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.

Scary Dog

Cali, puffed up and trying to be fierce
Cali tries to look fierce

A few weeks ago, while Jana was recovering from a vestibular incident and not joining Cali and me on the morning trek to the park, Cali found herself in a scary situation. On the way to the park, we pass a big, old corner house with two doggy residents. We see the younger one at the park pretty regularly. He’s a young husky mix, big and boyish. Cali doesn’t play with him; he’s too high-energy for her. But she’s not afraid of him, and he’s sweet. If he’s in the yard when we walk by, he doesn’t even bark.

His big sister, Diva, is a different story. She’s about Jana’s age, and she aggressively defends her territory. OK, that’s not fair; she barks aggressively, but doesn’t do anything more than bark. When Jana’s passing by, she anticipates Diva’s barking and tenses up. First of all, she just knows that she should be called Diva. Secondly, she envies Diva her large yard. But even beyond all my anthropomorphic projection, there is a bit of a grudge match between these two. Jana wants to preempt Diva’s barking by barking. They hurl insults at each other as I hustle Jana past the yard. Cali feels safely protected by her big sister.

That’s all fine when Jana is there. But on this morning: No Jana.

We were on our way home from the park, which means that Cali was carrying her tennis ball in her mouth. So, we were walking along, and I saw Diva a split second before Diva saw us and started barking. With no big sister there to protect her, and with mom woefully inept at the barking needed to address this dire threat, Cali stepped admirably up to the plate. She puffed up her hackles, making herself as fluffy … I mean, as big and scary … as she could. She barked her fiercest bark. However, that bark, filtered through the tennis ball in her mouth, sounded like a Chihuahua. A laughing, decidedly non-fierce Chihuahua.

Need I even say it: Diva was not impressed.

Not frightened at all by this fierce version of Cali. I wouldn’t have been frightened either; I just wanted to hug her since she was being so cute. I resisted; the humiliation might have done in poor Cali.

I feel for Cali. It must be terribly frustrating when you are trying your darndest to be strong and courageous and scary … and the people and dogs you’re trying to impress just want to hug you. Or laugh. A human teenager might respond by taking up weightlifting or trying out for the football team, but Cali seems OK. Maybe she’s emotionally healthy enough to shake it off. Or maybe she’s just really relieved that Jana’s recovered and back with us on morning walks.

Dogs Understand Our Words — and Our Tone of Voice


This week, many media outlets have run stories on a recent Hungarian study that might show that dogs not only understand the words we say to them, they also understand the tone of voice. I haven’t yet read the full paper, but based on several articles, here’s the gist.

The 13 dogs, trained to lie still in an MRI machine (so already a select group of highly educated individuals …), were tested on four sets of cues: Praise words said in a “praising intonation,” described as a higher and more varying pitch than neutral speech; the same praise words in a neutral tone; neutral words in a praise tone; and neutral words in a neutral tone.

From interactions with dogs, most of us know that we can get dogs to respond to pretty much anything we say in an excited or happy tone. And we know that they respond to some words even if we barely whisper them. For instance, a whispered “c…o…o…o…o…k…i…e…e…e…” gets a reliable response even if the dog is 100 yards away, playing happily with her buddy. But this research study, like several other MRI studies by this team and an American team, looked at the response in specific areas of the dogs’ brains, not their actions.

Praise words, regardless of tone, caused reactions in the left hemisphere of the dogs’ brain; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing speech. Neutral tones, regardless of words, produced a reaction in the right hemisphere; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing generic acoustic information. And, when the praise words were spoken in the praising tone, the reward centers of the dogs’ brain lit up. This shows that the dogs were able to integrate the meaning of the words and the tone and deduce meaning from them.

This study seems to show that dog brains process speech similarly to the way human brains process speech, which is what this article on reports. Other media reports said that it also means that the dogs understand human language, like this one from NPR.

Some experts, like one of my all-time-favorite scientists, Dr. Gregory Berns, told that the paper has been “wildly overinterpreted,” partly due to its methods. He pointed out that responding to speech and tone is not the same as understanding it.

That may well be true. On the other hand, the NPR article warns of the perils of life with such smart dogs, particularly if — as I do — one leaves NPR on for them to listen to all day. My dogs are, indeed, both smarter and better-informed than I am, especially now that I work in an office and do not listen to NPR all day.

