Do Dogs Miss Their Friends?

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back
I miss my sister (sometimes)

Koala and Deni left Montana a few weeks ago, and recently a friend asked me whether Cali misses Koala. He then jumped to the next level and asked whether dogs understand that someone has left temporarily versus having “crossed the rainbow bridge.”

Those are pretty big existential questions for dogs to consider, but I think they are up to the challenge.

First, does Cali miss Koala? I think that she misses Deni more and that there are lots of aspects of being an only dog that Cali thoroughly enjoys. Cali has regular play dates with her pal Maisy — and the two of them play better together than the pack of three did. Cali always gets to choose where we walk, as well as where we stop so she can sniff. She gets all of the dog eggs at breakfast and can have her snuffle mat whenever she wants (within reason).

But yes, I think she does miss Koala. Life is quieter and more boring when Koala is not here, and Cali rarely has a playmate. Not that Koala is always the nicest playmate, but the girls do often have a lot of fun together. When Koala is not pulling on Cali’s tail, that is, or scheming to steal her treat ball.

I also think that Cali understands that Koala and Deni have gone somewhere else — and will come back. Cali goes to the airport to see them off; they are healthy; and, I am guessing, Koala lords it over Cali for days before a trip: I get to go on an airplane and I get eggs in the Delta lounge and I get to meet the security team … that kind of thing. Cali knows that Koala isn’t simply ghosting her.

When Jana died after a period with many health problems, Cali’s reaction was completely different. She knew that Jana was gone. She cried and moped and grieved for days.

So, yes, I think dogs do understand different types of separations and have appropriate reactions to temporary versus permanent ones. Though if she did think that Koala was ghosting her, I do not know what an appropriate reaction would look like …

Please Leash Your Dog

Golden Cali and Lab Koala enjoy a fall hike. On leash.
Hiking on leash is fun!

On a single walk last week, Cali and I were approached by two unleashed dogs. One, a young, friendly, waggy mix, telegraphed youthful enthusiasm and friendliness and even wary Cali was happy to say hello. The second was far more territorial, larger and, to both of us, a bit scary. Neither listened to their human’s call. Nothing bad happened, but things could so easily and so quickly have gone wrong.

Those two were dogs I’d never seen before, but on our usual walking route, there are many frequent flyers. Or runners. The dogs who “always” stay in their yards … except for every single time I have walked by. The ones who growl menacingly when we approach — even where we already know to cross the street and make a wide detour. Walking in our beautiful neighborhood park, we’ve met multiple off-leash dogs, including the young golden who never fails to growl at Cali. Always off leash.

We’re often greeted by loose dogs, gamboling about in their (unfenced) front yards or “just” going from home to car or car to home. Doesn’t matter. During that 30-seconds of freedom, terrible things can happen. I live on what passes for a busy street in Missoula, and too often to count, across-the-street neighbor dogs, heading to the car, have been distracted by Cali (on leash). These dogs don’t look both ways before plunging into traffic.

It’s not only the danger to the loose dog that bothers me.

The dynamic between a leashed dog and an unleashed dog is very different from two leashed dogs meeting, though I generally try to keep my distance from unfamiliar leashed dogs as well.

When an unleashed dog approaches, the leashed dog can’t get away. Even when the approaching dog seems friendly, one of the dogs could decide there’s something unsavory about the other and the encounter can turn ugly, fast. Or maybe the leashed dog is inherently anxious — or dog aggressive. Or simply having a bad day. The owners of the unleashed dog have no way of knowing, even if they’re 100% certain that their dog is universally friendly, cheerful, and loving toward all of dogkind. And humankind. (Note: this is not possible; not even Cali is that perfect.)

Unable to escape the oncoming dog, the leashed dog’s only recourse is aggression — a growl, maybe a lunge.

But, if both dogs are leashed, either human can quickly head away. The dogs can get out of one another’s range. Ironically, with both dogs leashed, neither feels trapped by the encounter. Neither feels trapped because the encounter is avoidable.

Dogs don’t need to say hello to every dog they see. Mostly, they don’t want to either.

Cali is very specific about which dogs she wants to greet. Goldens and most Labs are ok. Anyone smaller than she is, preferably female, is ok. Doodles of all sizes, though, are out. She’s got a bizarre set of rules, true. But that’s her right. She doesn’t have to be social with anyone on four feet. By leashing your dog, you keep your dog safe and respect both dogs’ right to choose not to say hello.

