Reward or Punishment?

A tiny, perfect ice cream cone, about an inch tall
Photos by Allison Lester

Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.

Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.

For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.

The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.

In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.

Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.

Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.

For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.

The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.

It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.

How Old Is Your Dog?

Golden retriever Cali relaxes in the grass with a tennis ball
Cali keeps fit to stay youthful

How old is your dog in “human” years?

We used to just assume that a “dog year” equaled seven human years and estimate our dogs’ human-age-equivalent with a simple multiplication. Cali is 7 1/2 years old (calendar years) so she’s  … roughly my age in human years. (She still has a lot more fun though.)

Turns out that that doesn’t work.

Sometime last year, I first saw a chart that estimates dogs’ ages with adjustments for smaller- and larger-breed dogs since smaller dogs tend to live longer. Cali’s vet has this chart hanging on the wall, and I have seen it several places online. Essentially, in a dog’s first calendar year, she matures about as much as a human does during her first fifteen years. Then in year two, while your human offspring is a terrible two, your dog becomes almost civilized — roughly as mature as a 24-year-old human adult.

Guess what? According to this chart, Cali’s human-age equivalent is … drum roll … roughly the same as my age. And exactly the same as the old “7 years” trick.

But … yeah, that one doesn’t work anymore either.

Now we’ve got a shiny new method of calculating dogs’ ages. All you need is an advanced degree in mathematics …

Seriously. According to the Washington Post, all you have to do is “Multiply the natural logarithm of the dog’s age by 16, then add 31.”

Easy-peasy. Wait, what’s a natural logarithm??

Wikipedia to the rescue: “The natural logarithm of a number is its logarithm to the base of the mathematical constant e, where e is an irrational and transcendental number approximately equal to 2.718281828459.”

Or … not.

I have no idea what Cali’s age-equivalent would be with this formula. I’m going to just pretend it’s something like 25. And holding.

 

 

Hands Off My Ball …

Golden retriever Cali holds on to her tennis ball

Cali is a hoarder.

I’m lucky, though; the only thing she hoards is her tennis ball. She adopts a ball each morning — the one I throw for her the first time we play ball. Then, that is the only ball she will play with for the rest of the day. I can toss three balls (or 30), and she’ll sniff each one, but she’ll pick up only her ball.

The game starts like a normal dog-and-human ball game. I throw. She runs, catches or picks up the ball … then things fall apart. Ignoring the “retriever” part of her heritage, instead of bringing the ball to me, she runs off. She’ll choose a corner of the yard, usually in the shade, and lie there, holding her ball. All day if I let her.

If I want to continue the game, I have to chase her. She plays keep-away. Sometimes, this is what she wants. She’s clearly enjoying running, faking me out, being chased, and “letting me win” after we play a brief tug game with the ball. I then throw the ball — which she loves (in fact, she seems to have written a comic about it!) — and the whole thing starts over.

Or doesn’t.

When she’s had enough, she retreats to her corner and gets up and moves away if I approach her. Hoarding.

When we’re near water, there’s a different pattern — she’ll swim after the ball, bring it onto the bank, drop it, shake as much water onto me as she can, and eagerly wait for me to throw it again. She’ll do this over and over again, far longer than she pretends to play fetch on land. When we’re done, though, she wants to carry the ball as we continue our walk to head back to the car. I am clearly not to be trusted with it.

She’s right. Sometimes, when a ball is really dirty and slimy, just the way Cali likes it, I have been known to make it disappear.

Cali’s New Love

Golden retriever Cali gazes lovingly at Ken, our digital nomad friendCali is in love. When the object of her affection is heading our way, she knows, instinctively. She gets increasingly excited until he walks in the door.

Then she dances and squeals with joy. And grabs a toy to run around with because that’s just her thing.

Ken is a digital nomad, and he’s spent the past few months in Montana. We were lucky enough to have him in Missoula for 4 weeks!

For Cali, it was love at first sight. They played in the back yard together. They picked raspberries. They played ball. We all went on several hikes. Cali even got to have a sleepover at Ken’s house! And, through it all, Cali spent plenty of time gazing adoringly at Ken.

Sadly, the nomad is moving on. To Arizona, of all places! Where he will foster a dog from Best Friends, just over the state line in Utah. (I’m not telling Cali that part; she’d be crushed.)

Poor Cali. I wonder if she’s the type to heal her broken heart with ice cream

 

A Bumper Crop of Raspberries!

