Cali and the Magic Box

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Cali’s head whips around. Her body follows her nose. She’s on the scent.

She started doing this at her second or third “nosework” class — as she ambled around, haphazardly looking for the target. Suddenly, she’d catch the scent and be off, following that now-beloved birch scent to the magic box. All she had to do was touch this box and her devoted servant (me) would start showering her with praise and treats. Really good treats. Yum.

Cali “got it” very quickly. When practicing, I have to put her in the bedroom and close the door so I can hide the magic box. She trots out eagerly, nose in the air. Within seconds, that nose whips around and she’s dancing beside the box.

The road to nosework expertise is not without bumps. At one point, Cali started bashing the box with a large, soft paw. When we switched to cardboard boxes, she thought they might make a nice snack.

Despite the minor hiccups, Cali continues to progress in her scent-detection abilities. She’s putting them to work daily. Though Jana enjoyed the concept of smell walks throughout her life, Cali had never been interested in sniffing her way through town. Now she thoroughly investigates the many (many, many, many …) places along our daily walks that other dogs have marked. I never knew it could take so long to walk around a parking lot!

She’s suddenly developed a deep interest in squirrels, too. Montana squirrels are a lot more interesting than California squirrels, apparently. Especially the one that hangs out near the veterans’ apartment building next to our apartment complex. Oh, and the one that raids our bird feeder any chance it gets, whom Cali seems to enjoy watching.

Back in “nosework” class, we’ve moved from hiding the scent in boxes to moving it around. Cali quickly grasps each new step — at least, in class. Watching her try to understand the new “rules” at home is interesting. She is a living illustration that content and context both affect learning. In plain English — don’t change everything at once. She did find the scent hidden in a plastic container this morning, as well as under the sofa and on a shelf. She’s is following her nose for sure; she can’t see where I have hidden the tin with the scent stick. She’s not very methodical in her search, but she is thorough. And she gets very excited when she finds it.

What’s great about the scent game is that we can play it all winter, indoors, with little changes, and – so far — Cali’s enthusiasm hasn’t faded a bit.




Cali lost her head over Thanksgiving. We spent the week at her Favorite Place in the World, also known as Deni’s Lolo, Mont., house. We were sharing the holiday with Alberta and Mack, two lovely dogs who live there.

Well, the most important thing to know about Deni’s Lolo house is that it has a lot of land and is surrounded by even more open, unfenced land and national forest.

The first day, we set out for a walk around the property and, well, Cali lost her head. She took off running and she ran and ran in giant loops around the meadow, up and down hills, in and out between trees, around and around and around, for several minutes.

Cali, wearing a cowboy hat, smiles broadlyThe first time Cali spent a summer in Montana, I decided that “Don’t Fence Me In” should be her theme song. When we returned last summer, we stopped at Packer Meadow, which is at Lolo Pass, right on the Idaho — Montana border, about a 30-minute drive from Lolo. Koala was with us, and the two dogs did the same sort of “lost-our-heads, can’t-stop-running” exuberant celebration (see the video for a tiny sliver of their romp).

There is nothing more joyful than watching a dog run free. And dogs seem to know when they are truly free, versus in a large, open, off-leash, but fenced area.

Cali has a good life. Every day, wherever we’ve lived, I’ve taken her someplace that she can play ball and run around off leash. But it’s nearly always a yard or park that is a contained, fenced play area. She loves it, but she knows the difference.

A Cognitive Moment

Koala is learning to open doors.

This is actually tougher than it sounds. Teaching Jana this very task, 13 years ago, led to the moment that I first realized how smart Jana was — and how phenomenal dogs’ cognitive abilities are.

The task is opening a closet door. Doors with lever handles, rather than round doorknobs, are easier. The dog can easily be taught to push a door open (or closed) when the door is ajar. It’s also pretty simple to teach a dog to press the lever to release a latch and push open a door that opens inward. (Koala’s got that; see the video.)

The challenge is opening a door that needs to be released, then pulled outward.

Jana had a solid understanding of “open” and “close” the door and was easily opening the inward opening doors when we turned to this challenge. To open a latched door, she’d do an “up,” putting her front paws on the door. She’d release the latch by pressing the lever with one paw, and her weight would push the door open. This worked great for doors that could be pushed open, but presented a physics problem for doors that opened outward. The very weight needed to release the latch also pushed the door shut again.

