Major Problems

Champ and Major Biden, both German Shepherds, adorned the White House christmas card

My heart goes out to Major Biden.

Moving is challenging for dogs; moving into the White House must be especially confusing. There are so many new people around and so much commotion.

Major was already having a hard time adjusting, evidenced by his “biting incidents.” Then the poor guy had to get used to living with a cat. This can be a tough adjustment for many dogs!

And now, poor Major has lost his big brother, Champ.

Yes, sadly, First Dog Champ Biden passed away on June 19 at age 13.

Champ was a much-loved longtime companion to the human Bidens and probably a cherished big brother and mentor to Major. Losing your sib and best friend is hard, and I am sure that Major is grieving.

Major has had a lot of stress to deal with lately. I hope that his life settles down soon as he adjusts to life as the First Dog.

I also hope that he gets the doggy equivalent of a therapist — a positive trainer who takes the time to understand the individual dog and address his needs. Unfortunately, as of April, that did not seem to be the case.

Force- and punishment-based “training” approaches are abusive as well as being ineffective. You cannot force a dog to stop being scared or anxious, which is the root cause of much of what’s characterized as aggression or “reactivity.”

Overly aggressive “training” could just add to poor Major’s stress, leading to more unfortunate incidents. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen and that we see happier news from Major in days ahead.

Ouch! Hot Surfaces Hurt Dog Paws!

Golden retriever Cali tries on some hiking boots
Boots can protect dog feet from cold or heat

A friend passed along a horrifying local news story this week: A new bridge is under construction in my neighborhood. One side has been completed and opened recently, just in time for some very hot weather. A local character nicknamed The Beagle Guy was biking with his pack when he noticed them behaving oddly. He stopped to see what was wrong, touched the ground … and realized it was HOT. He told construction workers and got his dogs out of there.

A civil engineer on the project recorded a temperature reading of the bridge surface: A whopping 147 degrees! Nearby concrete sidewalks registered a toasty 106 and a metal handrail, painted black, was “only” 114. But the day hit the low 90s, so this could be a rare problem, right?

Unfortunately no: Another day, when the temperature was in the 80s, common during Missoula’s short summers, the bridge surface was 145 degrees.

Those poor dogs!

During extreme weather in particular, but really, always: Think about your dogs’ experience. Paw pads are sensitive: Extreme heat or cold is painful. Many snow-melt chemicals burn horribly. Rough terrain — icy or rocky or sandy — can scrape and cut pads. When walking or hiking with your dogs, think about that. If you wouldn’t walk barefoot on the surface, don’t ask them to.

Solutions?

On hot days, I don’t ask Cali to walk on asphalt. I won’t walk her across the new bridge at all. In winter, I avoid any sidewalk that has ice-melt on it. If you’re an avid hiker or live somewhere wintry, consider boots (I know, dogs hate them… but many dogs will accept them with proper training that includes a lot of treats).

If your dog has severe burns or you suspect they might, go to your vet or an emergency vet. Burned paws are very painful!

To soothe mildly cut or burned pads:

  • Plunge the paw(s) into cold water and soak for several minutes
  • Clean gently to remove debris
  • Pat the paw dry; do not rub the pads
  • Use a natural balm, such as Musher’s Secret or pure aloe vera gel
  • Wrap the paw loosely with gauze or a sock
  • Keep the dog off her feet (yeah, right!)

How does this happen?

The panels covering the bridge surface use a newish “polymer” material used “all over the world,” according to the Missoulian. It’s significantly lighter weight than concrete.

But most bridges are outdoor, and, though covered bridges are quaint, they are not terribly common, so this cannot be the first bridge using this material that gets direct sunlight. How has this problem never been discovered previously? And why is testing the surface temperature in various weather conditions not a routine part of QA testing?

OK, done ranting.

But, since we can’t count on the world to be safe for dog paws, we need to protect our pets. Have a safe and cool summer!

Update!

The hot side of the bridge got a warning sign as well as a new (temporary) paint job to protect paws and other unshod feet! I am impressed with the speed at which a fix was found — and I hope that a permanent solution is implemented soon!

A sign warns of pavement too hot for dog feet

 

Talking Dogs?

Profile of Cali, a golden retriever, and her silicone-wrapped tag
Cali communicates effectively without words.

It’s been a few months since I first read about Bunny, a dog that supposedly uses a vast network of buttons with recorded messages to talk with her human. I’ve used that time to read the media coverage of her feats, which is disappointingly lacking in critical thinking, and to consider the idea of teaching dogs to talk to us.

