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!


Watch Closely for Cues to Dogs’ Feelings

It’s not necessary to understand micro-expressions to read Cali’s displeasure here.

Anyone out there remember “Lie to Me”? It is a TV series about a group of psychologists who solved mysteries by decoding the micro-expressions of various players until they unraveled the problem or found the missing person or whatever. That’s where I first heard of micro-expressions, which are involuntary and almost imperceptible facial expressions that express a person’s emotions — before the person consciously arranges her features to show whatever she thinks she’s feeling or wants others to see. Micro-expressions most often occur when a person is trying to hide her true feelings — or is lying, which is the premise of the TV series.

Turns out, dogs have micro-expressions too.

These are similar to — but far more subtle and easier to miss than — calming signals. Calming signals are dog body language cues that offer insight into how the dog is feeling, and they can be involuntary. But dogs can actively choose to offer calming signals, and they often do so — to other dogs and to humans, as targeted communication. But even involuntary calming signals are communicative. Examples of calming signals are the lip-licks and yawns of a stressed dog. These serve to both self-soothe (calm the dog) and tell others that she’s stressed. More examples are given in Please Back Off.

Micro-expressions in dogs, according to research done in Japan, are similar to micro-expressions in humans; they are fleeting and very easy to miss. But they also reveal preferences and can show an astute observer whether a dog is happy about something or feeling fear or dread. The researcher, Miho Nagasawa, has also studied the link between oxytocin level and dog-human interactions (dogs’ oxytocin levels rise when they gaze at their owner or interact; people’s oxytocin also rises when they stroke a dog).

Back to micro-expressions. Dogs show, with quick ear flicks, if they find something (or someone) unappealing or frightening. They show, with a quick eyebrow raise, pleasure at the sight of their human or a favorite toy. The images were captured with high-speed cameras, and are probably too fast for most of us to notice. You can read more about it in Dr. Stanley Coren’s blog post, “Just How Happy Is Your Dog?

As with MRI studies by Dr. Gregory Berns, the research points to more and more ways that dogs and humans are alike in how we experience and show emotions. I don’t find the similarities terribly surprising, but I do think that the more we learn about how dogs (and other nonhumans) think and feel, the harder it will be to justify or excuse much of our terrible treatment of them. It also offers a great excuse for spending time just watching your dog … you both get that nice oxytocin boost, and you might observe some fleeting body language cues that will help you understand your dog better!


“Alpha” Stands for Abuse

Golden retriever rolls happily in the grass
This is the only kind of rolling I want my dogs to experience.

A few weeks ago, I saw someone essentially “alpha roll” her dog.

This week, I saw Patricia McConnell’s review of a book by the same folks who initially “popularized” the alpha roll, the Monks of New Skete. I don’t know what the Monks suggest in their new book, but I am confident that it is bad for dogs.

It’s well past time for this abuse to stop. We know enough about dogs to put to rest the notion that they “need” a strong leader who keeps them in check using force.

The alpha roll, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered it, is an abusive technique presented by incompetent, ignorant individuals who call themselves dog trainers. It’s based on the thoroughly debunked idea that dogs’ “packs” need to be ruled by an “alpha” who demonstrates “leadership” by beating up on other members of the pack. And that if you, the human, do not repeatedly enforce your “leadership,” the dog (any dog) will try to take over.

All of the elements of this belief are pure hogwash. But those beliefs have led to many cruel practices, including the alpha roll as discipline. Basically, if your dog does something you don’t like, you are supposed to punish him and reinforce your “leadership” by grabbing him and throwing him onto his back (rolling him if he’s too big for you to flip easily) and holding him down as you yell at him, shake him by the scruff, do both, or perform whatever other “disciplinary” tactics the abusive “trainer” has taught you.

So, the alpha roll I saw went like this: I was walking down a busy street. A woman was walking her smallish terrierish dog. Another person walking a larger Labish dog went by. I am not sure whether the dogs only sniffed at each other or whether one or both vocalized. Whatever the small terrier did was unacceptable to the woman who grabbed him, flipped him over, shook him, and yelled, “No! Bad! No!” several times.


