Dogs Beat Bots (Of Course They Do!)

Your dog has a superpower. It’s trendy to talk about having a superpower. The difference is, the humans who talk about it don’t really have superpowers. But dogs do. According to Wired Magazine’s website: “In the past several years, it has become increasingly clear that smell, in the right snout, can be a kind of superpower.”

The article is mostly about how annoyed this scientist is that the dogs beat his robots at detecting prostate cancer. And lots of other cancers as well as diabetic episodes, emotional states, and so, so much more. Dogs ace this. Humans stink at it.

The researcher, Andreas Mershin, is trying to create an accurate robot nose. Artificial olfaction. Why not? Artificial intelligences can already see and hear pretty well. But olfaction is our least-understood sense, and humans have, until recently, paid little attention to how it works or how to measure a smell.

Humans have spent tens of millions of dollars on attempts to create artificial noses to detect disease, ordnance, contraband, and more. Generally, each device is targeting a single scent. Yet, even when the device, under ideal conditions, can eke out a passable accuracy rate … the nose-bots fail miserably in real-world conditions. And their best performance is laughably inferior to that of a trained canine.

Dogs’ superpower is not only due to their extremely sensitive noses — they have tens of millions more receptors for smell than, say, a lowly human. The keys lie in their phenomenal abilities to distinguish individual elements of a scent and to identify even infinitesimally small quantities of a substance by detecting its scent. So far, the mechanical or robot noses don’t do that nearly as well, and they get confused more easily by other scents that occur along with the targeted scent.

A nose-bot might some day be able to beat a dog at detecting a specific scent. But the day that the bot can — as a dog can — learn to reliably identify more than one scent, in a variety of conditions, is very far and millions of dollars in the future.



Guides Just Wanna Have Fun

Koala, a black lab taking a break from guide work, sits on the beach, covered in sandYour curiosity about port-o-potties for dogs having been satisfied, let’s turn to a bigger question: Why do guide dogs go on cruises?

Well, because their people go on cruises. Which begs the question: Don’t the dogs get any time off?

The ships are actually pretty tricky for dogs (and humans) to navigate, so the 29 guide dogs worked pretty hard. Figuring out which end of the ship you’re on and whether it’s possible to get from there to where you want to be can be challenging. Guiding around the many obstacles and throngs of people, while struggling to balance, makes guiding your person to the bus stop seem like a walk in the park (which, actually, it might be).

koala, a black lab, swims in clear, shallow waterThe rooms are small, and of course the potty facilities …

Most of the dogs rose to the challenges admirably. Koala in particular. So when the ship stopped at an island with beaches, Deni found a less-crowded area and gave Koala some well-deserved (and very sandy) down time. Off harness and on a long leash, Koala headed into the surf. She ran in circles, porpoised through the water, and made sure to tug hard enough to ensure that Deni joined her in the water.

It’s a good thing that Koala has Teflon fur, though. A few shakes, a quick wipe with the towel, and she was ready to put her work clothes on and guide Deni back onto the ship.


What You All Want to Ask

Koala, a black labrador, wears a life jacket. She sits on a chair with the ocean behind herThe night before their cruise, many of the 29 guide dogs teams stayed at the same hotel. These dogs got a head start on greeting old schoolmates, as their humans met or caught up. Many of the teams had been at the Continuing Education Seminar couple of years earlier, or had been in training together, or had met at other events.

Portable dog toilet area on ship deckThe next day, the teams, along with several hundred other passengers, boarded a huge ship. Naturally, they all wanted to know the same thing you’re now wondering: Where do the dogs go to … you know?

In the case of this group: Deck 10, near the front of the ship, just off the main elevator lobby. For some dogs, that was a very long trek from where they were bunking.

The crew set up about 10 potty stalls. Some were plastic containers topped with astro-turf. Others were large metal litter boxes with, yes, dog litter. Not to be confused with cat litter, dog litter consists of hard, absorbent pellets. The astro-turfed boxes seemed to collect the pee. In either case, the dogs’ humans were expected to pick up solid waste.

Ship staff did an admirable job of keeping the place clean-ish.

“Ish” because of many issues.

Foremost, it’s windy on a moving ship. It’s hard to balance. The astro-turf rugs shifted in the wind. Some dogs flat-out refused to try the doggy port-o-potties. Others tried, but got rattled when the astro-turf rugs slipped and slid as they crouched. Many of the refusers visited the nearby deck floor instead.

Also, the human partners, coping with their own balance issues on the moving ship, along with their dogs’ skittishness and their inability to actually see where their dogs had eliminated, sometimes failed to thoroughly clean up.

Koala took it all in stride. She’d visit several stations, and, having caught up on the news, would take care of business without a fuss.

sign reads "service / working dogs are not pets and should not be petted or talked to at any time."Carnival, the cruise line, deserves special mention for the ways the dog teams were accommodated. Outside each dining area, and in other prominent places, staff had posted large signs telling people not to pet or talk to the working dogs on board. Many passengers who talked to guide dog partners mentioned the signs or said they knew they weren’t supposed to talk to the dogs (though most proceeded to do so anyhow …).

The staff ran a private safety briefing for the guide dog teams, and the leader had clearly undergone training on working with blind people. His descriptions of how to find a life jacket, what the front and back would feel like, and how to find and secure the clasps and belt were clear and full of rich description. Each guide dog had her (or his) own life jacket!

Carnival even hired interpreters for members of the group who are have both visual and hearing impairments. Through the magic of something called protactile communication, the interpreters provided a more complete experience for these passengers. Protactile communication uses touch to convey information beyond an interpreter relaying what another person is saying; it includes description of what is going on in the environment and allows for deeper two-way communication.


Ice Cream Season

Cali loves her ice cream.