All that waiting has finally paid off. Cali is enjoying her daily harvest of raspberries. Fortunately, I have a secret stash — the bushes on the outside of my back fence, in the alley behind my house. If I had to rely on only the patch inside the fence, well, let’s just say that Cali wins the daily race for ripe berries.

A few ripe berries on the raspberry canes
The first ripe berries were just at Cali’s height

What was unexpected though, was which berries ripened first. It turns out that having a dog trample and chew and slobber on the raspberry canes is surprisingly good for the raspberries.

In fact, the little opening where Cali enters the cane forest is where the first raspberries ripened up. It’s also where almost all of the ripe berries are to be found.

The ones higher up and outside are ripening more slowly. And I am competing with the birds for those.

Despite the many critters vying for raspberries, we’re getting plenty. It’s a good year for them — thanks to Cali’s year-round tending and trampling of the bushes, I am sure.

I’m NOT a Pez Dispenser

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips
Hoping for a treat

I like to reward Cali and Koala when they are especially helpful or face down a challenge. For example, Cali gets a cookie for bringing in the paper in the morning; Koala gets one for picking up the breakfast dishes. On our walks, we pass several yards with loud, aggressive dogs. If our girls walk by without reacting or pulling on the leash, they get a cookie.

But they don’t get free cookies just for being cute.

Koala especially seems to think she should. If she knows I have treats in my pocket — or have had treats in a pocket at some point in the past, oh, lifetime or so, she knows it. And wants one.

She sits in front of me an fixes those big, dark eyes on me. She does her mind meld. Sometimes she badly miscalculates and she whines. Or she nudges my pocket. Over and over. Harder and harder. The whining and repeated nudging are met with a very sharp rebuke.

Cali is more subtle. She’ll sidle up next to me as I am working and verrryyyy gently, almost imperceptibly, touch me. Sometimes I am not even sure I really felt it. Then I look down and see a hopeful face.

Argh!

Those big brown eyes are hard to resist. But that nudging and begging. No! I am not a Pez dispenser or a gumball machine. You cannot just push a magic button on my leg and get a treat!

Cali and Koala get plenty of earned rewards. They also eat very well, between their top-quality regular meals, their puppy lunch and snuffle breaks, and their nighttime snack of kefir and a cookie. I don’t know where they got the idea that they can also have snacks on demand but … it’s not going to happen.

 

Cali’s Lifetime Project

Golden retriever Cali stands at the edge of a river
Cali recovered from her vet exam with a romp in Packer Meadow

Cali is one of more than 3,000 dogs participating in the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

It started out as a cancer study, and, with the huge amount of data collected, has evolved into a study of risk factors for many diseases that affect dogs — and some that affect humans as well. The Foundation recently held a webinar that presented some information on the study; it took place the day after Cali’s annual physical exam.

Cali’s exam went well — she’s fit and healthy. She was really annoyed by the lack of breakfast, of course. And, as usual, she steadfastly refused to provide me (or Deni) with any samples whatsoever, no matter how long we spent walking her around the back yard with a plastic container at the ready. She refused to pee at the vet’s too — until 1:30 in the afternoon.

All of this got me thinking about her participation in the study. Why we’re doing it and whether it’s worth the Day of Suffering that she seems to endure each year. So the webinar was very well timed.

5 million points of data

The researchers have gathered 5 million data points from the 3,044 dogs who enrolled in the study. As of mid-June, 221 dogs had died, and 100 had withdrawn for other reasons. Of the dogs who’ve died, 139 deaths were from cancer of some type.

Among the participants are 1,225 doggy siblings, including 2 of Cali’s brothers.

The data relate to genetics, environmental exposures, nutrition, and the dogs’ lifestyles. The dogs could enroll at age 6 months to 2 years, and the first dogs enrolled just about 8 years ago — August 2012. Cali enrolled as soon as she turned 6 months old, in June 2013. The researchers are studying a long list of issues, from the role genetics plays in obesity and the role the dog’s age at spay or neuter plays in obesity to various studies on the gut biome to causes of hypothyroidism, allergies, epilepsy, renal failure, and heart diseases.

They have found that early spaying or neutering does not correlate to a higher risk of obesity as dogs mature. But spaying or neutering dogs under the age of 6 months does correlate strongly to a higher rate of orthopedic injuries in adult dogs.

The most common health problem in study participants is ear infections. Cali is proud to say she’s never had one of those!

They’re looking at the lifespan of goldens — and studying whether there are genetic cues to why some dogs live longer.

