The Making of a Cherry Monster

Cali with her tennis ball, in the shade of a cherry tree
Cali discovered delicious snacks under the cherry trees.

It started out innocently enough. Cali wandered over to that nice shady corner of her yard by the cherry trees. One day, she found something red that smelled delicious. She ate it. She found more of those delicious red balls and ate them, too.

I noticed and told her to cut it out. She carefully spit out the cherry pit that was in her mouth and wandered away.

If only it were that simple.

Soon Koala discovered cherries. She taught Cali that if you swallowed the pits, you could eat a whole lot more cherries, faster, even after one of the mean policemoms caught you and told you to stop.

We went from a pit spitter and a pit pooper to … well, you know.

Then Koala packed up and went back home to Florida. Cali had to figure out stealth cherry chomping on her own. She’d keep an eye on me to see if I was watching. If I was talking on the phone or (!) went inside, she’d steal over to the cherry patch and grab a few cherries. She’d still spit the pits if she felt as if she had time to dine more leisurely. But, if she saw that I’d looked her way or — worse — was walking over to ruin her snack — the gobble rate would speed up.

I chased her away from the cherries. She went back. I threatened to make her go inside. She stayed away for a few minutes but was always drawn back. I cleaned up the dropped cherries. She found more. The call of the cherries was irresistible.

She got very sneaky. She’d wander around the yard feigning nonchalance. If I didn’t react, her loops would take her closer and closer to the cherries … Or she’d head that way and glance casually over her shoulder. If I wasn’t paying attention (or she thought I wasn’t), she’d pick up the pace and head right there. If I was watching, she’d change direction, look again, react appropriately … this meandering ultimately always ended at the cherry feast.

Finally, nearly all the cherries were ripe. I picked several million one Sunday morning. A friend helped me pick most of the remaining billions of cherries one evening after work. We cleaned up the dropped cherries pretty well. Cali went into deep depression.

Now, the only cherries left are too high for me to reach, even with a ladder.  The birds and squirrels help Cali out by dropping and knocking them down.

But Cali has pretty much moved on.

She discovered the raspberries this week.

She picks the low-down ones, being careful to avoid the spiky branches. When I am out there picking, she’ll stick her nose into the bowl and try to steal the fruits of my labor. I tell her to go get her own raspberries. She does, even burrowing into the bushes to go after a particularly juicy berry.

There aren’t as many raspberries, and they have no pits, so I don’t worry as much about her eating those. But somehow, Raspberry Monster doesn’t have the same ring.

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What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

It’s Genetic

Cali relaxes on her dog bed.

People love to speculate on when, how, and why dogs and people became friends. A study published on July 19 shows that it might just be genetic.

Here’s the story. A condition in humans, Williams-Beuren Syndrome, is the result of a missing section of genetic material, a section of DNA that contains about 27 genes, according to an article in Inside Science. The syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, the article says; these individuals are “hypersocial,” with bubbly, extroverted personalities, as well as some other traits.

It seems that someone else’s bubbly, extroverted personality (I’m looking at you, Cali) might be related to a similar genetic hiccup.

In the course of studies of domestication and how it has caused doggy genetics to differ from wolf genetics, Bridgett vonHoldt, the lead author of the study, tested the friendliness of dogs and 10 hand-raised, tamed wolves. They measured how much time the dogs and wolves chose to spend in close proximity to humans and whether they worked at a challenge or sought human assistance. Predictably, the dogs both spent more time with the people and sought their help in solving the puzzle. Dogs do enjoy having staff.

However, the results had some variation, and in looking for reasons that some wolves were more sociable than others, the researchers found a clue: The genetic area that showed differences in the more- and less-social wolves corresponded to the genetic area that is missing in people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome. Friendly dogs and wolves had similar genetic variants; unfriendly wolves had genetic variants similar to each other and different from the dogs and the friendly wolves.

The researchers looked deeper. They examined the corresponding genes in dogs from 13 breeds. Breeds known to be friendly had profiles similar to the friendly members of the initial research group, while breeds known to be more standoffish had profiles that looked more like the unfriendly wolves. The study says that this genetic region is “known to be under positive selection in the domestic dog genome” — over generations of breeding, people have selected for the “friendly” genetic variation; these mutations are rare in wolves and even rarer in coyotes, which tend to be far less social than dogs and wolves. The same genes had been linked to friendliness in mice in earlier research.