When the approaching dog is attached to a human, both dogs can choose: They can stay close to Mom or head out to say hi.

The same is true when humans approach without dogs. Some dogs want to greet every human on the planet (hi, Cali!); others do not. If Cali weren’t leashed, she’d run up to every single person we encountered.

The human has choices too, when the dogs are leashed. While I choose not to let Cali get close to unfamiliar dogs, I confess to letting her greet humans who seem amenable (which means they look at her, talk to her, reach out a hand to the nose that is straining toward them). But when humans seem immune to her charms, we give them a lot of space (who’d want to meet those people anyhow?).

Please leash your dog. Cali will thank you. And your dog will be safer.

 

Default Behaviors

A back view of golden Cali and lab Koala as they watch the human prepare their dinner
Both dogs sit while they supervise meal prep

In a recent conversation about puppy training, Deni mentioned trainers that “teach puppies false beliefs” about humans. One example she gave was that some puppy trainers “teach puppies that they can control” what the person does — by their own behavior.

I thought about that for a minute, then responded that I didn’t think that was what was happening. Instead, I describe that as teaching default behaviors.

Cali tries her magic sit by the back door
Cali hopes that the magic sit (or lie down) will produce results — even when no humans are nearby

My example was the “Magic Sit.”

I don’t see that as teaching puppies that they can control the human’s behavior (though that belief may be naive …). I describe it more in behavioral terms: The puppy learns that good things happen when she sits. If her trainers or human family members are consistent, the puppy also learns that those same good things do not happen when she jumps, whines, paws, or does other unwanted behaviors.

If puppy training starts very young (3-4 weeks of age), as it does for some service- and guide-dog puppies, the puppy catches on very quickly. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll have a tiny puppy who sits as hard as she can, placing herself right in front of you, to show you how good she is being. In hopes of getting a cookie, of course. This is where Deni’s reading of the situation comes in. The puppy (and older dog) does try to use this “good” behavior to get rewards on demand.

Who’s in charge here?

But that’s not how it is supposed to work. The human is supposed to retain some modicum of control. (Hey, it’s a nice idea, right?)

If the human is paying attention, they will ask the puppy to sit in many situations: Before going out an open door; while the human is getting meals ready for the puppy; for grooming; when greeting visitors or returning family members. You get the idea.

When the sit is paired with predictable situations and equally predictable rewards, the puppy internalizes the idea that the thing she wants — dinner, access to her yard, attention — arrives when she sits. And only when she sits. So sitting becomes the “default” behavior — what the puppy tries when she wants something the human has or controls.

Soon, the human doesn’t even have to ask the pup / dog to sit. When we’re about to get dinner for Cali and Koala, a meaningful look is enough to get them to sit at the kitchen doorway, quiet and not underfoot.

Unfortunately, most humans have a tough time being consistent. And puppies will always remember very fondly that one time (or one hundred times) she got rewarded when she jumped, barked, or whatever. And try it again. And again.

Dogs are pretty good at getting us to do what they want and need. Luckily for us, though, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

If your dog’s usual way of getting you to play with her or feed her or let her out is too rough or pushy, start teaching her a new way to ask. (Enlist a positive trainer if you need some help getting started.)

Once the old way stops working, the dog will eventually stop trying it. Remember, though, if your dog has spent years successfully getting you to play with and pet her by jumping up on you, for example, it could take a very long time to convince her that that no longer works.

Good luck!

Dogs (Back) in the White House

A photo of Major, a German Shepherd, is surrounded by drawings of flags and a podium

After four long years, there are once again dogs in the White House! That’s a clear sign of better times ahead. No one can effectively perform a stressful job without at least one dog by their side.

President and Dr. Biden have two German Shepherd dogs. While Cali and I think they ought to have at least one Golden Retriever, we agree that GSDs are better than no dogs.

Champ, the senior dog, might weigh in on whether the White House is preferable to the vice-president’s residence, One Observatory Circle, where he lived as a young dog.

Major, not quite 3 years old, was adopted from a shelter near the Bidens’ home in Delaware in 2018 as a young puppy. He’s the first shelter dog to reside in the White House. The shelter has celebrated their young alum’s fame and fortune, throwing him an Indoguration party and launching a children’s book dedicated to Major and his big brother, Champ.

