The Education of Will

Photo of the book cover of The Education of WillPatricia McConnell wrote on her blog about her frustration that most bookstores place The Education of Will with the pet books. She’s right. It’s only partly a dog book; a wonderful dog book, by the way. It’s also a memoir. But far more powerful than either of those, it’s a book about overcoming trauma, understanding how experiencing trauma affects every aspect of the survivor’s life and behavior — and gathering the courage, compassion, and forgiveness to face the trauma and heal.

Though chock-full of stories about Will, Dr. McConnell’s troubled border collie puppy, and sprinkled with tales of other traumatized and terrified dogs she has helped over the years, The Education of Will is primarily Dr. McConnell’s story. It is deeply personal; writing in is courageous and testament to her ability to examine the worst experiences a person can have, work through them, and share them in all their frightening, embarrassing, horrifying detail.

If you’re a dog person, you should read this book — and Dr. McConnell’s other books, her blog … If you are a human being, you should read this book. If you’re a dog with fear-based behavior problems or a dog who’s experienced trauma, you should read this book (ask your human to help).

Will, as an eight-week-old puppy, reacted to sudden noises with explosive terror. Dr. McConnell has no explanation for this; he did not, as far as she knows, experience any trauma in his first weeks. He was terrified of other dogs, particularly if they were inside his house. However, he adored any and all people. Her work with him was painstaking and slow; they experienced frustrating setbacks, as it is not always possible to control a frightening environment and avoid noises, dogs, injuries, and any previously unknown triggers.

As I read the first chapters, I wondered whether I’d have the patience and skill to work through problems like Will’s. I thought about how the agony of his early weeks and months affected his overall quality of life and that of Dr. McConnell’s other dogs. I wondered whether there are more than a handful of behaviorist or trainers who could cope with a dog like Will. I know that there are literally thousands of dogs like him.

Unfortunately, many dog owners see the behavior of a dog like Will — lunging, barking, maybe snarling or even biting — as aggression. It often manifests as aggression, sure, but at its core, it is fear. In her work with aggressive and fearful dogs, Dr. McConnell had to face her own fears as well as convince the dogs’ owners that their dogs needed compassion and patience as they worked to overcome the fear underlying the dogs’ aggression.

Too often when dogs act out, trainers perpetuate the myth that the dog is “being dominant” and that owners need to “be the alpha.” This approach only encourages responses, like yelling at the dog, hitting him, or administering leash corrections, that are likely to exacerbate the dog’s fear and escalate the aggression. Fearful and traumatized dogs need lots of patience, gentleness, and understanding, not violence or punishment. Some will recover; many will not. Will is so lucky to have landed with Dr. McConnell — as are the thousands of clients and dogs she’s helped throughout her career.

This is the best dog book and non-dog book that I have read in a long time. In case you are still wondering where I stand: Four paws up. Read this book!

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Being a Dog

Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog, is as much about being — and sniffing as — a human as it is about dogs and their world of smells. Horowitz does a great job breaking down the science of how dogs smell and how humans do (or, rather, fail to). I finally understand how different the dog’ s sense of the world is, in a way that superficial comparisons of the number of smell receptor cells dogs and humans have never could convey.

Dogs process and understand smell in a completely different way from humans. Smell is an entire language. Sniffing stuff on a walk is like reading an entire encyclopedia. Horowitz says that dogs don’t judge smells the way we do either. Smells are information; neither good nor bad. That explains a lot!

A couple of weeks ago, I described “smell walks” but I wasn’t sure exactly how these were supposed to work. Jana will be devastated to learn that not all walks need to be smell walks, but she will be delighted with the news that she deserves frequent smell walks. She sort of gets them already: The rules are that the dog gets to decide what direction to head, when to change direction, when to stop, and when to continue moving. If you and the dog never make it down the front steps, so be it. Luckily, we don’t have front steps.

I’d guess that it’s best to smell-walk one dog at a time, though Cali seems pretty happy with letting Jana choose smell sites. One must not head out on a smell walk when one is pressed for time. Especially if one is walking Jana; her smell walks could easily last from breakfast until dinner, especially if one remembered to bring refreshments for along the way.

There’s a lot more to the book than smell walks, though. There’s a lot of science, much of it having nothing to do with dogs but lots to do with smells. There are some great chapters on working dogs that barely scratch the surface of what career options are out there for dogs with working noses. There’s also a description of Horowitz’s experience taking her dog to a nosework class. He, like Jana, was a natural. But her descriptions of some of the other class members, nose-impaired and inhibited, were very sad.

