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.


Morris Study Visit: It’s Hard to Be a Hero

No pee for you!

It was that time of year again: Cali’s annual Morris Animal Foundation Cancer Study visit. Since she is a very healthy young golden retriever, and since we’ve been very lucky this year, she hadn’t been to the vet since her last checkup a year ago.

The day got off to a rough start and went downhill from there. If I were tweeting it, I would hashtag it #PeeFail and #NailFail. Cali would tag it #NoBreakfast.

She knew what was coming when I got up early and followed her outside carrying a paper plate. Uh oh. Cali’s worried look said that she remembered: When Mom chases her around the yard with a paper plate, the next thing that happens is … no breakfast.

Cali hates the whole paper plate thing. She warily assumed the position. I put the plate in place. As soon as the plate came out, the pee stopped. I held tightly to the plate. Cali got up, giving me a disgusted look. Then, for good measure, she gave the plate a firm kick. “Take that, Mom. No pee for you.” The little I had managed to catch on the plate drained away. #PeeFail.

After #NoBreakfast, I bundled Cali into the car and off we went. She was less-than-eager to follow her friend the vet tech to the exam room, though she brightened immediately when  showered with attention and promises of cookies … after the blood sample was taken.

Well. She hadn’t been there for 10 minutes when an emergency came in. Cali’s exam would have to wait. I left her with the clinic staff and made arrangements to pick her up in a couple of hours.

The vet techs had better luck than I did in getting a urine sample, and the hair and blood samples were not at all challenging. They even remembered to give her a little snack. But the nails … this was a real problem. I don’t trim Cali’s nails very often. She hates it, as many dogs do. She also hardly ever needs it. She runs around  and goes for multiple daily walks on concrete sidewalks that act as natural emery boards. I thought that maybe her dewclaws would be long enough to provide decent clippings, but even they were pretty short. Epic #NailFail.

Cali and the Morris Animal Foundation were not having a good day.

Finally, after a long, hungry morning at the vet, Cali was delighted to come home and play ball. After a late breakfast, of course. And a good, long pee.

Why do we go through this every year? Cancer is a top killer of dogs, particularly golden retrievers. The study is following 3,000 golden retrievers throughout their lives, collecting the annual samples as well as large amounts of data. The annual questionnaire that I fill out documents everything that Cali eats and everyplace she spends more than a week. It tracks exposure to anything from secondhand smoke to cleaning products to pesticides. Each participant provides a three-generation pedigree as well. The study is examining genetics, environment and lifestyle to search for causes and triggers of cancer.

This was Cali’s fourth checkup. I hope she has many, many more to come. And … maybe I just won’t trim her nails at all until the next one.

Melatonin Might Soothe Your Anxious Pup

As she ages, and perhaps as her hearing and eyesight fade, Jana has become more anxious and reactive. She gets startled easily and barks when cars come up behind us on walks; we avoid busy streets. She barks at anything wheeled that moves toward us — bikes, scooters, hated skateboards and loathed minivans (and joggers, even though they lack wheels) — but that’s always been true to some extent.

What’s harder to figure out is her evening anxiety. She often (well, it used to be often) would start barking in the evenings. Anxious, high-pitched woofs. The barking sometimes went on for several minutes. Woof. Long pause. Woof woof. Long pause. Etc. Not much fun for me. Or for Cali. Definitely not for the neighbors.

I’ve had some success with the Comfort Zone DAP plug-in. Sometimes a wrap would calm her. But some evenings, nothing worked. When I asked Jana’s personal physician for ideas, stipulating that I wasn’t yet ready for hard-core anti-anxiety meds, she suggested melatonin. A good friend had also suggested melatonin that same week!

With this weird coincidence striking me as a good omen, I decided to try it. It’s not addictive, it doesn’t cause liver damage or other health problems, and it’s not expensive. And, it does seem to help. I started with a single 3 mg. tablet in the evenings, and, with Jana’s doctor’s agreement, recently upped that to 3 mg. morning and evening.

It’s not a miracle cure; Jana’s not a new dog. She still gets anxious sometimes. She still hates skateboards. But the melatonin does seem to take the edge off. She relaxes some evenings. Yesterday, she actually rested her head on my knee and let me stroke her for about 20 minutes. Yes, it really was Jana. No, I did not mix her up with Cali. True to her “no-touch cuddling” credo, she did get up an move after I petted her too many times.

