Great Little Communicator

11 week old Orly, a golden retriever, holds a red toy and stands up against a wire fence

Orly has definite opinions and wants — and she’s not shy about communicating them.

On day 2, she decided to try leveraging the cute factor to get her way. When she wanted out of her play pen, she grabbed a toy, stood up, and launched into full tantrum mode.

It didn’t work.

So she refined it. As soon as I walked into view, she instantly sat, perfectly quiet. That was tougher. I decided that the tantrum meant that she urgently needed to go out, so every time she threw a fit (and didn’t quiet within about 30 seconds), I let her out of the pen and took her straight outside. I let her do her business (or gave her a minute or two) and put her right back into her pen.

That helped a little, for a short while. Now we have a different pen problem: When she wants out, she simply launches herself over the top … I’m working on a solution to that one. Meanwhile, she’s spending more time outside the pen.

That has allowed her to figure out a more effective way to ask to go out: She rings the bells.

Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get Cali to ring a bell to ask to go out, since her preferred method is sitting in front of the door — not helpful when I am upstairs working. Cali has consistently wanted nothing to do with the bells, the buttons, or any other gadgets.

Orly is a different dog entirely. I put the bells on the doorknob and jangled them a bit when I let her out. After the second or third time, she walked over and nudged the bells. I figured it was a fluke or she was just playing with them, but I let her out anyhow and told her how clever she was.

Then she did it again. And again. Very intentionally walking over, touching the bells, and waiting to go out. Orly even did it when I had a friend over.

After a day or so, Cali even did it a couple of times.

Orly went through a brief testing phase — ringing, stepping outside, then immediately turning around and asking to come in. That didn’t last long; I think that she was just making sure I would respond.

I then put a bell outside, too, so she can ask to come back inside; she picked that up in a couple of days.

Orly has recently added a mind-blowing twist to the bell-ringing saga. I was sitting at the dining-room table, having coffee. Cali was outside; Orly at my feet. Cali (the bell-refuser) approached the door. Her usual MO is to stand there and wait for me to notice her. No longer.

Orly leapt into action, heading over and ringing the bell. I’m a little slow, and was on my first coffee of the morning … so I assumed that she wanted to go out. Nope.

I opened the door; Orly stood aside; Cali entered; they touched noses and … wow.

I don’t leave Orly unsupervised downstairs or outside, so I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to hear the bells from my upstairs office. I’m pretty sure I will hear the inside bells, and I hope that I can hear the outside ones too. (I might not know that until spring!)

I suspect that the reason she picked up the bell use so quickly is that she enjoys ordering me around. Puppy and dog owners have this delusion that we’re training our dogs. In reality, they are training us.

When something doesn’t work (standing-up tantrum), they try something else (magic sit). If we could get people to do what we wanted just by sitting down and looking at them, wouldn’t we? And now that Orly has deployed her communication skills to get me to let Cali in, who knows what’s next. I’d better watch my back. She’s definitely the smartest person in any room of this house!

Hats off to ‘Thoughts of Dog’

Book cover of Thoughts of Dog shows simply drawn yellow dog with stuffed elephant

Thoughts of Dog is more than a book or a calendar. It’s a peek into the mind of a loving, sweet, sometimes silly golden retriever and their human. The dog, who is nameless, has a constant companion named Sebastian (Sebastian is a stuffed elephant). Dog also has a human of course.

That human is named Matt Nelson.

And they are simply brilliant.

Nelson & dog capture the human-dog relationship perfectly. They’re poignant, laugh-out-loud funny and sardonic in turns. Always spot-on.

Nelson got started sharing his uncanny dog wisdom a couple of years ago (don’t know HOW I missed it …) with “We Rate Dogs.” You can see some examples on this blog post: 50 Times People Asked To Rate Their Dogs, And Got Hilarious Results.

Calendar page showing dog saying "Today I waited patiently while the human checked little boxes to try to change the world"I first heard of Thoughts of Dog when a friend shared a page from last year’s calendar. I immediately ordered the 2021 calendar.

Highly recommended whenever you need a lift or a laugh.

How do you choose the “right” trainer?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Even very young puppies love to learn

So, you’ve got a new puppy, or a newly adopted dog — or you just want to work on some behavior or other things with your dog. How do you find the “right” or “best” trainer?

Get recommendations … but use caution. Ask a lot of questions. Ask both the person recommending the trainer and the trainer:

What approach does the trainer use?

Is it a clicker trainer, a mostly dog sports or competition oriented trainer, an obedience trainer, a trainer who works with all kinds of dog/human teams from pets to service dogs to dog sports nuts?

Trainers who use mostly or entirely positive methods are the best choice for most dogs — certainly for puppies — and for most people. A trainer who is expert in a specific type of training is a good choice for advanced training.

When you are just getting to know your dog, the focus should be on building a connection and communicating. A positive trainer will help you develop skills in communicating to the dog what you want her to do and also in understanding your dog’s communication with you. That is the best foundation for your relationship.

A more “traditional” or obedience focused trainer might introduce punishments for “bad” behavior — things the dog does that you don’t like. At any point in your relationship, but especially at the beginning, this has the effect of cutting off communication with the dog. The dog begins to worry about what might trigger the next punishment. Often, you’ve given the dog little or no (or very unclear) information about what you do want her to do. On the other hand, when she does perfectly normal doggy things, like having accidents, if she’s a young puppy, or eating some interesting smelling thing, unpleasant and scary things happen. This does not build trust.

Red flags to look out for: Trainers who advocate using harsh tools, like prong collars, on puppies or very early in training; trainers who routinely use shock collars or who expect you to use them for an extended period of time (more than 1-2 uses); trainers who emphasize the need to “be the alpha.”

