Dog Parks: The New Spectator Sport

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Every morning, she bugs me to get going. Hurry up! She brings my shoes and nudges me to get out the door faster. She noses her favorite ball to remind me to take it along. When we get there, she demands that I throw the ball immediately. She eagerly chases it.

Then she lies down in the grass and surveys the park. She’ll occasionally bring the ball back and let me throw it again. Once. She moves from sunny patch to shade, carrying her ball with her and carefully placing it between her paws as she resumes her reclining position on the grass. Watching other dogs play.

A few dogs try to engage her, bowing and bouncing. Once in a great while, Cali will play for a couple of minutes, then, worry furrowing her brow, search out her ball, sigh in relief, and lie down, the precious ball resting safely between her paws once again.

Sometimes, I go over and get the ball to throw it for her. She’s happy to chase it, tail rotating like a helicopter blade … and then, again, lie down and watch the action. Or not, in which case, she’ll hold tightly onto the ball, not letting me take it and throw it.

Cali sees the park as a sports arena where she gets to watch other dogs play ball, Frisbee, and tag. She’d be happy to stay there all day, observing, but I usually get annoyed and threaten, “Play — or we’re going home.”

Meanwhile, Jana is doing her thing. She grazes a bit, then rolls in the grass. Stretches out, does a bit of yoga, sunbathes. The walk there and back is enough exercise for her. But Cali really needs to run and burn off energy.

When I finally give up and snap leashes back on, Cali usually digs in her heels, refusing to leave. She might, grudgingly, let me take the ball and throw it a few times then, before we leave.

When we get home, what does Cali want me to do? Throw the ball for her, of course.

Turning Shoes into Treats

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Since I share my home with two retrievers, I figure that they should help out a little around the house by, well, retrieving. I’ve written about how seriously Jana takes her newspaper delivery job. Cali has belatedly decided that she wants in on the treat action, so I thought about what a suitable job for her might be.

Cali lives for our daily walks (sometimes twice daily) to the nearby park where dogs can run free and she can avoid playing with the other dogs while holding onto her ball and occasionally actually retrieving it. I have a pair of shoes that I rarely put on for any purpose other than walking the girls. So I decided that bringing my walking shoes could be her new job. She has a passable retrieve, and, I figured, she’d be highly motivated — the reward, in addition to the requisite cookie-per-shoe going rate, would consistently be an immediate walk, often to her favorite park.

The training went pretty well, except for that incident where I got kicked in the face by my own dog wielding my own shoe, but we don’t need to dwell on that. Cali was very enthusiastic, if a little unclear on the concept at first. Jana helpfully showed her what to do, eagerly grabbing the nearest shoe and bringing it and even more eagerly accepting a cookie in exchange.

On day 1, Cali tried her first shortcut — offering a toy.

The next shortcut: stealing the shoe from Jana. Well, Jana was having none of that. I rescued my shoe from the tug of war and asked for the other shoe.

That was the next challenge. Incredibly, though, Cali seems to have picked up that concept with only a few days of repetition.

We also had to work on the delivery. From overly enthusiastic (see reference to being kicked in the face) to lackluster (dropping the shoe a couple of feet away), Cali’s finish needed polish. I’ve almost got her somewhat consistently putting the shoe into my hand not terribly roughly. Progress, right? Baby steps, baby steps …

But this is where it gets interesting. I know from reading about Chaser, one of my favorite dogs in the world, that dogs can learn to put items into categories. Cali and Jana bear this out, and throw in evidence of a sense of humor, too.

Clearly trying for additional treats, Jana gets this sly look as she sees Cali delivering the second and final walking shoe. She then runs into the bedroom and returns, tail held high and waving triumphantly, with a shoe, any shoe. Give me my treat, her bright eyes and wagging tail say. If I don’t seal off all other shoes behind a firmly closed door, I might get, in addition to my walking shoes, a slipper or two, a flip-flop, a sandal, a rain boot … They have definitely mastered the concept of “shoe.” They’ve even gone outside and brought in a Croc from the porch.

