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!

Social Dynamics

A large white structure that served as the dog play pavilion at the Guiding Eyes seminar
Photo by Michelle Russell

Watching dogs figure out the social dynamics of their constantly changing groups is fascinating. Many people assume that it’s OK to put dogs who’ve never met together in any group configuration and they’ll just instantly become friends and play nicely together. That’s an odd assumption, particularly considering that most people also don’t think that dogs communicate particularly well.

At the Guiding Eyes weekend I recently attended, I got to see how a group of experienced dog professionals handled group play. The hotel had given us the use of a covered pavilion — the type where wedding receptions might be held. It was a large space, walled in by a low fence and covered with a heavy, waterproof white cover.

Eighty guide dog teams attended the event, and they were given time slots for dog play. In addition, people wandered in and out of the play area during unscheduled evening and morning hours.

The trainers brought exercise pens to use as dividers and other equipment. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they’d divide up the space, but it was a great idea. They created three smaller play areas, never putting more than three or four dogs together. Each section had a couple of trainers keeping watch. Before putting a dog into a play yard, the trainer removed the dog’s collar, which had tags that could get caught on something (like another dog’s teeth), and replaced it with a plain collar. The dog’s partner was told the color of this temporary collar.

Trainers watch playing guide dogs at the Guiding Eyes seminar; the dogs' partners are seated along the side of the play area.
Photo by Michelle Russell

As the dogs played, the trainers watched them constantly. If a dog became overly excited or rough, the trainers used shepherd’s crooks, slipping the hook under the dog’s collar, to gently guide the dog in a new direction. During the times I was watching, I never saw any play morph into aggression or any dog get hurt, and dogs rarely needed separating.

When a dog was done playing, she’d get her collar back and return to her partner. Once, two similar-sized black Lab girls ended up with play collars of the same color. Though each partner was sure she had the right dog, the trainers scanned their microchips and checked the numbers against a list they’d brought, just to be 110 percent sure that no dog mix-up occurred.

The microchip check is probably not needed in the average dog day care or dog park, but the other precautions the trainers took are. The Guiding Eyes dogs are all very well trained, and many dogs at the weekend conference knew each other — they’d been in the same puppy raiser region or in the kennels for training at the same time. Even so, the trainers were careful to keep play groups small, match size and energy level, and monitor all the dogs’ interactions.

That’s how the pros do it.

That contrasts with what I often see at day cares and other places where dogs play. An indoor dog park a trainer friend recently described, for example, has one huge play space and minimal or no supervision. The managers allow as many as three dozen dogs to play at once. Sounds scary; much as I like the idea of an indoor play space, I doubt I’d feel comfortable letting my dog play there.

Even dogs who know each other well need close supervision when they are playing. In a large group, play can quickly escalate to aggression or bullying. Even dogs who know each other well can get over-excited or possessive of a particularly valuable toy or chew. That’s another thing; the trainers made sure that the only toys in the Guiding Eyes play pavilion were tug ropes, which the dogs, mostly Labradors, loved.

From breaking up the space to using shepherd’s crooks to ensuring constant supervision, the trainers provided a great model for dog play.

What’s so funny?

Cali seems to laugh; pictured with Dora and Jana
What’s so funny, Cali?

What do dogs think about human laughter?

People often ask me this question. I think that dogs understand that laughter is a good thing; it means that the person is happy — with them, with life in general. I also think that some dogs actively try to get their humans to laugh.

img_3944-copyJana had a toy called a “gefilte fish. She’s had several, actually. Instead of squeaking when squeezed, the fish says, in a distressed voice, “Oy, vey!” It then makes a bubbling sound. When Jana first got that toy, she squeezed it a lot. Each time, I would laugh. She soon took to standing in front of me and “oy, vey-ing” the fish. She’d watch carefully, and if I seemed about to stop laughing, she’d “oy vey” again. She’d give a little tail wag each time she got a laugh from me.

Cali tries to get me to laugh, too. If I am preoccupied or otherwise not paying enough attention to her, she’ll lie on her back and madly bicycle her back legs so that she propels herself around the room. I laugh, of course, at her silliness. She looks slyly at me, her signature sideways look, and makes sure I am watching her.

Dogs not only understand human laughter, they have a way of laughing too. I’m far from the first person to suggest this. In Man Meets Dog, respected ethologist and Konrad Lorenz describes a smiling, panting, most often seen during play, that he characterized as dog laughter. Bark magazine also ran an article discussing dog laughter.

