A Mind of Her Own

A dirt path, some tall grass and trees. Cali, a golden retriever, is hiding
Where’s Cali?

I was talking to a friend the other day who said of her dog,”She’s smart. She doesn’t obey, but she is smart.”

I said that obedient is not at all the same as smart, and maybe the least obedient dogs are some of the smartest.

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define or measure “intelligence” in non-humans. Some dog writers and scholars equate trainability and / or obedience with intelligence. I disagree.

Life is certainly simpler and often more pleasant if your dog generally does as you ask. But, unless the dog is likely to face severe punishment for disobeying, I don’t think that following orders has much to do with intelligence.

Cali is a case in point. When it really matters that she listen, she usually does. But one area where we constantly clash is that, when we’re in an off-leash area and I decide it’s time to go home, she nearly always disagrees.

Cali is nestled among grass and weeds, well hidden
Found her

She’ll then play her favorite game, “Snake in the Grass.” She lies down in the tallest grass she can find and suddenly, coincidentally experiences a bout of total deafness.

She does this at home, too, but the grass is greener and shorter so she’s not actually invisible (unless she’s hiding among the raspberry canes).

It’s not that she doesn’t know what I want; she knows. She simply disagrees and is asserting her own agenda. Often, she’s right; our hike or play session was much too short. She is not at all sympathetic to the argument that I need to get back to work (she thinks I work far too much).

She shares her own opinions often — in choosing the direction of our walks or picking a toy or choosing to sleep downstairs instead of in her bed in the bedroom or any number of things. She can be very determined, too.

She knows her own mind, has preferences, and figures out ways to communicate them. I see these as signs of intelligence — more than simply and consistently doing as she’s told. Though that would be nice sometimes.

Of Course Your Dog Loves You

The New York Times published an interview with one of my favorite ethologists, researchers, and authors, Carl Safina this week. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the most important part: Of course our dogs love us.

If Carl Safina says so, it must be true. In addition, he says that dogs, as well as elephants, primates, and more, have consciousness.

None of this is news to people who know dogs well — but it is great to see scientists willing to talk openly about these ideas. As little as 10 or 15 years ago, talking about dogs having consciousness would have ended a person’s research career.

Safina describes his reasoning: “What is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones.”

When you’re home, where do your dogs hang out? If they hang out with you, when they could choose any other room, well … they want to be with you.

I’m trying really hard to be OK with the fact that Cali spends a lot of the day on my bed, watching the neighborhood — while I am upstairs working.

(To be fair, she spends a large part of most days up there too and is wherever I am in the evenings and when I am not working.)

If you’re not convinced by your dogs’ behavior, read some of the MRI studies by Gregory Berns and others. Your dog loves you … and it’s not only because of the treats and belly rubs.

A Place to Play

Koala noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

 

Everyone needs a place to play. Even dogs. Especially dogs.

Cali loves, loves, loves her back yard. She’d live there if I let her. She’d also dig it up, rearrange the plants, harvest all the green tomatoes (but get good and sick inside, preferably on a rug), and dine on raspberries every night.

Cali and Koala do play in the yard a lot. But Koala is a delicate Florida Labrador, and cannot take the cold Montana mornings. Or the warm Montana afternoons. She wants to be inside.

It’s a dilemma.

I don’t want them wrestling and playing tug in the living room, but they can’t or don’t want to play outside all the time.

We’ve solved this issue by making the TV room in the basement a dog play area. Now, when they pick up a toy and Cali gets that mischievous gleam in her eye, we intervene. Before she entices Koala to play and gets them both in trouble, we tell them to “take it downstairs.”

It took a bunch of repetitions with us steering them downstairs, but they’ve caught on. Now they happily trot off down the stairs and play freely (and loudly). When they have friends over, they might take their friends down to play in the rec room.

They have a toy basket downstairs where most of the tug toys are kept. Well, that’s the idea, anyhow. There are often toys scattered over every inch of the floor, but sometimes, Koala even picks up the toys and puts them away. They’ll both clean up with a lot of encouragement (and a few cookies).

A Perfect Day (for Cali)

Cali, a golden retriever, swims in a riverI’d like to get out and hike more. It’s summer in Missoula. I’m an outdoor novice; I don’t go camping (which means I have Missoula all to myself on summer weekends) and I can really only do easy hikes. Even so, I like to get outside in our short, but stunning, summers.

But Cali’s not great off leash. She gets engrossed in something and next thing she knows, she’s miles away and 20 minutes have passed.

There are many wonderful trails where I can’t or wouldn’t let her off leash even if she were more reliable. They’re at the edge of vast wilderness, have too many tempting smells and critters to follow, and I’m not willing to risk losing her. Every weekend in the summer, the Missoula NPR station reads our lost dog reports, and sometimes there are pictures at the trail heads … it’s sad and scary.

So, when I have a little time and it’s a nice day, I face a dilemma. Do I pack Cali into the car and go off somewhere to satisfy my desire to hike? Or do I choose an option that will be more fun for her?

