Two Rude Jerks Go Out For a Walk

As Cali and I were walking to the park, we saw a woman with a small terrier-looking dog. I said hello and she did too. Cali was taking a long sniff of the grass near some trash bins, so I moved aside to let them pass.

As we walked behind them, I noticed that the little dog kept picking up his rear right paw. He had impeccable leash manners, which means that the woman wouldn’t be able to see his back paws, since he was walking right next to her (paying attention, Cali?). Also, despite a lot of rain this winter, dry season has arrived. Stiff grass stubble is everywhere, as are foxtails. Cali comes home from walks full of tiny burrs. In other words, prickly things that could easily get embedded in a paw are everywhere.

So I said to the woman, “Your dog is picking up his paw; he might have something stuck in it.”

Her reply: “I’m a good pet owner.”

Is it me or was that an oddly hostile and/or defensive response? Quashing the impulse to say something defensive in return, I said, “I thought he might have a thorn or something in it. That happens to my dog a lot around here.”

She softened a little, I think, and told me that her dog has a congenital knee problem and that’s why he does that.

But, really, is the assumption that I am criticizing your parenting the go-to response for most people? That’s a sad comment on society.

Or maybe it is me. Because, a few blocks later, we encountered another dog walker. As I tend to, I detoured into the street to avoid passing close to an unfamiliar dog on a narrow stretch of the sidewalk. The other walker said, two or three times, “He’s friendly.”

When we were closer, I said, “My dog is nervous around unfamiliar dogs.”

All perfectly normal … except the implication that I was assuming negative things about her dog. Do I radiate an air of disapproval and judgment? (Please do not answer that question.)

The last encounter in this bizarrely social morning was at the park. This time, Cali was the jerk, running off an overly friendly poodle who showed too much interest in her ball. The joke was on Cali, though, because, while she was running him off and then I was reprimanding her, Maui, a dog Cali used to consider a friend, actually stole her ball. We beat an embarrassed retreat before she could challenge Maui to a duel.

I am going back to 7 a.m. walks; the park is empty and the other dog walkers are also trying to avoid dog encounters. That all makes it easier to avoid offending the entire dog and dog-owning population of Petaluma.

Hero for a Day

No breakfast is always a bad sign.

Cali pokes me hopefully with her nose. Remember me? I’m hungry. I hug her and apologize. It’s your Morris Study Day, I tell her. I promise her a really good breakfast after the exam.

We head to the vet. For once, everything goes smoothly. No traffic (!). They take Cali immediately. No emergency comes in to delay taking the endless samples — the usual stuff, plus blood, fur, toenails. I assure the vet that I have not touched Cali’s nails since her March grooming. Her nails are always so short that it’s hard to get a sample. This year, at least her dewclaws are long.

As we’re talking, I realize that I completely forgot to collect samples on our morning walk. Not a problem, the tech reassures me. We’ll get them. I tell Cali she’d better poop for them. You can’t get out of here until you do, I tell her. That means no breakfast until you poop. She poops. She eats lots of treats. In fact, she’s done in an hour. Hooray!

Cali has breakfast. We play ball for a few minutes. She’s fully recovered. She also gets a special treat at dinner (sardines). Definitely recovered.

But every year, I wonder: Is this process OK with her? She’s happy but also a little nervous at the vet clinic. She’s been clingy since Jana died several months ago, and at the vet’s office, she “ups” on my lap and snuggles in. Sweet, but also a sign that she’s not comfortable, mildly stressed. At this vet office, the techs collect samples “in the back,” — away from my sight. I trust them; I know they are not hurting Cali any more than necessary to get a blood sample or clip her nails. But she’s nervous; she hesitates for a second before running after the tech who’s leading her away.

Every year I go over and over this in my head. It’s not that different from a regular exam, which I would do every year even if Cali were not in the study. The study is collecting a huge amount of data that might point to ways to reduce canine cancer. That is a big deal. I believe in what they are doing. I trust the vet and techs at this clinic. Is all of that enough? I decide it is.

