Retirement with Dignity

statues of 4 dogs and a soldier at the military dog national monument
Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, San Antonio, Texas

Texans recently amended their state constitution to allow police K-9 handlers to adopt their dogs when the dogs retire from active duty.

That it required a constitutional amendment is a bit shocking, but kudos to Texans for doing the right thing.

Illinois passed a similar law not long ago, as did the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m still trying to find out how many other states and cities need to pass these laws.

The issue is that in many places, police K-9s are considered, and treated as, equipment. Police officers don’t get to keep their old weapons, cars, handcuffs, etc. And the dogs were lumped in with all that stuff.

It’s clearly a horrible approach and a despicable way to treat a partner.

The US military only changed its policies in 2000 to allow placement of retiring dogs with adoptive families — and only funded repatriation of these dog heroes in 2016.

With all the attention showered on Conan, the dog who participated in the recent raid that killed an ISIS leader, it’s clear that Americans value working dogs and their service. I’m sure most people would be horrified to know that many of the dogs don’t get the retirement they deserve. I’m going to follow this issue and see what I can learn about how other states treat their dog heroes.

 

A Mind of Her Own

A dirt path, some tall grass and trees. Cali, a golden retriever, is hiding
Where’s Cali?

I was talking to a friend the other day who said of her dog,”She’s smart. She doesn’t obey, but she is smart.”

I said that obedient is not at all the same as smart, and maybe the least obedient dogs are some of the smartest.

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define or measure “intelligence” in non-humans. Some dog writers and scholars equate trainability and / or obedience with intelligence. I disagree.

Life is certainly simpler and often more pleasant if your dog generally does as you ask. But, unless the dog is likely to face severe punishment for disobeying, I don’t think that following orders has much to do with intelligence.

Cali is a case in point. When it really matters that she listen, she usually does. But one area where we constantly clash is that, when we’re in an off-leash area and I decide it’s time to go home, she nearly always disagrees.

Cali is nestled among grass and weeds, well hidden
Found her

She’ll then play her favorite game, “Snake in the Grass.” She lies down in the tallest grass she can find and suddenly, coincidentally experiences a bout of total deafness.

She does this at home, too, but the grass is greener and shorter so she’s not actually invisible (unless she’s hiding among the raspberry canes).

It’s not that she doesn’t know what I want; she knows. She simply disagrees and is asserting her own agenda. Often, she’s right; our hike or play session was much too short. She is not at all sympathetic to the argument that I need to get back to work (she thinks I work far too much).

She shares her own opinions often — in choosing the direction of our walks or picking a toy or choosing to sleep downstairs instead of in her bed in the bedroom or any number of things. She can be very determined, too.

She knows her own mind, has preferences, and figures out ways to communicate them. I see these as signs of intelligence — more than simply and consistently doing as she’s told. Though that would be nice sometimes.

Of Course Your Dog Loves You

The New York Times published an interview with one of my favorite ethologists, researchers, and authors, Carl Safina this week. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the most important part: Of course our dogs love us.

If Carl Safina says so, it must be true. In addition, he says that dogs, as well as elephants, primates, and more, have consciousness.

None of this is news to people who know dogs well — but it is great to see scientists willing to talk openly about these ideas. As little as 10 or 15 years ago, talking about dogs having consciousness would have ended a person’s research career.

Safina describes his reasoning: “What is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones.”

When you’re home, where do your dogs hang out? If they hang out with you, when they could choose any other room, well … they want to be with you.

I’m trying really hard to be OK with the fact that Cali spends a lot of the day on my bed, watching the neighborhood — while I am upstairs working.

(To be fair, she spends a large part of most days up there too and is wherever I am in the evenings and when I am not working.)

If you’re not convinced by your dogs’ behavior, read some of the MRI studies by Gregory Berns and others. Your dog loves you … and it’s not only because of the treats and belly rubs.

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jackson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jackson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jackson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jackson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jackson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jackson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jackson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jackson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jackson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.

 

 

Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond

the cover of Our Dogs, Ourselves by Alexandra Horowitz shows a dog peering up at a personI was excited about reading Alexandra Horowitz’s latest dog book. She’s the person I want to be when I grow up, after all … But, though I enjoyed it, I was also a little bit disappointed.

Her best work so far — aside from her academic papers — is Being a Dog, with its deep dive into the world of scent and how dogs experience it. Our Dogs, Ourselves lacks the insights into dog-focused science I hope for from Horowitz. It also shares little of her fascinating and groundbreaking work in dog cognition.

It’s about life with dogs. Mostly, her life with her dogs, with a few broader forays into the lives of the rest of us and our dogs — or at least the dog-owners she encounters in her New York City life with dogs.