However, in all seriousness, I think the overinterpretation also may be oversimplification. Yes, our dogs learn that certain words, even sentences, have specific meanings. They learn our habits and routines, and through experience with us, they associate all kinds of things with words. In our household some examples are: Leashes and fun and ball-playing with, “Who wants to go to the park?”; bowls of yummy food with “How about some dinner?”; and a careful backing up so that just her large, furry front paws are over the threshold with “Out of the kitchen, Cali.” The front feet then scootch back almost imperceptibly in response to, “The entire dog, please.” So yes, my dogs understand and respond somewhat appropriately to several sentences; I suspect that each family’s dogs have a set of favorites.

But even armed with my years of knowledge of their intelligence, along with my new realization of their eruditeness (is there a dog-oriented radio station that I could leave on instead of NPR?), I do not think that they process and understand human language in the same way that a human adult does.

What I do think, based on a combination of experience and having read dozens of research papers on dog-human communication, is that they read us really, really well. They don’t respond only to the words we say or the words combined with the tone of voice. Humans don’t either; so much communication is based on body language and other cues, even between humans. But dogs really read our body language. They also read all the scents we are giving off, including pheromones that we are completely unaware of. They read our microexpressions and our posture and our facial expression and pay attention to what we are doing as we are talking to them. They can figure out our emotions from these cues. They know when we “mean it” and when they can push the boundaries just a bit further.

Cali is much quicker to listen to my “get out of the kitchen” phrases when I am fixing her dinner than when I am doing the dishes. She’s learned that I will stop fixing her dinner and wait for her to leave the kitchen. She doesn’t like that consequence. But she doesn’t much care if I get the dishes done and maybe even wants me to stop doing them so I can pay attention to her.

The point is, looking at dogs’ response to words and voice in isolation doesn’t make sense, because in their lives with us, that is not how they use language. Another important thing to remember about dogs, as opposed to any other nonhumans, is that so much of who they are has been shaped by the fact of their lives with us. The dog-human connection is unique; our communication with them is different from our communication with any other nonhumans (even cats).

The most important point, though, is that dogs pay close enough attention to us to learn the meanings of the different things we say to them. They care whether we’re happy with them — or just whether we’re happy. I’m excited about new discoveries about dogs’ intelligence and cognitive abilities. But I am even more excited about new reasons to cherish the relationship I have with my girls and that others have with their dogs.



IMG_3201I was on deadline, struggling to communicate with my computer (and failing). Cali came over and ever-so-gently nudged me. I patted her and kept working. Another nudge. I had taken a ball-throwing break about 10 minutes earlier, so I distractedly said, “Not now,” and kept working.

Another nudge. I ignored her. More nudges. Insistent, but so, so gentle and sweet. I patted her, told her to wait a few minutes, told her she was cute. Not what she wanted. This went on for about 10 minutes, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Finally, deciding that rebooting my computer was the only possible step, I shut everything down, rebooted, and got up. “OK, Cali, where’s your ball?” I asked, wandering outside.

Cali wasn’t outside. Neither was her ball. I called her again and looked around the yard. No Cali, no ball.

IMG_3195I went inside. Cali was standing in front of the sofa. She came to me, then walked back to the sofa. Touched it gently. Looked under it. Touched it. Looked at me.

The ball was under the sofa. Actually two balls were under the sofa, one dry, dusty, covered with tufts of fur. So much for my housekeeping skills. And my communication skills.

I gave her back the ball. She graciously allowed me to throw it twice, but really, all she wanted was her ball. And her long-lost second ball. She happily stretched out in the yard nuzzling the balls as I went back to work.

I’m constantly amazed by how clearly our dogs communicate — if we’re paying attention. And of course, this clear and detailed exchange reveals how little actual words matter to human-dog conversations. No, our communication does not suffer from dogs’ inability to speak human language. It suffers from our inability to pay attention, to focus on what they are saying — without words, but with eloquence nonetheless.

Is He Really “Just Playing”?

Are they playing or fighting?
Are they playing or fighting?

My dog-human communication students recently discussed a study on how well people interpret dog body language. The study, published in 2009, compared the descriptions of dog professionals, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. They all watched the same nine videos that showed a range of behaviors, most interestingly aggression and actual play.

The study’s authors wanted to know whether the amount of dog experience a person had improved his or her skills at reading dogs’ body language. They showed the video clips to observers from four different groups: veterinarians, professional trainers, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. The dog professionals and owners had at least two years of hands-on dog experience.