As a new trainer, I could not figure out how to tell Jana what to do. (Honestly, I still don’t know how I’d communicate it.) I put her favorite toy behind the door and encouraged her to keep trying. Watching her repeated attempts was frustrating. But then …

Jana had an epiphany.

She put her paws on the door, as she had so many times before. She paused, looked at the door, then, slowly and deliberately, moved her right paw a couple of inches to the right. She placed her paw firmly on the doorframe. Then she triumphantly pushed the lever and pulled toward herself in a fluid motion. The door opened.

I was astonished.

That one moment was enough. Jana had solved the challenge.

Koala needs to make that same cognitive leap. She’s older (Jana was several months old at the time) and has had far more training. And Koala is a top-notch problem solver. I’m betting that she’ll get it after only a few tries. I’ll let you know when she does.

Tips for Keeping Older Dogs Safe and Comfortable


A beloved friend, Molly, turns 14 today (November 13). Happy Birthday, Molly!

In her honor, I wanted to share some tips for helping older dogs stay safe and comfortable.

When Jana started having trouble getting up because she slipped on the smooth floors, I followed a tip from my aunt and got rubber mats. They are not the most attractive addition to household decor, but they work. Yoga mats can be used as well. The most important place to put them is near the dog’s bed(s). We lived in a tiny apartment, and I put them all along the hall and in the bedroom, giving Jana a non-slip path from bed to door. Oh, and the bed? A really nice, big, memory foam dog bed from Costco. Jana sure loved to sleep on the floor next to that bed …

Keep the dog as active as is feasible. Even a slow walk is important. It gives the dog a chance to stretch her legs, move around, sniff and catch up on the neighborhood news. Even when she was well past even pretending to want to play ball, Jana wanted to walk with Cali and me to the park, where she greeted friends, begged for cookies, and rolled in the grass.

Keep nails trimmed. Long nails can hurt when the dog walks. They also exacerbate any balance or joint issues, which are common in older dogs. Many dog owners neglect their dogs’ nails. Even if long walks on sidewalks kept the nails to a reasonable length when the dog was young, an older dog who walks less (and experiences poor balance and possible joint pain) is likely to need more attention to the nails.

Make it a priority to do activities that you know your dog loves doing. A huge regret I have is not taking Jana to the dog beach more often. Other activities she enjoyed included hanging out at the corner cafe (sans Cali), solo walks, sunning herself in the yard, visiting her friend in a nearby office, and any activity that involved cookies.

If there are younger pets or kids in the family, teach them to treat the senior with gentleness and respect, and intervene if necessary to ensure that the youngster doesn’t push the older dog around or treat her roughly.

Make sure that her food and water bowls are in a place that’s easier for her to reach, or elevate them so a large dog doesn’t have to lean (that balance again …) down to eat and drink. Jana seemed to really appreciate her elevated bowls.

Take a look around your house. Are there stairs that the dog has trouble navigating? Does she have trouble getting into or out of the car? We had no stairs, so that wasn’t an issue for Jana. I kept the passenger seat in the car moved up so she could easily step into the foot space and then onto the seat. She needed help sometimes, but preferred to get in and out alone. When she was weak, though, I used a sling to help lift her into the car. A towel works in a pinch. If you do have stairs, and your dog is prone to stumbling or becoming confused, consider blocking the stairs with a baby gate for safety. When we were in a house with lots of stairs, I would block the stairs to discourage Jana from following me if I ran up to get something. She always wanted to follow me, but if I was coming right back, I wanted to spare her the effort and pain of extra trips. She disagreed, so I used the baby gates.

Look into supplements, medications, and alternative treatments than can help with chronic issues, especially pain. I limited the amount of Rimadyl that Jana needed by taking her for regular laser therapy treatments, which reduced her arthritis pain and stiffness. Not all dogs respond to the same treatments, so you might need to try a few different things. But once you hit on something that helps, you will know; the dog will be more playful and happy. Some of the lying around and sleeping is a response to pain, not an inevitable part of aging.

Get regular vet checkups. I took Jana in for checkups and blood work twice a year after about age 8. Watch for behavior changes and discuss them with your vet. Some older dogs get a form of dementia. Learn more about what that looks like on this blog: Dog Dementia: Help and Support. Regular vet visits are a great place to learn about supplements and treatments; I also recommend the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs, Naturally; both are great resources. Also, consider a home visit from a palliative care vet. A veterinarian with expertise on aging issues can look around your house and recommend steps to make it safer and more comfortable for your aging dog. She might pick up on behaviors or problems that you hadn’t noticed or had gotten used to.

