impossible to tell whether either or both dogs do anything to mitigate the disability. While the reporting could be more clear, part of the problem is that the various laws covering public access and air travel with service dogs are so vague and poorly written that they are a nightmare for gatekeepers — and an engraved invitation to fakers. (I’m not saying this person was faking; I am saying it is nearly impossible to know.)

The second problem is that it’s legal in some cases for people to use two service dogs and request public access with both simultaneously. I know that people might have multiple disabilities that a dog or dogs can help with. And if you’re an owner-trainer and want to train a dozen service dogs for yourself, I don’t think any law should stop you. But I also advocate for some common sense in access laws.

I’ve worked with dozens and dozens of service dogs. Even the best dogs get spooked in airports or on planes, and I know that it’s hard enough to find and train one dog for the really difficult, demanding job of working while traveling, through an airport, and on an airplane. Expecting someone to be able to safely handle more than one dog in these circumstances, while dealing with the many hassles of travel — that’s just not reasonable. It’s not fair to other travelers or to airline staff. No one can predict what will happen. I’ve seen “service” dogs react aggressively to working dogs, kids come out of nowhere to grab the dogs in a hug, people interfering with dogs by doing everything from reaching to pet to trying with gestures and noises to distract the dog to actually enticing working dogs with food.

Add to that the exploding number of emotional support animals traveling these days — a concept that many people, including Ruth, in his column, have trouble separating from service dogs — and I’m surprised that any dog can navigate air travel without losing her cool. Expecting a person, any person, to keep tabs on multiple service dogs with all of that going on, and keep everything under control so that the traveler, dogs, and everyone else is safe? Not realistic.

Finally, the most egregious part of this story: Who boards a plane with a dog who’s that pregnant? It’s not that hard to know when a dog is due to whelp. Gestation is about 60 days. If your dog has been bred, don’t travel after about 6-7 weeks. And that doesn’t even address the bigger issue: Any professional service or guide dog trainer will tell you that a working service dog should be spayed or neutered. Regardless, a pregnant female shouldn’t be working that close to her due date. And if she is a service dog in training, as some accounts said, she shouldn’t have been allowed to fly anyhow; no law gives access to service dogs in training. (In a probably vain attempt to forestall criticism, I will state that I think that trainers should be able to fly with dogs-in-training, but that is a whole separate issue.)

A service dog partnership is not a one-way street. The dog helps the person in a way that only a dog can. The dog also provides companionship and love. In return, the person owes the dog care and respect. I don’t doubt that the owner of these dogs loves them and appreciates their service. But she did not fill her obligations as their guardian and steward and advocate, nor did she show respect for the dog when she let a working dog become pregnant and then attempted to fly with that dog so close to her due date. The person’s needs do not always come first, and in this case, the owner was selfish and irresponsible.

As a person who cares deeply about the human-canine connection while also deeply respecting the work dogs do for us, I become angry when I see or hear about any dog owner who treats her dogs that badly, whether they are service dogs or pets. (I’m not alone; the Times apparently heard from lots of others who were outraged.) While travelers who saw the puppy birth might have thought it wonderful, miraculous, cute (or gross), that this poor dog had to whelp her puppies in such awful, public conditions is outrageous.

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What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

How does getting a second dog change your relationship with your first dog?

Jana and Cali, aged 9 weeks, play tug

A reader recently asked me how my relationship with Jana changed when I brought Cali home. Cali was an 8-week-old puppy; bringing an additional adolescent or adult dog into the family would probably affect the older dog differently.

I expected Jana to want nothing to do with the puppy, but within a day, she was gently playing with Cali and allowing her to share her bed. Jana was a fantastic big sister, and, as I said in response to this question, we “co-parented” Cali.

This mostly worked out well. Jana definitely helped Cali learn where to toilet, for example; Cali was a very clean puppy who had no accidents. I taught Cali many of the house rules, such as which furniture dogs could and could not use (this did not always go so well); Jana taught her other house rules, such as the “egg rule” — anyone who makes eggs has to make enough to share with all family members. Cali has, in turn, taught that sacred family rule to Koala.

Jana and Cali, aged 9 weeks, rest after playingJana was protective of Cali and taught her to play tug and keep away and other essential dog games. She led by example, showing Cali that the play tunnel was fun, not scary, and that nail trims and toothbrushing led to tasty treats. When we went to the dog beach, Jana provided thorough instruction, including demonstrations, of how to get soaked and then wriggle in the sand to ensure maximum coverage and sand retention for the ride home. Cali has surpassed her teacher in this endeavor.