Nosework classes are a dog’s idea of heaven on earth. The dog is in charge. The human cannot tell her “no” or hold her back. She gets to climb on things and under things and stick her nose anywhere she wants to. She can bark as much as she wants. And the reward for finding something smelly is a ton of treats. Not hard to figure out why Jana loved it. Cali would, too. She deserves a smell class of her own, come to think of it.

The book is definitely worth a read. Horowitz’s last book, Inside of a Dog, was billed as offering insight into how dogs experience the world. But I think that Being a Dog does a much better job of that. Scent is what defines the dog’s world; as much as most humans rely on what they see to understand the world, dogs turn to scent. Gaining a better understanding of what that means is the best way to try to understand dogs. When you’re done, sign your dog up for a nosework class. Maybe Cali and I will see you there!

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

Pets and the Environment: A Partial Review of and Response to Run, Spot, Run

Run Spot RunIn Run, Spot, Run, author Jessica Pierce devotes a chapter to “Pet and Planet;” the environmental impacts of owning pets. This chapter considers a few areas: the effects of environmental toxins on our pets, the environmental impacts of pet-food production, and the effects our pets themselves have on the environment. In just a few pages, she really had me thinking hard.

The first one’s relatively easy. I filter our tap water, don’t use horrible chemicals to clean my tiny apartment, don’t buy Jana and Cali those vinyl toys that last about 5 minutes and leach terrible phthalates (whatever they are; all I know is that they’re bad) into our pets’ bodies. Basically, I protect Jana and Cali from environmental pollution as well as I can — and at least as well as I protect myself.

The third one is a bit tougher: how pets affect the environment. I often think that future civilizations, having unearthed millions of those knotted plastic poop baggies, will think that dogs were in charge (they’ll be right …). Pierce also mentions all the stuff we buy our pets. Yep, three cushy dog beds in my minuscule two-dog home. Big basket of toys. At least six leashes. Cali’s cowgirl hat. Stuff galore. I can rationalize the environmental impact of my pets: I don’t go overboard; I don’t generally buy a lot of stuff. All of our life choices have some impact on the environment — and they’re not always bad. I walk a lot more because I have dogs, spend more time outside. I pick up trash so my dogs won’t eat it; I pick up other dogs’ poop at the park. People have children despite their impact on the environment (and they require a lot more stuff than dogs). Getting the typical American child from birth through potty training results in a pretty big pile of plastic diapers. While I think that pet owners and petless people alike should do what’s feasible to minimize the damage they cause to the environment, I am not convinced that it’s a convincing argument against having dogs.

It’s that middle one, the pet-food production argument, where I have the most trouble. I don’t eat meat, mostly because I dislike everything about the food-animal industry. I think that being vegan is the best choice, though I am not there yet.

Cali and Jana are not vegetarians.

I buy high-quality dog foods for them and make sure that all their food is sourced and produced in the USA (or, at minimum, from trustworthy sources that are not in China). But … meat and seafood consumption are key contributors to global warming, pollution, and over-fishing. Ironically, those of us who seek top-quality ingredients for our pets exacerbate the problem. Cheap pet foods use a lot of the waste material from the food industry. The standards for what can be used in animal feed are distressingly and disgustingly low. But by insisting on good quality ingredients, I fuel the same factory farming industry that I have opted (mostly) out of for myself. One suggestion Pierce offers is that people buy sustainable meat and fish for their pets and decrease their own consumption proportionally. That argument has some merit, and I’ve made great progress … on the “reducing own consumption” part.

If the goal of an ethics book is to get people thinking about tough questions, Pierce’s book is already a huge success, and I am only halfway through it. I doubt that anything she says will convince me not to have dogs. But I don’t think that’s her goal. Getting readers thinking will lead to changes in their behavior. Cali and Jana are already looking forward to lovingly home-cooked meals of organic, pasture-raised meat, sustainable seafood, and local organic veggies … in their dreams.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond WordsI’ve read a lot of academic studies of dogs and other non-humans that seemed silly, but I somehow missed this one, described by Carl Safina in Beyond Words. Safina pokes fun at a researcher who gathered and analyzed video of dogs playing for two years before reaching the somewhat obvious conclusion that when a dog wants to invite another dog to play, he behaves differently if the other dog is facing away from him: He tries to get that dog’s attention before offering a play bow. The dog either barks or uses his paw to attract the other dog’s attention. Dogs don’t play bow to other dogs’ rear ends. Amazing. (For more on this and what it can teach us, see Learning from Real Dogs.)

