Bubba for President

My name is Bubba, and I approved this message.
My name is Bubba, and I approved this message.

I spent some time recently with a wonderful dog, Bubba. The first time we got to hang out was right after a particularly vulgar Republican presidential debate, and the contrast got me thinking about how this dog (and many, many other dogs) embody traits I’d like to see in a presidential candidate but that are sadly lacking in the current Republican contenders.

Some background: Bubba is the spokesdog for a local rescue organization, the Petaluma branch of Marley’s Mutts. He experienced some of the worst abuse that anyone can imagine. Actually, it’s worse than I could have imagined before reading his case file. The amazing Sacramento DA who put Bubba’s tormentor in prison, will be Skyping in to my dog law class, so I had to read the entire file.

I generally don’t give my students “trigger warnings,” but before posting these documents, I not only warned them, I put little Adobe sticky notes in the PDF to flag particularly graphic sections. It was that bad. I won’t go into details here, except to point out that Bubba’s missing eye is the result of repeated injuries caused by the monster who abused him.

So why does Bubba trump any current candidate in the Republican field?

He’s not angry or vindictive. He’s suffered real injury, unlike many Tea Partiers or angry primary voters. Rather than seek a scapegoat or, say, hold all white men responsible, he has forgiven all humans. He loves everyone. He eagerly approached every new person who entered the fundraiser where I was visiting with him. His tail was always wagging, his face openly welcoming and friendly. He was gentle with small children. He appropriately introduced himself to and played with a 4-month-old Rottie puppy who stopped by, and he was equally friendly with the several other dogs there.

He’s goal-oriented, too. When he detected a whiff of potential treats emanating, say, from my pocket, he focused on me like a laser, using the mind meld that Jana has perfected over the years. “Feed me a Charlee Bear. Feed me a Charlee Bear.” It worked. He also mind-melded the server, who brought him at least six cookies, and that was just what I saw. Nothing gets past this dog; he carefully checked all newcomers for the scent of treats. He just might be a Labrador wearing  a very convincing disguise.

Bubba doesn’t back down in the face of an army. When he met my class of 20 students a week later, he sized up the challenge, then gave each one a warm greeting — and the sniff test. He very quickly figured out that the little black pouches many students had contained treats, and he went to work. The students never stood a chance. Bubba probably didn’t need dinner that night.

What else does candidate Bubba have to offer? I’m not sure what his health care plan includes beyond “kisses to make it better,” but the price sure beats my current insurance, and it is a treatment with a long track record of success. His education platform emphasizes motivation and rewards. And, though we didn’t discuss specific issues, his domestic and foreign relations approach heavily focuses on interspecies cooperation, collaboration, and peacemaking; he disdains the threats, calls for attacks, and shunning of those who are different that are so much a part of the current campaign.

In all, he’s an admirable candidate. He’s overcome a difficult past, shows intelligence and integrity, and has a demonstrated ability to cross the (species) aisle and negotiate favorable deals. Bubba has my vote!

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:

Cookie, please
Cookie, please
  • 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?


Play Ball!

Wanna play?
Wanna play?

“She’s such a mama’s girl,” Deni said of Cali the other day. “If we get too far ahead, she looks back and wants to stop and wait for you.”

“Nah,” I said. “She knows that I have her precious tennis ball, and she’s worried that she won’t have it when she gets to the park.”

I may be a bit too cynical, and I do know that Cali and I have a close bond, but … when it comes to morning play, I really am just the tennis-ball carrier and tennis-ball thrower.

We tested our competing theories the next morning. As Deni, Cali and Alberta set off at a brisk pace, leaving Jana and me plodding at 12-year-old-golden speed, Cali glanced back once, then marched off, tail wagging. A key difference from the previous morning: Deni was wearing the all-important black backpack with Cali’s filthy, spit-coated, utterly disgusting tennis ball — the only one that Cali wants to play with.

Soon they were out of sight. When I got to the park with Jana, I asked Deni what had happened.

“Well,” she said. “Cali did look back twice, but she did not want to stop or even slow down.”

I knew it. Tennis-ball carrier status confirmed.