Does the person do classes, private training, or board-and-train? A combination?

You may have preferences for a class vs. private; board-and-train might sound tempting. Think through the options.

For a puppy, a great combination is a puppy play with short training classes. The opportunity to play with other puppies in a supervised, appropriate (size, age, play style) group is essential to developing good doggy social skills.

If you have an older dog, classes and private training are good options. Private training is ideal for focused work on a specific problem. Classes that focus on reactive dogs or trick training or scent training or some other fun or serious topic can also be helpful. It’s good to see how other dogs and their humans do things, it’s fun to meet the other people and make connections. General manners or basic obedience classes, Canine Good Citizen training, or classes geared toward teaching manners for dogs who are out and about with their humans are all fun and helpful. They tend to focus on things that every dog needs to learn: walking nicely on leash, staying calm around other dogs and people, not jumping, settling quietly. Your options may be limited, depending on where you live, but I hope you can find something that works.

Board-and-train might be a good choice for some adult dogs for some types of training. I do not recommend it with puppies because the puppy should be forming her primary bond with you / your family — not with a trainer. Obviously it can work; many service and guide dogs spend their puppyhoods with families and then transfer their bond to their new partner. But given the choice, I think your new puppy belongs with you.

Choosing board-and-train to work on a specific problem or if you need to leave your dog for a time period anyhow (maybe during a 2-week no-dog vacation) could work out well — if you are realistic in your expectations.

The trainer, likely an experienced professional (choose carefully), will probably make a lot of progress with the dog during the training weeks. But when you get back, you and the dog have made no progress at all. That is, the dog has no reason to behave any differently with you in your home environment than she did before you left.

Many dog owners mistakenly assume that the trainer imparts knowledge to the dog and the dog then knows exactly what to do in similar situations from that time forward.

For example, your dog goes nuts when she sees another dog, a squirrel, or a cat when you’re out for walks. The trainer spends 2 weeks working on this, and is able to walk the dog calmly through a park filled with squirrels, cats, and other dogs out for walks or even playing off leash. So you’ll have no more problems, right?


Your dog is going to go just as nuts with you as she did before the training, unless and until you work with her to change that.

The trainer has taught your dog an alternative behavior, but the dog still needs to learn that she has to use that behavior with  you. That requires undoing an established pattern (the dog going nuts, you freaking out …) and learning a new one. This will be much easier since the dog has already learned the new pattern, but…

Board and train is not a replacement for work, lots of hard work, with your dog.

I’ll cover more trainer-selection criteria in another post.


Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.


Thinking Dogs

A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
Do dogs think?

Many of you are thinking, Of course they do!

So, why am I even asking that question?

I recently taught a class on dog intelligence where we tried to decide what and how dogs think and how to define dog intelligence. I had just seen the movie The Imitation Game, and I mentioned the scene where the police investigator asks Alan Turing whether machines think. Turing’s response (paraphrased considerably) is that, if someone we know has different taste than we do — likes a book we hated or loves a food we don’t care for — we wouldn’t say that the person is not thinking, but that his or her thinking is different from ours. In the same vein, machines do not think as humans do, but they can follow a process that approximates human thinking, according to Turing.

Human thinking is conscious and active — that is, we are aware that we are doing it and do it intentionally. It is an attempt to understand something, solve a problem, answer a question, create connections or meaning. Human thinking is mostly done in words, though, as Temple Grandin points out in many of her books, people with autism do not always think in words but often in pictures or even video.

Dogs don’t necessarily think in the same ways as humans — or agree on everything or reach the same conclusions — but I would argue that dogs’ thinking is more similar to humans’ thinking than a computer’s is, if only because dogs are conscious and machines are not.

So, the simple answer is: Dogs do think, but they do it differently from the way humans think. They probably do not spend a lot of time planning for retirement or worrying about the bills or speculating about which stocks to invest in, for example. They do not appear to worry about things that they cannot control (unless it seems that dinner might be late …). They might think about their next meal or the dog beach or the cute shepherd down the block — not so different from some of what people think about.

All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys ...
All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys …
But even where their thoughts might meander to some of the same topics we’d think about, I bet that dogs do it very differently. While dogs are often taught to understand many, many words, I doubt that dogs actually think in words. Alexandra Horowitz, in Inside of a Dog, suggests that dogs think in smells and maybe in pictures. That makes sense when you consider how powerful their experience of scent is.

Another wonderful dog book, How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns opens the door a little bit toward understanding how thinking in smells might work. Berns trained his own dog, and then several other dogs, to lie still in an MRI so that he could get images of their brains — while they were awake. He did several experiments, including one where he mapped dogs’ reactions to the scent of a human from their own family and the scent of a different person. He also mapped their responses to a familiar and an unfamiliar dog. These tests, and others that measured response to cues indicating a desirable reward (bits of hot dog, I think) and cues indicating no reward, showed that dogs brains look very much like human brains. Dogs scenting their own humans showed similar responses to humans viewing photos of their loved ones, for example.

Regardless of how they do it, evidence that dogs think is all around us. When they bring a toy and ask us to play, beg for a bite of our sandwich, or stand by the door asking to go out, they are thinking and planning. The dog who creates a diversion so he can steal a coveted bone from his sibling dog is thinking and planning. The ability to anticipate where the Frisbee will come down and then to jump in a graceful arc to meet it reflects thinking (and a far better grasp of physics than I ever had). Service dogs show their thinking skills constantly in their ability to intuit what their partners need and offer it. The examples are endless; share yours in the comments!