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.

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Racial Profiling

A new dog shows up at our park play group. Is Cali interested in meeting or playing with this newcomer? Is she curious? Is she hesitant, cautious? Or does she simply head for the other side of the park and ignore the new pup? And what about Jana?

That depends on several things.

When the newcomer is a puppy, I can be absolutely certain that Jana wants nothing to do with him or her. Cali might, but she tends to watch new pup interact with some other dogs first.

What about adolescent and adult dogs? Large dogs get a wide berth. Small dogs get more interest. But the one time I can be certain that Cali will go right over and say hello to a new dog is when that dog is a golden retriever.

Cali’s very wary of shepherds and huskies. She’s open to small poodles and terriers. A little nervous around very high-energy dogs. Very leery of big dogs, though once she gets to know them, she’s fine. She finds boy Labradors overwhelming, but has had a few Labby girlfriends. Cali’s the most relaxed with her sister Dora and a couple of other dogs she knows well, all Labs or goldens. Anyone who shows any interest in her ball is definitely off the potential friends list. Unless it’s a golden; then they can talk.

Cali is racially profiling dogs. Jana does it too. When Jana was a puppy, if we saw another dog up ahead on a walk (we didn’t have a great neighborhood park with a play group), she’d react completely differently, depending on the breed. Jana is a little broader-minded than Cali; she loved Labradors and goldens equally from early puppyhood. A Lab or golden up ahead would mean eager dancing at the end of the leash and maybe even pulling toward the potential pal. Any other dog, big or small, and Jana would slow down and walk very close to me, a bit nervous and unsure. She’d be fine once she met and got to know a dog of any breed, as long as the dog had good manners. But retrievers, dogs who looked like her — they were OK from the get-go.

It’s not just based on experience. One of the first nonfamily goldens Cali met at the park was an unusually bad-tempered young man who snarled and lunged at her. That did not make her wary the next time she saw an unfamiliar golden.

It’s not only a golden thing, either. A smooth-coated collie puppy I was working with, the lone collie in a sea of Lab puppies at a service dog training school, literally danced with joy the first time a staffer brought her smooth collie service dog to visit. I’d never seen him so happy, and he was generally a pretty cheerful guy. Then there are the German shepherds at the park. The young girl likes to play with Cali. Cali has, on a couple of occasions, accepted the play invitations. Sometimes, while she’s thinking about it, another shepherd, either a young male or an older, long-haired shepherd, will show up. Young girl is immediately off to play with the other shepherd. During breaks in that play, though, she tries again and again to invite Cali to play. She strongly prefers shepherds, but young golden girls are second.

We can’t really hold it against them; people racially profile dogs all the time. What else would you call legal restrictions on owning dogs of certain breeds or apartment rental policies or insurance policies that exclude specific breeds, without any attention to an individual dog’s personality and behavior? But I don’t think dogs learned it from us; I think they are hardwired to recognize — and feel more comfortable with — dogs of their own breed.

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!

Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.

 

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.

 

 

Loving and Letting Go

A Guest Blog by Deni Elliott

wylie ballSometimes things just don’t work out. He is intensely athletic; I’m a stroll-on-the-beach kind of gal. He always wants to be in charge; I think that responsibility should be shared. He likes hanging out with the guys, and he unabashedly flirts with the girls; I crave a less-social life and want him to have eyes only for me. But when we are alone, I need some private time; he dogs my every move.

After four years of trying to make our partnership work and then carefully planning for our separation, I’m ready to announce this to the world: I love Wylie more than I can say. He’s smarter than I am, good-hearted, and generally well-intentioned. But Wylie and I are breaking up.

My guide dog’s career change feels a lot like ending a human relationship. As with intimacy between humans, the partnership of human and guide dog is a dance of inter-dependency and cooperation. Compatibility is required.

Wylie counts on me to give him everything that he needs to be a well-adjusted German shepherd, and he is not shy about communicating his demands to me.

I put my life in his paws every time that I slide the harness over his shoulders and say, “Forward.” I trust Wylie to choose the path as he guides me under low-hanging branches, steers me around obstacles, and takes us across streets, avoiding the traffic that I can hear but cannot see.

We communicate moods and expectations up and down the harness as we let each other know what is next in our progression from Point A to Point B. If we’re out of sync with one another, we both get frustrated. And while our ability to read one another has astounded others observing us, the frustration has become more than either of us can handle.

8 wks Wylie (2)Wylie is the second guide dog that I have raised from young puppyhood, enlisting the expertise of professionals to accomplish training that I couldn’t do on my own. I’ve owned and trained dogs since I was a child. My visual loss was progressive, but slow. I thought that I was better able than a guide dog school to prepare a dog to meet my special needs.

As a puppy, Wylie showed strong potential to become a guide. My successful partnership with my first guide dog, a golden retriever named Oriel, made me unrealistically confident. Oriel was, in the words of many who knew her, “the perfect dog.” When she retired, I assumed that I could make the guide relationship with young Wylie work just as well. I struggled through the first year and thought that he would mature and grow into his job. I was wrong. Wylie’s basic personality did not change; nor did mine. When I finally realized that I couldn’t make things better, I knew that I owed Wylie the chance for a better life.

On January 23, Wylie will start training to be a service dog for a veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For the first time in more than 12 years, I will depend solely on my white cane to pick my way through my travels. Wylie and I will both be in transition and will grieve the loss of one another.

But not for long.

Wylie (2)Wylie will have new challenges from the start. He will live first with Jennifer Rogers, director of PAALS, a service-dog training school that is affiliated with Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army base in Columbia, South Carolina. Wylie and other dogs-in-training will spend one evening each week on the base with active-duty service members and veterans who are coping with combat-related anxiety. Under Jennifer’s supervision, the dogs will learn to help people with PTSD; the soldiers and veterans will teach the dogs how to assist others like themselves. Dogs and humans will learn to support one another.

