Is Orly’s Puppy License about to Expire?

Golden retriever Cali relaxes on the people bed, a no-puppy zoneOrly’s Puppy License seems to be on the verge of expiring.

Puppy License is the very broad leeway that adult dogs grant to young puppies. It’s why they let the puppies chew on them, despite those Baby Shark teeth. It’s why they let puppies climb on them, steal their beds and toys, and generally behave rudely.

As puppies grow, though, adult dogs raise their expectations. This seems to be happening with Cali and Orly.

The other day, Cali appeared willing to maim Orly over a treat toy. After the quite serious warning she received, Orly wisely backed off. Still a little puppy, though, her next choice was less wise: Orly thought she’d munch on some electrical cords instead.

Oy. Of course this all happened while I was trying to participate in a work meeting … (with apologies to everyone else at the meeting, I quickly stepped in to save Orly from electrocution or a Cali chomp by picking her up!). Fortunately, my entire team at work consists of dog lovers.

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed Cali setting more boundaries and issuing more warnings. Ever-cheerful Orly will back off in the moment, but she hasn’t seemed to realize yet that Cali is serious.

I step in to enforce Cali’s boundaries as needed, but I do want them to work things out themselves. I also make sure that Cali is always free to leave the room where Orly is, and that Cali has special places and privileges that do not include a spotlight-stealing baby sister.

Great Little Communicator

11 week old Orly, a golden retriever, holds a red toy and stands up against a wire fence

Orly has definite opinions and wants — and she’s not shy about communicating them.

On day 2, she decided to try leveraging the cute factor to get her way. When she wanted out of her play pen, she grabbed a toy, stood up, and launched into full tantrum mode.

It didn’t work.

So she refined it. As soon as I walked into view, she instantly sat, perfectly quiet. That was tougher. I decided that the tantrum meant that she urgently needed to go out, so every time she threw a fit (and didn’t quiet within about 30 seconds), I let her out of the pen and took her straight outside. I let her do her business (or gave her a minute or two) and put her right back into her pen.

That helped a little, for a short while. Now we have a different pen problem: When she wants out, she simply launches herself over the top … I’m working on a solution to that one. Meanwhile, she’s spending more time outside the pen.

That has allowed her to figure out a more effective way to ask to go out: She rings the bells.

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get Cali to ring a bell to ask to go out, since her preferred method is sitting in front of the door — not helpful when I am upstairs working. Cali has consistently wanted nothing to do with the bells, the buttons, or any other gadgets.

Orly is a different dog entirely. I put the bells on the doorknob and jangled them a bit when I let her out. After the second or third time, she walked over and nudged the bells. I figured it was a fluke or she was just playing with them, but I let her out anyhow and told her how clever she was.

Then she did it again. And again. Very intentionally walking over, touching the bells, and waiting to go out. Orly even did it when I had a friend over.

After a day or so, Cali even did it a couple of times.

Orly went through a brief testing phase — ringing, stepping outside, then immediately turning around and asking to come in. That didn’t last long; I think that she was just making sure I would respond.

I then put a bell outside, too, so she can ask to come back inside; she picked that up in a couple of days.

Orly has recently added a mind-blowing twist to the bell-ringing saga. I was sitting at the dining-room table, having coffee. Cali was outside; Orly at my feet. Cali (the bell-refuser) approached the door. Her usual MO is to stand there and wait for me to notice her. No longer.

Orly leapt into action, heading over and ringing the bell. I’m a little slow, and was on my first coffee of the morning … so I assumed that she wanted to go out. Nope.

I opened the door; Orly stood aside; Cali entered; they touched noses and … wow.

I don’t leave Orly unsupervised downstairs or outside, so I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to hear the bells from my upstairs office. I’m pretty sure I will hear the inside bells, and I hope that I can hear the outside ones too. (I might not know that until spring!)

I suspect that the reason she picked up the bell use so quickly is that she enjoys ordering me around. Puppy and dog owners have this delusion that we’re training our dogs. In reality, they are training us.

When something doesn’t work (standing-up tantrum), they try something else (magic sit). If we could get people to do what we wanted just by sitting down and looking at them, wouldn’t we? And now that Orly has deployed her communication skills to get me to let Cali in, who knows what’s next. I’d better watch my back. She’s definitely the smartest person in any room of this house!

