A Perfect Day (for Cali)

Cali, a golden retriever, swims in a riverI’d like to get out and hike more. It’s summer in Missoula. I’m an outdoor novice; I don’t go camping (which means I have Missoula all to myself on summer weekends) and I can really only do easy hikes. Even so, I like to get outside in our short, but stunning, summers.

But Cali’s not great off leash. She gets engrossed in something and next thing she knows, she’s miles away and 20 minutes have passed.

There are many wonderful trails where I can’t or wouldn’t let her off leash even if she were more reliable. They’re at the edge of vast wilderness, have too many tempting smells and critters to follow, and I’m not willing to risk losing her. Every weekend in the summer, the Missoula NPR station reads our lost dog reports, and sometimes there are pictures at the trail heads … it’s sad and scary.

So, when I have a little time and it’s a nice day, I face a dilemma. Do I pack Cali into the car and go off somewhere to satisfy my desire to hike? Or do I choose an option that will be more fun for her?

Hiking is fun for her, but still, it’s usually a long walk on a short leash in a pretty place that she’d love to explore, if only her mean mom would let her.

Compared with one of our standbys, a large open area inside Missoula where she can run off leash, and where I usually throw a ball for her to chase … well, no contest. Especially in the summer when there’s water to play in!

I feel a little bad each time I decide to head there rather than gear up for a more adventurous outing, but then, as I make the turn off of Reserve St., and Cali knows for sure where we’re going, her excitement reassures me. This is what she’d choose. This or a trip to Big Dipper ice cream (or both).

She dances with excitement as we get out of the car and I dig out her ball; she squeals with joy as I release the leash. Then she’s off, running, the instant I throw the ball. She doesn’t bring it back, of course, so I walk to her, she lets me take it, and I throw it again. And again.

We walk along the irrigation ditch, currently full of cool water. We walk through a wooded area. When we get to each of the two little pools, I throw the ball into the water for her to swim after. Now she does bring it back, over and over, so I will keep throwing it upstream. Her favorite thing is to get out of the water and drop the ball at my feet. Then, just as I bend to pick it up, she shakes off, sharing the cool water. We both get back to the car dirty, tired, and happy.

I think that she has more fun doing this, even if it’s the same outing two or three times a week (or daily) than she would if we went to new and interesting places … where she had to stay on leash. It’s not that dire; there are a few other places where she can be off leash. But in the summer, this spot, with the trees, water, and open space, is pretty hard to beat. Instead of worrying about taking her more places, maybe I need to focus on taking her more often for perfect Cali days … a swim, some mud, maybe a little ice cream!

The Garden Is Going to the Dogs!

Cali, under the blossoming cherry trees, with her tennis ball.

It’s February in Montana, so reading an article about planning a “sensory garden” for dogs was a nice escape from the cold. Since Cali has staked her claim to the back yard of our house, though, and much landscaping is needed, it’s also great inspiration.

The first piece of advice is to watch how the dog uses the space — where she hangs out, where and what she sniffs. That’s easy. Cali’s favorite spot is under the cherry trees and next to the raspberries. In the summer, her favorite spot is in the raspberries, harvesting and eating as many berries as she can reach. But even in the winter, she’s most likely to be found in that corner of the garden.

Then, plan ways to enrich the garden for her enjoyment and mental stimulation. This means stimulating all of her senses.

Foremost for dogs is, of course, smell. Plant things that she enjoys sniffing. Ideally, plant several plants and flowers that will bloom and grow at different times of the year. Here in Montana, that’s a fairly small part of the year, so other senses will have to dominate in the winter.

For visual stimulation, the author of the article suggests rocks, logs, items of different heights to create variation.

To stimulate hearing, she suggests running water, wind chimes, or rustling plants. Those wouldn’t really work too well in a Montana winter either, but in our somewhat urban neighborhood, there is plenty of aural stimulation.

Cali surveys her yard from the deck
When not under the cherry trees, Cali enjoys her perch on the deck

Taste is a tough one. I have always discouraged my dogs from sampling the garden plants. Timo, my first dog, loved lemon verbena and once ate every single leaf from a small plant. The plant did not survive the assault, but Timo and the larger one coexisted happily for many years. As a puppy, Jana enjoyed harvesting strawberries and blackberries in our garden. Cali enjoys the cherries and raspberries in season, of course. But the suggestions of verbena, thyme, and other safe and appealing plants are worth considering.