As for my relationship with Jana, well, we were the grown-ups, nurturing and educating the baby. Jana and I shared many eye-rolls watching Cali’s puppy antics. We took walks together to enjoy some adult time, and I tried to reinforce Jana’s status as the second-in-command. Jana was not shy about asking for belly rubs, games of tug, or walks to the places she wanted to go. Cali is pretty easygoing, but she did try to steal Jana’s bed and claim more than her share of attention, and she sulked if Jana or I rebuked her.

Cali, age 10 weeks, shares Jana's bedI think what’s hard about adding a dog of any age is giving each dog individual attention. Jana and Cali were very different personalities, in addition to being at completely different stages of their lives. Jana was slowing down, due to arthritis and age, just as Cali became an active (very, very active) adolescent and young adult. I hated leaving Jana behind to do active exercise with Cali, and I hated denying Cali the hiking and other activities that Jana and I had enjoyed when she was young. So we made a lot of compromises. I took Cali to agility and Jana to nosework classes. I took everyone to the beach. Every day, we walked, at Jana speed, to a park where Cali could race after her ball while Jana socialized with the other adults (humans) and a couple of other older goldens. I’d like to think that each of my girls got what they needed and deserved, but I am sure there were times when one or both felt that her sister was claiming too much time or attention.

What should I do when my dog gets spooked?

Yellow labrador puppy with worried expression on his face.
This worried puppy might need comforting, or he might need you to let him know there’s no reason to be afraid.

A reader asks:

People say you should ignore your dog when they get spooked by something, the reason being that if you comfort them, they will think that, since you are comforting them, there must really be something to be afraid of, or else you wouldn’t be comforting them. Are dogs capable of that kind of thought? What should I do if my dog gets spooked?

This is a great question, and if you ask a dozen dog trainers, you are likely to get about a dozen different responses. Here’s what I would suggest.

First of all, I do think that dogs are capable of the kind of abstract thought that you describe. Thousands of years of living and working together have taught dogs to pay close attention to humans’ responses to things and to our emotions.

So what to do when a dog shows fear or apprehension … That depends. No, I am not avoiding answering the question. But it depends on the dog’s age and on the trigger for the fear response.

When I trained service dog puppies, a huge part of the training was getting them out in public and exposing them to various stimuli. One thing I was looking for was whether a puppy showed fear and if so, to what. I carefully selected destinations, and with the youngest puppies (8-10 weeks old), I only took them in groups with volunteer handlers. We — the volunteers and I — also exposed them to lots of things in the puppy “nursery.” We’d put on hats and Halloween wigs or masks, play weird noises, show them movies, run the vacuum cleaner, open umbrellas, play with skateboards, walkers, bikes, toy cars, Christmas decorations … you name it, it showed up in the nursery at some point.

In these cases, the stimuli were things that a dog might encounter in everyday life and that there was no reason to fear. If a puppy spooked, we’d react cheerfully, going up to the scary thing and touching it or interacting with it in some way that made it engaging to the puppy. For a skateboard, for example, I might hold it still and pat it invitingly, offering a really good treat. I’d make sure to expose that puppy to the skateboard in positive ways several times before allowing him to see a moving skateboard again. For a statue (a common spook-inducer), I’d go up to the statue and touch it, make happy sounds, offer treats, etc. The idea was to show that this was not something to fear. Most puppies will approach after a startle response, especially if their human lets them know it is safe.

For an older dog who spooks at an everyday item, maybe a statue or a plastic bag blowing in the wind, I would ignore the fear response or respond with a cheerful voice, saying something like, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Let’s go!” and carry on walking. This is for the reason you describe; comforting the dog might reinforce his idea that this thing is really scary; you don’t want to encourage this fear response to ordinary things.

On the other hand, what if the dog’s response is to something that might be threatening?

There are different categories here. One is things or, more likely, people, who might be threatening to the dog or to you. If I’m walking with my dog and she has a negative response to an approaching stranger, I pay attention. Jana, whom I still miss every day, was a fantastic judge of people. If she took a dislike to someone, we got away. I would never question her judgment. Cali is a more typical golden. She loves everyone. I don’t necessarily trust her judgment. But if she spooked, I would definitely pay attention.