What did she think she was teaching him?

Who knows what she thought she was teaching him. What she was teaching him was that she, his human protector, was crazy and unpredictable. That walking down the street with her, simply being a dog, was dangerous. That she might attack him out of the blue for no reason.

I was silently rooting for the dog to bite her in the face. A major downside of the alpha roll is that the person doing it is often ideally positioned for a really nasty (and richly deserved) face bite. That so few dogs snap and deliver the “discipline” that the people deserve is an enormous testament to dogs’ self-restraint and their long-suffering and forgiving natures — not to the effectiveness of the “discipline.”

The alpha myth is based on incorrect assumptions about wolves. See Alexandra Horowitz’s explanation in this link for more information, but in short, people who observed the behavior of captive wolves extrapolated from the behavior between males all kinds of nonsense about dogs. For openers, captive wolf behavior is nothing like wild wolf behavior, so the observation that, in captive groups made up of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans, males jockeyed for control — including fighting with other males — says nothing about wolf pack dynamics. Natural wolf packs are families. The so-called alpha pair are the parents or grandparents of the other pack members. True alpha wolves rarely use physical discipline, but the alpha pair does lead the pack and teach their offspring how to behave.

And even if natural wolf packs did behave as alpha theorists described— so what? That little terrier mix getting abused on the sidewalk has less in common with a wolf than you and I have with the average chimpanzee. Do we discipline children and rule workplace hierarchies based on the way chimps treat their troupe-mates? I certainly hope not! Thanks to thousands of years of partnership leading to domestication of dogs, and also thanks to generations of human-influenced genetic changes, dog behavior is very, very different from wolf behavior. And dog-dog behavior is, and should be, different from dog-human behavior.

Dog behavior is relationship-based; dogs are very social. That is about the only element of the dog pack mythology that is true. Humans are also social. Social animals have rules, whether formal or informal, that govern their interactions. Some involve status differences and even hierarchies. But leadership is about navigating and negotiating these relationships and differences and influencing the behavior of those with lower status or who are dependent on the leader in some way. There are lots of ways to lead. Sure, force is an option. But as anyone who’s survived an autocratic parent or boss knows, it is not terribly effective, it destroys relationships, and it is far from the only way to “lead.” In fact, I do not consider force or autocracy to be leadership.

McConnell’s blog offers alternative visions of leadership. I agree with her; our leadership of our dogs should be about building a relationship, letting the dog know he can count on us and trust us. It’s also about letting dogs think for themselves and making it safe for them to make mistakes sometimes. That is the polar opposite of what “being the alpha” accomplishes.

Please don’t buy into the alpha myths; instead, buy any (or all) books by McConnell and other positive, progressive trainers who treat dogs as the thinking, caring, sensitive beings they are.

Dog Joy


This is why we share our lives with dogs.

It doesn’t matter if the day is cold, gray, and rainy, as it was all of last week. Or if I left Cali home alone for a few hours, which she protests with pouts. Or that I have been very preoccupied with work, and therefore I have spent far too much time staring at a computer screen this week. Cali dances.

Cali is a happy dog.

If a guest comes over, she rushes over to say hi. Then she grabs a toy — the three-legged lamb in this video and her enormous earless pink owl are current favorites — and dances around the living room. (If the visitor is someone she really likes, a concert of overjoyed squealing introduces the dance.)

Cali also does this dance first thing each morning and every time I come home, even if all I did was walk across the parking lot to throw out a bag of trash. She occasionally breaks into spontaneous dance at other times of the day.

When I am on the phone, she might do this dance or her other specialty, which entails lying on her back and bicycling furiously with her back legs to propel herself around the room. The hope is that I will laugh so hard that I have to end the call and pay attention to her. Oddly, it works pretty well. Unfortunately, I have never been able to capture the upside-down bicycle dance on video.

Cali is a happy dog. She shares this joy with all of her friends, by which I mean every human being she has ever met (or walked past) and most dogs that are smaller than she is and who have not tried to steal her tennis ball.

So, rather than spend any more of this unbelievably beautiful fall day inside, staring at a computer, I am going outside with my dancing girl to enjoy the sun. Have a joyous week.