Pets in the White House are a longstanding tradition; you can find a full list on the website of the Presidential Pet Museum. While mostly dogs and a few cats, some presidents had more unusual pets, such as President Hoover’s son’s alligators.

According to the New York Times, presidential dogs have helped former leaders through some tough times and helped them improve their image.

As anyone who lives with a dog knows, that’s just the beginning. Life with dogs is just better. And I certainly feel a lot better knowing that Champ and Major will be helping their humans run things from now on.

 

Take It Downstairs!

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When they get amped up playing inside — in the living room or dining room, to be specific — we tell them to “take it downstairs.” And they DO.

Downstairs is a mostly finished basement with a large room we inaccurately call the TV room. Sure, there’s a TV there, and a sofa. There’s also an open space and an overflowing toy box. And usually a half-dozen toys scattered around the floor. And, of course, a large dog bed. So it’s really the dog playroom, where we are sometimes allowed to watch TV. While cuddling one or more dogs on the sofa.

They are allowed to tug and play growl and wrestle and roll around to their hearts’ delight — downstairs. Not upstairs, where small rooms house my nice(r) furniture, my books, breakables …

In the summer, I have been known to shoo them outdoors when they start playing, but, as Koala points out (hourly): It’s Montana out there.

What’s impressive about the girls’ “taking it downstairs” is that their most energetic play sessions seem to coincidentally coincide with our phone or zoom conversations. Even so, even though they know we are distracted, they’ll take their toys and head downstairs.

A few minutes later, panting, happy dogs will reappear and settle down on the living room rugs for a nap. A tired dog is a good dog, after all.

Cali and the Magic Sit

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Cali believes in the magic sit. The magic sit is what causes humans to pet puppies — when they stop jumping and sit, magically, a treat and lots of fuss and petting happens. The magic sit is a great way for puppies to get cookies in other situations as well, as little Cali discovered those many years ago … It works when friends visit and she wants them to pet her and admire her toy, for example.

Her faith in the magic sit has never wavered.

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell my it is time to stop working
Quitting time

When it’s past dinner time and the clueless humans are still staring at their stupid boxes, a magic sit (often paired with some strategically dripped drool) can produce dinner.

When the humans are fixing dinner, the magic sit makes the bowl appear on the floor, full of delicious food.

When deployed at the back door, the magic sit can cause the door to open in a way that jumping and whining rarely do.

When the humans are eating breakfast, a magic sit (or occasionally the magic lie-down variation) can make a small portion of eggs for dogs appear.

Cali’s faith is so strong that she often deploys the magic sit when it’s not time for dinner or time to go out. She faces into the kitchen, positioned between the dining room and kitchen, as if waiting for dinner. Or she sits by the back door, gazing steadily at her back yard, tantalizingly close. But her humans are not there. They might be behind her in the dining room or in the living room or even upstairs. It doesn’t matter, Cali thinks. The magic sit will work.

So she sits. And hopes. And waits. Believing in the power of the magic sit to get her … what, exactly? We may never know.

Koala Struggles with Ethics

Golden Retriever Cali gently bats and noses her treat ball to get the kibble out.

Koala faces daily ethical dilemmas, as do many dogs. She’s a highly educated dog who loves to show off her smarts. She also tends to follow rules. But something about the puppy lunch routine is her ethical undoing.

The routine is predictable: Deni gets the girls their puppy lunch each day. Koala brings the treat balls upstairs; Deni fills them; and everyone heads downstairs for PL, as we’ve begun calling it (as if they girls don’t understand …). After PL, Koala puts both treat balls into their little box, and she gets an a cookie as payment for her work.

A daily dilemma

Black Lab Koala nudges her orange treat toy to empty and eat the kibble that’s inside

For a while, Koala did daily battle with her inner bad dog.

She’d quickly finish emptying her treat ball.

But Cali works more slowly. Koala couldn’t stand it. Cali had a treat ball and she didn’t! She began plotting. Each day, she’d try to steal Cali’s. She had to do it without attracting Deni’s attention, of course.

Cali got crafty. She took to batting her treat ball around a very small, sheltered spot. She was on a dog bed, up against a wall, and hemmed in by furniture, so there was only one open access point.

