With Patience, Persistence, and Perception, Dogs Have the Upper Paw

Some day, my berries will be ready …

By Deni Elliott and Pam Hogle

Regardless of how many years they have lived with dogs, almost all dog-owned humans wish that the dogs were better behaved. Some dogs continue to bark, despite repeated human attempts to stop the noise. Some dig or raid the garden or sleep on the sofa —despite physical barriers and human reprimands. Others act out when their people are most hoping that they won’t. The sad truth is that the problem is less about human incompetence than it is an indication of canine superiority. Dogs consistently outperform their human companions in three vital areas: Patience. Persistence. Perception.

Patience is the ability to wait for you want and hold on to a goal despite distraction. How many people would have the patience to wait at home for hours while their companions went off to work or play? Or even have the patience to wait for minutes outside of a store, tied to a pole, with no phone to keep them amused? Dogs, who love dependable routines, wait and wait and wait for their people to remember that it is time to play, to walk, or even to feed them dinner close to the usual hour.

Persistence is the ability to continue working toward a goal despite difficulty or opposition. Some dogs bark persistently. Some continually nudge their person’s hand to get petted. Persistently. And others beg at the dining table. Persistently. There is a reason that the term for working tenaciously is “dogged.” People give up and give in long before dogs will. People also reward the dog’s persistence, “just this once,” — maybe to stop the dog’s annoying behavior. At that point, the dog has succeeded at creating the desired human behavior. In most families, the dog will soon have the people well-trained in responding to canine direction.

Perception is the ability to use one’s sensory abilities to take in information in and make it meaningful. Dogs read people — our vocal tone and pitch in addition to our words; our facial expressions and body language. In comparison, most people can barely tell the difference between a dog barking in joy and one barking in warning or in anger. Dogs learn how they should react and what they can get away with by reading their people. Much dog anxiety can be attributed to what the dog reads from their primary person. “If my person is sending signals that he is nervous,” the dog reasons, “I guess I better be worried too.”

Patience, persistence, and perception come together in a trifecta of  superior intelligence that sometimes overwhelms the most dog-savvy of humans. In last week’s Thinking Dog Blog, Pam wrote about Cali eating tomatoes from the garden just before Pam would have picked the tomato for human consumption.

The sequence of events illustrates how these concepts come together in dognition: Cali waited patiently for weeks while the lettuce, raspberries, and tomatoes each reached what she considered their peak readiness. When faced with an obstacle, she was persistent enough to figure out new ways to reach the garden treats, getting around the bird netting that Pam had wrapped around the plants. When Cali decided that it was time to eat the tomato she had been eyeing, she reached through the netting to pluck the tomato and let it fall beneath the plant. Then Cali could reach the tomato by burrowing under the netting. Which she did. There she lay, chomping her freshly harvested tomato, while Pam mowed the grass just a few feet away. Cali perceived that Pam was focused on the lawn and not on the dog.

Dogs consistently outperform humans because their PQ (Patience, persistence, perception) is off the scale compared to their human companions. That seems to be a fair trade-off for people getting opposable thumbs to use in our far more primitive way of manipulating the environment we share.

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

 

The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.

I was wrong.

Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.

Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.

But I digress.

Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.

Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.

Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.

Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.

Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.

Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)

When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.

Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…

Obsessively neat?

Koala, a black Lab, considers playing with one of everal toys
So many toys; so hard to choose

It’s always interesting to teach a dog a new skill and see where she takes it.

When I taught Jana that she could make choices, she started weighing in on where she wanted to go on walks. She’d put on the brakes, hard, if I tried to head in the “wrong” direction, for example.

Koala has built on many of her skills, adding new dimensions. She’s great at finding shortcuts to places that she and Deni walk to frequently. She quickly learns regular routes. Those skills come into play when they travel: She can find their hotel room after being in it once. She also uses her search skills — and her excellent nose — to find a trash can anywhere she happens to need one.