Bunny’s human and the FluentPet company, which makes the buttons and hexagonal boards with which to network them together, are not the first to try to teach dogs to talk (or do math). Researcher and author Sean Senechal devised a dog sign language system several years ago.

I tried both and find them to be extremely complicated ways to teach dogs something they don’t need to know: Human language. Dogs communicate with us constantly and effectively. If we’re not getting it, that’s because we’re not trying hard enough, not because the dogs need to learn to use English words.

These tools are complicated in that teaching the dogs to use them requires many steps, much practice, and a degree of consistency that few humans are able to achieve. You have to learn the signs or program the buttons. Teach the dog what each sign or button means. Practice; reinforce correctly, in a timely manner, over and over and over again. Then — hope that your dog agrees to go along with it!

Cali doesn’t want to talk

I bought a test kit of 2 buttons from FluentPet and went to work trying to teach Cali to use the button to go outside. She already knew the “touch” cue and was able to push a button, so I didn’t have to start at the very beginning. I recorded, “Outside, please.” My — I thought reasonable — goal was to teach her buttons for outside and play, then to try to convince her to distinguish between wanting to go out to play ball and needing to go out for bio-breaks. And getting her to ask in a way I might hear if I was upstairs working, rather than sitting by the door.

Outside is an easy place to start, because you, the human, can reliably open the door and let the dog out any time you or the dog hits the button. The next step is in the dog’s paws: She has to make the leap from going out when you push the button and let her out to asking to go out by pushing the button herself.

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

Cali would push the button for a cookie. She would push the button before going out if I insisted, but she really, really did not see the point.

Cali clearly communicated that she did not want to do this. She’d look away from the button. Do elaborate stretches. Sit staring at the door. Look at anything but the button. Even walk away. This from a dog who always wants to go out.

She was perfectly happy asking to go out in her usual ways. Another problem we quickly discovered is that the button has pretty poor audio quality and low volume, so … it would only be helpful if I were right next to the button.

I decided to stop bugging Cali and see if Koala wanted to talk.

Koala doesn’t need buttons to talk

Koala is quite an effective communicator. She, too, thinks the buttons are silly.

They’re right

We don’t need to jump through — or try to force our dogs through — silly hoops yo get them to talk with us. They already communicate clearly.

And, as much as I like the idea of encouraging dog people to spend time teaching their dogs new skills, I’m pretty sure this is not the right way. It’s frustrating, for both the dog and the human. It’s not easy to come up with ways to explain the concepts you’re trying to teach to the dog. Using buttons or choreographed paw movements to “talk” to us is not a normal doggy thing to do.

Cali and Koala and I get much more enjoyment spending our time together going on smell walks, snuffle-matting, playing ball, or learning Rally. In addition, I think that the claims about what dogs are saying when they use the buttons are overblown. That’s a topic for another post, though.

Doctor Dogs

Most people are aware of guide dogs, mobility service dogs, and possibly hearing dogs. But dogs help people with medical issues in myriad ways beyond these service dog roles. In her latest book, author Maria Goodavage explores dozens of the tasks dogs perform to diagnose, treat, heal, and comfort humans. And the epilogue and acknowledgements sections briefly describe dozens more that were omitted from the main sections of the book (the end sections might have been my favorite part …).

Dogs who detect COVID are in the news; but fewer people are aware of dogs’ ability to detect several types of cancer, as well as diabetics’ sugar highs and lows. Goodavage even has wonderful stories of dogs who detect their human partners’ impending seizures or cardiac incidents …

Moving beyond physical ailments, Goodavage devotes several sections to dogs who assist in times of crisis and trauma, whether serving an individual with PTSD or showing up at court to comfort children testifying in abuse cases, the dogs are on the job.

The book is a comprehensive catalog of ways that dogs help people, but it’s more than that. The thread connecting all of the stories is the human-canine relationship. For many of the “services” dogs perform, neither their partners nor the dogs’ trainers can identify what the dog is detecting. The dogs are deeply connected to their humans and figured out a pattern, decided that the human needed some help, and came up with a way to let them know.

For example, Goodavage is careful to explain that it’s not really possible to train a dog to detect an impending seizure. Many organizations do train dogs to respond in specific ways if their partner has a seizure, though. Some of these trained dogs figure out a pattern of behavior, chemical changes, or something else that reliable predicts a seizure and begin to warn their person. Or a parent, in the case of a child. There are even stories of untrained dogs figuring this all out on their own.

In the case of dogs who are trained to detect the scent of hypoglycemia, for example, or bladder cancer, Goodavage muses about “rogue” doctor dogs — dogs alerting random strangers while out and about. It’s not impossible; some trained dogs have raised the alarm without prompting.