Deni ultimately caught on. She began giving Cali her treat ball inside the office (where Cali continued using the sheltered space) — and banned Koala from the office until Cali finished.

Well. Koala hated that. She’d whine outside the door in frustration.

Cali gets revenge

Cali, however, quickly figured out how to exploit the situation. It takes her longer and longer to slooowwwly empty her treat ball. She then tucks it under a paw, snuggles it gently, and takes a brief nap. All while Koala rages whiningly outside the door.

When Cali has tired of toying with Koala, she gently nudges Deni to let her know that she’s done. Koala then puts the balls away and gets a treat.

Deni has discovered that, even if she’s not there, Koala won’t go into the office to steal Cali’s treat ball. Koala is generally very good about following rules, even rules she hates.

But she will find Deni and badger her until Deni goes downstairs, takes the ball, and lets Koala put the balls away.

I don’t understand …

A related example: Let’s say the girls have finished their treat toys, and Deni is nowhere to be found. So I ask Koala to put the balls away. She knows perfectly well what to do; she does it every day. She puts other things away, too, like toys in the toy box.

Yet, it never fails: She flings the ball down outside of the box. Over and over. And demands a cookie each time. When I don’t give her one, instead repeating, “Please put the ball away, in the box, Koala,” she huffs, puffs, scowls, flings it harder, insists that she has no idea what I want her to do.

I figured out a way to cut this tantrum short. Today, each time she flung the ball anywhere except the box, I calmly handed a cookie to Cali, a willing sidekick in this exercise. I then asked Koala (again) to put the ball away.

Two Cali cookies later, amid disbelieving looks (and many more huff and puffs) from Koala, the ball was in the box. Koala finally got her cookie.

When a good dog behaves badly

Koala is generally a very good dog. So, why does she do bad things when she clearly knows what she’s supposed to do? Who knows? Why does anyone? Maybe it’s just a game the girls play. Or just sisters tormenting each other. When Koala heads back to Florida, she may miss this daily battle. Cali will; she doesn’t even get PL when Deni isn’t here. She does get her snuffle mat, though.

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah! 

Favorite Stops on Our Smell Walks

Golden Cali and Lab Koala agree to sniff deeply at a grassy spot
Pooling the “sniff” budget pays off

“Smell walks” with Cali and Koala are undergoing an update. It’s going better than I expected, actually.

Smell walks follow a suggestion from Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog. Basically, they are walks where the human actually lets the dog stop to sniff things. Since in the dog’s world, that is the one and only purpose of a walk, they tend to be mystified and frustrated by the large number of humans who seem to think walks are about walking.

Koala takes the concept beyond the extreme, though, sniffing Every. Single. Tree. And rock, blade of grass, and other, ickier stuff. After realizing that my usual 20-minute morning walk with Cali takes well over 45 minutes when Koala joins us, I knew that changes were needed.

I decided that each dog could choose 3 spots for long, deep sniffing sessions. The rest of the time, we’d walk. There’s one other rule: The deep sniffs do not include other dogs’ droppings.

I explained these rules to them carefully, and off we went. I counted each stop and told them how many they each had remaining in the bank. Even so, on the first modified walk, they seemed surprised and, yes, annoyed when I hustled them along after their 6 deep sniffs.

But they caught on pretty quickly. Soon, they started choosing their spots together, rather than taking turns. I could see one turn to the other, the other give a look — and both dive in. I think this approach provides them both with a greater return from their sniff budget.

They have started to return to the same spots, walk after walk. I’m guessing that those are spots favored by our neighborhood deer friends as well as the numerous other dogs who stroll the sidewalks.

Koala is quickly mastering the “walk-by sniff” — she samples an area with a quick sniff-survey of the air as we approach. Before we’re even there, she’s rejected it as a stop, quickly collecting all the information she needs without even slowing down.

Koala is efficient in another way: She often combines a deep-sniff session with other business needs. I appreciate that she frequently does that near one of the two trash cans on our usual route.

We’ve almost settled into a new routine. I can predict 3 or 4 of their stops already. Maybe they are weighing the others and will make their choices soon. Or perhaps they will always reserve 2 spots for impulse stops. Even dogs need some variety in their routines, after all.

