Take It Downstairs!

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When they get amped up playing inside — in the living room or dining room, to be specific — we tell them to “take it downstairs.” And they DO.

Downstairs is a mostly finished basement with a large room we inaccurately call the TV room. Sure, there’s a TV there, and a sofa. There’s also an open space and an overflowing toy box. And usually a half-dozen toys scattered around the floor. And, of course, a large dog bed. So it’s really the dog playroom, where we are sometimes allowed to watch TV. While cuddling one or more dogs on the sofa.

They are allowed to tug and play growl and wrestle and roll around to their hearts’ delight — downstairs. Not upstairs, where small rooms house my nice(r) furniture, my books, breakables …

In the summer, I have been known to shoo them outdoors when they start playing, but, as Koala points out (hourly): It’s Montana out there.

What’s impressive about the girls’ “taking it downstairs” is that their most energetic play sessions seem to coincidentally coincide with our phone or zoom conversations. Even so, even though they know we are distracted, they’ll take their toys and head downstairs.

A few minutes later, panting, happy dogs will reappear and settle down on the living room rugs for a nap. A tired dog is a good dog, after all.

Koala Struggles with Ethics

Golden Retriever Cali gently bats and noses her treat ball to get the kibble out.

Koala faces daily ethical dilemmas, as do many dogs. She’s a highly educated dog who loves to show off her smarts. She also tends to follow rules. But something about the puppy lunch routine is her ethical undoing.

The routine is predictable: Deni gets the girls their puppy lunch each day. Koala brings the treat balls upstairs; Deni fills them; and everyone heads downstairs for PL, as we’ve begun calling it (as if they girls don’t understand …). After PL, Koala puts both treat balls into their little box, and she gets an a cookie as payment for her work.

A daily dilemma

Black Lab Koala nudges her orange treat toy to empty and eat the kibble that’s inside

For a while, Koala did daily battle with her inner bad dog.

She’d quickly finish emptying her treat ball.

But Cali works more slowly. Koala couldn’t stand it. Cali had a treat ball and she didn’t! She began plotting. Each day, she’d try to steal Cali’s. She had to do it without attracting Deni’s attention, of course.

Cali got crafty. She took to batting her treat ball around a very small, sheltered spot. She was on a dog bed, up against a wall, and hemmed in by furniture, so there was only one open access point.

Deni ultimately caught on. She began giving Cali her treat ball inside the office (where Cali continued using the sheltered space) — and banned Koala from the office until Cali finished.

Well. Koala hated that. She’d whine outside the door in frustration.

Cali gets revenge

Cali, however, quickly figured out how to exploit the situation. It takes her longer and longer to slooowwwly empty her treat ball. She then tucks it under a paw, snuggles it gently, and takes a brief nap. All while Koala rages whiningly outside the door.

When Cali has tired of toying with Koala, she gently nudges Deni to let her know that she’s done. Koala then puts the balls away and gets a treat.

Deni has discovered that, even if she’s not there, Koala won’t go into the office to steal Cali’s treat ball. Koala is generally very good about following rules, even rules she hates.

But she will find Deni and badger her until Deni goes downstairs, takes the ball, and lets Koala put the balls away.

I don’t understand …

A related example: Let’s say the girls have finished their treat toys, and Deni is nowhere to be found. So I ask Koala to put the balls away. She knows perfectly well what to do; she does it every day. She puts other things away, too, like toys in the toy box.

Yet, it never fails: She flings the ball down outside of the box. Over and over. And demands a cookie each time. When I don’t give her one, instead repeating, “Please put the ball away, in the box, Koala,” she huffs, puffs, scowls, flings it harder, insists that she has no idea what I want her to do.

I figured out a way to cut this tantrum short. Today, each time she flung the ball anywhere except the box, I calmly handed a cookie to Cali, a willing sidekick in this exercise. I then asked Koala (again) to put the ball away.

Two Cali cookies later, amid disbelieving looks (and many more huff and puffs) from Koala, the ball was in the box. Koala finally got her cookie.

When a good dog behaves badly

Koala is generally a very good dog. So, why does she do bad things when she clearly knows what she’s supposed to do? Who knows? Why does anyone? Maybe it’s just a game the girls play. Or just sisters tormenting each other. When Koala heads back to Florida, she may miss this daily battle. Cali will; she doesn’t even get PL when Deni isn’t here. She does get her snuffle mat, though.

