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.

Shift Work

Both dogs are on duty to supervise meal prep

We’ve finally figured it out.

Cali and Koala have odd habits. For instance, one of them checks in with me if I fail to get up to minister to their needs by 6:30 am. That’s necessary because, although one or both dogs are usually curled up in their dog beds when I go to sleep, they’re not there when I wake. Or at least not both of them. Cali usually strolls in from the living room when my alarm goes off. Koala often makes it upstairs by the time I have let Cali outside.

Similar oddities occur when we are watching TV. Deni and I are on the sofa. Koala is often there as well, instructing us on where to massage her. Then, she’ll get off the sofa. And … moments later, Cali appears. She sometimes even allows us to cuddle her.

The other day, it finally dawned on me: They’re working shifts.

Someone is on duty at nearly all times to keep the needy humans occupied. Occasionally they both manage to creep off somewhere for a nap on a sofa. Either sofa will do, but they rarely share. Shift change can be subtle, but I figured it out when their timing was exact and, as Koala handed us off to Cali, they gave each other a little nod.

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

Cali is generally responsible for getting me away from the computer as dinner time approaches (or is about to approach in the next hour or two). Koala is in charge of the morning walk.

Koala excels at keeping us to the schedule and ensuring that we don’t forget our daily chores — putting kibble in the balls for puppy lunch, setting up the snuffle mats, walks of course, and meal preparation. Both are at hand to supervise meal prep; it’s far too important a task to risk errors.

They seem to take turns at entertaining the humans, but Cali enjoys the task more and puts her whole heart into it. She especially enjoys running in circles while playing keep-away with her ball, just to see how long it takes to make the human dizzy. Koala, in contrast, is clearly just doing her job when she halfheartedly runs after a tennis ball, counting on the silly human becoming distracted well before Koala has to actually pick the thing up in her mouth and, ugh, return it to the human. Who is only going to throw it again anyhow. Why?

When Koala heads back to Florida in January, Cali will have to work overtime to keep me in line. As will Koala; I am sure that corralling Deni is more than a full-time job. I guess we need to be understanding when they steal an extra nap on the sofa now and again, while they still have the luxury of shift work.

 

Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

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…