Of course, a small segment of genetic material is not the only thing that influences social behavior. And theories about the domestication of wolves abound. But evidence is accumulating for a theory that basically says that that wolves chose to hang out with early humans. The friendlier, or less timid, wolves started scavenging near human camps and trash heaps. Over time, young pups and friendly adults inched closer to actual contact, until a great partnership was formed.

I have always been skeptical of the various human-centered narratives that had humans capturing and holding captive and bending to their will fierce wolves, all thousands of years before humans had metalworking abilities and tools that would make it possible to hold onto a wolf who didn’t want to stick around. I doubt that those unfriendly wolves, even the hand-reared ones, would stay put if tied to a tree with a leather strap. There had to be something else going on.

That the roots of friendship could center on food makes sense (again, looking at you, Cali). But even that explanation is not enough. While dogs and wolves are opportunistic — which means they will eagerly take advantage of opportunities to help themselves to a snack — early  humans were unlikely to have huge quantities of extra food available to just hand out to large-toothed scavengers skulking on the periphery of camp. On the other hand, if the scavengers were friendly and potentially useful …

An explanation that includes a choice on the part of the wolves, or at least some wolves makes more sense than the whole deal being human-instigated and controlled. And, as more people study the human-canine connection, more bits of information point to dogs playing an active role in establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with people, like this suggestion that some wolves were genetically inclined to be friendly and seek human company.

An additional reason that this study could be important is that researchers have long sought genetic explanations for complex behavior; this could be an important first step.

None of that really makes a genetic mutation a truly satisfying explanation for that waggy tail, wriggly, “let me show you my toy” greeting I get at the door … but the bottom line is, the dog-human friendship is pretty wonderful. If that’s where it started, well, I’ll take it.

 

It’s Teaching, Not Training


Jana peruses several cards, then chooses "tug," asking to play tug.

Someone whom I admire greatly, though I have never met her, wrote a wonderful column a while back. It was emailed to me recently, and I’d like to bring it to readers’ attention. She describes an approach to educating dogs that she calls “Non-Training.” I’ve called this “Cognitive” dog training.

Whatever you call it, the idea is the same: Treat the dog as a partner and student, not as a robot who must obey.

It is a positive, motivation-based approach to teaching dogs that relies on their intelligence and problem-solving ability — not rote memorization of specific, inflexible responses to commands barked at them by an “alpha” human.

It starts with giving dogs choices. Teaching dogs a simple “yes” or “no” response is pretty easy. You can use your hands or ask the dog to do a different response, such as raise a paw or nose your knee. It’s up to you (and your dog) what response works. But once the dog gets the concept of a choice, the sky is the limit.

You can ask your dog whether she wants to go out, wants water, is hungry (use caution if you have a Lab or a golden!), wants the ball or the tug toy, wants a walk or a ball game, wants to rest, is hurting somewhere … Really, as in so many areas of our relationships with dogs, the limitations are imposed by our lack of imagination, not the dogs’ lack of ability or willingness.

Cognitive training goes beyond simple choices, though. It is about teaching dogs to think and solve problems, rather than waiting for us to tell them what to do. It is about shared goals, rather than humans ordering dogs around. It is a dramatic re-imagining of the human-dog partnership. It requires letting go, once and for all, of the idea that dogs “have to” obey humans, just because we have thumbs, or that they do stuff for us out of unconditional love.

A relationship with a dog is just that: A relationship. It takes work, mutual respect, a two-way avenue of communication that acknowledges what each contributes and what each needs from the other.

I won’t go so far as to say that it is or should be a completely equal relationship. Sometimes — often — the human gets to make the decisions. Much as some people loathe the comparison, it is like parenting in that way. The adult human is in charge, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to respect and encourage the dog’s (child’s) individuality, allow for expression of preferences, and allow the dog to make choices when appropriate.

I encourage you to read the column, “Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No: The Art of Non-Training.”

 

Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.