In Love with the Scent of … Herself

Koala poses with her favorite toys
Photo by Deni Elliott


Can dogs be narcissistic? I never wondered about that until I got to know Koala.

Let’s back up a bit. To be a narcissist, a dog would have to have a concept of herself as an individual. Some people say that dogs don’t have “self-awareness,” the knowledge that they exist as unique individuals, separate from the environment and from other individuals.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, an ethologist and retired professor, thought that was absurd and set out to show that dogs do have self-awareness.

A common test for self-awareness is what’s often called the mirror test. The test subject is marked with a dot on the forehead, but he is not aware that the mark is there. The test measures whether, when he looks in the mirror, the test subject touches the dot on himself. If so, that indicates (supposedly) that he knows that the mirror reflection is an image of himself, and that (supposedly) shows self-awareness. Humans, even very young ones, generally pass this test. Dolphins do, too. But dogs often do not.

Now, I’ve known several dogs who would conduct complex communication with me or another human (or dog) via a mirror.  Those dogs absolutely knew that the reflections in the mirror were theirs, mine, Deni’s, whoever’s. Leaving that aside, the mirror test is a poor test of self-awareness for dogs because recognizing self or others by sight simply isn’t that important to them. (I could go off on a long rant about tests set up by and for humans based on human abilities and values that are then used to “prove” that nonhumans lack those abilities … but I won’t.)

What matters to dogs is smell.

So, back to Bekoff. He knew that the mirror test was a lousy instrument for testing dogs’ self-awareness, so he came up with a scent-based test: the yellow snow test. One Colorado winter morning, Bekoff let his dog out to do as dogs do. Then, when the dog wasn’t watching, Bekoff scooped some of the yellow snow and moved it to a location that had been visited by other dogs doing their morning business.

Then, Bekoff let his dog investigate. We all know that dogs love to check the pee-mail on walks. Bekoff’s dog was no different. Bekoff’s idea was that if a dog recognized his own scent, he’d pay less attention to it than to the scents of other dogs — dogs he wanted to learn about.

Bekoff was right. His dog passed the pee-sniff test. So did several other dogs Bekoff tested.

After learning about this experiment, I watched my own dogs’ behavior. Sure enough, they’d take a quick sniff at their own spots and move on, lingering only over other dogs’ leavings. Until Koala.

She reliably checks out her own stuff. She’ll investigate her spots later on, just as a less self-absorbed dog would check the news of other dogs. I’ve seen a few other dogs do this; Jana liked to revisit her prime spots on later walks. But Koala isn’t looking for news of other dogs, even if they’re talking about her.

No; Koala does something I have never seen another dog do: As soon as she’s done going, she turns and takes a long, approving whiff. If a fascination with oneself is the definition of a narcissist, I am afraid that Koala qualifies.

She’s not only focused on herself; she is quite interested in meeting people — and figuring out how she can get them to do things for her. That’s not entirely fair; Koala is an outstanding guide dog. She’s also silly, high-energy, and quite eager to meet and play with other dogs. But she may be the first canine narcissist I have ever met.

The Fake Hand and Dog Aggression

A fake hand is poked into a dog's food bowl to see if he responds with aggression
From Great Dog Productions

A recent New York Times article talked about a common test that supposedly assessed dogs’ aggressive tendencies. The test uses a fake hand, called an Assess-A-Hand, to “determine” whether a dog will aggressively protect his food bowl.

The idea behind it is fine; who wouldn’t want to know whether a dog is aggressive? But the idea that a single test, lasting a couple of minutes, could tell you that is absurd. The article quotes one shelter staffer as saying they’d thought of the test as a “magic bullet” and another justifying using it by explaining that “anxious adopters” need “assurances” that the dog won’t bite or react badly to other dogs.

No shelter person, breeder, dog trainer, or other dog professional should ever provide “assurances” about any dog’s future behavior. Nice as it would be to have those assurances, if you want a guarantee that your dog won’t bite, you’d better get a stuffed animal.