Finally, tactile stimulation is essential. Cali loves to dig; I have thought about creating a digging spot for her in the garden. Another suggestion is using a variety of textures — grass, mulch (check and check) and paths made of stones or crushed granite, or even sand. We can definitely work more of that into our landscaping.

A final suggestion is creating opportunities for the dog to run around. When Cali has friends over, they do create a sort of circuit, looping into the cherry-tree corner and under the clotheslines.

Some other things to consider:

  • Know which plants are toxic to dogs and avoid these.
  • Use raised beds, pots, or plant borders to steer dogs away from no-go zones, like the vegetable patch. Interestingly, though Cali dug up all our baby tomato plants the day we planted them, she never bothered the vegetable gardens after that, even though she loves cucumbers, and the cukes were well within her reach. She quickly learned that the raised beds were my turf.
  • Consider your dog’s age and activity level. For some dogs, simple agility equipment or things they can climb or jump onto are a good addition.

The garden can be very appealing to humans, too. But too many yards are designed only for the people in the family. Since Cali spends exponentially more time in our yard than I do, it’s only fair to create a place she will enjoy fully!

Martin Speaks for “Everydog”

An ABC promotional image for “Downward Dog”

If you’re not watching ABC’s “Downward Dog,” you should check it out before it disappears. (ABC just announced that the show will be canceled after its seventh and eighth episodes air this week.) Martin, the narrator, does a pretty good job of capturing the cynomorphic take on the human-dog relationship. That’s the dog’s point of view.

Martin, a medium-sized mixed-breed dog, shares a home with Nan, a single woman with a demanding advertising career, an unreasonable boss, and a frustratingly immature and undependable on-again, off-again boyfriend. Martin chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship and his days.

While he might not speak for every dog in every instance, a lot of what he says rings awfully true: His assumption that Nan drives around all day in her car and his inability to understand why she’d want to do that without him; his hurt when he finds out the truth. His certainty that he has super powers when he can make the automatic dog door open (one of our dogs seemed to have the same take on it; the others either thought it was magic or just another way the lazy human staff tried to get out of doing their jobs; Cali thought a trainable ghost ran things). His conviction that he makes the rules in the relationship and sometimes has to show Nan who’s boss — by chewing up an Ugg boot.

One of my favorite parts so far is Martin’s soliloquy on why he is compelled to eat trash. I could just see Jana, my ultrafeminine princess who loved to roll in dead things, nodding in agreement. Sometimes, a dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do.

The show doesn’t get everything right. For instance it leans too heavily on the assumption that, in a dog-human relationship, someone has to be “dominant.” And Nana’s character embodies way too many clichés about single women. But, though Martin is self-involved — like many dogs — he’s a lovable guide to the dog’s world.

I’ve spent years trying to understand how dogs see our relationships with them; I’ve tried with mixed success to teach students to consider the many angles and nuances of life with dogs from the dogs’ point of view. If I were teaching those students now, I’d use the eight episodes of “Downward Dog” as an imperfect but enjoyable presentation of one dog’s unique perspective.

Better and Better

Montana just gets better and better.

Cali and Jana’s cousins came to visit recently. Ziggy and Hannah live in Kansas, where summer is full of scary thunderstorms and terrifying lawnmowers. Up here on the hilltop in Montana, there are no lawnmowers at all. Thunderstorms are rare. There’s a huge play yard and lot of places to go hiking. Ziggy was excited.

Cali, Jana, and their cousins went to Missoula to visit Scarlett and her sister, Gracie. Then they went for a walk by the river, saw a huge carousel, met some really friendly Montana kids, and then, best of all, they got to go out for ice cream. The nice lady at the Big Dipper gave each dog her own cone! Ziggy and Jana and Cali ate theirs really fast, but Hannah showed her good breeding and manners, licking her cone delicately and not dripping it anywhere.

Hannah and Ziggy quickly learned to use the automatic dog door, and they each got their own key. Hannah thinks that it opens when she barks at it. She likes to bark, so that suits her just fine. Jana’s friend Molly came for a visit, and she remembered how to use the dog door right away, even though she hadn’t been over to visit in a really long time! She’s super-smart because she’s a poodle. She knows that barking is not what makes the door open.

Molly likes to bark too, but with all the girls barking, Jana and Cali’s mom couldn’t get any work done, so she told everyone to be quiet. Meanie!