Older dogs are great company, and, like any longtime friend, you want them to be with you forever. Keep your senior dog safe and comfortable, and treasure every day you get to share.



Acing the Physics Final, but …


What is it with dogs and physics?

Many dogs, including Cali, can calculate the exact place to jump into a river to intersect the tennis ball or stick that is floating along with the current. They do this while racing at top speed along the riverbank. Those same dogs can perform gorgeous acrobatics as they run and leap high into the air to catch a flying Frisbee. Cali executes stunning leaps over hills and turns gracefully in the air to catch her beloved tennis ball. Most dogs can catch a tiny piece of popcorn as it sails through the air, artfully dodging the other dog or dogs angling to snatch the same treat.

These calculations require a complex combination of skills that I, personally, have never mastered. They need to understand geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and, yes, physics. They can perform these feats while running at top speed and rarely, if ever, crashing into anything. Miraculous. They are better multitaskers than any human. These dogs could easily ace a college physics final exam.

Why, then, is gravity so hard for those same dogs to comprehend?

I play ball with Cali on the grass outside our apartment. There’s a fairly steep hill, and I often throw the ball up the hill. Cali races after it, catches it or picks it up, and sometimes, brings it back to me.

This is where we run into the gravity problem. She often drops the ball next to me, on the hill. The ball rolls down the hill. Cali gives it a perplexed look … and sits there, waiting for me to throw the ball again.

But I don’t have the ball. It’s several feet away, at the foot of the hill.

No matter how often this happens, Cali just doesn’t seem to understand.

I ask her to put the ball in my hand. She drops it. It rolls. I ask her to get it again. She looks at me as if I am crazy. I get the ball and throw it.

We repeat this cycle several times a day.

How is it that she understands calculus and trajectories but not gravity? Did she skip the first weeks of class, snooze through the midterm — and only show up for the more advanced stuff?

There is, of course, another possible explanation.

It could be that Cali finds it more entertaining to watch me fetch the ball than to get it herself. Nah, that couldn’t be it …

Buyer Beware!

Cali came from the best breeder I know! Do your research before taking home an adorable puppy.

I shouldn’t even need to say this … but don’t ever buy a puppy online.

First of all, you’re exposing yourself to scams. Unfortunately, internet fraud is very, very common, and people are not above making a buck by offering nonexistent puppies for sale to gullible people, lured in with adorable puppy photos. Read more in this Washington Post article, “How much is that doggy on the website.”

A law passed a few years ago attempted to crack down on internet puppy sales by requiring that seller have a physical location where buyers could see and pick up the puppies, but that’s hard to enforce.

A second problem with puppy purchases is, of course, the likelihood of purchasing a puppy mill puppy. This is terrible for so many reasons, among them: It feeds a business model that is based on mistreating dogs; the breeding dogs are often not only mistreated, they are unhealthy and could pass genetic, temperamental, and other flaws on to their puppies; and the puppies’ first weeks are spent in unhealthy, frightening, and damaging conditions. This makes everything from house training to manners and socialization far more challenging and sets up new puppy owners for a lot of unnecessary challenges and, often, failure.

One way to avoid puppy mill puppies is not purchasing online. Another is not purchasing at pet stores. If the risk of puppy mill puppies isn’t enough to convince you, consider that you and your family could also get sick. Another Washington Post article (shout out here to the best newspaper in America!) has more: “People are getting sick from a bacterial disease — and pet-store puppies might be to blame.”

Where should you get a puppy?

If you are particular about getting a specific breed, look for a reputable breeder. Good signs include:

  • Very thorough interview before breeder will even consider selling you a puppy
  • Breeder will not ship puppy to you; you must pick up the puppy in person
  • Breeder does not breed huge numbers of litters
  • Breeder insists on taking puppy back if you change your mind
  • Breeder knows where “her” dogs are; all of them, even older puppies whelped years ago
  • Breeder can prove that genetic and health checks are done on all breeding dogs
  • Even better — you know dogs who came from this breeder

If you’re less attached to getting a purebred puppy, look at breed rescue and other shelters and rescues in your area. The plus: you will meet your dog before taking him home. The minus: no guarantees on breeding, health, temperament, or early experiences. These dogs could come with a lot of baggage. Then again, so can a well-bred puppy. Don’t believe me? Read The Education of Will for a harrowing example.

The bottom line is, there are no guarantees, but choosing your puppy carefully is an essential first step. Relationships are hard, even when they’re with adorable four-footed fuzzballs.


Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!