In ridiculing this and other studies, Safina makes the point that researchers should get out of the lab and watch how real animals interact with members of their own and other species. There is much to love in Beyond Words: The sections on elephants, wolves, and orcas are chock-full of detail, stories, and heartbreaking information about how badly humans screw things up when we don’t understand other species. I’ve written about his discussion of self-awareness and the mirror test. But my favorite section, naturally, had to do with dogs. He writes engagingly about his own dog when he takes on the controversial issue of whether dogs (or any non-humans) have “theory of mind.”

Safina offers several definitions for theory of mind drawn from real studies. My favorite is the one that claims that theory of mind is the ability “to read the minds of others.” Based on the divorce statistics and the number of wars and conflicts of all sorts, it seems that all humans would fail that test. A better definition is “knowing that another can have thoughts that differ from yours.”

Safina provides many, many examples of non-humans, including dogs, showing that they meet this definition; he calls the evidence “blinding” (his emphasis). Any time your dog anticipates your behavior — putting on those shoes means a walk — or asks for anything, like a belly rub, treat, or dinner, your dog is showing that he understands, or at least can make a plausible guess at, what you are thinking or planning and might even be able to influence your decision. Any time a dog fakes you out (or another dog) by playing keep-away with a toy or takes advantage of your inattention — barking while you are on the phone, for example — your dog is demonstrating his mastery of theory of mind.

Safina also takes on the definition of self-awareness, as well as other traits or abilities that some scientists, absurdly, continue to insist that only humans possess, skewering the human-centered irrelevance of the “tests” that purport to demonstrate other species’ lack of these abilities. A thorough discussion of humans’ penchant for believing things that we know not to be true versus non-humans’ evidence-based actions and beliefs leads to his conclusion that “maybe more than anything, what ‘makes us human’ is our ability to generate wacky ideas.”

 

Canine Con Artists?

I originally wrote this post for PPG Barks, the blog of a professional positive trainers networking organization. The post was rejected; I think the reason is that I am asserting that dogs deceive each other and humans. I am  very interested in this topic, and I plan to revise the post further (or write an entirely new post) about dogs and deception. Meanwhile, I’d love some feedback from you. Please comment on the post or to me privately if you feel inclined. I am interested in what other dog people think about the question of doggy honesty and deception.

How much is a dog willing to bend the truth or improvise in order to get a reward?

That’s not a crazy question. Dogs routinely exhibit all of the cognitive behaviors needed to form an idea, plan, and execute deceptive or manipulative behavior. Consider:

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  • Dogs deceive each other or fake each other out to get what they want. One dog will pretend to hear someone at the door and bark the warning bark — anticipating that his doggy sibling will run to the door. The conniving canine then steals the dupe’s rawhide, toy, bed, choice spot by the TV, etc.
  • Dogs who have been taught to ring a bell or bark when they need to go out tend to go through at least a short period of ringing that bell constantly … or at least testing out how often they can get Mom and Dad to “hop to it” and let them out, even when all they want to do is roll in the grass or bark at the neighbor.
  • Is there any dog who hasn’t tried to convince her owners that they have “forgotten” to feed her?
  • Many dogs will retrieve items that have not been requested in hopes of getting a reward. My dogs routinely bring me extra shoes in the morning, after they’ve been asked to bring my dog-walking shoes (and have been rewarded for doing so). This is probably optimism more than dishonesty, though. I routinely reward them for bringing me things that I have dropped, whether I was aware of dropping the item or not.

It gets even more sophisticated. For example, our German shepherd used to pretend not to know where the ball had landed when we threw it and he was busy sniffing something or chasing a squirrel. A request or two to get the ball would be completely ignored. Or, to humor the annoying humans, he’d search half-heartedly for a few seconds before doing the dog equivalent of shrugging and going back to something more interesting. “OK,” we’d say. “If we’ve lost the ball, it’s time to go home.” In under 10 seconds, he’d have found and delivered that “lost” ball.