They also instantly made the transition from my laced walking shoes to Keen sandals when the weather warmed up a bit. I do keep the current walking shoes right next to the door, and I am sure that the context is a big help.

I did not try to teach them the category of “shoe.” I have, years ago, worked with Jana on categories and concepts: big and small, toy, ball, and, of course “other” to send her after an item similar to the one she’s just brought. Cali learned all of this on the fly — by watching Jana and by seeing what I did and did not reward.

I’m still in awe of what Dr. John Pilley has accomplished with Chaser and grateful to him for painstakingly documenting his teaching efforts and publishing solid scientific evidence of dogs’ abilities to map words to items, remember hundreds of item names, and group items into categories. I am also, though, delighted and surprised by the constant examples of dogs who learn some of those same things in less-than-ideal home-schooling environments with inconsistent teachers (such as myself).

What have your dogs learned that blows your mind?

Let Your Dog Choose


Jana choosesIn “Communication Goes Two Ways,” I wrote about learning to read your dog’s body language, especially to recognize when she’s stressed or afraid. You can take your communication to the next level by teaching your dog new ways to communicate with you. Some ideas?

    • Hang a bell on the door your dog uses to go out in the yard for potty breaks. Encourage the dog to nudge the bell each time you let her out. She will soon connect the bell with getting you to open the door, and ring it when she needs to go out. A word of caution: Some smarty-pants dogs will use this system to train you, demanding to be let out every time you sit down or stop paying attention to them.
      One clever dog of Deni’s used this system to get rid of a pesky young puppy sibling. She’d ring the bell; puppy (and Deni) would come running; Deni would open the door; puppy would run out — and clever older dog would not. She’d stay inside to enjoy the calm, now puppyless, house.


  • Offer your dog choices: Do you want to play with the tennis ball or the Frisbee? Which treat do you want? Do you want a walk or should I toss the ball? This can be as simple as offering two items for the dog to choose. But you can, with training, teach the dog to answer simple (two-option) questions. A student in my canine-human communication class taught her dog to choose between two options (sometimes yes and no) by nosing one hand or the other. A researcher in Florida taught dogs to choose a reward for a task they had completed by nosing a card with a picture of the desired reward — a ball, a food treat, a tug game, etc. She found that each dog had definite preferences!
  • Let your dog decide which direction you head on your afternoon walk. Jana and I have an informal agreement. The morning walk, which always includes Cali, is to the park where Cali plays ball. Afternoon walks, which are often just the two of us, are Jana’s choice. She likes to head toward the river and walk past her beloved dog training school, stopping along the way to visit her friend in the office on the corner (a very kind woman who always offers Jana a cookie).
  • Many people use hand signals to communicate with their dogs. These can substitute for (or work in tandem with) verbal cues — a raised hand for stay, for example, is widely used. Some trainers have made the leap to teaching dogs signals that they can use to communicate back to us, similar to the Baby Sign Language some parents use with pre-verbal babies. This takes more planning and teaching than some of the other ideas.


There are many more options, requiring various amounts of preparation and teaching, but you get the idea. Encouraging your dog to express her preferences and communicate her needs will increase her independence. It is empowering for her, and it shows that you respect her as an individual, which will enrich your relationship by making it a tiny bit more reciprocal.

Communication Goes Two Ways

An entire industry, dog training, is dedicated to teaching dogs to understand what we want. Even dog owners who don’t go to training classes or hire private trainers spend a lot of time trying to communicate to their dogs (and often being frustrated at their apparent failures). Literally hundreds of books offer tips for teaching dogs to understand what we tell them.
What about helping us understand what our dogs are saying?
Our dogs are excellent communicators. Even the ones who don’t seem all that smart because they never do what their moms and dads ask probably are reading Mom, Dad, and all other humans better than any human ever could. Those dogs are also, most likely, using their whole bodies, putting heart and soul into trying to tell those very humans what they need, want, and feel.
We’re just very poor listeners.
Dogs use their tails, their ears, their hackles, their voices to communicate. A slight lift of a lip tells a story, as do exposed teeth, a lowered head, a low, slow tail wag. Each bark, yip, and growl has a different meaning. All dog owners should strive for a general understanding of what dogs in general say with their bodies.
The most important place to start, I think, is recognizing when a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. Since some of the body language can look similar to friendly or happy dog body language, many people miss important signs.
For example, that wagging tail. It means a happy dog, right? Not always. Dogs’ tail wags are very nuanced. A tail held high and wagged fast generally means an excited or happy dog, but a lower, slower wag can be a sign of apprehension or discomfort. If the tail is stiff, or the tail is moving slowly and the rest of the dog’s body is stiff, you are not looking at a happy dog.