After watching each clip, observers were to identify the predominant behavior, choosing from a list of eight adjectives. They were then asked to justify their choice: What about the dog’s body language suggests this behavior?

How’d they do?

Not well. Professional trainers (other than the ones participating in the study) and behaviorists have their work cut out for them.

Surprisingly, the dog professionals did no better than the people with no dog experience at identifying the dogs’ body language.

  • The scariest result was that a third of the observers saw aggressive behavior as playful.
  • A sad result was that 43 percent saw actual play as aggression.

Too many people can’t tell when a dog is playing and when the dog is being (or working up to becoming) aggressive. That’s often why people get bitten.

The observers’ descriptions of the body language they relied on to identify behavior are revealing. For example:

  • Most descriptions focused on tail movement, mouthing or vocalizing, and large, whole-body movements.
  • Nearly all tail movement was described as “wagging” and it was always identified as playful.
  • Nearly all barking was seen as aggressive and growling as defensive.
  • The only clip where a dog’s teeth could be seen was the active play video, but two-thirds of the observers who mentioned it saw it as aggression.

That’s another reason behind dog bites, especially the ones where people say “it came out of nowhere.” They look only at big, dramatic body movement and assume that barking or tail movement has only one purpose. They miss or misinterpret the more subtle body language and vocalizations.

If our dogs ever interact with other dogs, with children, even with unfamiliar adults, we need to be able to intervene if the dog is stressed or scared, remove the dog if he or another dog is showing stress, aggression, or fear, and generally pay attention to how our dogs react to different situations. This enables us to keep — and the people and dogs who interact with them — safe.

To do this, we have to look at the whole dog. A wagging tail might mean the dog is happy or wants to play — or it could indicate that he is stressed or unsure of the situation. Raised hackles might be defensive or aggressive — or could simply indicate arousal, which is more likely the case in an actively playing dog.

Not knowing this and not noticing the more subtle movements — a raised lip, ears pulled back, a stress smile — is how people miss the early signs that a situation is overwhelming or frightening to a dog, that the dog is losing patience or getting close to a literal “snapping point.”

When it’s our own dogs, the more often we watch and notice, the better we’ll get at putting together a “big picture” understanding of our dogs’ body language and of the messages they are sending us.

(Oh — those dogs in the photo? Playing. How can you tell? There are many cues: Hackles are not raised, eyes are soft, ears are loose and not pinned back, tails are low and not stiff, both dogs are showing similar energy (one is not going after the other), lips are not pulled back from teeth.)


Please Back Off

Not all dogs are as fortunate as Molly. Molly’s parents wrote to The Thinking Dog, asking for help getting people to understand that Molly needs her personal space. In this post, I am speaking for all dogs who are not as lucky as Molly.

Personal space is a cultural issue. Americans tend to like more of a bubble around them than people in some other countries. I’m not sure whether dogs in different countries or cultures have different needs for personal space, but I am positive that all of the dogs I know need people to respect that bubble. Especially people they don’t know well.

Dog bite stories in the media often say that “it came out of nowhere” or that the dog gave no warning signs. This is rarely true. Spending a few minutes looking at Facebook postings of photos and video of dogs with babies and children is a great way to gather photos of dogs showing dozens of warning signs or pleas for space. Watching those news videos of the “bites that came out of nowhere” also offers a catalog of behaviors that are clear warnings.

It’s not only children who do things that cause annoyance or stress to dogs: A particularly chilling video I’ve used in canine communication classes is one where a news anchor is severely bitten after putting her face right in the face of a stressed, overwhelmed dog — a dog who has spent the previous couple minutes (or more; it’s a short video) asking her to back off in every way a dog can.

The problem isn’t that the dogs are not giving fair warning, asking for help, or both; the problem is that most people aren’t listening or simply don’t understand the signs. Here’s a list of the most common stress signs:

  • Licking lips or nose
  • Turning the head away
  • Whale eye — wide eyes with the whites very clearly visible
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Scratching — self or the ground
  • Sniffing
  • Shaking or shaking off (as if shaking off water)
  • Bowing
  • Stress smile
  • Red eyes
  • Sweaty paws
  • Panting
  • Hypervigilance
  • Freezing

What do we do that is stressful or threatening to our dogs? Most dogs do not like being hugged or patted on the head. Frontal approach with direct eye contact is scary for many dogs. Many dislike rough petting or play hitting or people bending down, putting their faces right up close to the dog’s face and kissing or blowing at them or baby-talking them. In short, if you would be annoyed if someone did it to you, don’t do it to a dog, especially a dog you don’t really know. This doesn’t mean you can’t cuddle your dog; it means you should look for cues that he is enjoying — or uncomfortable with — what you are doing, and respond accordingly.