But those are rare incidents. What’s more likely is a dog’s fearful or anxious reaction to something that might or might not be threatening to him but is not threatening to you. And for these things, the response really does depend on the context. A few examples:

  • You’re at a dog park and a new dog comes in. The dog is rambunctious and high-energy. You don’t know this dog, and your dog seems nervous. There’s no reason to reinforce the fear or panic, but use common sense. The dog park should be fun for your dog, and if he’s nervous and afraid, he’s not having fun. This might be a good time to cheerfully tell him, “Time to go!” Without reinforcing or even reacting to the fear, just leash the dog and leave.
  • If you’re not quick enough and the new dog gets in your dog’s face, even if he’s only trying to play but is overwhelming for your dog, your response is different. Your dog needs to know that you’ve got his back. You have to be your dog’s advocate and protector, and this example is exactly when he needs you to step up. Again, the other dog might not be doing anything wrong, but dogs have different play styles. Cali finds large, exuberant dogs frightening. There’s no reason she has to play with them. I just get her out of there. Again, though, you are not comforting the dog or justifying his fear. You are respecting his preferences.
  • Your dog is afraid of thunder or fireworks. These are common triggers. In these cases, I wouldn’t make a huge show of comforting the dog, but I would make sure to provide a safe space for him to ride out the storm. A dog who’s afraid of thunder? Give your dog a den in an interior space — a crate can work or a cozy corner of a room with no exterior walls. Some dogs just want to cuddle until it’s over; that’s fine. Try not to leave the dog home alone when scary things are likely, and always make sure the dog cannot escape. A dog who bolts in fear and cannot escape the noise might run for miles and can get lost, injured, or killed.
    If the dog’s reaction is extreme, try supplements or even medications that can ease anxiety. I’ve used small amounts of melatonin (3 mg. for a large dog; be careful to get melatonin without xylitol) or DAP, dog-appeasing pheromone, in a diffuser. Different things work for different dogs, so experiment a bit with over-the-counter remedies like these or Rescue Remedy, etc. Consult a vet if the dog is extremely agitated; some vets will prescribe anti-anxiety drugs. For me, this is a last resort, but some dogs are so terrified by thunder and/or fireworks that it really is the kindest approach.
  • Your dog has a fearful (and possibly aggressive, which is related to fear) response to some people. It might be all men or delivery people or anyone who approaches your front door. You might not be able to figure out which people the dog will react badly to. If this is the fear trigger, call a trainer who specializes in working with fearful dogs and who uses positive training methods. This is not the time to double down on “showing the dog who’s boss” or any other common training nonsense. A professional, positive trainer will help you teach the dog that these people are not to be feared; the trainer will also teach you how to manage these situations until your dog is more comfortable. Be aware that, with some dogs, situation management will always be needed. If your dog finds children scary, again, this is a situation for a trainer and a lot of management from you.

This might be more information than you expected! But the bottom line is that it matters whether the dog is a puppy or an adult, and whether what’s triggering the response is a normal, everyday, non-scary item or something that really might be threatening. Above all, be compassionate. You are your dog’s advocate and protector. If he’s really scared, comfort him. If he’s in a situation that he feels is threatening or overwhelming, get him out of it. Let him know that he can trust you to take care of him. Then figure out whether this is a situation where you can teach him not to be afraid, where you have to manage the situation, or whether you need a trainer’s help.

Are Raw Diets Safe?

Jana holds her food bowl in her mouth

A recent Canine Corner post by Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-known writer on canine cognition strongly suggests that they are not. I’d like to present an opposing view of this often contentious question.

Full disclosure: I feed Cali a partially raw diet; I did the same for Jana for several years and she thrived on it. Cali’s sister Dora recently added raw food to her diet, and she’s healthier and more energetic than I have ever seen her. Other dogs I know have had similar experiences. So, with some caveats, I favor raw or partially raw diets. How’s that for hedging my bets?

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Coren; I’ve read most of his (copious) work on canine intelligence and relationships with people; I’ve even taken a graduate seminar with him. He’s a psychologist, though; not a nutritionist, so I am skeptical of his advice on canine nutrition.

His column starts with a terrible story about someone who fed raw until her child got salmonella; he then goes into detail about why many veterinarians recommend against raw diets and how the people who feed raw diets tend not to trust vets. I have no idea if the statistics he quotes are accurate or representative. But it doesn’t really matter.