The book is a great read. Goodavage is a stellar storyteller, and she’s done deep research. In addition to interviewing dozens (hundreds?) of trainers, handlers, and people partnered with doctor dogs of all specialties, Goodavage leads readers through all the current research (with a 20-page reference list  to back her up) on how dogs do this and how effective they are. Despite the deep dive into science and research, the book is engaging and readable.

Can the Cone

No dog should ever have to wear the dreaded “cone of shame” again. So many alternative products are out there.

I recommend getting at least one to have on hand for whenever you need it next. That will save you a few dollars (you know that the vet charges you an absurd amount of money for that cone, right?) and, more importantly, keep your dog comfortable.

Golden retriever Cali wears a navy blue onesie
The surgical suit fits snugly and snaps at the back

Koala recently tried a few options, including the surgical suit, which Cali is modeling in the photo (because a dark blue suit is hard to see on Koala).

It is essentially a little doggy onesie. A quick search reveals that they come in many colors and patterns, and even in a long-sleeved version. Just don’t forget to help your dog unbutton before going out to deal with essential business!

The surgical suit could serve an additional purpose: Anxiety relief. It’s similar to a Thundershirt in the snug fit. Thundershirts, as well as various wrap techniques, help many dogs feel calmer during anxiety-inducing events like thunderstorms or fireworks.

Golden retriever Cali wears her soft cone as she lies on the grassA more common option is the wide variety of riffs on the cone theme. Cali has a small, soft cone (the Comfy Cone) that used to stop her from fussing with her hot spots, back when she got hot spots. She has not needed it in quite a while.

Koala upgraded for her recent surgery, sporting a doggy donut as an alternative to the suit:

Koala wears a soft neck ring
Navy is not really her color.

She doesn’t look too happy about all of this, but either option is better than a cone. She can see, for starters. She can eat and drink, unencumbered. She won’t walk into walls. She just can’t reach her stitches.

You can also find inflatable neck pillows, similar to the ones humans sometimes use on airplanes (remember those?). But Koala’s collar is softer.

Whatever you choose, avoid the large plastic cone. Some dogs, like Jana, are so uncomfortable that they refuse to move. Fortunately, even though I didn’t know about alternatives when Jana was a puppy, she was a sensible, stoic dog and left her stitches alone without a cone.

The oversize plastic cone is a drastic solution to a problem that is really pretty easy to solve. I’ve seen people use toddler-size onesies, socks for sore paws, and other homemade remedies too. Get one of the commercial versions or come up with your own, but forget that awful cone.

Cali agrees. The only kind of cone she wants is the ice-cream kind.

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.

On Wolves and Livestock

Grey wolf
From True Wild / Mountain Journal

I live in Montana, a state that has declared all-out war on its small and fragile wolf population. Many (most?) Montana ranchers loathe wolves. (And that is an understatement.) They say that wolves kill huge numbers of their livestock, causing significant financial damage.

So I was especially interested in an article a friend sent me recently about a humane way to deter predators from dining on livestock: The BarkLight collar.

The collars work on farms and ranches where livestock guard dogs are hard at work. When the dog barks, on smelling or seeing a predator, the collar lights up. This is a mild deterrent to the wolf or mountain lion (who, according to some research, kill far more livestock than wolves in Montana). But the really cool, hi-tech part is what happens next: The collar is networked with lights on the property. If the dog barks, the collar lights stay on and the lights around the property also activate. This not only deters the wolf/lion, it alerts the ranchers.

This is not a solution for all ranchers, of course. Many graze their livestock on  unfenced land … land that is often unfenced because it is public land. And there are no guard dogs, lights, or ranchers nearby to come to the rescue.

Or their ranches are so large that the cattle, bison, or sheep range over too large an area for this system to work.

I have to admit that I don’t have an enormous amount of sympathy for any losses suffered by many of the ranchers, especially the ones using public lands to enrich themselves.

And, I recently saw a wonderful documentary, True Wild, about, yes, wolves coexisting with free-ranging bison and elk on a huge (114,000 acres!) ranch. The movie explores the effects of the wolves on livestock and finds that losses are negligible.

Whatever the true story about wolves and Montana livestock, I am encouraged by the use of technology to find ways to protect wolves and encourage ranchers and farmers to use humane methods to deter predation.

Scarred for Life

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.
Not even an ice-cream cone can erase the traumatic memory of a late dinner.

After more than 20 years of dog parenting, it finally happened. I did the unthinkable.

Dinner was late. Very late.