The cousins and Molly loved playing out in Cali’s big play yard. They chased the ball, chased Cali or Alberta chasing the ball, ate grass, barked at deer, chased each other some more … when they got tired, they went back inside and piled onto the dog beds or stretched out on a rug. Hannah and Ziggy thought that Montana was pretty awesome. Molly, a native Montanan, couldn’t agree more.

After Hannah and Ziggy and Molly went home, Cali, Alberta, and Jana finally made plans to go to Packer Meadow. Jana loves this place and told Cali and Alberta all about it, but Cali and Alberta had never been there. It’s huge and very green. Jana remembers being there when it was so full of purple flowers that it looked like water. Speaking of water, there’s this really great stream that runs through the meadow. Brrrr. The water is very cold. But a dog can jump in and climb out and jump in and climb out and jump in and … all day (or until her mom makes her leave. Meanie.).

Unfortunately, the day they went, Packer Meadow was closed because it was too close to some huge forest fires. Good thing that Mom always has a backup plan; the girls had a great afternoon at Jana’s second-favorite place, Fort Fizzle. Jana found the first of her heart-shaped rocks there. She loves splashing in the river, finding rocks, rolling on the bank, and chasing sticks. Cali chased tennis balls; one almost got lost way out on the rocks, and Alberta wouldn’t bring it back, but Cali finally agreed to go and get it. She got a bunch of cookies for that. Maybe Mom is not such a meanie after all.

And guess what! They still get to go to Packer Meadow in a couple of weeks. Montana sure is a great place to be a dog.

 

Duck-Induced Deafness

cali and ducksI’m a whole lot less interesting than three mallards. I’m trying not to take it personally.
I took the girls swimming the other day at the Russian River. We were having a nice time splashing around, and Cali was happily swimming after a ball. Jana was searching for rocks. Russian RIver April 2015She likes to find heart-shaped rocks, as I have described in an earlier post. She added this one (right) to our collection on this particular river excursion. In short, all was well.
Until those darn ducks swam by. There were about 10 ducks, enjoying a sunny day. Jana noticed them first. She’d swim in their general direction, and they’d fly up a few feet into the air, and she’d lose interest.

Then Cali got in on the game. She just followed them around, never getting too close. She was no threat. She was holding a tennis ball in her mouth the whole time, and she never got closer than about 10 feet. Three of the ducks decided to play a little game with her. They did not fly away. They stayed just far enough in front of her that they (apparently) felt safe but close enough that she stayed interested. And they swam around in big circles. They swam across the river, around a big island, back to our side. Upriver. Downriver. Big circles.

Cali paddled doggedly after them.

At first, it was funny. She never let go of her tennis ball. She’s a strong swimmer, but after a few minutes, I started worrying that she’d get tired. My friend and I waded farther into the river, determined to head them off if they headed downriver. They didn’t.

We called Cali and waved. But she was suffering a bout of duck-induced deafness and never heard a thing. Jana had long since given up on following the ducks and was nosing around for sticks on the beach. The other golden in our group had gone back to tennis balls. But not Cali. Back and forth, around and around. Finally, my friend couldn’t stand it any longer. She crossed the river and grabbed Cali, getting soaked in the process. Cali still had her tennis ball. She was not even winded.

Jana used to do the same thing. She once followed a leaping fish pretty far out into the Gulf at a Florida dog beach. But Jana has more sense than Cali. After a while, she looked back, saw how far she was, got a very worried look on her face — and turned and paddled for shore as quickly as she could. I don’t worry about Jana disappearing into the wild. She never wants to lose sight of me.

But Cali is more impulsive and less aware of her surroundings. Was Cali even a tiny bit aware that she had worried us? Nothing doing. Within minutes, she was bugging us to throw the ball some more.

Does this mean that Cali has a poor recall? Not necessarily; even the best-trained dog is likely to go temporarily deaf when confronted with a really interesting distraction. It does teach me to keep a closer eye (and shorter leash) on Cali when I see ducks on future water adventures, though. And it’s a good reminder that I need to practice recalls with Cali in more places with lots of interesting things going on. I may never be able to cure duck-induced deafness, but I can probably relieve some of the symptoms.

Alberta’s Marshmallow Test

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In the 1970s, a psychologist tested the self-restraint of preschool children. Each child was offered a marshmallow. The children were told that they would get two marshmallows if they could delay eating the treat, and then left alone in a room for fifteen minutes. The researcher recorded what happened. The efforts of some children to stare down the treat or to distract themselves from it are both comical and painful to watch. Of course, some children inhaled the treat as soon as the researcher left the room. A recent book (The Marshmallow Test) describes this experiment and the follow-up studies of those children. The marshmallow test and other research on the ability to delay gratification shows that those who can exercise self-control in the face of temptation have better “life outcomes,” as measured by a variety of criteria, including SAT scores, social and cognitive functioning, long-term health, and retirement planning.