Seriously, though, it is nice to see her relax; maybe a larger dose can relieve more of her anxiety. Maybe she’ll turn into a cuddler like Cali! (OK, let’s not get too carried away…)

Melatonin might have other uses for anxious dogs. The Whole Dog Journal, which tops my short list of highly trusted dog magazines, recommends melatonin for dogs who are afraid of thunderstorms (the linked story might be available only to WDJ subscribers). Some websites (none that I know well enough to put on my trusted list) say melatonin can reduce the number of seizures in epileptic dogs or help with separation anxiety. Fortunately, I don’t have either of those problems, so I can’t comment.

Whatever issue you think melatonin might help your dog resolve, check with your vet first on whether to try it and how much to give.

Also, and this is essential: Check the label. A helpful reader of the xylitol post noted that her brand of chewable melatonin tablets had xylitol! That dog poison seems to turn up everywhere, so reading the label on anything you plan to share with your dog is essential.

Please Back Off

Not all dogs are as fortunate as Molly. Molly’s parents wrote to The Thinking Dog, asking for help getting people to understand that Molly needs her personal space. In this post, I am speaking for all dogs who are not as lucky as Molly.

Personal space is a cultural issue. Americans tend to like more of a bubble around them than people in some other countries. I’m not sure whether dogs in different countries or cultures have different needs for personal space, but I am positive that all of the dogs I know need people to respect that bubble. Especially people they don’t know well.

Dog bite stories in the media often say that “it came out of nowhere” or that the dog gave no warning signs. This is rarely true. Spending a few minutes looking at Facebook postings of photos and video of dogs with babies and children is a great way to gather photos of dogs showing dozens of warning signs or pleas for space. Watching those news videos of the “bites that came out of nowhere” also offers a catalog of behaviors that are clear warnings.

It’s not only children who do things that cause annoyance or stress to dogs: A particularly chilling video I’ve used in canine communication classes is one where a news anchor is severely bitten after putting her face right in the face of a stressed, overwhelmed dog — a dog who has spent the previous couple minutes (or more; it’s a short video) asking her to back off in every way a dog can.

The problem isn’t that the dogs are not giving fair warning, asking for help, or both; the problem is that most people aren’t listening or simply don’t understand the signs. Here’s a list of the most common stress signs:

  • Licking lips or nose
  • Turning the head away
  • Whale eye — wide eyes with the whites very clearly visible
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Scratching — self or the ground
  • Sniffing
  • Shaking or shaking off (as if shaking off water)
  • Bowing
  • Stress smile
  • Red eyes
  • Sweaty paws
  • Panting
  • Hypervigilance
  • Freezing

What do we do that is stressful or threatening to our dogs? Most dogs do not like being hugged or patted on the head. Frontal approach with direct eye contact is scary for many dogs. Many dislike rough petting or play hitting or people bending down, putting their faces right up close to the dog’s face and kissing or blowing at them or baby-talking them. In short, if you would be annoyed if someone did it to you, don’t do it to a dog, especially a dog you don’t really know. This doesn’t mean you can’t cuddle your dog; it means you should look for cues that he is enjoying — or uncomfortable with — what you are doing, and respond accordingly.

Some of the signs listed above do double duty: They are also what is commonly called “calming signals.” These are body language cues that dogs use to calm themselves or others. Dogs will direct calming signals to other dogs and to humans. A well-socialized dog responds appropriately — backing off, giving the dog some space, or responding with calming signals of his own. Unfortunately,  the signals are often subtle and, when noticed, misunderstood by many humans.

Cali stress
Stressed Cali

For example, the smile. A smiling dog might be a happy dog; depends on the smile. These photos show a happy Cali and a stressed Cali. She’s “smiling” in both. But in the relaxed, happy photo, Cali’s eyes are soft, her smile is loose and relaxed; in the stress photo, her eyes are hard and tense, and her mouth is tighter. For many additional (better) photos of stress, take a look at these blog posts by Eileenanddogs: “Dog Facial Expressions: Stress” and “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?


Happy Cali
Happy Cali

Other common calming signals that could be early signs of discomfort or stress are the licking the lips or nose, yawning, and turning the head away. When you notice these subtle signs, it’s a good idea to remove your dog from a situation that is becoming unbearable for him. Some dogs lick submissively — no, the dog is not “kissing” you because he’s enjoying the close attention — or shake or try to leave or hide behind their owners.