As I have mentioned before, play is very important to Cali and a huge part of our daily routine. She’s a very fair and friendly dog, and makes every effort to include all the humans present in whatever game is going on. When we’re not playing, she thinks that we should be.

In fact, Cali is my best balanced-life coach, nudging me at regular intervals to gently point out that it is time to take a break from this horrid computer, go outside, and play with her. And that darned tennis ball.

Cali knows what dogs have known for thousands of years and what has contributed significantly to the human-canine partnership: People and dogs play well together. Play makes all of our lives better. And playing with ours dogs makes our relationships with them better. According to a recent study by dog expert John Bradshaw, dogs who have frequent, positive play sessions with their owners (no scolding!) are more obedient and more engaged with their humans.

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and throw that (disgusting) tennis ball!

Hide and (Don’t) Seek

Albee sleeps_small
Alberta sleeps — or pretends to?

My last post, Hide and Seek, talked about how Cali hides when she is avoiding something, such as having her teeth brushed. This week, I encountered an example of hiding that has a different purpose — and shows some high-level, and rather devious, thinking.
We were visiting at a home where there is a resident cat. Early one morning, the cat’s mom got up, gave the cat his breakfast in a plastic bowl, placed on the floor. Cat and mom then wandered away. Alberta, who had been sleeping on blankets next to the bed, noticed the cat and mom as they passed by into another room and closed the door. Very quietly, which took some effort, as she had several jangly tags on her collar, Alberta slipped out of the bedroom. Minutes later, without waking Deni, she slipped back in and either went back to sleep or did a stellar job of faking it. None of the three people in the house had any idea that she had slipped out of the bedroom or back in.
Later that morning, cat-mom asked us whether we’d seen the cat’s food bowl, which she had last seen at 5:30 a.m., still filled with kibble. Nope. We looked high and low. We looked in closets, cupboards, even the refrigerator, the bathrooms, and the garage. Nope, nope, and nope. Cat-mom wondered whether she really had fed the cat. Was she losing her marbles? Regardless, the bowl itself had disappeared.
Several hours later, walking through the bedroom, I noticed the edge of a plastic bowl under the bed, right near Alberta’s dog bed. Hmmm. Bending over, I reached waaayyy under the bed … and pulled out the cat’s (now empty) bowl.
Our best guess is that Alberta snuck out to eat the cat’s food and then, as is her habit, picked up the bowl and headed toward Deni to hand it over for an after-meal treat. Somewhere along the way, she must have remembered that she wasn’t supposed to let anyone know that she’d stolen the cat’s breakfast. Was she deliberately hiding the bowl? Had that been her plan all along? Or did she only think of it once she got back and saw Deni sleeping? At what point did she realize her error?
Her extreme stealth tells us that she knew she was doing something wrong; the distance the bowl was shoved under the bed indicates the same. If Alberta needs to go outside or decides that breakfast is long overdue before Deni wakes up, she noses Deni and whines until Deni responds. When Alberta picks up her bowl after a legitimate meal, she usually dances around, makes noise, doing whatever it takes to get Deni’s attention — because she is eager to collect her dessert (a cookie for returning the bowl). That she did not do this, and did not leave the bowl where anyone could see it, indicates deliberate hiding.
There’s a whole lot of higher-level thinking going on in her mind — all put to work for devious purposes. Alberta is showing multilayered understanding of a situation: knowledge that she can work a situation to her advantage (steal the food while cat and humans are sleeping or otherwise occupied) and hide the evidence where humans can’t see it.
Despite her impeccable breeding and fancy education, and regardless of her usual angelic behavior, what we learn here is that Alberta is also still a true Labrador — primarily a food-seeking missile. We also see that, whatever we teach our dogs and however we nurture their intelligence and try to shape it in ways that we want, each dog is still an individual who can put that intelligence to work in the ways that best serve her own interests.

