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.

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.