Part of the problem with the Assess-A-Hand tests is that people administer the test very differently. Poking the Hand into a bowl, maybe bumping the dog gently — that is how the test is intended to be used. But I have seen people actively poke and prod the dog, escalating until they provoke a reaction. Not fair.

In either case, though, the test does not provide any deep insight into the dog’s personality and certainly no way to judge future behavior. Spending time with that dog and watching his interactions with people and dogs will tell you a lot more. And taking any dog into your home means taking on some risk. There are no guarantees.

The responses to the article are interesting snapshots of the spectrum of attitudes toward dogs, from those who argue that any dog, even a repeat biter, deserves a chance to those who say that no dog who has ever bitten should be accepted into a shelter. I don’t think that either extreme is reasonable, whether it’s condemning a dog based on a single flawed test or arguing that no dog is unadoptable. I do think that a dog’s history is far more revealing than a test administered at a stressful time in a scary place to a dog who may have been hungry for days.

The bottom line, though, is that we humans need to stop seeking magic bullets. There is no simple, two-minute solution to the problem of hundreds of thousands of homeless dogs, some with long histories of biting people. There is no test that can tell you what any individual’s behavior will be in myriad unknowable future situations. We should focus on ourselves: find the time to get to know our dogs and teach children how to behave around dogs. That would be more productive than looking to simple tools like the Assess-A-Hand to perform miracles.



Pets and Natural Disasters

Evacuation route sign



Cali and I recently moved to Missoula, Montana. We enjoyed our first five or six weeks there with endless clear blue skies, long sunny days, and cool nights. Then fire season arrived.

Montana is having the worst fire season in history, and a huge fire is burning not far from Missoula. Friends and family were among the 1,000 families that had to evacuate … and thousands of pets and livestock evacuated as well.

Then, just as those families were slowly being allowed back home, a natural disaster of an entirely different type hit far south of us: Harvey. Tens of thousands of people and pets evacuated … to where?

During the weeks of the most intensive fire activity, two local organizations helped with Montana pet and livestock evacuations. The county animal control office commandeered barn and stall space at the fairgrounds for horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. The shelter also accepted some chickens, other small animals, and of course, dogs and cats. The regional SPCA took in pets as well. But both organizations also maintained lists of local families willing to foster animals. This could mean taking in a dog or two — or offering pasture space for horses. A local Facebook page set up by a community member played matchmaker as well, connecting people who needed horse trailering with people who had trailers to lend, for example, as well as matching up need and supply for pastures, places to set up RVs, etc. Several area businesses offered kennel or barn space. I loved the way people in the area stepped right up, offering whatever they could.

From news reports, it looks like shelters across Texas also are pitching in to help care for evacuated pets, but they will need more aid than the local community is able to offer.

How can we help?

I dropped off two carloads of dog and cat food and kitty litter to the Missoula Animal Control. Both local organizations had “wish lists” of needed supplies. The local ACE store offered to keep a sort of “gift registry” — a list of needed supplies, since so many customers were asking  staff what the organizations needed.

The fire evacuations were short term; fortunately most people got to go home to intact houses (two families did lose their homes and others lost outbuildings like barns). But the aftermath of Harvey is several orders of magnitude larger. Anyone who is close enough and has space might offer to foster pets or transport pets to shelters or foster homes. I keep hearing that the organizations need donations of money more than of goods, and that deliveries of goods are not necessarily getting through yet. The need will last months or even years, so anyone who can afford to might consider regular donations for the next several months.

But as important as helping with the current need is planning ahead. Does your local shelter have a disaster plan? If not, maybe you can help them create one. Do you have the ability to foster evacuated pets? Maybe you can help a local organization start a list of local people who can help out in emergencies. What if you are affected by the next extreme weather disaster: Do you have an evacuation plan for yourself and your pets? Where would you go? Do you have crates to transport cats and smaller pets?

After Katrina, many organizations put together plans and advice for people with pets, and Harvey is a reminder to update our plans. Here are some resources that can help you get started:

Ready.gov’s planning tips

From CDC: Disaster Preparedness for Your Pet

From HSUS: Make a Disaster Plan for Your Pets