But what does Cali think? She’s so easygoing and forgiving that she seems to just shake it off. She enjoys the extra attention and treats both at the clinic and once we get home. But her nervousness haunts me.

The Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study started enrolling dogs shortly before Cali was born (she’s four and a half). The oldest dogs who were eligible were two. That means that none of the 3,000 “heroes” are older than seven. Some have already had cancer; some have already died. This study matters. I know too many golden retrievers and other dogs who have had cancer, including some very young dogs. The study looks at genetics, exposure, diet, lifestyle. We (the human participants) fill out a very detailed questionnaire every year. What we feed our dogs, including occasional treats and supplements. How much exercise they get. What they’re exposed to: Pesticide? Secondhand smoke? It’s all in there.

The research team will have an enormous amount of data. I am looking forward to seeing what they find. I hope they look at other things besides cancer and that they release information about what they’re seeing already, about five years in.

But so far, after Cali’s fourth visit, I find myself wondering more than ever what she thinks of it all.

It’s All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. SHe had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.

 

A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.

Social Dynamics

A large white structure that served as the dog play pavilion at the Guiding Eyes seminar
Photo by Michelle Russell

Watching dogs figure out the social dynamics of their constantly changing groups is fascinating. Many people assume that it’s OK to put dogs who’ve never met together in any group configuration and they’ll just instantly become friends and play nicely together. That’s an odd assumption, particularly considering that most people also don’t think that dogs communicate particularly well.

At the Guiding Eyes weekend I recently attended, I got to see how a group of experienced dog professionals handled group play. The hotel had given us the use of a covered pavilion — the type where wedding receptions might be held. It was a large space, walled in by a low fence and covered with a heavy, waterproof white cover.

Eighty guide dog teams attended the event, and they were given time slots for dog play. In addition, people wandered in and out of the play area during unscheduled evening and morning hours.

The trainers brought exercise pens to use as dividers and other equipment. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they’d divide up the space, but it was a great idea. They created three smaller play areas, never putting more than three or four dogs together. Each section had a couple of trainers keeping watch. Before putting a dog into a play yard, the trainer removed the dog’s collar, which had tags that could get caught on something (like another dog’s teeth), and replaced it with a plain collar. The dog’s partner was told the color of this temporary collar.

Trainers watch playing guide dogs at the Guiding Eyes seminar; the dogs' partners are seated along the side of the play area.
Photo by Michelle Russell

As the dogs played, the trainers watched them constantly. If a dog became overly excited or rough, the trainers used shepherd’s crooks, slipping the hook under the dog’s collar, to gently guide the dog in a new direction. During the times I was watching, I never saw any play morph into aggression or any dog get hurt, and dogs rarely needed separating.

When a dog was done playing, she’d get her collar back and return to her partner. Once, two similar-sized black Lab girls ended up with play collars of the same color. Though each partner was sure she had the right dog, the trainers scanned their microchips and checked the numbers against a list they’d brought, just to be 110 percent sure that no dog mix-up occurred.

The microchip check is probably not needed in the average dog day care or dog park, but the other precautions the trainers took are. The Guiding Eyes dogs are all very well trained, and many dogs at the weekend conference knew each other — they’d been in the same puppy raiser region or in the kennels for training at the same time. Even so, the trainers were careful to keep play groups small, match size and energy level, and monitor all the dogs’ interactions.

That’s how the pros do it.

That contrasts with what I often see at day cares and other places where dogs play. An indoor dog park a trainer friend recently described, for example, has one huge play space and minimal or no supervision. The managers allow as many as three dozen dogs to play at once. Sounds scary; much as I like the idea of an indoor play space, I doubt I’d feel comfortable letting my dog play there.

Even dogs who know each other well need close supervision when they are playing. In a large group, play can quickly escalate to aggression or bullying. Even dogs who know each other well can get over-excited or possessive of a particularly valuable toy or chew. That’s another thing; the trainers made sure that the only toys in the Guiding Eyes play pavilion were tug ropes, which the dogs, mostly Labradors, loved.