When the time and match is right, Wylie will become an “intensive companion” dog for a veteran who is not yet ready for the challenge of working with a service dog out in the community. Dog and veteran will be encircled by a team of mental health and service dog professionals who will support their journey together.

I will be supported in a new journey as well. On March 4, I will join a training class at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. After intensive training there, I expect to return home with a 2-year-old mellow yellow Labrador retriever at my side. I’ll have a guide dog bred and trained by experts who create and maintain ethical working dog relationships. After many hours of application to, evaluation by, and conversation with Guiding Eyes personnel, I trust that they know better than I how to find me the best guide dog match.

Wylie’s new life will be very different from guiding me around obstacles that I cannot see. Crucially, it will be a life that is more in tune with his nature. The behaviors that he will be trained to do on cue include leaning against his partner, resting his head on his partner’s knee, lying on his partner’s feet, and providing a friendly-but-safe barrier between his partner and others. With me, Wylie got to connect like this only after his harness came off and he was done guiding for the day. Providing a partner such physical support 24/7 is Wylie’s dream job.

Wylie has always wanted more physical connection than I could handle. When I was done working for the day, I wanted some time free of my canine umbilical cord; Wylie wanted the intense physical contact that he lacked when he was walking two steps ahead of me, in harness.

The behaviors that have been problematic for me will be just what Wylie’s new partner needs. Wylie will bond with a veteran who needs a canine companion to guide him out of a darker place than I have ever experienced. It is likely that Wylie’s new partner — a veteran with deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan or both — will be no more than 30 years old. Wylie will finally have a young partner who is able to provide the daily intensive exercise that he craves.

Wylie will no longer endure long hours lying under a desk while I work in the office or teach my classes. He will no longer sigh and resign himself to STILL being on duty when I sternly command him to turn left to guide me to the Dean’s office when he wants to turn right to walk home and be done for the day. And, most importantly, Wylie will no longer have to pant and tremble as he struggles to guide me through airports and onto airplanes, a task that he finds increasingly stressful.

CoolSome people will criticize me for not letting Wylie retire and spend the rest of his days lounging at home. But, all dogs need stimulation; a young, intelligent dog like Wylie, who is accustomed to life out in the world, needs it more than most. Long days spent alone and doing nothing would be unbearable for him. Others will say that it is cruel for me to give him away, suggesting that I don’t love my dog as they love theirs. But I know that Wylie would not be happy watching me leave home with another dog doing “his” job, even if it is a job that he sometimes hates. I love Wylie enough to recognize that he’ll be happier moving on.

I will get over losing the goofy frat-boy who has been part of my life for 6 years. I will have learned yet one more lesson in loving and letting go. I’ll get past the guilty feeling that I failed this dog. From this perspective, it seems to me that I’ve been helping Wylie get ready to be the helper dog that he was really meant to be. I appreciate his true nature enough to let him go forward and be that dog.

 

 

Play Dates for Your Dog

Does your dog have friends or do you just assume that all dogs like each other?

I met my (human) friend at the dog beach last week, and her cheerful, playful golden bounded over, wearing a huge smile as she ran up to say hi to Jana. They’ve played together many times at dog beaches around the Bay Area (tough life, I know) and they are clearly friends.

But, while 9-year-old Christina and 8-year-old Jana are BFFs, there are other dogs we see regularly with whom Jana is cordial, but distant. Remember being forced to play with your mom’s friends’ kids? It’s the same with canines — our dogs and our friends’ dogs don’t always hit it off.

It might seem obvious. Not all dogs like each other or enjoy hanging out together. We certainly don’t instantly bond with every human we meet. Some become friends. Many do not.

But when some people take their dogs to dog parks or dog beaches, they somehow assume that everyone there will play nicely together. Similarly, they get irked when their dog seems to take an instant dislike to another dog they meet on a walk or in a training class.

Just like our parents, we want our dogs to be polite and friendly all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. When some dogs take an instant dislike to another, they lunge, bark, or even attack the other dog, for no reason that we hapless humans can see.

I’ve spent a lot of time in dog parks lately doing observation research with my students. What we’ve noticed is that most of the dogs there don’t play with each other. They run, play with their humans, chase balls, roll in the grass, and sniff things. Often, they are sniffed or given a play bow from another, more social dog, and politely and appropriately decline the invitation to play. Sometimes, dogs chase each other a few times, and sometimes the “play” chase turns into something closer to bullying.

Those of us who take our dogs to dog parks for exercise need to be involved. It is no more acceptable to spend dog-park time involved in a long cellphone conversation than it would be for the mother of a 2-year-old human child to do that while her child ran unobserved at the playground. A dog park, fenced or not, is not an opportunity to take a break from your dog.

We can go to dog parks with friends whose dogs are really our dogs’ friends — or set up play dates at our homes. Or, we can go to the dog park with the plan of engaging with our dog while we’re there — to walk with the dog, or maybe toss a ball. What we need to avoid is just assuming that all the dogs will play together and get enough exercise while we ignore them. As many dog experts will tell you, the more engaged the humans are at the dog park, the fewer unpleasant incidents you’ll see.

The same goes for walks. Even on-leash dogs can hurt each other. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, consider working with a trainer to improve his socialization and help him learn to behave more calmly. If your dog seems to attract hostility from other dogs, ask their owners not to let their dogs approach. Meanwhile, work at building up your dog’s confidence and social skills with dogs you know are friendly.

But the bottom line is, we’re our dogs’ protectors and advocates. Don’t throw your dog to the (domesticated) wolves at dog parks or in the neighborhood, and don’t let your dog become the bully, either.

Check out these doggy buddies: Dog Guides Blind Dog