The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.

I was wrong.

Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.

Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.

But I digress.

Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.

Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.

Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.

Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.

Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.

Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)

When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.

Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…

Obsessively neat?

Koala, a black Lab, considers playing with one of everal toys
So many toys; so hard to choose

It’s always interesting to teach a dog a new skill and see where she takes it.

When I taught Jana that she could make choices, she started weighing in on where she wanted to go on walks. She’d put on the brakes, hard, if I tried to head in the “wrong” direction, for example.

Koala has built on many of her skills, adding new dimensions. She’s great at finding shortcuts to places that she and Deni walk to frequently. She quickly learns regular routes. Those skills come into play when they travel: She can find their hotel room after being in it once. She also uses her search skills — and her excellent nose — to find a trash can anywhere she happens to need one.

She learned to put away her toys some time ago. Cali has learned this as well. They both know to bring a toy and drop it into the toy basket. Usually, this is a mercenary exchange, with treats demanded after each successful toy drop as well as a final, larger paycheck at the end. It also requires considerable encouragement and cheerleading.

And Koala routinely gets her treat ball when it’s time for puppy lunch. When she’s emptied it, and when Deni asks her to, she brings it to Deni to put away.

Recently, though, Koala did something unexpected. She selected a toy, chewed it for a moment, decided that she wanted a different one — and put the first one away before choosing another. She did this twice before settling in with her third choice, an antler, to chew.

Has she become obsessively neat? Has she finally figured out that if she leaves her bones scattered on the floor, people trip over them (and if so, does she care)? Or is she worried about being unemployed while she’s in Montana, since Cali has a lock on the best two local jobs?

As I look at a living room scattered with Cali’s toys, I wonder whether there’s enough work to support two dogs in the toy-cleanup business.

Your Dog May Be a Math Genius

Jana, a golden retriever, wears a graduation mortorboardAnyone who has ever out two treats in her pocket and then given her dog only one knows that dogs can count.

Well, it’s more nuanced than that.

Despite many hoaxes and dubious claims, dogs can’t actually count, at least not without extensive training — but dogs are aware of quantities and relative sizes, without any training at all. And, it turns out, they use the same part of their brains that humans do to assess the approximate number of items in an array or group of items.

About those treats — they definitely know when they are being shorted, or the other dog is getting a bigger piece. And they always know when there is (or recently was) a treat in your pocket. They have excellent noses, you know.

Researchers at Emory University (including my favorite dog researcher, Dr. Gregory Berns) put their well-trained dogs back into the MRI and showed them various groupings of black dots on gray backgrounds. This study doesn’t sound like it was as much fun for the dogs as the ones where they got ordinary treats and good treats so the researchers could see how the pleasure centers in their brains lit up … but I bet the dogs were paid well in treats after all the dots.

The published paper talks a lot about the different parts of the brain, but the upshot is that humans and dogs (and lots of other mammals, apparently) react differently when seeing a small quantity of something (fewer than 4) vs. a larger quantity. This useful skill, called numerosity, benefits both predator and prey animals in their search for food or attempts to avoid becoming food.

The dogs in the study had no math training prior to their MRI experience. The advanced mathematical skills that (some) humans possess use the same area of the brain. I wonder how far the above-average dog could get in math with the right teacher.

 

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.

 

Missed Opportunity

 

Cali, a golden retriever, looks very sad
I’m not angry; I am just disappointed …

Cali recently had a doctor’s appointment. She has a couple of small lumps, and I was thinking about having the vet remove them. So … you know what’s coming … Cali had to skip breakfast.

I apologized profusely. She did that sad face thing, where she just looks at me to let me know how disappointed she is by my behavior — my utter failure to meet her needs.

She moped around, sighing loudly, the whole time I had my coffee and washed dishes. Fewer dishes since, you know, hers was still clean from last night.

Outside, she foraged vainly among the raspberry canes, brown and sad after our early snow. She hoped she might find some overlooked berries to help her stave off her hunger. No luck. No dropped apples from the neighbor’s tree either. Greedy birds had eaten all the seed. Sigh.

We went for our morning walk. She trailed sadly behind me, her low energy the result of being starved by her cruel human.

Suddenly, she spied a miracle: Someone had dropped an entire ice-cream cone on the grass!

She stared, disbelieving. She stretched her nose over to sniff. She drooled.

She then made a critical error. She looked up, up at that cruel human. Who of course said, “No.” Seriously, is that the only word moms know?

The rest of that walk was … just exhausting.

The nice vet said Cali didn’t need surgery. Then she gave Cali a whole handful of cookies. Maybe she wants another golden retriever …

Cali gave me another look. This one said, “I’m shopping for a better mom.”

I took Cali home and gave her breakfast. We walked by the Spot, but the ice cream was gone. Some lucky dog with a nicer human …

I gave her extra treats all day. I took her out for ice cream a couple days later. I kept apologizing.

None of it matters.

We walk past that Spot, where the miracle (almost) occurred, on every walk. Cali stops, sniffs the ground where that magical cone was. She sniffs, gives me the sad face. Looks mournfully at the Spot again, sniffs again, and we walk on.

Some opportunities come once and poof! They’re gone in a second, with the “No” of a mean mom.

Cali is now firmly in the “ask for forgiveness — not permission” camp.

She’s learned her lesson: If you see a miracle, eat it right away.

Plenty of time to bat your blonde eyelashes at the angry human, look remorseful, and apologize afterward.

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.