Cali relaxed

“Smiling dogs” are another area of confusion. If the dog’s lips are pulled back in what looks like a smile, and her eyes are soft and her tail is wagging loosely, she’s happy. But if the eyes are hard or are darting between you and someone or something else or the hackles are up, you are more likely looking at a stress smile. That dog is scared or stressed.
Take a look at these photos of Cali (when she was a much younger puppy). The right-hand photo shows her with soft eyes, and her mouth is relaxed. She looks soft. Happy. But the photo on the left (below) shows stress. Her eyes are hard and scared. Her mouth is more rigid.

Cali stress

Other signs of stress? Sweaty paws, furrowed brow, ears plastered back against the head, repeated lip licking or yawning, tail low or tucked, stiff posture, and panting. Many dogs will refuse treats in a stressful situation. Watch for avoidance behaviors: Some will sniff the ground when faced with a strange dog or even try to walk away.
A general understanding of what dogs’ body language means is important for anyone who spends time around dogs. But it’s even more valuable to invest some effort in learning your own dog’s body language and vocal vocabulary. What are her stress signs? How does she show you affection, share joy, express empathy? Learning her cues will strengthen your relationship.
Then, you can take the next step and start giving your dog ways to ask for what she needs!

Hide and (Don’t) Seek

Albee sleeps_small
Alberta sleeps — or pretends to?

My last post, Hide and Seek, talked about how Cali hides when she is avoiding something, such as having her teeth brushed. This week, I encountered an example of hiding that has a different purpose — and shows some high-level, and rather devious, thinking.
We were visiting at a home where there is a resident cat. Early one morning, the cat’s mom got up, gave the cat his breakfast in a plastic bowl, placed on the floor. Cat and mom then wandered away. Alberta, who had been sleeping on blankets next to the bed, noticed the cat and mom as they passed by into another room and closed the door. Very quietly, which took some effort, as she had several jangly tags on her collar, Alberta slipped out of the bedroom. Minutes later, without waking Deni, she slipped back in and either went back to sleep or did a stellar job of faking it. None of the three people in the house had any idea that she had slipped out of the bedroom or back in.
Later that morning, cat-mom asked us whether we’d seen the cat’s food bowl, which she had last seen at 5:30 a.m., still filled with kibble. Nope. We looked high and low. We looked in closets, cupboards, even the refrigerator, the bathrooms, and the garage. Nope, nope, and nope. Cat-mom wondered whether she really had fed the cat. Was she losing her marbles? Regardless, the bowl itself had disappeared.
Several hours later, walking through the bedroom, I noticed the edge of a plastic bowl under the bed, right near Alberta’s dog bed. Hmmm. Bending over, I reached waaayyy under the bed … and pulled out the cat’s (now empty) bowl.
Our best guess is that Alberta snuck out to eat the cat’s food and then, as is her habit, picked up the bowl and headed toward Deni to hand it over for an after-meal treat. Somewhere along the way, she must have remembered that she wasn’t supposed to let anyone know that she’d stolen the cat’s breakfast. Was she deliberately hiding the bowl? Had that been her plan all along? Or did she only think of it once she got back and saw Deni sleeping? At what point did she realize her error?
Her extreme stealth tells us that she knew she was doing something wrong; the distance the bowl was shoved under the bed indicates the same. If Alberta needs to go outside or decides that breakfast is long overdue before Deni wakes up, she noses Deni and whines until Deni responds. When Alberta picks up her bowl after a legitimate meal, she usually dances around, makes noise, doing whatever it takes to get Deni’s attention — because she is eager to collect her dessert (a cookie for returning the bowl). That she did not do this, and did not leave the bowl where anyone could see it, indicates deliberate hiding.
There’s a whole lot of higher-level thinking going on in her mind — all put to work for devious purposes. Alberta is showing multilayered understanding of a situation: knowledge that she can work a situation to her advantage (steal the food while cat and humans are sleeping or otherwise occupied) and hide the evidence where humans can’t see it.
Despite her impeccable breeding and fancy education, and regardless of her usual angelic behavior, what we learn here is that Alberta is also still a true Labrador — primarily a food-seeking missile. We also see that, whatever we teach our dogs and however we nurture their intelligence and try to shape it in ways that we want, each dog is still an individual who can put that intelligence to work in the ways that best serve her own interests.