If the dog can’t escape the situation and the “aggressor” doesn’t back off, the dog is likely to escalate. Bared teeth, soft growls, or air snaps might be the first steps when a dog feels that he has no choice but to defend himself. And if the owners have taught the dog never to growl, as so many believe they should … the dog might just bite “without (obvious) warning.”

We’re our dogs protectors. It is our job to learn their stressors, heed their calls for help, and remove them from stressful or overwhelming situations.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about dogs’ stress signals? Here are some articles and blog posts that offer good info and advice:

Your Dog Hates Hugs, by Melissa Dahl

It’s Only Funny Until Your Dog Runs Out of Spoons, E. Foley, Your Dog’s Friend blog

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure, eileenanddogs blog

The Gift of Growl, Pat Miller

Preventing Dog Bites, Patricia McConnell

A Canine Stress Dictionary, and Signs That Your Dog Has Stress, and so much more on the Whole Dog Journal website



A Little Sugar

A reader asks: We kiss our little dog all the time. She seems to understand it is something special. But is that really true?

While I spend much of my life trying to understand how dogs think and feel, I can never really know what any individual dog (or human) — or dogdom in general — thinks, feels, or understands. But I have certainly given this some thought, as have many dog people. Here’s my take.

The relationship with her humans is the most important thing in your dog’s life. Even dogs who live among doggy siblings treasure their bonds with their humans. So yes, any individual contact is special to her.

But is there something about a kiss that is special to a dog? We often interpret a dog’s licks as kisses from them to us. We might be wrong about that, or, as with many vocalizations that dogs use with their humans, a kiss or lick might be a dog’s attempt to mimic something that is a big part of how humans interact and communicate. Again, hard to be sure.

Dogs lick themselves or each other as a way to soothe or relieve tension or anxiety. They might lick us to ask us to stop doing something (ever tried to examine a dog’s hurt paw only to have him lick your hand incessantly the entire time?). Mother dogs lick their pups to clean them and, in very young puppies, to stimulate toileting. Puppies might nuzzle and lick their mom’s muzzle to ask for food. But all of these types of licking look and feel very different from the nuzzling, gentle licks that seem to indicate affection.

Cali cuddleSo how do dogs understand our kisses and hugs? Many dogs dislike hugs or even see them as threatening. Most do learn to tolerate them, but it’s never a good idea to hug or kiss a dog you do not know well.

Your own dog has probably learned that kissing, hugging, and other types of contact that might not come naturally to dogs are important parts of your relationship with her. She is much more likely to accept it from you than from a stranger, even if it’s not her favorite thing. You can watch your dog’s reaction to see whether she leans away, puts her ears back, or tenses up when you touch or pet her in certain ways; if so, try something else. If she likes what you are doing — leans in, paws you to get you to continue if you stop — you can do more of it (bring on the belly rubs!). If kissing happens when you are snuggling with your dog and she’s staying put or even snuggling closer (asking for more?) I’d guess that she is enjoying the contact and closeness — and that she does know it is one of the ways you show her that you love her.


Why Is My Dog’s Eye Red?

A reader asks: My dog’s eye is red and bloodshot. I know that she has seasonal allergies; is that all it is? How do I know whether it is something serious?

While itchy, red, and irritated eyes can definitely be a symptom of seasonal allergies in our dogs (as well as in ourselves!), the key that something more is going on is that only one eye is affected. This is a good reason to get it checked out by a vet.

Eyes are delicate — and very important — so don’t take chances here. It can be allergies, a cold, or a minor irritation, but it could be something much more serious.

In this case, the dog, Hannah, had scratched her cornea badly. The vet put in some drops that showed the scratch in vivid green. Hannah went home with eye drops. She was an amazingly cooperative patient (I’ve had otherwise sweet-tempered, you-can-do-anything-to-them dogs threaten to rip my arm off if I came near them with that eyedropper again). Medication seemed to help at first, but ultimately, Hannah needed surgery, but she’s recovering. It’s a good thing she’s nice about the eye drops, though, because she needs several types of drops and ointments during her long, uncomfortable recovery.

A scratched cornea is not the only thing that can cause a single red eye. The most common cause is an irritant — a piece of dirt, dust, or plant matter or a spray, such as a skunk’s spray or a household aerosol. But bleeding in the eye or clear discomfort (the dog is pawing at her eyes) can signal a serious health problem like glaucoma or a tumor. These are rare, but the only way to be sure is to get the eye examined.