Then there’s the golden who used the bells on the door to get Mom to open the door, knowing that her annoying puppy-sister would go charging out the door … while she stood there, smiling, as Mom closed the door with puppy outside and her inside.

So. While I will concede that not all of the above examples necessarily show deceptive behavior, some do, some might, and others at least indicate an ability to manipulate humans to obtain a desired end. I believe that dogs do lie and that they sometimes deceive each other and us. And they do it for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of getting a reward.

what the dog knowsI’ve been thinking about this since I read What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren. It’s a great book; I posted a short review here on the Thinking Dog Blog not long ago. It’s about scent-dog training, specifically, cadaver dogs. The author raises an interesting topic: False alerts. She’s brave to do this, partly because many dog people ran into what I think I am running into: Many people cling to decades-old and thoroughly debunked ideas about how limited dogs’ cognitive abilities are. But mostly she’s brave for another reason: Many handlers proclaim that their dogs are never wrong and become incensed if anyone suggests otherwise.

Some false alerts are the handler’s fault. Particularly when the handler is a beginner, and the team is at an early stage of training, the handler’s body language or other unintentional cuing might hint to the dog that “this is where” he should alert. In this case, the dog is not lying; he is trying to follow the cues he’s just learning, and thinks he’s doing what the handler wants.

Training and working in situations, like cadaver searches, where the handler is not always able to tell whether the alert is false further complicates the discussion. Some false alerts, as Warren explains, might not actually be false. She says that if they are training in a vehicle junkyard, for example, and her dog alerts on the seat of a smashed car with a shattered windshield, while that is not the target she’s searching for, she rewards the alert anyhow. The scents linger for a long time, and the dog probably did detect the scent of human decay (parts of the book do require a strong stomach!).

I’m not talking about those instances though. I wonder if — and at what stages of training — dogs intentionally, knowingly lie about detecting the target scent. There are certainly working situations where the handler might not know if the scent is present and therefore is likely to trust the dog and reward an alert. False alerts occasionally do cause problems in law enforcement.

She draws a distinction between false alerts that are outright lies and those that are more nuanced and, she says, even more insidious (though not always because of misbehavior from the dog). The dog is detecting something but is not entirely sure it’s the correct scent; or the dog has detected the scent but not found the precise location and alerts anyhow; whatever the case, in these instances, she explains, the dog isn’t consciously deciding to lie. As with human behavior, not all situations are easily explained, black or white.

Warren says she will never know whether her dog’s false alerts are inadvertent or are deliberate lies — but she does not rule out the possibility of a dog lying. She also says that her dog’s body language is so clear that she thinks she could tell if her were lying. Many humans betray their dishonesty through body language. Sometimes those “tells” are very subtle. A close study of our dogs’ body language might be our best chance at knowing when they are — and are not — trying to con us.

What do you think? Have you ever worked with a pathological doggy liar? An occasionally dishonest dog?

 

What the Dog Knows

what the dog knows

Cadaver dog training? Don’t make the same mistake I made — I was put off by the topic of this book and didn’t read it when it first came out (or even when I first got my copy). Once I started reading it, though, I was hooked. I breezed through it in a few days. Author Cat Warren does a wonderful job of weaving the history and technique of training scent dogs, and in particular cadaver dogs, into her story of training Solo, a German shepherd.

Like most of the books I love and recommend highly, this on puts heavy emphasis on the relationship between handler and dog. Warren is brave; she reveals her mistakes and failures as both the guardian of a high-energy puppy and as a novice trainer. She even admits to feeling overwhelmed by the intense, high-energy, demanding adolescent dog who shares her life, home, and hobby. We readers gain tremendously from her bravery, as these admissions both increase our understanding of how difficult cadaver training is and help us learn from someone else’s very understandable gaffes.

The book is rich with portraits of top cadaver dog trainers and handlers and with detailed descriptions of the training and the work. In her honesty and detail, Warren even mentions a great taboo among scent dog people: false alerts. They do happen. Her discussion of this raised a question in my mind about how deliberate the dogs are. I don’t know (yet) whether any formal studies have been done, but I am intrigued about whether the dogs are actually lying (intentionally alerting to get a reward) or whether they are simply unsure or scenting something that might be the target and responding because it seems to be what the handler wants or because they truly think they have identified the target scent. Look for more on this topic in an upcoming post .

Meanwhile, if you have any interest in scent dog training or cadaver dog training — or merely in a great dog-and-person story — read this book.