She learned to put away her toys some time ago. Cali has learned this as well. They both know to bring a toy and drop it into the toy basket. Usually, this is a mercenary exchange, with treats demanded after each successful toy drop as well as a final, larger paycheck at the end. It also requires considerable encouragement and cheerleading.

And Koala routinely gets her treat ball when it’s time for puppy lunch. When she’s emptied it, and when Deni asks her to, she brings it to Deni to put away.

Recently, though, Koala did something unexpected. She selected a toy, chewed it for a moment, decided that she wanted a different one — and put the first one away before choosing another. She did this twice before settling in with her third choice, an antler, to chew.

Has she become obsessively neat? Has she finally figured out that if she leaves her bones scattered on the floor, people trip over them (and if so, does she care)? Or is she worried about being unemployed while she’s in Montana, since Cali has a lock on the best two local jobs?

As I look at a living room scattered with Cali’s toys, I wonder whether there’s enough work to support two dogs in the toy-cleanup business.

Cali’s Job Search

A much-younger Cali struggles to hold a large pink stuffed owl
Cali is much bigger now and has an easier time putting Owl into his basket.

A few months ago, I wrote about Cali’s goal of becoming a visiting “therapy” dog.

Cali is, of course, perfect for the job, and we were about to schedule our supervised visit, the last hurdle to becoming certified. But then … a pandemic happened. Coronavirus has put all visits on hold indefinitely.

Cali was casting about for a job to tide her over. She’d been laid off from her newspaper-fetching job since the end of October, when the local paper wanted to more than double subscription prices.

Coronavirus takes away, and coronavirus gives.

The Missoulian called last week with a special offer to help people keep up with the news. We resubscribed, and Cali was able to get her paper-fetching job back. Good thing she was quick to apply, because Koala is coming back for a long visit, and we all know she would want that job too.

Koala is going to have to scramble, because Cali has taken over the toy clean-up job as well as the newspaper job. Cali now puts her favorite toys — Owl, Hedge, Duckie, and Piggy — into their basket every night before bed.

The saddest sounds

10-week old Cali, a golden retriever, lies on a brown dog bed
Don’t leave me …

A recent Bark column muses on humans’ susceptibility to manipulation by dogs. Specifically, by the sounds they make in sadness. Sadness that occurs only because we humans are not meeting their expectations.

Boy do I know how that works.

When Cali was a tiny pup and Jana a beleaguered 8-year-old with a new baby sister, I made a point of taking Jana for a (very short) solo walk each day. This was partly to get Cali used to being alone briefly. The first time we did this, within seconds, the saddest, most mournful howl I have ever heard wafted out through an open window. I was probably a whole 10 feet from Cali but, you know, there was a wall in between.

Cali has deployed this mournful howl a few additional times over the years. (She’s 7 now.) She’s added to her repertoire, too. She has a range of sounds, including sighs, snorts, scowls (ok, those are silent), exasperated exhalations, grumbles and mutters under her breath, and more. And, yes, a whine. It’s a tiny whine, very soft and short. It’s also very, very sad. Heartbreakingly sad. This whine is used only when Cali is outside and wants to come inside, and no one is there to make the door magically open.

This, naturally, happens only when Cali has refused to come inside despite being offered several opportunities, and I have given up(!) and gone upstairs to work. Within oh, about 3 minutes, there’s that tiny whine. I could easily miss it but somehow it penetrates whatever fog of concentration I am in. When I go back downstairs to let her in, Cali is always happy, relieved, and reproachful, all at once.

I’m not the only one to be expertly and repeatedly manipulated by a sad dog.

My doggy cousin, Jaxson, has created a magical combo, a unique whining sound plus guilt-inducing look, that gets him the most coveted seat in the house: Literally in between his mom and dad. The one space on the sofa he’s theoretically (very, very theoretically) not allowed. There’s nothing unique about dog whines, of course. Whole orchestras could be woven out of different dog whine. Jaxson’s whine is unique in that this specific note is deployed only when he’s on the sofa but not between them. That is, only one pair of hands can reach him to pet him and only one person’s attention is focused on him. The unique sound effectively terminates this intolerable condition.

