When a Bite Is not a BITE

8 month old golden retriever Orly smiles for the camera
Orly loves giving puppy kisses …

Orly loves to connect with people. One way she does this is by holding their hand.

Orly doesn’t have hands, and it’s awkward for her to stand on three legs to hold paws with someone. So she has a more expedient method: She takes the person’s hand in her mouth.

Now, unfortunately, many people see this as a bite. But Orly is not biting them. She’s very, very gently holding their hand.

But, I hear people objecting: Her teeth are touching someone’s skin. And holding on!

True. They have a point …

But it’s not biting. She is using no force. She has not an iota of aggressive intent. She’s simply holding hands.

It’s still not a great idea. Some people — in my friend group, there are many dog-savvy people (go figure!) — get it, even think it’s sweet. Orly really likes those people.

Others freak out a little: “She’s biting me!” Understandable, if inaccurate.

On their account, I am strongly discouraging this method of connecting with new friends. Although I am not sure the non-dog-loving contingent will like what she’s trying instead any better — up close and personal doggy kisses. What’s an aggressively friendly puppy to do?

The Modern Dog Apparently Needs Her Own Phone

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPadThose of us old enough to have been teenagers before everyone over the age of 4 had smartphones in their pockets may remember how desperately we wanted our own phone. By which I mean a physical telephone that was an extension of the family landline, but one that we could use (for hours) in the privacy of our own bedrooms.

Not only are today’s children more likely to have their own phones, apparently, so are some dogs.

The DogPhone, invented (one must wonder why) by a Scottish professor, is a device that allows a bored, lonely, anxious, or playful dog to call her owner’s cellphone. Actually, the device triggers a video call, which puts the dogs in a technical skills league ahead of many adults …

Showing some insight into dog behavior, the inventor of the DogPhone packaged the phone inside an appealing ball. This nicely sidesteps the problems of dialing without opposable thumbs and an inability to read the numbers on those tiny keys.

Apparently, your dog also needs her own laptop or tablet, as moving the ball triggers a video call which connects the dog’s laptop with the owner’s phone.

The inventor, Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, told Gizmodo that the device is intended to enable researchers to “study the way dogs experience technology” and “improve and study the user experience for dogs.”

I wasn’t aware that my dog had a smartphone “user experience” other than leveraging the observation that I am using one as a chance to bark or otherwise demand attention. It had also never occurred to me that Cali might “experience technology” other than as the source of many irritating noises or as competition for my attention. So if you’re mystified by the need for this device, you’re not alone.

Cali has many talents but holding up her end of a conversation is not among them. And I can deliver neither treats nor belly rubs via video phone; I also cannot let her out / back in or throw a tennis ball. Since those are my only useful functions, I am not sure how much use Cali would have for the device.

A short YouTube video about the DogPhone offers some interesting insights. A hint: Despite her statements about the importance of giving dogs agency and control over their use of technology, I am not convinced that this is actually about the dog. For instance, Hirskyj-Douglas mentions feeling anxious if her dog doesn’t phone at his “usual” time.

I’m all for giving dogs agency and choices — but within limits. And within parameters that are meaningful to dogs. I let Cali choose which toy to play with or which direction to go on our walks, for example. But I do not let her order takeout or borrow my credit card to shop at the Holistic Pet Nutrition Center, her local grocery, treat, and toy emporium.

Anyhow, most of us have enough friends and family members calling, texting, Snapchatting, and Slacking us throughout the workday to torpedo our productivity. Do we really need to add a bored dog to the mix? How are we going to resolve her boredom from afar anyhow? Or, consider the other end of the spectrum — the dog who just loves to play with this specific ball… triggering constant chats until the battery dies!

So no, Cali is not getting her own phone for Hanukkah this year (or any other year). And I am adding this to a growing list of dog-focused technologies that just did not need to be invented. Just because we can make a phone for dogs, that does not mean that we should!

Clean Up Your Own Mess!

Koala and I had a little argument recently because I expected her to clean up after herself and she … resented that.

No, I haven’t figured out how to get dogs to pick up their own poop. They can pick up their own toys, though.

Koala chose an S-shaped blue tug toyToward the end of their time here, Deni was out, and Koala and I were in the basement, where there’s a well-stocked toy basket. (There are overly full toy baskets on each floor … and dog beds … it’s kind of a dogs-first household.)

Koala wanted a specific toy. It’s a great toy from West Paw, a Montana company. Anyhow, the toy happened to be at the very bottom of the toy box. Of course.

Koala methodically removed every toy in the box, distributing them around the rapidly emptying box. She finally reached her toy and happily pulled it out.

She brought it to me, asking for a tug game. I played with her for a minute, then took the toy. “We’ll play more once you’ve cleaned up your mess,” I told her. She looked at me, turned her back, and lay down.

I asked her to “get a toy” and “put it away,” things she routinely does. She ignored me.

I repeated the requests in a firmer voice. She got up, picked up a toy, and dropped it near the box. Looking at me and sighing. It was soooo hard.

I did not relent. No longer asking, I said in my best “I mean it!” voice, Get the toy and put it IN the box.

