Hands Off My Ball …

Golden retriever Cali holds on to her tennis ball

Cali is a hoarder.

I’m lucky, though; the only thing she hoards is her tennis ball. She adopts a ball each morning — the one I throw for her the first time we play ball. Then, that is the only ball she will play with for the rest of the day. I can toss three balls (or 30), and she’ll sniff each one, but she’ll pick up only her ball.

The game starts like a normal dog-and-human ball game. I throw. She runs, catches or picks up the ball … then things fall apart. Ignoring the “retriever” part of her heritage, instead of bringing the ball to me, she runs off. She’ll choose a corner of the yard, usually in the shade, and lie there, holding her ball. All day if I let her.

If I want to continue the game, I have to chase her. She plays keep-away. Sometimes, this is what she wants. She’s clearly enjoying running, faking me out, being chased, and “letting me win” after we play a brief tug game with the ball. I then throw the ball — which she loves (in fact, she seems to have written a comic about it!) — and the whole thing starts over.

Or doesn’t.

When she’s had enough, she retreats to her corner and gets up and moves away if I approach her. Hoarding.

When we’re near water, there’s a different pattern — she’ll swim after the ball, bring it onto the bank, drop it, shake as much water onto me as she can, and eagerly wait for me to throw it again. She’ll do this over and over again, far longer than she pretends to play fetch on land. When we’re done, though, she wants to carry the ball as we continue our walk to head back to the car. I am clearly not to be trusted with it.

She’s right. Sometimes, when a ball is really dirty and slimy, just the way Cali likes it, I have been known to make it disappear.

Cali’s New Love

Golden retriever Cali gazes lovingly at Ken, our digital nomad friendCali is in love. When the object of her affection is heading our way, she knows, instinctively. She gets increasingly excited until he walks in the door.

Then she dances and squeals with joy. And grabs a toy to run around with because that’s just her thing.

Ken is a digital nomad, and he’s spent the past few months in Montana. We were lucky enough to have him in Missoula for 4 weeks!

For Cali, it was love at first sight. They played in the back yard together. They picked raspberries. They played ball. We all went on several hikes. Cali even got to have a sleepover at Ken’s house! And, through it all, Cali spent plenty of time gazing adoringly at Ken.

Sadly, the nomad is moving on. To Arizona, of all places! Where he will foster a dog from Best Friends, just over the state line in Utah. (I’m not telling Cali that part; she’d be crushed.)

Poor Cali. I wonder if she’s the type to heal her broken heart with ice cream

 

I’m NOT a Pez Dispenser

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips
Hoping for a treat

I like to reward Cali and Koala when they are especially helpful or face down a challenge. For example, Cali gets a cookie for bringing in the paper in the morning; Koala gets one for picking up the breakfast dishes. On our walks, we pass several yards with loud, aggressive dogs. If our girls walk by without reacting or pulling on the leash, they get a cookie.

But they don’t get free cookies just for being cute.

Koala especially seems to think she should. If she knows I have treats in my pocket — or have had treats in a pocket at some point in the past, oh, lifetime or so, she knows it. And wants one.

She sits in front of me an fixes those big, dark eyes on me. She does her mind meld. Sometimes she badly miscalculates and she whines. Or she nudges my pocket. Over and over. Harder and harder. The whining and repeated nudging are met with a very sharp rebuke.

Cali is more subtle. She’ll sidle up next to me as I am working and verrryyyy gently, almost imperceptibly, touch me. Sometimes I am not even sure I really felt it. Then I look down and see a hopeful face.

Argh!

Those big brown eyes are hard to resist. But that nudging and begging. No! I am not a Pez dispenser or a gumball machine. You cannot just push a magic button on my leg and get a treat!

Cali and Koala get plenty of earned rewards. They also eat very well, between their top-quality regular meals, their puppy lunch and snuffle breaks, and their nighttime snack of kefir and a cookie. I don’t know where they got the idea that they can also have snacks on demand but … it’s not going to happen.

 

Congratulations, Ryan!

Yellow Lab Ryan and bBlack lab Koala relax in a play tunnel
Ryan, left, and Koala, caught up on guide school news during Ryan’s visit to Florida in late February.

Our friend Ryan finally got to retire.

Ryan, a yellow Labrador, is — or was — a guide dog. He was all set to retire in March. He had his retirement planned and new toys lined up. He thoroughly enjoyed his last work trip, a visit to friends in Florida, and he looked forward to hanging up his harness.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Ryan wasn’t the only essential canine worker who had to do overtime due to the pandemic. Hundreds, maybe thousands more, had the opposite problem: Their start dates for their new jobs were delayed indefinitely.

But things are slowly starting to reopen, and Ryan was finally able to retire in early June. He even got to help train his successor. Since Ryan’s human wasn’t able to attend training camp in New York, the new dog and a human trainer came to Ryan’s house. The human trainer showed the new guy the ropes in the mornings, while in the afternoons, Ryan let the youngster know how things were going to work around the house.

Finally, just in time for summer, Ryan is retired. He’s looking forward to some well-earned rest and relaxation.

The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.

I was wrong.

Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.

Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.

But I digress.

Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.

Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.

Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.

Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.

Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.

Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)

When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.

Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…

Dogs to the rescue!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad

I have a confession to make: The real brainpower behind the Thinking Dog blog comes from Koala. She’s shown, above, reviewing drafts of blog posts on her iPad.

She wanted to be sure that no one missed the important news that her distant cousins are going to save humans from themselves by fixing this whole coronavirus mess.