While much of the book reads like a collection of blog posts or short essays, a couple of chapters explore larger, more serious issues. These chapters, in my opinion, redeem the book:

  • “Owning Dogs” examines dogs’ status as property. Horowitz clearly articulates how and why that’s wrong and at odds with how we think of dogs — spelling out the need for a status between “property” and “person.” Her vision of a “living property” status requires attention to dogs’ welfare as well as enabling “full dogness” — opportunities to do truly doggy things, like sniffing, digging, chasing, and chewing.
  • “The Trouble with Breeds” spells out the history and harms humans have caused through generations of selective inbreeding. She also describes related damage. One example is breed-specific laws that fail to account for individual dogs’ differences or for actual behavior. Another is many humans’ tendency to choose a breed that looks appealing to them — without considering “genetic tendencies” that, for example mean that border collies are miserable spending their lives as pets of busy, apartment-dwelling humans.
  • “Against Sex” lays bare the harms we do to dogs by “de-sexing” them, especially at very young — prepubescent — ages. Horowitz dispels many myths surrounding spay and neuter, from the impact on euthanasia rates (negligible) to a long list of the health problems it causes in our pets, including the risks of the actual surgery. She bravely confronts the uncomfortable truth that neutering our pets is an easy out for humans; we don’t have to think about, much less manage, our dogs’ reproductive lives.
  • Finally, “Humorless,” paired with the chapter on “Dog Stuff,” struck a chord with me. Horowitz eloquently describes something I share — an inability to see the “fun” or “humor” in some cultural trends that poke fun at dogs, often by projecting human feelings and motivations onto our dogs. From dog-shaming websites to embarrassing dog clothing to the thousands of so-called funny videos of dogs and kids, where the dogs look stressed and terrified, much of what humans laugh at about dogs amounts to ridiculing or even abusing the dog. This is not always the case, of course, and some functional dog clothing is fine or necessary.
    But many dog find humor in situations that really are not funny. This is largely due to misinterpreting dogs’ body language. The worst results of this are, of course, dog bites. But, and I say this as a reformed dog owner, who is guilty of putting past dogs into Halloween costumes: A lot of what’s fun or funny to humans is unpleasant or worse for the dog. A scared or frightened dog who cannot escape is likely to defend himself, possibly with a bite. Who hasn’t heard a story of a bite “with no warning,” often from people who simply missed many clear signals from the dog.

Overall, there’s enough strong chapters that I do recommend the book — it’s a fun read in parts, more serious in others. But, if you’re expecting a more scientific look at dogs, stick with Being a Dog.

 

 

Nature Lover

Cali watches Old Faithful erupt at YellowstoneCali just had her first vacation to Yellowstone. Koala came, too. Neither of them had visited the park before, and they loved seeing all of the wildlife.

A side note — we visited Yellowstone several times with Jana and Wylie, and Deni and I both thought that the restrictions on where dogs can go had gotten more strict since our last visit. We’re unlikely to visit again with a pet (Koala is allowed in more places, as she is a guide dog).

That said, we had a nice time. The girls got to see dozens of elk and bison. We all — not in the park — watched a grizzly stuff his face. (We were a couple hundred yards away in the car, and the bear was in a huge field, surrounded by surprisingly nonplussed cows, so no one was in any danger. )

The humans saw wolves, also at a very safe distance, using the scopes that the wonderful wolf-watchers in Yellowstone generously share with the visiting tourists. On the way back to the cabin, we saw more wolves, visibly from the car. Pups, playing. Cali was fascinated.

In fact, Cali was fascinated by all of it, her favorite nature programs come to life. She sat glued to the window, staring out at the animals, the mountains, the snow. Yes, the snow. She loves snow and was far more delighted than the rest of us with the very early first snow.

She also enjoyed her first geyser show, watching Old Faithful erupt along with an appreciative human crowd.

Koala is a bit more jaded. A dog who has traveled extensively and seen it all, apparently, she looked for a few minutes when we encouraged her to, then curled back up on the seat, with a deep sigh. Longing for her warm Florida home, no doubt. Koala is not a fan of Montana’s cool weather. And that’s as true in August as it is in September or January.

They’re both great travelers, good at letting us know when they need a bio stop, grudgingly accepting when they have to wait in the car for us to eat or shop, and generally easygoing and pleasant company. As I write this, we’re enjoying our last night of vacation in our favorite dog-friendly spot, Chico hot springs. Happy (Jewish) New Year, everyone!

A Place to Play

Koala noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

 

Everyone needs a place to play. Even dogs. Especially dogs.

Cali loves, loves, loves her back yard. She’d live there if I let her. She’d also dig it up, rearrange the plants, harvest all the green tomatoes (but get good and sick inside, preferably on a rug), and dine on raspberries every night.

Cali and Koala do play in the yard a lot. But Koala is a delicate Florida Labrador, and cannot take the cold Montana mornings. Or the warm Montana afternoons. She wants to be inside.

It’s a dilemma.

I don’t want them wrestling and playing tug in the living room, but they can’t or don’t want to play outside all the time.

We’ve solved this issue by making the TV room in the basement a dog play area. Now, when they pick up a toy and Cali gets that mischievous gleam in her eye, we intervene. Before she entices Koala to play and gets them both in trouble, we tell them to “take it downstairs.”

It took a bunch of repetitions with us steering them downstairs, but they’ve caught on. Now they happily trot off down the stairs and play freely (and loudly). When they have friends over, they might take their friends down to play in the rec room.

They have a toy basket downstairs where most of the tug toys are kept. Well, that’s the idea, anyhow. There are often toys scattered over every inch of the floor, but sometimes, Koala even picks up the toys and puts them away. They’ll both clean up with a lot of encouragement (and a few cookies).