Last Night Alone

koala-in-showerA guest post by Deni Elliott

Tonight is my last night alone. After four months of crawling into bed without Guiding Eyes Alberta snorting and snoring a few feet away, tonight is my last night alone. Tomorrow I meet Guiding Eyes Koala. As hard as I’ve squinted at photos and video and as tightly as I have clutched each new piece of information, I find it odd how little I can imagine about our future together.

Koala’s passed all the tests and has exceeded expectations. I’ve heard that she leaps into her harness and back-channels routes after only one trip. She eagerly solves problems and pivots on a dime, ready for new adventure. A personality match for sure. But I remind myself that I need to go slow and not expect too much of this 2-year-old.

At the cusp of this unknown relationship curving to be real, my tummy flutters with butterflies of anxiety and anticipation. I can imagine the home trainer better than the dog he is bringing me.

Jim Gardner, GEB director of home training, will fly from New York to Tampa with Koala curled at his feet. I imagine Jim cheerfully answering the questions I am annoyed to be asked. “Are you training that dog?” someone will ask. “Yes,” he’ll smile, “This is a new, young guide dog. I am taking her to meet her blind partner.” When asked, I put on the same “please the public” smile, but say in a way that invites no further intrusion: “Every day is a training day, but I am blind, and she is my guide dog.”

I imagine Jim calmly replying, when asked the dog’s name, “We don’t tell people that because we don’t want them distracted.” Knowing that despite 16 years of guide dog use that I am still paralyzed by strangers asking my dog’s names, other trainers have had me practice giving a fake name. I don’t lie well. Saying, “I won’t tell you,” feels rude. “Leave us alone,” is definitely rude. Saying, “If I tell you the dog’s name, you will immediately say it and distract her and that is exactly what I don’t want you to do,” is too long and complicated. So, I quickly say, “This is the dog’s name, BUT DON’T SAY IT.” As those words come out of my mouth, I concurrently offer a treat so that the dog doesn’t pay attention to what the other person might say. We then hurry away.

I imagine Jim chaperoning Koala and me on our first neighborhood walk. “What can we do for our first outing?” I will ask. “Two miles? One mile? 250 steps?” I have three routes mapped out just in case.  For the months I’ve caned my way through twice-daily walks, I’ve imagined being guided by new dog instead. I whisper “Right-right,” and “To the curb please,” and “Good dog, good job.” I’ve counted the number of streets I cross on these daily laps so that I can help Koala learn streets where she needs to stop and driveways where she doesn’t. I imagine the neighbors that I pass daily expressing surprise and sending best wishes when they see me with Koala in harness instead of gripping a cane.

I cry when I imagine Jim and Koala arriving from the airport tomorrow night. I have joked about lighting candles and pouring wine for the new girl’s arrival. In truth, I have stocked the house with beds, toys, crate, food and treats. I ache with the knowledge that none of these will fill her heart tomorrow night. All I can do is make promises that she won’t understand.

She’ll wonder where her most recent caregivers, Graham and David, have gone. She’ll look for her special canine friend, Wrangler. Some visual or scent will call to mind her puppy raiser mom, Eileen, although it has been six months since they’ve seen one another. From Alberta, I know that well-raised guide dogs never forget previous family members and greet them with great joy. I suspect Koala would prefer we all live together in one pack. I can’t make that happen, but I will promise to keep her connected with the dogs and humans who matter to her most.

koala-and-deniI will promise to keep her safe. I hope that she never needs to know that I will instinctively fold her under my body for protection if anything threatens her just as I did when Alberta and I were attacked by a stray dog.

I will promise to trust her today and for all of the tomorrows we have together. When I am utterly confused, I will follow her lead, knowing that she’ll have better ideas that I about what to do next.

I can’t imagine Koala at my side because I don’t know yet the person she will turn out to be. But I can promise to show her day after day that I will love her for being her own best self and for who we can become together. Maybe that’s enough for the first day.

Postscript: Koala and Deni are off to a great start!

Dogs Understand Our Words — and Our Tone of Voice

janaNYT

This week, many media outlets have run stories on a recent Hungarian study that might show that dogs not only understand the words we say to them, they also understand the tone of voice. I haven’t yet read the full paper, but based on several articles, here’s the gist.

