Finding Shortcuts

When she’s done eating, Koala picks up her bowl and takes it to Deni. But she’s come up with a new approach. If Deni is not in the kitchen, Koala first goes to find her. She then takes the bowl to Deni. This saves her having to wander around the house carrying her bowl, which is not really her favorite thing to do. It’s a shortcut.

Each of Deni’s guide dogs has found shortcuts on walking routes they do often (by which I mean, more than once). Some dogs’ shortcuts are kind of offensive to human sensibilities. (Think: drinking from the commode when the water bowl is empty.) Others, like figuring out new routes home or ways to carry multiple toys at once, are clever.

But whether you like the shortcut or not, the idea that a dog can do that is pretty amazing. Well, it would be amazing to people who don’t believe that dogs can think and problem-solve.

Koala is smart in so many ways. I love watching her roll a treat toy around. She has an orange treat ball where Deni puts her “puppy lunch,” a little bit of kibble. Koala rolls it around to get the food out. She’s strategic about how she rolls it, carefully avoiding edges it could roll off or furniture it could roll under. It’s an intelligent approach to problem solving that could be seen as a shortcut; after all, it saves her having to go find a human if the ball gets stuck under a bed.

Many people interfere with dogs’ attempts to solve problems, maybe worried that the dog will pick up something he shouldn’t (a shoe?) or just spoiling the dog by doing things for him. But that can limit the dogs’ opportunities to creatively solve a problem. If you catch yourself stepping in to help the dog, hold off for a moment. Maybe your dog will do something brilliant!

Advertisements

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.

Getting to Know You …

Cali’s tail never stops wagging as she follows her nose.

A recent column in the Whole Dog Journal had these two sentences, part of a longer description of a coonhound learning to trust humans (the column is well worth a read; in fact, nearly everything in WDJ is worth reading):

The only clue we had that she actually did like attention was that if you sat in her presence, she would come and stand very close to you; she liked to put her face very near your face – a quite uncomfortable sensation with a dog who has no expression, and isn’t wagging her tail or trying to lick you. She would just approach, stand very close, and hold very still – odd.

This caught my attention because Cali does the same thing. Well, Cali has a very expressive face and is nearly always wagging her tail, sometimes even in her sleep. But the ‘putting her nose right next to people’s mouths’ part is the same.

I think that dogs do this to learn about people. They pick up a lot of information from smells, far more than whether we’re overdue for a dose of mouthwash. They learn about other dogs that way, both in person and by sniffing the ground.

Cali often does this breathing exercise while also giving the person a hug (she gives great hugs), possibly begging for a treat (or sniffing the person’s plate), or nuzzling the person. But often, she just inhales … soaking in the essence of her friend. And almost everyone is her friend — or would be if she could only meet them!

I’m not sure whether Cali is doing this more, as well as sniffing the ground more carefully and thoroughly since we started doing scent work classes or I am just noticing it more. But she does seem to be very attuned to her nose lately. When we played ball in the snow this morning, though, I noticed that she doesn’t seem to be able to detect the scent as easily. She ran right past her ball several times, sniffing the air, and did not seem to know it was there. She’s generally very good at finding it with her nose.

Of course, it could just be that she loves running around in the snow

 

 

Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!

“Alpha” Stands for Abuse

Golden retriever rolls happily in the grass
This is the only kind of rolling I want my dogs to experience.

A few weeks ago, I saw someone essentially “alpha roll” her dog.

This week, I saw Patricia McConnell’s review of a book by the same folks who initially “popularized” the alpha roll, the Monks of New Skete. I don’t know what the Monks suggest in their new book, but I am confident that it is bad for dogs.

It’s well past time for this abuse to stop. We know enough about dogs to put to rest the notion that they “need” a strong leader who keeps them in check using force.

The alpha roll, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered it, is an abusive technique presented by incompetent, ignorant individuals who call themselves dog trainers. It’s based on the thoroughly debunked idea that dogs’ “packs” need to be ruled by an “alpha” who demonstrates “leadership” by beating up on other members of the pack. And that if you, the human, do not repeatedly enforce your “leadership,” the dog (any dog) will try to take over.

All of the elements of this belief are pure hogwash. But those beliefs have led to many cruel practices, including the alpha roll as discipline. Basically, if your dog does something you don’t like, you are supposed to punish him and reinforce your “leadership” by grabbing him and throwing him onto his back (rolling him if he’s too big for you to flip easily) and holding him down as you yell at him, shake him by the scruff, do both, or perform whatever other “disciplinary” tactics the abusive “trainer” has taught you.

So, the alpha roll I saw went like this: I was walking down a busy street. A woman was walking her smallish terrierish dog. Another person walking a larger Labish dog went by. I am not sure whether the dogs only sniffed at each other or whether one or both vocalized. Whatever the small terrier did was unacceptable to the woman who grabbed him, flipped him over, shook him, and yelled, “No! Bad! No!” several times.

Why?

What did she think she was teaching him?