I Mean It!

Cali looking2_side
Are you talking to me?

In my last blog post, Are You Talking to Me?, I said that dogs can tell when we are talking to them and when we really expect their response. They can tell when they can safely ignore us, even when they know that we are talking to them. They read our tone of voice, body language, and many other cues, most of which we are oblivious to.
So, how can we get those smart, calculating dogs to listen?
First, practice an “I mean it” tone. This can be a stern tone practiced in training class or at home; it can simply be a way of addressing your dog where you make it clear that you are completely focused on him — facing him, looking straight at him.
Fortunately, it can also be that note of fear or panic that creeps into your voice when your dog wanders too close to the street or shows too much curiosity about the ray hovering in the water just beyond her nose. In these instances, thankfully, even dogs with relatively poor recall skills will usually respond, coming to you and away from the danger.
Then, add an “emergency cue.” Practicing an “emergency recall” cue, as explained by a very dog-savvy friend, is a great way to build and maintain good listening skills in your dog: Choose a phrase, such as “right now,” and practice it with your recall cue (usually “come” or “come here”) and really, really excellent treats. Remember — your dog gets to decide what counts as a truly excellent treat.
Practice often. Use different tones of voice when you call. Surprise the dog, calling her when you are in some remote corner of the house or yard.
Soon, whenever your dog hears that cue — “Come here right now!” — regardless of tone of voice, she will know that top-quality treats are being dispensed, but only to the quickly responding dog! If you choose the right reward, you’ll see a blur of racing fur when you issue the cue. To get an even faster response, reward only the dog who arrives first, or, if you have only one dog, count to three (or five, or ten, if you have an old or slow dog), and only reward arrivals that beat the countdown clock.
I admit that I have been lazy about practicing this cue lately. Even so, when I add “right now” to a cue, any cue, I get a much-improved response. The association between “right now” and good treats is indelibly inked on Jana’s and Cali’s minds.
That’s partly due to lots of practice when Cali was little. It’s partly due to the fact that I have some really good treats hidden away. But it’s also due to the strength of our relationship — I spend a lot of time with Cali and Jana, and they can read me really well. They definitely know when they have to listen — and when they can push the boundaries a bit.

Are You Talking to Me?

Mom's not paying attention!
Mom’s not paying attention!