Treat Everyone Like a Dog

cover of Treat Everyone Like a Dog with a happy cattle dog puppy

While I do think that I’d like to come back as the dog of some of my friends and family members, this column isn’t about that. It’s actually a book review!

Karen London, a well-known (& wonderful) dog trainer’s book, to be specific: Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life. An added bonus: Patricia McConnell wrote the foreword.

It’s really a book about changing behavior, which is a topic I write about a lot in my real life, where I work for a bunch of online learning companies. Corporate training is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. Parenting is mostly about shaping and changing behavior. And dog training is pretty much about … shaping and changing behavior.

London does a brilliant job of explaining how to change specific behaviors (in dogs), why the techniques work — and how to apply them to similar situations with humans, whether those humans are your children, spouse, coworkers, friends … It sounds manipulative, but it’s no more (or less) so than the tactics we’re probably already using — and which are not working.

London talks about motivation, using positive reinforcement to motivate as well as reward, and why fear of failure can be so crippling in influencing what dogs (and people) do. Her emphasis is on positive methods of changing behavior and she draws a clear contrast between the shift to positive approaches in dog training — and the lack of a similar shift in human educational and workplace settings.

The book will teach you about things like the jackpot effect and intermittent reinforcement and why it’s so hard to change behavior when a dog (or human) is sometimes rewarded for the very behavior you’re trying to eradicate.

The book is filled with funny and familiar stories and examples. It’s got to be the best book on learning theory I have ever read. Her section on “learning styles” initially had me worried, but her take on it makes far more sense than the thoroughly debunked idea of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners! She talks about the value of short, spaced lessons, rather than trying to learn a new skill or complex material all at once — another topic I encounter over and over again in my work.

There’s a lot of great information packed into this book. I suggest reading and digesting it chapter by chapter — and trying out some of the strategies on your dog (or your kid!). You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah! 

Favorite Stops on Our Smell Walks

Golden Cali and Lab Koala agree to sniff deeply at a grassy spot
Pooling the “sniff” budget pays off

“Smell walks” with Cali and Koala are undergoing an update. It’s going better than I expected, actually.

Smell walks follow a suggestion from Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog. Basically, they are walks where the human actually lets the dog stop to sniff things. Since in the dog’s world, that is the one and only purpose of a walk, they tend to be mystified and frustrated by the large number of humans who seem to think walks are about walking.

Koala takes the concept beyond the extreme, though, sniffing Every. Single. Tree. And rock, blade of grass, and other, ickier stuff. After realizing that my usual 20-minute morning walk with Cali takes well over 45 minutes when Koala joins us, I knew that changes were needed.

I decided that each dog could choose 3 spots for long, deep sniffing sessions. The rest of the time, we’d walk. There’s one other rule: The deep sniffs do not include other dogs’ droppings.

I explained these rules to them carefully, and off we went. I counted each stop and told them how many they each had remaining in the bank. Even so, on the first modified walk, they seemed surprised and, yes, annoyed when I hustled them along after their 6 deep sniffs.

But they caught on pretty quickly. Soon, they started choosing their spots together, rather than taking turns. I could see one turn to the other, the other give a look — and both dive in. I think this approach provides them both with a greater return from their sniff budget.

They have started to return to the same spots, walk after walk. I’m guessing that those are spots favored by our neighborhood deer friends as well as the numerous other dogs who stroll the sidewalks.

Koala is quickly mastering the “walk-by sniff” — she samples an area with a quick sniff-survey of the air as we approach. Before we’re even there, she’s rejected it as a stop, quickly collecting all the information she needs without even slowing down.

Koala is efficient in another way: She often combines a deep-sniff session with other business needs. I appreciate that she frequently does that near one of the two trash cans on our usual route.

We’ve almost settled into a new routine. I can predict 3 or 4 of their stops already. Maybe they are weighing the others and will make their choices soon. Or perhaps they will always reserve 2 spots for impulse stops. Even dogs need some variety in their routines, after all.

Just Watching the World Go By

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the living room, peering out a large window

Dogs just want to watch the world go by. And interact with it sometimes. Some dog owners clearly understand that!

A brown dog peers through a rectangular hole in a wooden fence
Photos by Ken Gagne

My first encounter with the idea of “fence dogs” came while my friend Ken was spending a few weeks in Missoula this summer. The fence between his AirBnB and the neighboring yard featured an odd window. The purpose of this opening quickly became clear on his first morning there, when a fuzzy canine head appeared.