Who knows what she thought she was teaching him. What she was teaching him was that she, his human protector, was crazy and unpredictable. That walking down the street with her, simply being a dog, was dangerous. That she might attack him out of the blue for no reason.

I was silently rooting for the dog to bite her in the face. A major downside of the alpha roll is that the person doing it is often ideally positioned for a really nasty (and richly deserved) face bite. That so few dogs snap and deliver the “discipline” that the people deserve is an enormous testament to dogs’ self-restraint and their long-suffering and forgiving natures — not to the effectiveness of the “discipline.”

The alpha myth is based on incorrect assumptions about wolves. See Alexandra Horowitz’s explanation in this link for more information, but in short, people who observed the behavior of captive wolves extrapolated from the behavior between males all kinds of nonsense about dogs. For openers, captive wolf behavior is nothing like wild wolf behavior, so the observation that, in captive groups made up of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans, males jockeyed for control — including fighting with other males — says nothing about wolf pack dynamics. Natural wolf packs are families. The so-called alpha pair are the parents or grandparents of the other pack members. True alpha wolves rarely use physical discipline, but the alpha pair does lead the pack and teach their offspring how to behave.

And even if natural wolf packs did behave as alpha theorists described— so what? That little terrier mix getting abused on the sidewalk has less in common with a wolf than you and I have with the average chimpanzee. Do we discipline children and rule workplace hierarchies based on the way chimps treat their troupe-mates? I certainly hope not! Thanks to thousands of years of partnership leading to domestication of dogs, and also thanks to generations of human-influenced genetic changes, dog behavior is very, very different from wolf behavior. And dog-dog behavior is, and should be, different from dog-human behavior.

Dog behavior is relationship-based; dogs are very social. That is about the only element of the dog pack mythology that is true. Humans are also social. Social animals have rules, whether formal or informal, that govern their interactions. Some involve status differences and even hierarchies. But leadership is about navigating and negotiating these relationships and differences and influencing the behavior of those with lower status or who are dependent on the leader in some way. There are lots of ways to lead. Sure, force is an option. But as anyone who’s survived an autocratic parent or boss knows, it is not terribly effective, it destroys relationships, and it is far from the only way to “lead.” In fact, I do not consider force or autocracy to be leadership.

McConnell’s blog offers alternative visions of leadership. I agree with her; our leadership of our dogs should be about building a relationship, letting the dog know he can count on us and trust us. It’s also about letting dogs think for themselves and making it safe for them to make mistakes sometimes. That is the polar opposite of what “being the alpha” accomplishes.

Please don’t buy into the alpha myths; instead, buy any (or all) books by McConnell and other positive, progressive trainers who treat dogs as the thinking, caring, sensitive beings they are.

Dog Therapy

Cali, a golden retriever, sits surrounded by flowers

Cali’s a natural. She intuitively knows when people need a hug. She gives the best hugs, too.

Just this past week, she comforted a stressed-out friend, soberly inspected a neighbor’s injured leg and offered reassurance, and snuggled with another anxious friend.

That’s why I am hoping to get her registered as a Pet Partner. She loves meeting people and is so sweet with people who need the comfort of a dog to pet or hold. So, on Saturday, I volunteered to help out at the evaluations of three dogs who were becoming Pet Partners. I wanted to see what the test looks like (it has been several years since I last did one) and where we might need work. All three dogs, a miniature poodle, a medium-sized mix, and a young golden retriever, did very well.

I’m not sure we’ll pass, though. Cali knows what to do. She’s been through obedience classes and is generally a well-mannered dog. Until her newfound fascination with squirrels, I didn’t think she had an aggressive or predatory bone in her body.

But.

When Cali gets excited, she loses her mind. She gets excited when she knows she might get a treat from someone. I could make sure that no one ever gave her a treat on our Pet Partner visits, though that would be hard. Sometimes, though, she gets excited just because she thinks she gets to meet someone new. Since that is the whole point of Pet Partner visits, I am not sure what to do.

Just yesterday, we were heading out for a walk, and a neighbor, someone I hadn’t met, was approaching. Cali went nuts. Pulling, hard, wagging her whole body… it was all positive energy, but not at all appropriate for visits. Even if I carefully avoided visits where anyone might be frail or easily knocked over. And if she got this excited at the test, there’s no way we’d pass.

I’m going to sign us up for some classes where she’ll get some practice listening to me with a lot of distractions and paying attention even when interesting people and dogs are all around us. I’m working really hard on not letting her get treats or petting when she’s pulling. But the world doesn’t always cooperate. Like the time she pretty much had treats thrown at her, strewn in our path, as we walked through Ace to the dog-food aisle (last week). Or the people who assure me that “it’s all right” that she’s pulling as they lean down and pet her and oooh and ahhh over her — ignoring my pleas to wait until she sits. It is not all right!

It seems unfair that the only way to try to get her what she wants — chances to meet more people — is to deny her the chance to meet people. And that’s not even guaranteed to work. I’ll let you know how it goes. The next evaluations are in November. Cali will be 5(!!) in December. If that sweet 15-month-old golden could pass (he did, with flying colors) she should be able to pull it off!

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.