She did, then lay back down.

“Nope,” I told her. “You need to put all of the toys away.”

One by one, she got the toys and put them into the box.

When she finished, I offered her the toy and suggested a tug game.

“Nope,” she said, bu turning her back to me and lying down with an annoyed sigh.

Normally, when Cali and Koala put their toys away, they get rewards for their efforts. But since she had so deliberately taken all of the toys out of the box, a behavior I did not want to encourage, I did not give her any reward other than the offer of playing with the chosen toy.

Koala was annoyed at having to do it — and annoyed by the lack of rewards.

She got over it pretty quickly, though, and decided that she was willing to forgive me if that meant she’d get a belly rub …

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.

I’m NOT a Pez Dispenser

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips
Hoping for a treat

I like to reward Cali and Koala when they are especially helpful or face down a challenge. For example, Cali gets a cookie for bringing in the paper in the morning; Koala gets one for picking up the breakfast dishes. On our walks, we pass several yards with loud, aggressive dogs. If our girls walk by without reacting or pulling on the leash, they get a cookie.

But they don’t get free cookies just for being cute.

Koala especially seems to think she should. If she knows I have treats in my pocket — or have had treats in a pocket at some point in the past, oh, lifetime or so, she knows it. And wants one.

She sits in front of me an fixes those big, dark eyes on me. She does her mind meld. Sometimes she badly miscalculates and she whines. Or she nudges my pocket. Over and over. Harder and harder. The whining and repeated nudging are met with a very sharp rebuke.

Cali is more subtle. She’ll sidle up next to me as I am working and verrryyyy gently, almost imperceptibly, touch me. Sometimes I am not even sure I really felt it. Then I look down and see a hopeful face.

Argh!

Those big brown eyes are hard to resist. But that nudging and begging. No! I am not a Pez dispenser or a gumball machine. You cannot just push a magic button on my leg and get a treat!

Cali and Koala get plenty of earned rewards. They also eat very well, between their top-quality regular meals, their puppy lunch and snuffle breaks, and their nighttime snack of kefir and a cookie. I don’t know where they got the idea that they can also have snacks on demand but … it’s not going to happen.

 

Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part one)

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the kitchen doorway

I’ve recently heard not one but two experienced trainers, trainers I admire greatly, say that dogs don’t generalize.

What?!

The most recent incident was in a training class. The trainer was talking about practicing at home and said that dogs don’t generalize as a way to explain why the dog’s reaction to a cue or a piece of training equipment might be different at home than at the training center.

Generalization, in a dog-training context, means that the dog can recognize a cue in different environments. Some examples:

  • Your dog has been to your  neighborhood dog park a bazillion times. She’s been to the dog park near your parents’ house a half-bazillion times. When you take a road trip and stop at a dog park you find near your hotel, she immediately recognizes it as a dog park and runs off happily to play.
  • Your dog has a toy box. Your sister’s dog has a toy box. Your parents’ dog has a toy box. Your dog happily helps herself to toys from the toy box at each home. You visit a dog-owning friend for the first time. Your dog homes in on the toy box, grabs a toy, and the dogs start playing.
  • Your dog knows to sit quietly and wait while you prepare her dinner, waiting until you say, “OK” before gobbling her food. She does this whether you’re at home, in a hotel, at your mom’s, or anywhere else.
  • You’ve taught your dog not to jump on visitors. A new visitor comes into the house. Your dog has never met this person before, yet she knows not to jump on him.

I could go on, but I am guessing that you get the picture.

Of course dogs generalize. They could not possibly learn otherwise. No one could. There is simply no way to create and practice every single scenario where the dog will be asked to sit or lie down or wait for food or not jump —  or do / not do anything you might imagine.

Dogs learn to generalize as they learn to learn — with repeated practice. With a new puppy (or newly adopted dog of any age), you start teaching the dog house rules. You also (one hopes) teach basic manners, things like not jumping on people, not mouthing people, not barking every time the next-door neighbor walks past the window. Then, other members of your family ask the dog for the same things. And visitors do. You ask for them when you are in the kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the back yard. And on a walk or a road trip.

Your dog learns, after experiencing this phenomenon a few times, that the cue applies everywhere. The dog then generalizes that knowledge to other cues. Verbal cues: “Sit,” or “Quiet.” Visual cues: the toy box or dog park. Routine cues: you putting on the shoes you always wear for walks or closing down your laptop at 5 pm. These cues, and similar cues, take on meaning that applies even if you are not in the same room or you’re visiting someone else’s house or the toy box looks and smells different.

By the time you’ve taught your dog a few cues, she’s figured out generalization.

You can also teach your dog to specialize, which I will talk about in next week’s post.

 

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.

 

Dogs and Deer

The house where we are dog-sitting is above the Bitterroot Valley

We’ve been hanging out in the Montana wilderness, dog sitting. Well, the edge of the wilderness, anyhow. And it’s fawn season.