Sometimes dinner is a little bit late if I am out; often, dinner is extremely early because I am going to be out.

Dinner is supposed to be served between 5 and 5:30. Cali thinks it should be served earlier (and then again later) but we agree to disagree. “A little late” or “acceptably late” — acceptable to the humans, that is — is anytime up until about 7.

One evening, not long ago, I was busy with some stuff. Cali was off doing her own thing. Then, around 8 or maybe (could it really have been?) close to 8:30, I wandered into the kitchen … and noticed that I had not given Cali her dinner. I have no excuse.

When I called her, she dragged her weak, starving self into the kitchen. I apologized profusely and gave her dinner. All seemed to be, if not well, on the mend.

But.

Since then — it has been several weeks — I notice that Cali is anxious if 5 pm passes and there is no food in the bowl. She keeps a closer eye on me. She starts reminding me to stop working earlier and earlier. Then she leads me to the kitchen.

I think she’s scarred for life.

The anti-jackpot

In dog training, there’s a concept we call a jackpot. If the dog does something really wonderful, we “jackpot” them with lots and lots of treats, effusive praise (if they like that sort of thing; Cali just rolls her eyes and asks for more cookies).

Similarly, dogs might jackpot themselves, inadvertently or very intentionally. For instance, the dog who trolls the countertops … and one day discovers that she can reach something wonderful: someone’s momentarily unguarded snack, half a loaf of banana bread, the roast chicken that’s cooling on the counter.

That dog has become a counter surfer for life.

The jackpot, whether delivered by a willing human or self-administered, is highly memorable. The event that immediately preceded it becomes, by association, highly memorable. Better yet, it could happen again.

That’s why Cali tries to walk me to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream stand with free dog cones, every day. Her pleasant experiences there could happen again.

That’s why dogs return to that spot on the dog beach where they found that really cool dead fish to roll in last time … or last year. It could happen again.

That’s why, ahem, feeding the dog a piece of pizza crust just once sets you up for a lifetime of sad puppy eyes, drool on your shoes, and a dog who races to fetch a $20 bill whenever the pizza deliverer appears. (That’s what I hear, anyhow …) It could happen again.

Cali’s traumatic experience with late dinner was her anti-jackpot. It was truly, unbearably horrible, the opposite of an exciting jackpot experience. But even more memorable. And it could happen again.

 

 

Streaming Now: Dogs on the Silver Screen

A tan dog and black and white puppy sit with Istanbul's skyline in the background
Movie poster for Stray

I recently watched not one but two new documentaries focused on dogs. Both are available to stream.

We Don’t Deserve Dogs

We Don’t Deserve Dogs highlights the human-dog relationship by profiling dog people around the world. It offers a fascinating glimpse at dogs and their humans in Uganda, Nepal, Peru … and several other countries where, it turns out, people fuss and fawn over and spoil their dogs as much as we Americans do.

I was ready to love this film until we got to a segment near the end which, to be fair, the Bark review linked above warns about. It addresses the dog meat trade in Vietnam.

From reading the Bark review, I was expecting it. But I was unprepared for how long and how graphic it was. This segment ruined the movie for me. Bark says it starts at about an hour and seven minutes in; if you watch, I recommend stopping the movie at that point.

Stray

Stray, the second documentary, offers a dog’s-eye view of life on the streets in Istanbul, a city known for its huge population of stray dogs and for laws protecting them. (There are even special vending machines to feed them!)

Following Zeytin, a beautiful mixed-breed, as she goes about her life is fascinating. There’s not really a story and no dialogue. Some overheard conversations provide the only human interaction in the film.

Zeytin has a pack of canine buddies whom she hangs out with, plays and fights with, and finds food with.

She also seems to have a community of humans she’s in regular contact with. Among this group are a group of young men, refugees from Syria, also living on the streets in Istanbul. The film is a subtle commentary on the experience and treatment of both the dogs and the humans.

The real story of the movie, though, emerged when I watched two short films bundled with Stray. Interviews featuring the filmmaker, Elizabeth Lo, these extras brought out Lo’s view of dogs and the cultural differences she saw while researching and making Stray.

It’s the difference between seeing dogs as needing to be owned and “protected” by humans and seeing dogs as independent beings, capable and deserving of the opportunity to live life on their own terms.

 

How Clean Are Dogs’ Paws?

a dog paw and two human hands connect
My paws are clean. Are yours?

A common objection heard from people who dislike (or fear) dogs and don’t want to allow dogs to enter their space is that dogs are dirty.