The Foundation is launching a related study, called Golden Oldies. They are enrolling golden retrievers aged 12 or over who have never had cancer. This is perfect for older sibs of study participants who were not eligible — or any senior goldens who want to make a difference! If you are a senior golden, or you share your life with one, please consider participating.

Back to Cali

So is Cali’s suffering worth it?

The truth is, she still gets very excited about going to the vet. And even though she doesn’t get treats the first 1,000 times she asks, once she’s given up her samples, she is showered with treats. That’s in addition to all the attention she laps up while she’s there. I know she hates the delayed meal and is stressed by the crazy spectacle of her mom or a vet tech chasing her with a plate or a ladle when all she wants is some privacy … but I think it is worth it. She recovers instantly; that is, the instant a cookie enters her mouth.

But I realized that the real bottom line is that she’d have an annual checkup each year even without the study. And, as Cali’s officially a senior golden, that check would always include blood tests. So … whether she loves it or hates it is not really the issue. The real question is whether she’s going through all of the sampling and stress for herself only — or for a bigger cause. Considering the range of studies — and the number of researchers who are or will use the data to improve dogs’ health — I’m glad that Cali is part of this group of golden heroes!

Waiting for Raspberries

Golden retriever Cali sits next to the raspberry patch, waiting for berries to ripen
Some day, my berries will be ready …

Cali is a raspberry fiend. When our bushes have raspberries, she’s constantly nosing through the canes, looking for ripe, almost ripe, or just about any berries she can reach. She somehow manages to avoid the thorns.

Throughout the winter, she also kept nosing around, trampling the canes and occasionally chewing on one. I kept telling her that she’d be sorry in the summer because if she ate the bushes, there’d be no raspberries.

I was wrong. I was completely ignorant of the benefits of a dog nosing through, trampling, and chewing on raspberry canes. Our patch is bigger and stronger than ever. And both old and new canes are loaded with potential raspberries. They are not even at the stage of underripe berries as I write this, but within a few weeks … Cali will be stuffing herself.

She’s excited. Every day she goes to check on them. She conducts a thorough inspection of every cane. She sniffs every emerging berry. She sits patiently next to the canes — for hours — waiting for them to ripen.

We’re going to have a bumper crop of raspberries. I hope that the humans get to eat a few.

Pain Relief from CBD

Like many golden retrievers, Cali has some arthritis pain. And like a growing number of dogs (and humans) she’s trying CBD for relief.

CBD is derived from hemp but, unlike medical (or recreational) marijuana, it has no THC and Cali does not get a “high” from her Special cookies.

According to a recent study, the benefits are real and measurable — dogs getting CBD, vs. a placebo, had reduced inflammation and pain and greater mobility. Owners and veterinarians reported on the dogs’ condition and any changes in their gait. All the dogs had bloodwork done before and after the treatment. No ill effects were recorded — but the study lasted only 4 weeks. Nine out of 10 dogs who got the CBD showed improvement that lasted for a couple of weeks after the treatments ended.

The participating dogs got daily treatments, though, and Cali is probably taking far less CBD. She may need more of her CBD treats… a prescription she will be delighted to follow!

She’s also getting chiropractic adjustments and laser therapy. She is cheerful, playful, and happy, and eager to run and jump for a tennis ball, so I don’t think she’s in a lot of pain. But she’s still young, and her arthritis is likely to get worse, so I am learning what I can about available therapies.

This small, short-term study is promising. It could lead to studies with humans. CBD is popping up everywhere, including local pet stores. It’s great to have some indication that it could be effective.

Congratulations, Ryan!

Yellow Lab Ryan and bBlack lab Koala relax in a play tunnel
Ryan, left, and Koala, caught up on guide school news during Ryan’s visit to Florida in late February.

Our friend Ryan finally got to retire.

Ryan, a yellow Labrador, is — or was — a guide dog. He was all set to retire in March. He had his retirement planned and new toys lined up. He thoroughly enjoyed his last work trip, a visit to friends in Florida, and he looked forward to hanging up his harness.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Ryan wasn’t the only essential canine worker who had to do overtime due to the pandemic. Hundreds, maybe thousands more, had the opposite problem: Their start dates for their new jobs were delayed indefinitely.

But things are slowly starting to reopen, and Ryan was finally able to retire in early June. He even got to help train his successor. Since Ryan’s human wasn’t able to attend training camp in New York, the new dog and a human trainer came to Ryan’s house. The human trainer showed the new guy the ropes in the mornings, while in the afternoons, Ryan let the youngster know how things were going to work around the house.

Finally, just in time for summer, Ryan is retired. He’s looking forward to some well-earned rest and relaxation.