We were out in the play yard with a motley collection of tennis balls, most of which were cleverly camouflaged in the grass. We do this three or four times a day — take three balls and three dogs. Play for a while. Return to the house with one or, if we’re lucky two balls …

I hadn’t seen many deer around the house at all, and none in this fenced play area, and I hadn’t seen a single fawn yet this year. So I wasn’t thinking about deer as I walked around looking for lost tennis balls. We were down to one, which Cali was carefully hoarding.

Suddenly, I saw a flash of brown and white. A tiny fawn nestled in the grass. I’d startled her (or him). The fawn ran. The dogs, being dogs, noticed and ran after. I yelled, dogs chased, things got scary and noisy. The fawn got to the fence … and tried to get out. Non-trigger warning: No one gets physically hurt.

This part, though terrifying, was also very interesting. Cali got to the fawn first. Tail at half mast, wagging, she sniffed. She did that “hold back and stretch forward at the same time” thing she does when she’s nervous but her curiosity mostly overcomes her apprehension. I yelled at her to get away. She did.

Then Mack got there.

She looked more serious, and I screamed at her to get away. She’s very obedient, so she did. But … the fawn was scared and couldn’t get through the fence and started bleating. With every bleat, Mack returned in a flash. I’d yell. She’d leave.The cycle would repeat.

By this time, Cali had gone back for another sniff. I also kept telling Cali, “NO!” and she’d look at me, then sniff and wag some more.

I finally got there (this all happened in about 15 or 20 seconds …) and grabbed both dogs’ collars. I dragged them away and … Alberta sauntered over to see what was happening. I called her, too, and she came right away. Good girl!

After dragging the dogs into the house, I went back to see if the fawn was stuck. She was gone. I really hope her mom came and got her, but I can’t really know whether she’s OK. It’s been about a half hour, and I am just now starting to breathe normally again. My heart is still pounding, though not quite as fast. The adrenaline is subsiding, I guess.

The dogs were doing what dogs do. Which is a problem where deer are also doing what deer do.

I was happy to see how gentle Cali was, but the fawn didn’t really see that and was justifiably terrified. I’m less thrilled that Cali did not come when I called her.

I’m not as confident about the beneficence of Mack’s motives, but I am grateful that she listened to me (multiple times) though less happy that she kept going back into the fray.

I’ll go out to the play yard and make sure it’s deerless before taking the girls there again but … I’ll also be happy to be back home, where the neighborhood deer respect our 6-foot fence and stay out of Cali’s yard.

Your Dog Is a Logician

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala loves to cuddle

Guest Post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala and I have few conflicts, but those that we have get tiresome for the person-side of the partnership. Licking. Koala is a licky dog. I don’t like to be licked. I think I have found a solution to the licking conflict and realized something more about canine language comprehension.

I’m not unreasonable. A quick kiss now and again is appreciated and fair exchange for an ear scratch or a snuggle. But, spare me what became a nightly routine: The enthusiastic leap when I invite Koala to come up on the people bed for a cuddle, ending with her upper body on my chest and nose at my chin. “Oh, you let me up on the bed!” her body language says. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m so happy to be up here!” Rapid tail wag. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m such a lucky dog!” LICK LICK LICK. My plaintive, “Enough!” or commanding, “Off the bed!” ended the licking, but ignored Koala and her intent. This was not how I wanted to end the day with my canine partner.

Recently, I invited her up on the bed and, as she came close to my face, I calmly and nicely said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.” Koala stopped. She lay down next to me with more restraint than usual, nose close to my chin. Her tongue slowly reached out to touch my face. Again, I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.”

She stopped. Sighed. Relaxed against my side so that I could stroke her head. Soon she shifted to her back so that I could rub her belly. No licking, just a peaceful, happy dog. A few minutes later, I said that it was time for her to go to her own bed, which she did without protest and without being rejected. I heard Koala settle down on her dog bed next to her Golden Retriever sister and thought about why my warning worked.

Conditional reasoning starts with compound sentences that use “If, then.” Dogs know the “if, then” construction. Sometimes the conditional is time, such as when Pam says, “We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll give you dinner.” Koala and Cali know the concepts of “walk” and “dinner,” but on hearing this sentence, they head for the door, not the dinner bowls. More often the conditional is action: “If you get the paper, then I’ll give you a cookie,” “If you sit quietly for a few minutes, you’ll get your dinner,” “If you come here, then I’ll rub your ears the way that you like.” The “if, then” condition sets up a trust relationship between dog and human. Dogs that stop coming when called do so because they think that their humans have fallen down on their part of what should happen when they obey.

Koala’s understanding of the “if, then” connection when I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed,” was even more complex. This sentence had a condition — If you lick — but a negative consequence. Koala needed to turn the sentence around to reason, “I don’t want to get off the bed, so I better not lick.”

And even more complicated was her realization that she’d have to get off the bed in a few minutes anyway to go to her own bed and that that part of the nighttime routine was not a punishment. The question was whether she could control her licking so that she got a cuddle on the people bed for a few minutes first.

Koala’s success was evidence for her ability to master human language and what is implied by what her people say. Its mastery that all of our dogs are capable of achieving. The limitation is with us humans, who often fail to see how asking our dogs to use their conceptual abilities can make life easier for both humans and canines.