What does all of this have to do with thinking dogs?
Alberta experienced her own version of the marshmallow test recently. To say that Alberta loves treats is a bit like saying that I love chocolate. Alberta not only loves treats, she is not terribly fussy about which treats she gets. For sure, there are better treats, for example this bison and beef jerky concoction that I get at Costco and that, for some reason, Jana, Cali, and Alberta will do anything for. But ordinary, boring biscuits are fine too, and they are happily accepted as rewards for a job well done.

In her guide dog work, Alberta comes across many items that fit this dog’s definition of “treat,” and she works very hard to resist bits of food that just happen to be lying on the floor.
Alberta is justifiably proud of her hard-earned restraint, but more importantly, she wants Deni to know. So, in the course of a day’s work, if Alberta sees food on the floor and gives it a wide berth, she also nudges Deni to make sure that Deni knows just how good she is being. She pushes Deni hard with her nose, hoping that Deni will notice the ignored object. She often nudges Deni right near the pocket where Deni keeps the dog treats, just in case Deni might want to reward this extraordinary show of restraint. A girl can hope, can’t she?

Alberta knows the rule that she can’t grab food off the ground when she’s working. She wants to believe that that rule does not apply when she’s off-duty (her harness is off). She also knows that, even while working, she’s allowed to take treats that Deni hands her for particularly notable service. But she recently encountered a situation that blurred these lines a bit, a marshmallow test for dogs. Her reaction was remarkable.
Guiding Deni down a street in Saugatuck, Michigan, Alberta (along with her entourage of two other human family members) passed by a store that not only had a full doggy water bowl sitting by the sidewalk, but also a full bowl of doggy cookies. Just sitting there for the taking. An open invitation. Irresistible.
Or not.
Alberta headed for the water, took a drink, noticed the cookie bowl and … stopped dead. Confused. She looked at the biscuits. Looked at Deni. Furrowed her brow. Looked longingly at the treats. But she did not touch the treats.
We’d all stopped to watch the unfolding marshmallow-like drama. Alberta really wanted to gobble up as many of those dog cookies as she could. But she did not take one. She did, however, look at every one of us to make sure that we all knew how good she was being. Deni rewarded her by picking up a few biscuits from the bowl and handing them to Alberta.
Watching the interaction, I got to thinking. Most dogs who walk by this shop are not trained service dogs. Though many, like Jana and Cali, have had some training and certainly know that they are not supposed to just devour everything in sight, they don’t always have the restraint to follow through. Having more than once found myself alone with a new box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, I can relate.
I wondered how often a doggy passerby just digs in and eats all the cookies in the bowl. How many battles between hungry hounds and their hapless handlers has the shop owner witnessed? Does the handler ever win? And really, what was that shop owner thinking?

But back to Alberta. In need of photos for this blog post, I asked Deni to re-create Alberta’s marshmallow test. The photo gallery (presented in order) at the top of this blog post shows that, like the successful children in the original marshmallow test, Alberta devised a series of ways to distract herself. Some of the children looked away, as Alberta did. Some sang songs or recited the alphabet. Alberta did neither of these. Some children closed their eyes. Upon realizing that, even after she had turned away, the bowl of biscuits was still there, Alberta closed her eyes.

Alberta has not only learned to resist random bits of food on cafeteria floors, sidewalks, and the like, but there she was, on that Michigan sidewalk and again in Deni’s office, passing up food that was obviously meant for dogs, placed there for her enjoyment. This shows us that dogs are able to do some high-level thinking and processing.

If Alberta were purely instinct-driven, that bowl would have been emptied in seconds flat. If she were operating only out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, she might have surreptitiously sneaked a mouthful of biscuits before Deni noticed, just to see if she could get away with it — and been rewarded by the treat, even if she got scolded after. But she went beyond a gut-instinct response and even beyond the basic (low) level of moral development that governs much of human and animal behavior. She paused, checked in with Deni, and did the right thing — even though she really wanted those cookies. We’re eagerly looking forward to seeing Alberta’s SAT scores and are consulting her for retirement advice. But in my next post, I will describe more practical ways we can apply the doggy marshmallow test to our relationships with our dogs.