Sisters at Play

IMG_1137Cali’s sister Dora visited recently for the weekend, which meant nonstop action. Cali actually has lots of sisters. She lives with Big Sister Jana full time. Jana has been an excellent role model, teaching Cali necessary life skills, including barking at passersby and rolling in sand so joyously and thoroughly that, between them, they make sure to take the beach home with them. Then there is Alberta, the part-time sister and playmate. They are evenly matched in size and have similar energy levels. When they are together, everything becomes a tug toy.
But DorIMG_1141a is special. Dora is Cali’s litter sister. They were plucked from their siblings on the same day (Cali by me and Dora by my close friends) and whisked away, first on a long car ride, then on an airplane where everyone made a huge fuss over them. They spent a scary first night away from Mom snuggled together in a crate. Since then (or maybe even before) they’ve shared a special bond. Whether it’s been days, weeks or even months since they last met, their greeting is rowdy, loud, and energetic. Their play is very physical and rough, but no one ever gets hurt. At rest, they often touch paws or sleep in a heap.
Play is often seen by researchers as practice for important life skills. One researcher, Dr. Marc Bekoff, suggests an additional crucial role for play: it is the basis for developing social ethics. In play, young dogs (or other social beings) learn not to hurt each other, to follow certain rules, to communicate their intentions honestly.
Both Dora and Cali have excellent social manners. When meeting new dogs, they exhibit all of the correct doggy signs for getting acquainted and inviting play. Both are wise enough to be deferential to larger dogs and to show respect for elderly dogs. They’ve internalized those ethical practices that they have learned through playing with a variety of dogs. But sister play is different.
InIMG_1134 their sister play, they also bow and use the full range of doggy play signals, but the signs are sometimes abbreviated or perfunctory. They feel safe enough to throw themselves into play without worrying about being misunderstood. There is lots of ear-pulling and gnashing of teeth. Their faces wear fierce expressions. They emerge panting and wet. And wearing huge smiles. There is a level of familiarity and trust between them that gives their connection a quality that Cali’s play with others — even Alberta and Jana — lacks. Social manners matter most when dogs assess the intent of strangers. Smart dogs know when they need to be polite. And when they don’t. And, for Cali and Dora, family is safe enough that politeness can take a backseat to full-on fun.

The Inclusive Dog

Cali zipflight2Cali, Albee, and Deni are playing fetch with a Zipflight (a Frisbee-like toy for dogs that Cali is crazy about). I wander over with Jana. Deni throws the disc. Cali catches it. Cali then brings it over and offers it to me for a throw.

If more than one person is in the area where Cali is playing fetch, she always does this. I find it charming. She takes the toy to one person, and then to the other, as if to include everyone in the game. She’ll include people she doesn’t know well, too, if they happen to be standing near and watching.

Oriel did this too. Cali and Oriel are closely related, but since Albee occasionally does it too, I don’t think genetics fully explains this behavior.

A professor I had in graduate school, ethologist Marc Bekoff, has hypothesized that play behavior forms the foundation of social ethics for a species. That is, youngsters learn how to get along in the group — what is “good” and “bad” behavior in their society, what the rules are for acceptable social interactions — at least partly through their games. They learn to play by the rules, not hurt each other, not to cheat or deceive, and to self-handicap when playing with younger or smaller friends. We observe all of this as our well-bred and well-socialized canines play with one another and with other dog friends. This might be a partial explanation, but Cali’s behavior seems to go a step farther.

I’ve seen dogs take turns in other situations — at the school where I teach, it’s not unusual to see three or four dogs lined up, waiting for a turn at the water bowl! And of course, when we play with our three dogs they must take turns chasing the ball when we throw it. Our dogs wait their turn to get their treats, to get brushed, even to get their dinners. Taking turns is nothing new in multi-dog homes. But dogs ensuring that all of the people and dogs get to join the game is unusual and shows an even higher level of social awareness. Cali’s not waiting for her own turn to do something fun or trying to get extra turns. She’s going out of her way, sometimes across a large lawn, to invite someone else to take a turn, to join the game.

Cali zipflightIt’s impossible to know exactly what motivates her to offer me a chance to throw the ball when she’s playing with Deni, but it does bring the family together. She even takes the ball over to Jana to offer her oldest sister the chance to chase the ball!  Cali’s desire to include everyone reflects something that matters to her. Empathy, or possibly inclusiveness.

An inclusive organization is defined as one that values the contributions of all people (human and canine!); one that incorporates different members’ needs, assets, and perspectives. That sounds like the kind of dog-human family I want. And, from her actions, it appears to be the kind of dog-human family that Cali wants too.