How does your dog know that you are talking to him rather than about him? At a friend’s recent presentation on service dogs, she was asked a great question by a member of the audience: How does your dog know when you are talking to him instead of using “command words” in a different context? For example, as both the speaker and I learned service dog training at the same University, our cue for urging a dog to toilet is “better hurry.” But this phrase, along with sit, stand, look, get it, and myriad others, are used while chatting with our friends, as well as being directives for our dogs.
My friend’s response is that not only do dogs know when we are talking directly to them. They also know when we really mean what we say. Several research teams have studied dogs’ ability to know when we are paying attention to them and whether they recognize when verbal communication is intended for them. Other studies have tested dogs’ ability to recognize non-verbal communication, such as pointing to something, or simply looking at something, that is intended for them. The results of many studies show that dogs do, indeed, know when we are talking to them.
None of this is news to a dog owner who has experienced the instant transformation of a peacefully napping dog into the canine equivalent of a hyperactive toddler who has consumed too much sugar — the instant that the owner picks up the phone.
How do our dogs know that we are talking to them rather than about them? Dogs pay attention to everything we do (I suspect that they pay attention even when we are sound asleep). They read our body language, watch our eyes, and recognize the difference between our use of “sit” as an instruction and our use of “sit” in conversation. They train every sense in our direction to see if we are seeking connection. They read our moods, anticipate our actions, and, yes, know whether we are paying attention to them or are distracted.
What does this mean for your relationship with your thinking dog? Well, think about a conversation you’ve had with someone about your latest personal crisis or sought a trusted friend’s advice, only to have her answer her cell phone while you are mid-sentence. Or you’re on the phone with your friend and you keep overhearing her conversation with someone else (or her dogs). You probably feel ignored or frustrated.
Our dogs, too, want connection. They deserve our attention and focus sometimes: Truly look at your dog, watch his body language. Try to understand what he is telling you. Our dogs spend much of their time giving us that kind of attention; they deserve a chunk of our time in return.
How? Make their walks or playtime all about them. No phones. No turning them loose at the dog park and turning your back to chat with another owner. Figure out how your dog likes to be petted, and give him the kind of attention he wants, not distracted stroking while you are focused on a book you are reading or a TV show.

Is Your Dog Smarter Than A …

Is your dog as smart as a human 2-year-old? A 5-year-old? A (gasp) teenager? Does it depend on what breed your dog is?
We can’t help it, we humans. We want to put everything into neat little human-constructed boxes. That is, I think, what is going on when people try to define dogs’ (or other non-humans’) intelligence in human terms. That and the common, if arrogant, human assumption that we are the smartest creatures, so everyone else — dolphins, dogs, starfish — can and should be evaluated, based in how they compare with us in human-like ways.
But really, how many human 2-year-olds would you trust to guide you across a busy street? Or turn loose in the wreckage of a natural disaster or terror site, with the expectation that the little tyke would let you know where the survivors are trapped? We use dogs to find lost 2-year-olds, don’t we? And protect them (and other humans) from diabetic coma or severe peanut allergies, warn of their impending seizures, coax those who have autism or have suffered trauma to connect — and so, so much more.
The basis for comparison is obviously flawed. Dogs are much like human toddlers in many ways, it’s true — their unbounded love of play; their sweet willingness to befriend just about anyone. Yet they are so much better at some things than any child could ever be — better at some things, such as anything based on scent, than any human of any age could ever be.
So, how should we measure, evaluate, understand canine intelligence?
We can start by acknowledging that intelligence is a complicated concept — there are many types of intelligence. Among people for example, there is social intelligence or emotional intelligence, there is numerical or problem-solving or analytical intelligence. Business acumen, logic, performing well under extreme stress — all of these might be considered different skill areas or types of intelligence. Intelligence is what helps you (or your dog) navigate life, with all the challenges and detours it throws in your path. We are all stronger in some areas, weak or ridiculously incompetent in others. The same is true of dogs.
We can also think about the skills that dogs have that have no parallel in human ability or intelligence — and the myriad ways we can help dogs develop and use those skills in partnerships that make life better for humans and dogs.
Some dogs excel at reading people’s body language. According to several prominent dog cognition researchers, among them superstars Brian Hare and Adam Miklosi, dogs — even very young puppies — excel at reading humans’ pointing gestures and where their humans gaze. This is a type of social intelligence. I am sure that many, many dogs excel at this. However, not all dogs do. I know. I live with one who fails miserably at reading gestures.
Other dogs (including the one who cannot follow a pointing finger to save her life), can intuit a person’s mood and provide exactly what is needed: comfort, humor, affection, appeasement, a favorite toy.
Still other dogs are great problem-solvers. They analyze each new situation and map out a solution.
Some dogs are born to … fill in the blank: Provide mobility assistance, search out bombs or drugs, find lost or hurt people, detect tumors, comfort lonely elderly people, make children laugh.
I don’t think it matters whether your dog is smarter than a toddler. I don’t think it is a fair or relevant comparison. What does matter is assessing each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, his or her specific areas of intelligence. Then, we can figure out how to stimulate and challenge each dog in the ways that will allow him or her to succeed, thrive, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Amazing Restraint