Hiking is fun for her, but still, it’s usually a long walk on a short leash in a pretty place that she’d love to explore, if only her mean mom would let her.

Compared with one of our standbys, a large open area inside Missoula where she can run off leash, and where I usually throw a ball for her to chase … well, no contest. Especially in the summer when there’s water to play in!

I feel a little bad each time I decide to head there rather than gear up for a more adventurous outing, but then, as I make the turn off of Reserve St., and Cali knows for sure where we’re going, her excitement reassures me. This is what she’d choose. This or a trip to Big Dipper ice cream (or both).

She dances with excitement as we get out of the car and I dig out her ball; she squeals with joy as I release the leash. Then she’s off, running, the instant I throw the ball. She doesn’t bring it back, of course, so I walk to her, she lets me take it, and I throw it again. And again.

We walk along the irrigation ditch, currently full of cool water. We walk through a wooded area. When we get to each of the two little pools, I throw the ball into the water for her to swim after. Now she does bring it back, over and over, so I will keep throwing it upstream. Her favorite thing is to get out of the water and drop the ball at my feet. Then, just as I bend to pick it up, she shakes off, sharing the cool water. We both get back to the car dirty, tired, and happy.

I think that she has more fun doing this, even if it’s the same outing two or three times a week (or daily) than she would if we went to new and interesting places … where she had to stay on leash. It’s not that dire; there are a few other places where she can be off leash. But in the summer, this spot, with the trees, water, and open space, is pretty hard to beat. Instead of worrying about taking her more places, maybe I need to focus on taking her more often for perfect Cali days … a swim, some mud, maybe a little ice cream!

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.

Freedom!

Cali, a golden retriever, jumps out of a freezing cold stream
Photo by Christina Phelps

An out-of-town friend came to visit Cali this weekend, and we all went to our favorite place, Packer Meadow. We were a little early for the gorgeous wildflowers, but Cali enjoyed being out in nature and off her leash.

The first time she ever visited Packer Meadow, Cali was with Jana and Alberta, and they all went crazy, running in circles and splashing in the creek.

Cali did a similar run-and-splash today, but she had barely dipped her paws into the icy snowmelt water before bounding back onto land and running some more.

She did not want to go home and ran off when called back to the car. She made sure to stay close enough that she could see us but stubbornly refused to come to the car. We’ve got to work on that if Cali wants to enjoy any more Montana hiking!

I corralled her and we got into the car … where Cali was soon sound asleep.

Teach Your Dogs Well …

Jana and Cali rest under a retaurant table

My mom recently spent a week in Italy, where she noticed dogs everywhere — in restaurants and shops, walking politely down crowded sidewalks — often stylishly clad in jackets. She mentioned multiple times that the sidewalks were spotless.

In chatting with other dog-loving and well-traveled friends, we heard stories of other European countries where well-dressed dogs hobnobbed with humans in restaurants, stores, and even historic homes that the humans were touring.

Obviously, the dog culture is very different in Europe than in the U.S.

I can’t tell you how or why it’s so different, but I can tell you what works: socialization and practice. Dogs who are out and about have to learn manners and be held to high standards of behavior. American pet dogs generally stay home and, too often, are allowed to develop poor manners and habits. It’s a vicious cycle: The dogs are unruly, so we don’t take them in public. Lacking exposure and practice, they don’t learn to behave better. So it’s too much effort to take them to even the few places they are welcome. So they don’t learn …

I’m not criticizing, just observing. I am as guilty as the next dog owner. Many times, I’ve decided not to take Cali into, say, our local dog-friendly Ace Hardware because I just want to get my shopping out of the way. She loves going in, and she’s not horribly behaved — but she puts a lot of effort into looking for employees whom she can hit up for cookies, and I do have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t shoplift those dog treats that are in a nose-level bin. I’d love it if she just calmly walked by my side, ignoring the treats, but I haven’t put in the effort needed to get her to that point.

In my service-dog-training days, I took many, many puppies on many, many trips to stores, restaurants, and every kind of public place. In those instances, I was 100 percent focused on the puppy, not trying to do my own errands, and I taught the puppies to behave properly (I hope). It takes a lot of effort, though it’s well worth it.

I admire the European owners who’ve managed to combine training with living their lives. Obviously, behaving calmly in various situations will come more easily to some dogs than to others, but all puppies need to be taught. Taught to settle down quietly and not demand attention while the humans are eating or talking. Taught not to search for and pick up scraps of food or trash. Taught not to beg at restaurant tables. Taught not to seek attention from strangers. These are, of course, skills that are valuable at home, too, especially when the doorbell rings or a repair person is working in the house.

Everyone’s ideas of what behavior is intolerable and what’s “good enough” are different. Teaching dogs manners is hard work and demands a lot of repetition and consistency. Lots of us are not very good at that, but we really do get out of it what we put in. Maybe it’s time to take Cali to Ace for more practice …