By the time I realized our new home was a few blocks from the Big Dipper ice cream stand, it was too late. We were committed. Cali cannot believe that they are not open at 7 am. She wants ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Year-round. It never occurred to her that people might not want ice cream when it’s 10 degrees below zero outside. What’s the connection?

It warmed up, briefly, here and we celebrated by going to the Big Dipper. Of course!

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The (free!) dog cone was so tiny and perfect, we just had to take a picture. Well, as the pictures show, we took a little too long — and someone couldn’t wait for her treat.

If the spring ever shows up for real, I am sure that Cali will get many more tiny dog cones.


Distracted Driving

SleepyPod's large and small crash test dogs
SleepyPod’s hard-working crash test dogs

How do you keep your dog safe in the car?

On long trips (anything involving a freeway), I use a dog seatbelt. Koala likes to ride on the floor, in the footspace behind the front passenger seat.

Since I have a run-of-the-mill dog seatbelt restraint, neither of these options is particularly good. Better than letting the dog sit in the front seat or, worse, on my lap. And way better than letting her ride, loose, in the back of a pickup — all things I see often.

The issues are both her safety and mine. A dog can be distracting; I’ve driven dogs who pace on the back seat. And if I have to stop suddenly, the dog can fly off the seat and get hurt. In an accident, the dog could fly through the windshield or crash into the driver or a passenger. Or escape and get lost or hurt.

Hence the seatbelts.

AAA recommends restraining pets inside the car, in the back seat, using either a seatbelt attachment (like mine) or a crate, which is itself strapped in. These take care of the distraction issue and would provide some protection from a hard stop or mild fender bender.

The advice to let dogs ride only in the back seat is significant. It’s not only about distraction. If you are in an accident that causes the airbags to go off, your dog is very likely to be severely injured or killed by the airbag. That is why small children cannot ride in the front.

A small dog dangles from a car seatback, held by a Rocketeer harness
Rocketeer for small dogs

There’s a more secure option, one that also dramatically improves the pet’s chances of surviving an accident safely. There’s an organization called the Center for Pet Safety that tests (among other things) pet seatbelts and rates their performance.

They paid for extensive crash testing, and came up with a (very) few certified harnesses: three. These are the SleepyPod Clickit Sport and Terrain and the ZuGoPet Rocketeer.

The Rocketeer is for dogs up to 25 pounds only and is sort of like a baby carrier that you wear on the front. Only the car seat back wears it. A little weird.

You can actually watch video of the crash tests on the CPS website.

They are pricey: The Rocketeer starts at about $100, and the SleepyPods, for dogs 18 to 90 pounds, start at $70.

Duke, the new-and-improved crash-test dog, works hard to make SleepyPods safe (if you believe the video on the company website). The video is scary. Cali might be getting a brand-new, Duke-approved harness before our next road trip. Frankly, I’d feel safer if Duke came along for the ride as well!


So Cute in that T-shirt

Cute in her post-op T-shirt

“Your dog looks cute in that T-shirt,” Cali’s little friend said. We walk past a school-bus stop every morning, and some days, we beat the bus there. Two young children, themselves owned by a handsome male golden retriever, often ask to pet Cali. “But why is she wearing it?”

The little girl who asks a lot of questions is probably around 7, her quieter brother even younger.

“She had a tiny lump on her side,” I said. “It was removed, and she has stitches, but she’s fine.”

“So the shirt protects it?”

“Yes, it keeps the stitches clean and keeps her from licking it.”

“Oh.” My questioner nodded knowingly. Her dog has had stitches too.

We chatted for another minute, until the bus pulled up.

Deni and I talk about Cali’s “quarterly de-lumping” in resigned tones. Lots of golden retrievers are little lump factories. So far, Cali’s have all been benign fatty cysts, but … she’s a golden. She’s over 6 years old. I know the statistics.

That’s why Cali is in the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Cali’s personal physician, Dr. Jani Zirbel, also has a golden in the study. He’s about Cali’s age, a tall, gorgeous boy. She always says that I can leave the lumps and see if they grow, but I like to know that they’re benign.

I know it will only be a matter of weeks until I find the next little bump. But so far, Cali is fine.

She came home from her minor outpatient surgery a little groggy from the sedative and with a tummy ache. She had not fasted and did not have anesthesia, but after her procedure, the vet techs fed her. (Cali does a very convincing impersonation of a starving dog.) Whatever they fed her did not agree with her tummy …

Other than that, she recovered quickly and was delighted to run outside in her beloved yard the next day. And she does look cute in that T-shirt.


How Low Can You Go?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Not a pet-store pup!

Puppy laundering. Really. Some people will stop at nothing to make a few dollars.

Kudos to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is suing a pet store and a group that claims to be a rescue for puppy laundering.

What, you ask, is puppy laundering?

California has a law that aims to put puppy mills out of business by drying up their markets. It’s illegal in California for pet stores to sell cats, dogs, or rabbits unless they are sourced from a rescue organization or shelter. This new law is in addition to a federal law that bans most online sale of dogs and puppies.

Yet, the lawsuit alleges, Animal Kingdom pet stores was purchasing puppies from “Bark Adoptions, an organization that purports to be a rescue but is allegedly engaging in ‘puppy laundering’ on behalf of commercial breeders, and then providing those puppies to Animal Kingdom.”

Commercial breeders — puppy mills — often keep dogs and puppies in cruel, unsanitary conditions; breed unhealthy dogs; fail to socialize puppies; fail to provide sufficient food and clean water; and generally are about profit, not healthy dogs.

Puppy laundering is apparently a national scourge.

So, it cannot be said often enough: Do not buy a puppy from a pet store. Do not shop at pet stores that sell puppies, kittens, or live animals of any kind (other than maybe some species of fish). Just don’t. Ugh.