In Alberta’s Marshmallow Test, I described Alberta’s admirable ability to resist temptation in the form of a bowl of dog biscuits sitting alongside a water bowl outside a Michigan store. While I know personally of the hard work Alberta (and Deni) have invested in honing Alberta’s ability to resist food temptations, I also know that all dogs (with the possible exception of Cali) really are capable of learning self-restraint.
This ability is, I believe, evidence of their ability to understand what is the “right” thing to do in particular circumstances. It is certainly evidence that not all dog behavior is hard-wired or instinctive.
Some examples include dogs who learn not to take food from counters, tabletops, and plates, even when those are tantalizingly within reach. I could leave a steak dinner on the coffee table (at Jana’s nose level) and go out for an hour. If she knew that was not her food, it would all still be sitting there when I got back. Leaving it alone with impulsive youngster Cali would be a different matter, however.
An even more important example, and something anyone who lives near a road with traffic or who takes the dog for car rides should work on, is waiting at doorways. When we drive to the dog beach or park, the dogs are very excited. But even Cali, who is probably wriggling with excitement, has learned not to exit the car without explicit permission. And Jana and Cali have both learned never to bolt out the front door, not matter how seductively the park across the street beckons, no matter how many cats, UPS delivery people and mail carriers are passing by … no matter what.
I argue that these are examples of dogs “doing the right thing” because I know that they are not afraid of being punished and that these efforts are rarely rewarded. Well, at the dog beach, they do get to go play — but even when someone slips up, the worst consequence is that she’s sternly instructed to get back in the car and wait, and then released a minute later to play. The girls are not following the rules because they think they will be horribly punished if they do not. They are not expecting any significant reward, especially for resisting the impulse to run out the front door. They are doing what they know is expected of them in these common situations for no reason other than they know that it is the rule.
In fact, we ask dogs to resist behavior that comes naturally to them all the time. We ask them not to chew and lick at their itchy spots. We ask them to resist humping other dogs. We ask them not to bark at the neighbors or the mail carrier, even when he is invading their turf. We ask them to ignore food (and things they consider food) on the ground, to not chase cats and squirrels encountered on walks, and to walk nicely on a leash.
We do ask a lot of them, don’t we? And most dogs, most of the time, live up to our very high expectations. Especially if we practice with them and do reward them sometimes.
I think that we humans take it for granted that dogs should follow our very human-centered rules. I am suggesting that we look at things from their point of view once in a while, recognize how truly counter-intuitive it is for a dog to resist food that is just sitting there or to abstain from chasing that cat out of the yard. We need to recognize that our dogs pass their own marshmallow tests, every day, many times a day — and reward their efforts with praise and pats and, at least occasionally, yummy treats to reward their restraint.

Alberta’s Marshmallow Test

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In the 1970s, a psychologist tested the self-restraint of preschool children. Each child was offered a marshmallow. The children were told that they would get two marshmallows if they could delay eating the treat, and then left alone in a room for fifteen minutes. The researcher recorded what happened. The efforts of some children to stare down the treat or to distract themselves from it are both comical and painful to watch. Of course, some children inhaled the treat as soon as the researcher left the room. A recent book (The Marshmallow Test) describes this experiment and the follow-up studies of those children. The marshmallow test and other research on the ability to delay gratification shows that those who can exercise self-control in the face of temptation have better “life outcomes,” as measured by a variety of criteria, including SAT scores, social and cognitive functioning, long-term health, and retirement planning.