I go to my veterinarian, as I go to a doctor, for medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of medical problems. Just as my doctor might advise me to lose weight or warn that my weight could cause health problems, I’d expect my vet to warn me if my dog were severely overweight. (If my golden retriever were underweight, I’d already know there was a problem!) If a medical condition indicated a particular dietary restriction, I’d expect the vet to tell me that, too. But if I needed more detailed diet advice, I’d go to a dietician, not my internist. Similarly, when I seek nutrition information for my dogs, I look to experts who specialize in canine diet and nutrition.

In most cases, that is not the vet. Surprised?

Just as vets are the wrong address for questions on behavior and training, the vet is not the best source of information on canine diet. Of course, just as some vets are also certified companion animal behaviorists, some take an interest in nutrition and become experts, even board-certified nutritionists. But these are the exception. And the nutrition courses that vet schools offer are unlikely to focus intensely on canine nutrition; vets learn to treat many species of pet and farm animals.

I’m fortunate that one of Cali’s vets has taken a deep interest in canine nutrition and has continued to study nutrition and new research throughout her career. This vet firmly believes in and advocates a raw diet for dogs. She urges low-carb diets, too, and, since most kibbles have a lot of carbs, she’s not a huge fan of kibble. She argues, convincingly, that fresh, real food is far more healthful, and, based on dogs’ ancestry, a more natural diet for dogs than hyper-processed cooked kibble.

Another source of in-depth information about canine diet is The Whole Dog Journal. It takes no advertising, so is not beholden in any way to pet food companies. This is markedly different from the average vet, who sells (and profits from) so-called “prescription” diets and who may also push a particular line of foods for all their clients. The Whole Dog Journal publishes detailed reviews of canned, dry, and dehydrated raw dog foods every year. It has published several articles exploring the pros and cons of raw diets as well. (See: Raw Dog Food and Salmonella Risks and High Pressure Processing and Your Dog’s Raw Food, for example.) When evaluating commercial foods, WDJ asks probing questions of the manufacturer; it has a fairly high bar for including a company in its list of acceptable or recommended foods. I’ve said it before: If you don’t subscribe to The Whole Dog Journal, you should!

Recently, a nutritionist who works with Deni’s guide dog school recommended a raw diet for Koala, Deni’s guide. Koala has “leaky gut,” and the nutritionist said that the raw diet was easier for her to digest than kibble and would allow her gut to heal. I found that interesting because one of my hesitations with raw diet was that I thought it was recommended only for dogs with a healthy digestive system. But Koala is doing very well; she has not had any of the issues — vomiting, stomach upset, etc. — that she had consistently on a kibble diet.

I still would be very careful about introducing a raw diet to a dog with a compromised immune system, but I think it is a healthful and desirable option for most dogs.

What is my other area of concern? Well, the story that Dr. Coren based his blog post on illustrates it nicely: safe handling.

The woman in the story let her young son feed the dog, handling the raw food. I don’t eat meat or seafood, but when I did, I would not have trusted a child to handle and prepare it safely or to thoroughly clean the utensils that had been in contact with it. Similarly, I would not let a young child feed Cali her raw food or do the cleanup. I wash everything carefully, just as I would with raw meat if I were cooking that for myself. It seems like common sense. But if I had young children in the house, I probably would avoid a raw diet just because it would be harder to enforce the safe handling protocols.

So, all that is a long lead up to this: I think that raw diets are perfectly safe if handled with proper care. The presence of Salmonella in some samples does not worry me; eggs and chicken commonly carry some Salmonella. Many dogs “shed” Salmonella and other pathogens in their feces; that is not an indication that they are sick and most never have symptoms. But it is an argument for picking up your yard often — and washing your hands afterward. Dry foods have more recalls for Salmonella contamination than raw dog foods, though that might just be a question of volume. Lots more dry food is out there than raw!

The bottom line is, we eat food — as do our dogs — from an imperfect system that exists in a world full of germs and pathogens. We therefore should take precautions with all of our food. A raw diet has many, many benefits for dogs, and, if you can afford it and handle it safely, it is something that I think is worth considering.

 

 

 

 

What’s so funny?

Cali seems to laugh; pictured with Dora and Jana
What’s so funny, Cali?