In response to too-frequent denials of access to assistance dog teams, some researchers in The Netherlands decided to check into this contention. “The main argument for denial of access is that dogs compromise hygiene with their presence, which could cause a health hazard. Meanwhile, people are allowed to walk into and out of public places freely,” they wrote.

They recruited volunteers — 25 assistance dog teams and 25 pet dog / human pairs. The volunteer dogs and humans took 15-30 minute walks together, then allowed the researchers to collect samples from their paws and the soles of their shoes (respectively). The researchers tested the samples for Enterobacteriaceae (a common cause of hospital infections), Clostridium difficile, and other bacteria.

And guess what?

The dogs’ feet showed significantly less bacterial contamination than the people’s shoes. “The general hygiene of dog paws is better than that of shoe soles,” the report concludes. They speculate that dogs’ habit of grooming themselves, including their feet, could be the reason — even people who remove their shoes before going into their own homes rarely clean the soles of their shoes. Dog saliva contains high levels of “antimicrobial substances,” the study says.

In addition, some people routinely clean their dogs’ paws upon returning home. I do that if we’ve been walking where people have used snow-melt chemicals or lawn “greening” chemicals or if Cali is excessively wet and muddy.

To be fair, dirty paws are not the only reason that people think that dogs will bring dirt into their houses or businesses. I haven’t found a study that compares the amount of biological ick (yup, that’s the scientific term) humans shed vs. dogs but … I suspect that goldens and labs would not come out on top. Then there are the drooly breeds … Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

Dogs Are in Sync with Their People

Cali, a golden retriever, wears a cowboy hat, red bandana, and a huge smile

Stay calm. I’ve got this.

Way back when I first started learning about dogs and dog training, I learned something cool: Dogs synchronize with their people. This synchronization is more pronounced in dog-human pairs with a strong bond; the New York Times recently described dogs syncing with their human families’ children.

This is a great illustration of the strong connections that dogs develop with all members of their human family — not only the adult who feeds or walks them or, to dust off an old and thoroughly debunked concept, the “alpha” in the family.

The dogs might synchronize physically, facing the way we do or adapting their gait and speed to sync with ours or sitting when we do. The internet is full of adorable videos of dogs syncing with or mimicking their humans’ yoga poses.

They also sync with our emotions. The closer the relationship, the more the dog is likely to synchronize with the person (or the person with the dog!).

A teaching tool

When I was learning to teach dogs new verbal cues and associate them with behaviors, I learned to use this. For instance, we’d say “down” is a deep, calm voice. And “let’s go” in an energetic and upbeat way. This was meant to encourage the dog to synchronize with the emotion and energy level we were conveying to strengthen the association of the action with the word.

This feels a little manipulative (because it is), but it works for teaching. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to understand — or change — your dog’s behavior.

Cali can be unpredictable when we encounter other dogs on our walks. She’s nearly always happy to see and even meet dogs who are smaller than she is. She’s usually eager to say hello to other goldens, and most Labs. She’s nervous about other dogs who are her size or larger, and there are some breeds (yes, Cal is a doggy racist …) that she dislikes on sight, chief among them any sort of doodle.

So, naturally, when I see someone walking toward us with a friendly, enormous doodle straining to say hello, I feel anxious.

While my reaction came from multiple experiences with Cali’s negative reactions, it is now feeding or even causing her to become anxious — and react to the dog with an even more extreme amount of grumbling and even growling. Cali!

That’s because she is synchronizing with my negative emotions.

On the other hand, if I notice the dreaded doodle when we’re far enough apart, and I stay calm, soothing Cali with “you’re fine, let’s just keep going,” as we pass, leaving plenty of space between the dogs, she might give them a look or mutter under her breath, but she won’t pull or growl.

Cali is a natural

Cali uses this principle to help out her best friend, Maisy. Maisy is a lot more anxious about other dogs than Cali — any and all other dogs. And some people too.

But Cali loves meeting new people. She’s convinced Maisy to say hello to families, kids, and even unfamiliar men! Maisy’s reaction to other dogs is a lot calmer when she’s with Cali too — as long as Cali (and I) stay calm — and make it possible for her to stay a comfortable distance from the other dogs.

The trick, of course, is seeing the other people and dogs first. If we’re surprised by someone coming around a corner, the dogs’ reaction is much faster than mine and things can quickly go south. Even then though, the solution lies in projecting calm as we walk away — not always easy to do.

I’m not suggesting that staying calm will magically cure your anxious dog, but it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve. Deepening our ability to stay calm in unpredictable circumstances is beneficial to us as well as to our dogs! The best part is that the synchronization thing is circular. Your dog syncs with you more as your bond deepens. And the more in sync you are, the closer your relationship will become.