Dog Play

When your dog plays with another dog, do you worry that they’re fighting? Or that the apparently very rough play could turn into a fight?

Most of the time, there’s no need to worry. Normal dog play often looks scary, but it’s fine.

Some of my favorite dogs agreed to let me share video of their play so you can see …

Cali, Maisy, and I were on a nice walk. The sun was out, the grass was freshly mowed … and, suddenly, Cali simply had to play. She bowed to Maisy, and they were off. I dropped their leashes to let them move more easily. I don’t recommend letting dogs roughhouse with their leashes on, but I let them do it this time, just for a minute.

They often go for each other’s necks. They’ll flip over and wrestle. Maisy occasionally leaps right over Cali. If Maisy gets too enthusiastic, Cali lets her know by walking away or giving her a look.

Stella and Luna (gold star to anyone who gets the literary reference) are sisters. Sometimes, it looks like Luna (gray) is about to rip Stella’s head off. Often, it looks like Stella is chowing down on Luna’s neck. They’re not.

The most important signs that the dog play is fun and fine with both are:

  • They take turns; sometimes it looks like one is killing the other; sometimes the reverse. They both get to be chaser and chasee in turn.
  • They take little breaks or pauses — a few seconds maybe — and both re-engage.
  • When one does ask for a break, the other respects the request and they take a longer break.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s play, watch for the above positive signs and intervene if it looks like one dog is trying to call a pause and the other’s not listening. Or someone cries in pain. Or multiple dogs seem to be piling onto or chasing one — always the same — dog.

Cover of Doggie Language book

But most of the time, your dog’s just having fun in a very doggy way. And, though it looks like the other dog’s ripping her ears off or tearing a hole in her neck, she’ll walk away with nothing more than a bunch of slobber on her coat.

Learn more about dog body language and communication from this adorable book: Doggie Language

Doctor Dogs

Most people are aware of guide dogs, mobility service dogs, and possibly hearing dogs. But dogs help people with medical issues in myriad ways beyond these service dog roles. In her latest book, author Maria Goodavage explores dozens of the tasks dogs perform to diagnose, treat, heal, and comfort humans. And the epilogue and acknowledgements sections briefly describe dozens more that were omitted from the main sections of the book (the end sections might have been my favorite part …).

Dogs who detect COVID are in the news; but fewer people are aware of dogs’ ability to detect several types of cancer, as well as diabetics’ sugar highs and lows. Goodavage even has wonderful stories of dogs who detect their human partners’ impending seizures or cardiac incidents …

Moving beyond physical ailments, Goodavage devotes several sections to dogs who assist in times of crisis and trauma, whether serving an individual with PTSD or showing up at court to comfort children testifying in abuse cases, the dogs are on the job.

The book is a comprehensive catalog of ways that dogs help people, but it’s more than that. The thread connecting all of the stories is the human-canine relationship. For many of the “services” dogs perform, neither their partners nor the dogs’ trainers can identify what the dog is detecting. The dogs are deeply connected to their humans and figured out a pattern, decided that the human needed some help, and came up with a way to let them know.

For example, Goodavage is careful to explain that it’s not really possible to train a dog to detect an impending seizure. Many organizations do train dogs to respond in specific ways if their partner has a seizure, though. Some of these trained dogs figure out a pattern of behavior, chemical changes, or something else that reliable predicts a seizure and begin to warn their person. Or a parent, in the case of a child. There are even stories of untrained dogs figuring this all out on their own.

In the case of dogs who are trained to detect the scent of hypoglycemia, for example, or bladder cancer, Goodavage muses about “rogue” doctor dogs — dogs alerting random strangers while out and about. It’s not impossible; some trained dogs have raised the alarm without prompting.

The book is a great read. Goodavage is a stellar storyteller, and she’s done deep research. In addition to interviewing dozens (hundreds?) of trainers, handlers, and people partnered with doctor dogs of all specialties, Goodavage leads readers through all the current research (with a 20-page reference list  to back her up) on how dogs do this and how effective they are. Despite the deep dive into science and research, the book is engaging and readable.

The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!

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.

 

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jaxson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jaxson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jaxson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jaxson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jaxson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jaxson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jaxson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jaxson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jaxson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.

 

 

Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!