Ready to Rally?

Alberta accepts her ribbons after earning her Rally Excellent title
Alberta accepts her ribbons after earning her Rally Excellent title. Deni and Alberta are the first guide dog team to earn an Excellent title. They have already two of ten needed “legs” toward their Rally Advanced Excellent title. 

I’ve watched both formal Obedience competitions and Rally-O (or Rally Obedience) competitions, and the difference is as stark as the difference between traditional training and cognitive education.
Both have the same goal: demonstrating a dog’s ability and willingness to follow specific commands when cued by the handler. They use similar sets of commands. Competitors are scored based on the preciseness of the dog’s response, the accuracy in completing the set of commands presented, and the time it takes to accomplish each task. Above the novice level, dogs compete off-lead. Dog-and-handler teams can earn titles in both kinds of competition.
That’s about where the similarity ends.
Rally is variable. The course is different in every round. The judge sets up the course within an hour of the competition; which exercises are included and in what order is a surprise for handlers and dogs. Formal obedience competitions, on the other hand, follow a set pattern of exercises at every level of competition. Experienced dogs and handlers could run the pattern in their sleep.
While competing, Rally handlers talk to, praise, and encourage their dogs. In the lower levels, the handler can use targeting and clapping or even touch the dog! Formal Obedience handlers cannot interact with their dogs other than to issue each cue, verbally or through hand signal, once.
To my (very biased) way of thinking, Obedience competition is all about showing the dog who’s boss (hint: it’s not the dog). Rally is about relationship and having fun. I strongly favor anything that builds relationship between dogs and their humans. Rally acknowledges the uniqueness of how each handler and dog interact as a team. Rally allows each team to excel in its own way.
The differences between Rally and Obedience underscore the differences in traditional vs. cognitive approaches to teaching dogs. If all you care about is getting an instant, precise response to a command, traditional obedience will do it for you. But that approach limits what you can accomplish with your dog and defines your relationship inside very narrow parameters.
Expecting precise, predetermined, responses to every cue essentially forbids your dog from thinking. There is a single correct response to each cue. Any other response results in punishment or lack of reward. The dog is not allowed to think about how to respond. Nor can the dog think of a better way to respond. When a dog schooled in this way confronts a situation that is slightly different from the training scenario, that dog will not know what to do. If the precise, rehearsed response is not possible or ineffective, the dog faces certain failure.
On the other hand, a dog who is taught with a cognitive approach will be able to figure out how to apply his or her learning in a variety of situations.
Here’s an example. Let’s say there are two dogs who have been taught to retrieve as part of their education. The obedience trainer, focused on the next competition, polishes his dog’s retrieve. The dog can flawlessly follow instructions to watch where the dumbbell was thrown over a jump, go out over the jump (even if a bad throw makes this the least efficient way of reaching the dumbbell), and bring it back, jumping over an obstacle on the way back. Perfect every time.
The cognitive trainer also teaches retrieve, but in a more jumbled way. Sometimes the dog retrieves a dumbbell. Sometimes it is the newspaper on the front porch. As training progresses, a set of keys, a cellphone, a pair of glasses, a spoon, a pen, a bottle of water are added. Sometimes the dog can see the item; sometimes the dog must search for it. Sometimes, it is an item that the handler has dropped. Sometimes it is the pair of slippers in the other room. The dog trained cognitively to retrieve has learned to follow her handler’s point, gaze or verbal cue for the item that needs to be retrieved.
Which of these dogs is more likely to fetch your keys if you drop them and they bounce, landing under your car? Which will find your cellphone when you fall and need help?
The dog who is trained only to produce a rote response will freeze when the dumbbell is not where he expects it to be or the judge produces a leather dumbbell when he has only practiced with a wooden one. This dog knows the retrieve as a patterned set of responses: sit, stay, go out, come back, sit in front holding the dumbbell, release, finish to a heel position.
This is different from understanding the reason behind a retrieve.
The dog who is trained to think about the retrieve as a practical skill, figure out the goal, and find a solution — the cognitive dog — will size up the situation and, chances are, do what needs to be done, even when it is not expected. I know more than one dog who has taught himself an “automatic retrieve,” picking up anything the handler drops, as a result of this style of retrieve training. Dogs who are allowed to freelance by adding variations to the task based on understanding the goal, will do so. This can come in handy when the handler unknowingly drops important material — like money.
Cognitive education enhances communication between dog and humans.