It’s not only dogs; researchers have found that rats, chimps, and other nonhumans laugh. Why not?

So, you’re not imagining it if you think that your dog is laughing (at you?) or enjoying your laughter. Many dogs have a great sense of humor. Even more dogs have a silly side, like Cali. Sharing a joke is just one more way to deepen and enjoy our relationships with them.

 

Speaking Dog

One golden retriever bows to invite another to playI saw a sad little exchange today. A brown dog and a black dog met, and, while their humans chatted, the brown dog play bowed and invited the black dog to engage. The black dog’s human reacted by jerking his dog backward, away from the brown dog in what seemed a defensive or fearful response. Brown dog’s human pulled his dog away too, then leaned down and gave brown dog a stern talking-to. It seemed that both humans completely misunderstood the play bow and the friendliness in brown dog’s approach and demeanor.

This happened just a few minutes after a conversation with a friend who had described her communication with her birds. She doesn’t teach them English; she doesn’t exactly speak their language, but they have all evolved a communication that goes beyond words and human language to describe a relationship and mutual respect and understanding.

I know little of birds; I do strive for that sort of communication with the dogs in my life, though. The dogs learn many words of English (Hebrew, too, in Jana’s case). They also excel at reading human body language. But there is another layer that comes from a deep, close relationship. It is communication. It might be language, but it’s not something anyone outside the group would understand. When a person gets to that level of communication with her dog (or her bird), it is very satisfying and intimate. Jana and I had that kind of connection, and it’s what makes her loss so hard.

Most dogs seem to try very hard to understand their people; many succeed at understanding lots of people and dogs, even cats, if they live with a cat or two. It would be nice if more people made the effort to learn the basics of dog-to-dog and dog-to-human communication.

 

The Original Thinking Dog

Jana, a white golden retriever, lying in front of a gate

She was only about 4 weeks old when we met. She stood out from the litter because, well, she tumbled right over to say hi. Jana had 2 sisters and 3 or 4 brothers; I looked only at the girls. After the first few minutes, I really looked only at Jana. I saw friendliness and curiosity each time she ran over to greet me; what she really was, I soon understood, was a girl who knew what she wanted and always, always got it.

I initially planned to raise and train Jana as a service dog. That idea lasted, well, maybe for a few weeks after she came home. But it was soon clear that I was Jana’s person and that was that. She wasn’t going anywhere unless I went too.

We moved from Israel, where Jana was born, to the U.S. a little before her second birthday. I took her to Petsmart to choose a birthday toy. She’d never seen anything like a Petsmart. Rows and rows and rows of treats and toys — and fish in aquariums, and hamsters and guinea pigs and iguanas — what an amazing plaPink stuffed pigce! When she finally focused on selecting her birthday present, Jana zeroed in on a bright pink pig. Jana, I said to her, Jana, you are a Jewish girl from Israel. This toy is not an appropriate choice. How about this nice fleece doggy?

Jana got the pig (and the doggy).

I could tell Jana stories for pages and pages. Or I could write the usual obit stuff about Jana — where she traveled, for example. She drove cross-country with me several times and visited at least 45 states. I could write about all of her skills — how seriously she took her newspaper job, how quickly she learned new skills — or about her strong, independent personality, or how she invented no-touch cuddling. She wanted to be nearby, possibly leaning against a beloved person, but the person had better not pet her. She accepted touching only on her terms; anything else was considered an assault on her dignity. She’d give the clueless human a dirty look and walk away, settling in the farthest corner of the room. Jana did not like to be treated in any way like a dog.

But Jana was so much more than stories and adventures. Jana was my teacher.

From Jana, I learned to see dogs in a completely new way and to appreciate their complex intelligence, their ability to communicate their needs and preferences. I learned to pay attention to each dog’s unique foibles and personality. I learned to see the thinking, feeling individual inside each dog.

I’m not alone. Jana touched so many people and showed them, too, what she — and other dogs — could do, learn, understand, communicate. I knew that Jana had many friends and fans, but the sheer volume of notes, comments, Facebook posts, phone calls, and cards that I got this week showed me how badly I’d undercounted. Some were from people we hadn’t seen in years; others from people we’ve never even met. And every memory that comes to mind includes more people. Knowing how many other people loved Jana means a lot to me; Jana lives on through all that she has taught us about seeing dogs more clearly.

The Thinking Dog blog itself was named for Jana, a deep thinker. She planned, she analyzed, she weighed her options — starting when she was only a few weeks old and she chose me to be her person. Nothing would ever be the same again.