Some of the signs listed above do double duty: They are also what is commonly called “calming signals.” These are body language cues that dogs use to calm themselves or others. Dogs will direct calming signals to other dogs and to humans. A well-socialized dog responds appropriately — backing off, giving the dog some space, or responding with calming signals of his own. Unfortunately,  the signals are often subtle and, when noticed, misunderstood by many humans.

Cali stress
Stressed Cali

For example, the smile. A smiling dog might be a happy dog; depends on the smile. These photos show a happy Cali and a stressed Cali. She’s “smiling” in both. But in the relaxed, happy photo, Cali’s eyes are soft, her smile is loose and relaxed; in the stress photo, her eyes are hard and tense, and her mouth is tighter. For many additional (better) photos of stress, take a look at these blog posts by Eileenanddogs: “Dog Facial Expressions: Stress” and “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?


Happy Cali
Happy Cali

Other common calming signals that could be early signs of discomfort or stress are the licking the lips or nose, yawning, and turning the head away. When you notice these subtle signs, it’s a good idea to remove your dog from a situation that is becoming unbearable for him. Some dogs lick submissively — no, the dog is not “kissing” you because he’s enjoying the close attention — or shake or try to leave or hide behind their owners.

If the dog can’t escape the situation and the “aggressor” doesn’t back off, the dog is likely to escalate. Bared teeth, soft growls, or air snaps might be the first steps when a dog feels that he has no choice but to defend himself. And if the owners have taught the dog never to growl, as so many believe they should … the dog might just bite “without (obvious) warning.”

We’re our dogs protectors. It is our job to learn their stressors, heed their calls for help, and remove them from stressful or overwhelming situations.

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about dogs’ stress signals? Here are some articles and blog posts that offer good info and advice:

Your Dog Hates Hugs, by Melissa Dahl

It’s Only Funny Until Your Dog Runs Out of Spoons, E. Foley, Your Dog’s Friend blog

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure, eileenanddogs blog

The Gift of Growl, Pat Miller

Preventing Dog Bites, Patricia McConnell

A Canine Stress Dictionary, and Signs That Your Dog Has Stress, and so much more on the Whole Dog Journal website



A Journey — or a Destination?

Cookie, please

Jana and Cali have vastly different understandings of our morning walks. Each girl’s interpretation also describes her approach to life.

For Cali, the point of the walk is the destination. She wants to be at the park with every cell in her body. The closer we get, the harder it is for her to contain her excitement. She does her little skip-walk dance, where she bounces ahead, remembers, bounces back, walks nicely for two steps, can no longer contain her excitement, bounces ahead, remembers … I think she burns more calories doing this dance than she does at the park. Mostly because she spends too much time at the park jealously guarding her ball rather than running around chasing it.

Jana, on the other hand, is all about the journey. Even at the park, she’s on her journey. She investigates everything along the way with her full attention. Everything. Clumps of grass. Leaves, wood chips, tendrils of ivy trailing on the sidewalk, fence posts, trees … She looks and sniffs from every angle, breathing deeply and considering the nuances of the scent. Only then is she ready to move on … to the next leaf.

At the park, she sniffs and samples the grass, which is very fresh, green, and wet these days. She then rolls in it. Her favorite thing happened the other day: The mower was just finishing up, which meant that she got to roll in the freshly cut grass, turning herself light green in the process. I think “freshly cut grass” is her favorite scent. If I had shampoo that smelled like that, she’d willingly bathe every day.

Since walking the two of them presents certain logistical challenges, with one full steam ahead and the other moseying along … I tried taking them for individual walks. Jana was having none of it. She wanted to go with us. She’d bring me my boots, stand by the door, push her way out the door if I was leashing Cali, use all of her considerable expressive talent to communicate: Take me too! So maybe her walks are a little bit about the destination too.

Which is great, because Cali also has that bit of balance. Her delight in the journey is evident when we meet other people along the way. Her excitement is channeled at them as she beelines for this new best friend. Tail wagging, huge smile on her face, she eagerly waits for the person to greet her. Most do. To her credit, Cali brushes off the rare crushing rejection with aplomb. We’re on our way to the park, after all!