What do dogs think about human laughter?

People often ask me this question. I think that dogs understand that laughter is a good thing; it means that the person is happy — with them, with life in general. I also think that some dogs actively try to get their humans to laugh.

img_3944-copyJana had a toy called a “gefilte fish. She’s had several, actually. Instead of squeaking when squeezed, the fish says, in a distressed voice, “Oy, vey!” It then makes a bubbling sound. When Jana first got that toy, she squeezed it a lot. Each time, I would laugh. She soon took to standing in front of me and “oy, vey-ing” the fish. She’d watch carefully, and if I seemed about to stop laughing, she’d “oy vey” again. She’d give a little tail wag each time she got a laugh from me.

Cali tries to get me to laugh, too. If I am preoccupied or otherwise not paying enough attention to her, she’ll lie on her back and madly bicycle her back legs so that she propels herself around the room. I laugh, of course, at her silliness. She looks slyly at me, her signature sideways look, and makes sure I am watching her.

Dogs not only understand human laughter, they have a way of laughing too. I’m far from the first person to suggest this. In Man Meets Dog, respected ethologist and Konrad Lorenz describes a smiling, panting, most often seen during play, that he characterized as dog laughter. Bark magazine also ran an article discussing dog laughter.

It’s not only dogs; researchers have found that rats, chimps, and other nonhumans laugh. Why not?

So, you’re not imagining it if you think that your dog is laughing (at you?) or enjoying your laughter. Many dogs have a great sense of humor. Even more dogs have a silly side, like Cali. Sharing a joke is just one more way to deepen and enjoy our relationships with them.

 

A Dog’s Purpose: Was the Dog Abused?

A reader asked me what I think of the controversy over the movie “A Dog’s Purpose” and allegations that a dog was abused during filming.

I had tickets to a preview showing that was a fundraiser for a local rescue organization. The preview was canceled and the rescue org took a loss once the film clip showing the alleged abuse was released, so I was following this controversy.

Here’s my take on it.

First, a caveat: We’ll never know the whole story. There have been good questions raised about the film clip like, how much it was edited and why the person(s) who had it waited more than a year to release it and why they filmed rather than intervening. I don’t know the answers to those questions, and they could point to an agenda on the part of … someone.

But. I watched the film clip several times. That dog is terrified. His tail is tucked and he is using every bit of his strength to try to get away. Out of the water. Away from the edge. At one point, he leans, hard, into the person who is pushing him toward the water. He is doing absolutely everything he can to say, “No. I don’t want to do this.” He’s scared.

Actor Dennis Quaid claims the dog was just tired and not afraid. The video does not bear that out. Besides, since when is Dennis Quaid a dog behaviorist?

American Humane says the dog was never in danger, he was not forced, and the film clip shows footage from two different times edited together. This could all be true. It does not change the dog’s body language, though. The dog felt that he was in danger, and he let the humans, who are supposed to keep him safe, know that. They responded badly.

Various responses say that there was a diver ready in case Hercules (the dog) needed help, the water was warm, etc. That all might be true too. So what?

The bottom line, for me, is that, even if the dog was not actually harmed; even if the humans nearby knew that he was in no danger because they were standing by to rescue him if need be, the dog was scared. Terrified. Even if ultimately the trainers did not force Hercules into the water, they clearly asked him to do something that he was very, very uncomfortable with. They persisted, even pushing him, holding him to keep him from escaping. To me, that is forcing him into a terrifying situation. Hercules had no way of knowing that a diver was ready to “save” him. He probably wasn’t worried about whether the water was too cold. He might have been tired. If so, to me, that just points a finger back at the producer and the American Humane people who were supposed to be Hercules’s advocates.

Hercules was being used to film a movie. A movie. To entertain, well, us. The audience for that movie is dog lovers: Me. You. Nearly all of my friends and family. I personally do not want to be “entertained” by something that was created by scaring a dog (or possibly several dogs) and working him to the point where he is so tired that he freaks out. Do you? I didn’t think so.

That is the point. You want to use animals in entertainment? Fine. Train them, humanely, patiently, and sufficiently that they can do what is asked without fear or force. Work them in short spurts, make sure that they are treated well on and off the set, and ensure that they are always safe and they always feel safe. Even without knowing all of the facts, I feel comfortable saying that I do not think that those conditions were met for Hercules.