What does all of this have to do with thinking dogs?
Alberta experienced her own version of the marshmallow test recently. To say that Alberta loves treats is a bit like saying that I love chocolate. Alberta not only loves treats, she is not terribly fussy about which treats she gets. For sure, there are better treats, for example this bison and beef jerky concoction that I get at Costco and that, for some reason, Jana, Cali, and Alberta will do anything for. But ordinary, boring biscuits are fine too, and they are happily accepted as rewards for a job well done.

In her guide dog work, Alberta comes across many items that fit this dog’s definition of “treat,” and she works very hard to resist bits of food that just happen to be lying on the floor.
Alberta is justifiably proud of her hard-earned restraint, but more importantly, she wants Deni to know. So, in the course of a day’s work, if Alberta sees food on the floor and gives it a wide berth, she also nudges Deni to make sure that Deni knows just how good she is being. She pushes Deni hard with her nose, hoping that Deni will notice the ignored object. She often nudges Deni right near the pocket where Deni keeps the dog treats, just in case Deni might want to reward this extraordinary show of restraint. A girl can hope, can’t she?

Alberta knows the rule that she can’t grab food off the ground when she’s working. She wants to believe that that rule does not apply when she’s off-duty (her harness is off). She also knows that, even while working, she’s allowed to take treats that Deni hands her for particularly notable service. But she recently encountered a situation that blurred these lines a bit, a marshmallow test for dogs. Her reaction was remarkable.
Guiding Deni down a street in Saugatuck, Michigan, Alberta (along with her entourage of two other human family members) passed by a store that not only had a full doggy water bowl sitting by the sidewalk, but also a full bowl of doggy cookies. Just sitting there for the taking. An open invitation. Irresistible.
Or not.
Alberta headed for the water, took a drink, noticed the cookie bowl and … stopped dead. Confused. She looked at the biscuits. Looked at Deni. Furrowed her brow. Looked longingly at the treats. But she did not touch the treats.
We’d all stopped to watch the unfolding marshmallow-like drama. Alberta really wanted to gobble up as many of those dog cookies as she could. But she did not take one. She did, however, look at every one of us to make sure that we all knew how good she was being. Deni rewarded her by picking up a few biscuits from the bowl and handing them to Alberta.
Watching the interaction, I got to thinking. Most dogs who walk by this shop are not trained service dogs. Though many, like Jana and Cali, have had some training and certainly know that they are not supposed to just devour everything in sight, they don’t always have the restraint to follow through. Having more than once found myself alone with a new box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, I can relate.
I wondered how often a doggy passerby just digs in and eats all the cookies in the bowl. How many battles between hungry hounds and their hapless handlers has the shop owner witnessed? Does the handler ever win? And really, what was that shop owner thinking?

But back to Alberta. In need of photos for this blog post, I asked Deni to re-create Alberta’s marshmallow test. The photo gallery (presented in order) at the top of this blog post shows that, like the successful children in the original marshmallow test, Alberta devised a series of ways to distract herself. Some of the children looked away, as Alberta did. Some sang songs or recited the alphabet. Alberta did neither of these. Some children closed their eyes. Upon realizing that, even after she had turned away, the bowl of biscuits was still there, Alberta closed her eyes.

Alberta has not only learned to resist random bits of food on cafeteria floors, sidewalks, and the like, but there she was, on that Michigan sidewalk and again in Deni’s office, passing up food that was obviously meant for dogs, placed there for her enjoyment. This shows us that dogs are able to do some high-level thinking and processing.

If Alberta were purely instinct-driven, that bowl would have been emptied in seconds flat. If she were operating only out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, she might have surreptitiously sneaked a mouthful of biscuits before Deni noticed, just to see if she could get away with it — and been rewarded by the treat, even if she got scolded after. But she went beyond a gut-instinct response and even beyond the basic (low) level of moral development that governs much of human and animal behavior. She paused, checked in with Deni, and did the right thing — even though she really wanted those cookies. We’re eagerly looking forward to seeing Alberta’s SAT scores and are consulting her for retirement advice. But in my next post, I will describe more practical ways we can apply the doggy marshmallow test to our relationships with our dogs.