The 13 dogs, trained to lie still in an MRI machine (so already a select group of highly educated individuals …), were tested on four sets of cues: Praise words said in a “praising intonation,” described as a higher and more varying pitch than neutral speech; the same praise words in a neutral tone; neutral words in a praise tone; and neutral words in a neutral tone.

From interactions with dogs, most of us know that we can get dogs to respond to pretty much anything we say in an excited or happy tone. And we know that they respond to some words even if we barely whisper them. For instance, a whispered “c…o…o…o…o…k…i…e…e…e…” gets a reliable response even if the dog is 100 yards away, playing happily with her buddy. But this research study, like several other MRI studies by this team and an American team, looked at the response in specific areas of the dogs’ brains, not their actions.

Praise words, regardless of tone, caused reactions in the left hemisphere of the dogs’ brain; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing speech. Neutral tones, regardless of words, produced a reaction in the right hemisphere; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing generic acoustic information. And, when the praise words were spoken in the praising tone, the reward centers of the dogs’ brain lit up. This shows that the dogs were able to integrate the meaning of the words and the tone and deduce meaning from them.

This study seems to show that dog brains process speech similarly to the way human brains process speech, which is what this article on Smithsonian.com reports. Other media reports said that it also means that the dogs understand human language, like this one from NPR.

Some experts, like one of my all-time-favorite scientists, Dr. Gregory Berns, told Smithsonian.com that the paper has been “wildly overinterpreted,” partly due to its methods. He pointed out that responding to speech and tone is not the same as understanding it.

That may well be true. On the other hand, the NPR article warns of the perils of life with such smart dogs, particularly if — as I do — one leaves NPR on for them to listen to all day. My dogs are, indeed, both smarter and better-informed than I am, especially now that I work in an office and do not listen to NPR all day.

However, in all seriousness, I think the overinterpretation also may be oversimplification. Yes, our dogs learn that certain words, even sentences, have specific meanings. They learn our habits and routines, and through experience with us, they associate all kinds of things with words. In our household some examples are: Leashes and fun and ball-playing with, “Who wants to go to the park?”; bowls of yummy food with “How about some dinner?”; and a careful backing up so that just her large, furry front paws are over the threshold with “Out of the kitchen, Cali.” The front feet then scootch back almost imperceptibly in response to, “The entire dog, please.” So yes, my dogs understand and respond somewhat appropriately to several sentences; I suspect that each family’s dogs have a set of favorites.

But even armed with my years of knowledge of their intelligence, along with my new realization of their eruditeness (is there a dog-oriented radio station that I could leave on instead of NPR?), I do not think that they process and understand human language in the same way that a human adult does.

What I do think, based on a combination of experience and having read dozens of research papers on dog-human communication, is that they read us really, really well. They don’t respond only to the words we say or the words combined with the tone of voice. Humans don’t either; so much communication is based on body language and other cues, even between humans. But dogs really read our body language. They also read all the scents we are giving off, including pheromones that we are completely unaware of. They read our microexpressions and our posture and our facial expression and pay attention to what we are doing as we are talking to them. They can figure out our emotions from these cues. They know when we “mean it” and when they can push the boundaries just a bit further.

Cali is much quicker to listen to my “get out of the kitchen” phrases when I am fixing her dinner than when I am doing the dishes. She’s learned that I will stop fixing her dinner and wait for her to leave the kitchen. She doesn’t like that consequence. But she doesn’t much care if I get the dishes done and maybe even wants me to stop doing them so I can pay attention to her.

The point is, looking at dogs’ response to words and voice in isolation doesn’t make sense, because in their lives with us, that is not how they use language. Another important thing to remember about dogs, as opposed to any other nonhumans, is that so much of who they are has been shaped by the fact of their lives with us. The dog-human connection is unique; our communication with them is different from our communication with any other nonhumans (even cats).

The most important point, though, is that dogs pay close enough attention to us to learn the meanings of the different things we say to them. They care whether we’re happy with them — or just whether we’re happy. I’m excited about new discoveries about dogs’ intelligence and cognitive abilities. But I am even more excited about new reasons to cherish the relationship I have with my girls and that others have with their dogs.