It turned out that there were three “fence dogs” who liked to visit, supervise the goings-on next door, get nose scratches, Golden retriever Cali looks at the two dogs peering through a fence windowand occasionally bring Ken a tennis ball to inspect.

On a visit to Ken, Cali “met” the fence dogs — and probably wondered why her fence does not have such nice windows.

Several weeks after he’d left Missoula, I was reminded of Ken and the fence dogs when I saw an article about a family’s creative approach to letting their dog watch the world go by.

Then, just last week, I saw an even funnier post. These dogs apparently spy primarily on their mom’s comings and goings, and they have to line up just right with their viewing portals.

Cali, and occasionally Koala, also enjoy watching the world. They use the large window in my living room that looks out on the driveway — and gives them a great view of the road. Cali grumbles at people walking past, escalating to irate vocalizations when a dog dares to walk on her sidewalk. She looks out sadly, staring me right in the face, whenever I back out of the driveway in a dogless car.

Golden retriever Cali peers out a large windowCali just loves watching what’s going on, and dog-height windows were an appealing feature when I first saw what became our home.

She adopted this space immediately. I briefly put a bench with several plants in “her” window, partially blocking the view, and she let me know that this was unacceptable. Very unhappy, she paced, tried to peer out, gave me dirty looks. I soon moved the bench.

I don’t like walking past yards where dogs fence fight or go ballistic, barking and lunging as I pass, especially if the fence is mostly open. But I think there is a balance. For dogs who can handle the stimulation (and who are supervised and brought indoors when they bark at neighbors), a fence window (or an actual window) is a great idea! Dogs are curious about their world and, for the most part, their lives are contained. Many dogs spend a lot of time at home with no access to see or even smell the outdoors. If we can offer them a way to watch the world, why not?

Koala Discovers Her Inner Labrador

Koala is not a typical Labrador. Yes, she’s affectionate and cuddly and very, very food focused. But she’s also serious and rule-bound. She holds us to a schedule. She has no sense of humor.

She has her moments — she loves to play, but on her terms only. And she does love to stomp through puddles, but she’s not as eager to get into a body of water as most Labs. She’s usually indifferent to a ball tossed into the water. (Not Cali! Cali, a golden retriever, was born to swim after tennis balls. Over and over and over again.) Koala will fetch a ball on land, if you ask her to, but it’s clear she’s only humoring the silly human.

And Koala hates cold weather. She was born in Upstate New York and raised in Connecticut, so maybe by the time she moved to Florida, she was really just done with winter. At not-quite-2 years of age.

So, here she is in Montana, yet again. And yet again, it’s cold. It’s late October and … we had a blizzard. Somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of snow fell overnight.

When I opened the door to let Koala and Cali out in the morning, it was still snowing. She gave me her “are you nuts??” look, a look I know well. I convinced her to go out to pee.

Cali of course was delighted. But then Cali is usually delighted: She loves snow. She loves water. She loves rain. She loves sun. She loves grass. She loves summer. She loves winter.

Cali was a bit worried when she went to her toy box and all that was in there was a bunch of white powder, but she nosed around a bit and located a frozen tennis ball. She gave me her look … and I ventured out, in slippers and robe, to free the frozen treasure and toss it for her.

And Cali was off, racing around plowing through the snow with her nose to find her ball. Dropping it into the snow so she could find it again. Begging me to come out to play …

Koala looked on in disgust.

I beat a quick retreat indoors.

Then I looked out the window: Koala was racing around the back yard and — what was that? A wagging tail?! She made a couple of joyful, very Labrador-esque laps.

She must have sensed me watching.

She glanced over her shoulder, stopped running, and started sniffing the ground. She did her business and quickly came back inside.

Her burst of typical Labrador playfulness, her flash of joy as she played in the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. But Cali and I both saw it: Koala’s inner Labrador.

Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

With Patience, Persistence, and Perception, Dogs Have the Upper Paw

Some day, my berries will be ready …

By Deni Elliott and Pam Hogle

Regardless of how many years they have lived with dogs, almost all dog-owned humans wish that the dogs were better behaved. Some dogs continue to bark, despite repeated human attempts to stop the noise. Some dig or raid the garden or sleep on the sofa —despite physical barriers and human reprimands. Others act out when their people are most hoping that they won’t. The sad truth is that the problem is less about human incompetence than it is an indication of canine superiority. Dogs consistently outperform their human companions in three vital areas: Patience. Persistence. Perception.