The Bark column mentions research that found that humans with pets are more susceptible to animal distress vocalizations than other people and that “dog whines sounded saddest of all, and sadder than cat meows.” Other research has found huge changes in canine vocalizations as a result of their domestication. Sure. They’ve got our number. They’re pulling out all the stops in their quest for the upper hand … er, paw … in the household.

 

When your little girl no longer needs you …

Hangin’ out with the humans
Cali and Dora, golden retriever sisters
Cali and Dora wait to be served at their favorite microbrewery

Cali is so grown up. She has an entirely separate life that I know little about.

For example, the Morris Foundation Golden Retriever study’s latest newsletter featured a poem that I am sure that Cali wrote. It starts:

Well, the weather outside is frightful
But the snow is so delightful!
And even if mom (or dad) says no…
I will roll, I will roll, I will roll!

I had no idea that she was a writer!

Cali and Dora supervise breakfast prep

Even more poignant, she just took her first solo vacation. We dropped her off at her sister’s house in Berkeley. All she took was her leash and some food. (I could learn a lot about packing light from Cali.) She never looked back.

Cali and Dora had a wonderful time hiking, snacking, supervising, and hanging out with Dora’s humans. They even visited their favorite neighborhood microbrewery.Cali and Dora sit by the Christmas tree

She probably posted a bunch of selfies on her Instagram, too, but … I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for that.

I’m torn. I miss having her here, but I am glad that she’s independent and able to get out and enjoy herself — even if she does always seem to need a ride to wherever she’s headed. Next thing you know, she’ll want a credit card so she can have her own Lyft account. Oh, and she’ll need a GizmoWatch, of course.

(All photos by Cathy Condon)

 

Missed Opportunity

 

Cali, a golden retriever, looks very sad
I’m not angry; I am just disappointed …

Cali recently had a doctor’s appointment. She has a couple of small lumps, and I was thinking about having the vet remove them. So … you know what’s coming … Cali had to skip breakfast.

I apologized profusely. She did that sad face thing, where she just looks at me to let me know how disappointed she is by my behavior — my utter failure to meet her needs.

She moped around, sighing loudly, the whole time I had my coffee and washed dishes. Fewer dishes since, you know, hers was still clean from last night.

Outside, she foraged vainly among the raspberry canes, brown and sad after our early snow. She hoped she might find some overlooked berries to help her stave off her hunger. No luck. No dropped apples from the neighbor’s tree either. Greedy birds had eaten all the seed. Sigh.

We went for our morning walk. She trailed sadly behind me, her low energy the result of being starved by her cruel human.

Suddenly, she spied a miracle: Someone had dropped an entire ice-cream cone on the grass!

She stared, disbelieving. She stretched her nose over to sniff. She drooled.

She then made a critical error. She looked up, up at that cruel human. Who of course said, “No.” Seriously, is that the only word moms know?

The rest of that walk was … just exhausting.

The nice vet said Cali didn’t need surgery. Then she gave Cali a whole handful of cookies. Maybe she wants another golden retriever …

Cali gave me another look. This one said, “I’m shopping for a better mom.”

I took Cali home and gave her breakfast. We walked by the Spot, but the ice cream was gone. Some lucky dog with a nicer human …

I gave her extra treats all day. I took her out for ice cream a couple days later. I kept apologizing.

None of it matters.

We walk past that Spot, where the miracle (almost) occurred, on every walk. Cali stops, sniffs the ground where that magical cone was. She sniffs, gives me the sad face. Looks mournfully at the Spot again, sniffs again, and we walk on.

Some opportunities come once and poof! They’re gone in a second, with the “No” of a mean mom.

Cali is now firmly in the “ask for forgiveness — not permission” camp.

She’s learned her lesson: If you see a miracle, eat it right away.

Plenty of time to bat your blonde eyelashes at the angry human, look remorseful, and apologize afterward.

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jaxson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jaxson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jaxson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jaxson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jaxson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jaxson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jaxson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jaxson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jaxson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.