From breaking up the space to using shepherd’s crooks to ensuring constant supervision, the trainers provided a great model for dog play.

No Thumbs? No Problem!

Koala had a problem. When she tried to chew on her antler, it would move. Sometimes it would slip out of her paws — oh, if only she had thumbs — and skitter across the floor. She loved the noise it made (especially when Deni was on the phone), but it was not efficient. She wanted to chew.

Koala has another chew toy, a nylabone ring. It’s not as nice to chew on as the antler, but it’s OK. Its primary advantage is that it’s not as slippery as that antler. But, with some creative thinking, Koala solved her problem.

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As the photos show, Koala figured out how to solve her problem using the ring as a base to hold the antler steady. She tried it with a different nylabone as well, Deni reports, but the ring-and-antler combo works the best. Koala’s quite the little toolmaker!

Tool use in nonhumans is not new; Jane Goodall discovered chimps using tools in 1960. Since then, researchers have acknowledged that other nonhumans use tools as well, including crows, dolphins, and elephants.

An accepted definition of “tool use” is “using objects external to the self to accomplish a goal.” I might argue that, using this definition, every pet dog and cat in the world uses humans as a tool, but that’s not really what we’re going after here. There’s a great YouTube video that recently made the rounds of a pair of cats ringing bells to get their (trained) humans to give them treats. That is arguably tool use.

I could come up with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of examples of doggy problem-solving, but most of those don’t include actually using a tool. I’ve heard stories and seen videos featuring dogs who push things into position and stand on them to gain access to out-of-reach food. Jana used a tennis ball to massage her back (I do the same thing, and I think that counts as tool use). And a friend’s dog tugged on a pool cover to haul in a ball that had landed in the pool.

I don’t actually know of any formal study of dogs’ creation and use of tools, but I am sure that there are many other stories out there. Does your dog use tools? Send me your stories!

Where do dogs go when they’ve gotta go?

Black and red no pooping graphic

Since I posted last week’s description of the continuing education seminar I attended with 80 guide dog teams, I just know that there is a burning question in many readers’ minds. People who work with guide or service dogs always get this question when traveling, and I am sure that the idea of 80 guide dogs in one hotel raises it too: where do they go?

So here’s the answer. The conference team hired a professional scooping crew. Scoop Masters, otherwise known as Tim and Maria Stone, have handled many a guide dog convention. And in case anyone is wondering, the Guiding Eyes dogs had hardly any accidents — less than half the accident rate of a recent guide dog users conference with, you know, dogs from other schools. Just saying.

Scoop Masters alight the day before the conference and case the joint. They figure out the best spots for doggy break areas and set up. They purchase supplies. Sometimes they actually assemble what is essentially a giant wooden litter box filled with absorbent material. At our conference, they didn’t have to do that; the hotel management allowed the dogs to use the grass. Scoop Masters set up bag stations and trashcans. They had scoops and buckets, poop bags galore, paper towels, enzymatic cleaner to clean and deodorize indoor accidents … essentially a giant version of the puppy accident kit that experienced puppy raisers know to take on any socialization field trip (it takes only one field trip to become experienced, by the way). Volunteers provided pickup assistance when needed. Scoop Masters replaced trash bags and poop bags and did spot checks periodically. That’s really all there is to it.

The main reason they were there was to take care of any accidents and emergencies. They are on-call around the clock in case a dog becomes ill or a team doesn’t make it outside in the middle of the night. There were very few accidents and no emergencies. Such good dogs!

This is a serious business, though. Besides the conference and special event service, Scoop Masters — and others like them — provide their services to homeowners’ associations, condo and apartment buildings, and even individual homeowners. They can set you up with waste stations and even provide DNA testing programs to identify scooping scofflaws. So if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t all step in it more often … thank Scoop Masters.