A Win for Service Dogs!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad
Koala is booking her next flight

The Department of Transportation released its new rules regarding travel with service dogs. This long-awaited ruling amends the Air Carrier Access Act’s (ACAA) regulations on travel with service animals. The 122-page ruling is available on the DoT website. An FAQ is also available. More than two years(!) have passed since DoT first requested public comment.

The ruling is worthwhile reading. It describes several issues considered and summarizes the comments and arguments presented around each. I’ll summarize some of the key points here, and let you delve into the details on your own.

The new rules take will effect January 11, 2021, after publication in the Federal Register on December 10, 2020.

1. Alignment with ADA on definition of a service dog

The ACAA has adopted similar wording and a similar approach to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in defining a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” More significantly for the traveling public, the ACAA is doing away with any requirement that airlines allow passengers to bring so-called Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) on board without paying a pet fee.

It also requires that airlines treat psychiatric service dogs the same way it treats other service dogs. Many airlines had treated these as ESAs and/or required additional documentation or other “hoops” for passengers traveling with psychiatric service dogs.

The amended ACAA excludes miniature horses from travel in the cabin of an airplane.

2. New paperwork requirements

The new ruling includes a paperwork requirement for all travelers with service dogs. Using the DoT official Air Transportation forms, each traveler who is accompanied by a service dog will be required to attest that the dog has been trained to assist with a disability, the dog behaves safely in public, and the dog is in good health and current on vaccines. If the traveler has any flight segments that are eight hours or longer, they must further attest that the dog “has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner” (what counts as sanitary is unspecified).

Airlines can require that the traveler provide the forms up to 48 hours in advance of the flight if they’ve made their flight reservations by then. Airlines cannot, however, require that passengers traveling with service dogs check in earlier than other passengers or check in in-person. If a traveler’s reservation is made within 48 hours of departure, the airline can require the passenger to present the completed forms at the departure gate.

3. About the dog

Airlines may limit a passenger to two service dogs. Whether the passenger has one or two service dogs, though, dog(s) and human must all fit within the space of the handler’s seat and foot space on the aircraft. And they can require that the dog be “harnessed, leashed, or tethered” at all times in the airport and on the aircraft. This is a departure from the ADA, which makes allowance for unrestrained service dogs if that’s necessary for their work. The rationale given in the ruling references the unique environment of an aircraft and situation of being in close quarters, in a stressful environment, with no escape.

If a service animal is too large to fit in the passenger’s space, the airline must offer to move them to another seat with more space, if one is available in the same service class; move them to a different flight; or transport the dog in the cargo hold.

Airlines are not allowed to ban a service dog based on its breed (though some are still trying to do so). But any dog can be excluded from a flight if they exhibit aggressive or unsafe behavior.

A win for pets, too

These new rules aren’t perfect and won’t solve all the problems working dogs face when confronted by fake or poorly trained service animals, but removing ESAs from the picture will certainly reduce the frequency. The numbers are staggering — Airlines for America, an airline trade association Deni found recently while doing research, concluded that more than a million air travelers brought their ESAs aboard in 2018. The number of websites where pet owners could purchase “credentials” transforming their pets into ESAs, while also conveniently purchasing official-looking vests and tags, grew in a trajectory similar to the number of traveling ESAs, while the number of passengers paying pet fees plummeted.

Many of these pets, as I have written before, receive no training and are terrified when taken from their usual safe home life into the bustle of an airport, the stress, along with strange noises and smells, of an airplane, and then, too often, removed from their carriers to be clutched by their anxious owners who are somehow comforted by the presence of their traumatized pets. Not surprisingly, the number of complaints about scared animals doing what scared animals do had climbed as the number of ESAs skyrocketed. The DoT fielded 700 complaints in 2013 — and 3,000 in 2018, according to Deni’s research. These range from animals eliminating on planes to snapping, nipping, and serious bites.

Dogs trained by reputable trainers or guide- or service-dog training schools receive many hours of public-access training and pass rigorous evaluations. But not all service dogs are trained that way. And some dogs are fine in 99% of public settings but are terrified by air travel. So the new law is not a guarantee that the dog in the next seat will be as perfect as Lassie. But, while it doesn’t close every loophole or solve every problem, the new restrictions are likely to make working-while-traveling a lot safer for thousands of guide and service dogs — and their human partners.