Patience is the ability to wait for you want and hold on to a goal despite distraction. How many people would have the patience to wait at home for hours while their companions went off to work or play? Or even have the patience to wait for minutes outside of a store, tied to a pole, with no phone to keep them amused? Dogs, who love dependable routines, wait and wait and wait for their people to remember that it is time to play, to walk, or even to feed them dinner close to the usual hour.

Persistence is the ability to continue working toward a goal despite difficulty or opposition. Some dogs bark persistently. Some continually nudge their person’s hand to get petted. Persistently. And others beg at the dining table. Persistently. There is a reason that the term for working tenaciously is “dogged.” People give up and give in long before dogs will. People also reward the dog’s persistence, “just this once,” — maybe to stop the dog’s annoying behavior. At that point, the dog has succeeded at creating the desired human behavior. In most families, the dog will soon have the people well-trained in responding to canine direction.

Perception is the ability to use one’s sensory abilities to take in information in and make it meaningful. Dogs read people — our vocal tone and pitch in addition to our words; our facial expressions and body language. In comparison, most people can barely tell the difference between a dog barking in joy and one barking in warning or in anger. Dogs learn how they should react and what they can get away with by reading their people. Much dog anxiety can be attributed to what the dog reads from their primary person. “If my person is sending signals that he is nervous,” the dog reasons, “I guess I better be worried too.”

Patience, persistence, and perception come together in a trifecta of  superior intelligence that sometimes overwhelms the most dog-savvy of humans. In last week’s Thinking Dog Blog, Pam wrote about Cali eating tomatoes from the garden just before Pam would have picked the tomato for human consumption.

The sequence of events illustrates how these concepts come together in dognition: Cali waited patiently for weeks while the lettuce, raspberries, and tomatoes each reached what she considered their peak readiness. When faced with an obstacle, she was persistent enough to figure out new ways to reach the garden treats, getting around the bird netting that Pam had wrapped around the plants. When Cali decided that it was time to eat the tomato she had been eyeing, she reached through the netting to pluck the tomato and let it fall beneath the plant. Then Cali could reach the tomato by burrowing under the netting. Which she did. There she lay, chomping her freshly harvested tomato, while Pam mowed the grass just a few feet away. Cali perceived that Pam was focused on the lawn and not on the dog.

Dogs consistently outperform humans because their PQ (Patience, persistence, perception) is off the scale compared to their human companions. That seems to be a fair trade-off for people getting opposable thumbs to use in our far more primitive way of manipulating the environment we share.

Stop, Thief!

Golden retriever Cali eyes the tomato plants

So we all know how much Cali loves raspberries. She was lucky this summer; we had a lot of raspberries. But, all good things come to an end — including raspberry season.

With that in mind, Cali has decided to broaden her diet. She grew tired of waiting for our very small first crop of blackberries to ripen, so she ventured farther afield. Or agarden.

Right over to the tomato plants.

Our tomatoes got off to a very slow start. The first plants perished in a late frost. The next group shivered through a chilly June before starting to grow and blossom. By late July, several medium-sized and small tomatoes were starting to ripen. One, in particular, looked almost ready.

Then, suddenly, it was gone!

Deni asked if I had picked it. I said I thought she had. Hmmmm…

Suspicion landed on Koala, who had been spotted pilfering strawberries. She denied any knowledge of tomatoes or their disappearance. Besides, as she reasonably pointed out, Cali spent by far the most time in the yard, often alone.

Cali feigned innocence.

Nevertheless, I got out some bird netting, which also promised protection from hungry animals other than birds. I wrapped the tomato patch, clipping the netting to the tomato supports with clothespins. We scored a few ripe tomatoes, which were delicious.

Just yesterday, I had my eye on one that was ripening nicely. I decided to give it another day, and wandered off to mow the lawn. A few minutes later, as I was carefully pushing my mower up and down, a few yards from the tomato bed, Deni came outside and asked, “What’s Cali eating?”

The crafty thief had poked her nose under the netting and stolen the tomato! Right under my not-so-watchful eyes!

Severe consequences were in order.

Deni had it covered. First she offered Koala a few bites of the ravaged tomato. Then she gave the rest of the tomato to Cali. And then she took both girls inside and gave them their special Friday dinner, which includes sardines.

I am confident that the lesson got through loud and clear. If Cali steals another tomato, she understands the dire consequences: Getting to eat the tomato, with sardines for dessert.

Take that, you little thief!

P.S.: Cali has also managed to pilfer a few blackberries, but boy, are they sour!