Eight Labradors are learning to use their super power to fight the COVID-109 pandemic: Their noses.

The University of Pennsylvania has a working dog research center dedicated to figuring out innovative ways to partner with dogs. Their latest project is coronavirus-sniffing dogs.

Dogs have already demonstrated their ability to sniff out viruses, which apparently have unique odors — either from the virus itself or from the body’s response — that dogs can detect before an infected person is symptomatic. Dogs are ideally suited for this job. Their detection ability is better by far than available detection equipment, and they can easily travel and work anywhere that humans gather.

Coronavirus-detection dogs could be more accurate than taking people’s temperatures. Their potential to sniff out contagious people who have no idea they are infected could make it safer for people to travel and resume other activities. A similar project in the UK aims to deploy these canine superheroes to airports to screen passengers.

Airports offer so many opportunities for working dogs — I wonder how the vegetable-sniffing dogs, the explosive-sniffing dogs, and the virus-sniffing dogs will all get along. Koala would like to point out that all of these hard-working airport employees deserve potty parity. She’s appalled at the conditions of the airport restrooms she’s expected to use while working and traveling and believes that the dogs who actually work at the airport deserve far better!

Dog Park Kerfuffle

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.
Cali at Jacob’s Island, a Missoula dog park

Are dog parks wonderful places to let your city dog off leash to safely run and play or are they the potential source of serious problems and likely places to pick up infections, get hurt, or worse?

Yes to both.

It’s been a couple of years since I last wrote about dog parks on The Thinking Dog, and an online exchange about dog parks, brought to my attention by a friend, got me thinking about the topic.

First this New York Times piece came out: The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually. Not much ambiguity there. It’s pretty clear where this writer stands.

A response was quickly forthcoming from Marc Bekoff, a person I have studied with and admire greatly: Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park.

The NYT piece raises valid concerns, including the risk of disease or injury. I know dogs who’ve been seriously injured by dog-aggressive dogs at dog parks, and a local dog park was recently closed for a week or so for disinfecting after some dogs picked up an infection there.

The author also talks about the idea that dog parks are for “dog socialization” and explains that that’s not where or how to socialize your puppy. True, and also obvious.

Finally, she delves into the issue of dogs who find dog parks stressful or otherwise unpleasant. She closes with this: “There is no shame in not surrendering your dog to what has become the quintessential urban dog experience: running with dozens of strangers in a small, smelly pen as people stand by, looking at their phones or gossiping,” and encourages owners to spend quality time with their dogs instead.

I have been at urban dog parks that are indeed small, smelly pens where the humans ignore the dogs.

But that is not typical of my dog park experience. And I would never go into a park like that with my dog!

Bekoff effectively addresses the sweeping generalizations in the NYT piece while stating what should be obvious: All dog parks are different.

Many are large, open, wonderful spaces, maybe with woods or walking paths.

Dog park culture varies greatly too. In many, there are regular gatherings of people and dogs who are friends. Many dog park people are conscientious dog owners who are actually paying attention to their dogs. Some even play with their dogs! You can and should spend “quality time” with your dog at the dog park!

Many dog parks have quieter times when dogs like Cali, who wants to play with her tennis ball undisturbed by other dogs, can run and roll in the grass and be free. Now that Cali has her own back yard, she doesn’t need the dog park as much … but when we lived in apartments, she really needed the off-leash time and the exercise.

Not all dogs want to play with other dogs, and not all dog parks are wonderful. But they’re certainly not all bad, either. Wherever you stand on dog parks, and whether or not your local options are appealing to you and to your dog, my bottom line is that over-generalizing doesn’t make sense.

You and your dog need to figure out what works for both of you. If you’re lucky enough to have enjoyable dog parks nearby, go ahead — enjoy some outdoor, off-leash quality time with your dog at the dog park!

 

 

 

What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

Vet Visits, Training and More — Fear Free

Fear Free logo with silhouette of a dog, a cat, and an outstreched hand reads "taking the pet out of petrified"

While going to the vet may never become your dog’s favorite thing to do once you’ve enticed her into the car, it doesn’t have to be scary. Dog training should always be fun. And there are even things pet owners can do at home to reduce fear and anxiety in their pets.

The Fear Free Pets initiative, founded by veterinarian Marty Becker, is a few years old and gaining a lot of followers.

Fear-based anxiety can lead to fear-based acting out, including aggression. A recent Whole Dog Journal article details the effects of chronic stress on pets and their families. It also lists signs of stress or anxiety that people might not recognize, including drooling or foamy mouth, as well as more familiar signs, like trembling or hiding.

The Fear Free movement offers certification for veterinarians and clinics, dog trainers, and groomers, with a dog-walker certification in the works. The goal is to teach pet professionals to use handling techniques and equipment that are gentle, to reduce the use of restraint and force. The certification programs teach pet professionals to recognize stress and how to acclimate pets to scary procedures, whether getting a shot or having their nails trimmed.

At the vet clinic, some fear-free protocols might include moving the pet and her person into an exam room immediately, rather than having them wait in a waiting area, with other stressed-out animals.

The website notes that many shelters, vet clinics, and pet professionals practice force-free and anxiety-reduction techniques without pursuing certification. It’s certainly worth asking about when shopping for a vet, a groomer, or a positive trainer.

The initiative is a fantastic extension of positive, no-force training approaches into every area of dogs’ and other pets’ lives.

The Fear Free Pets website offers resources for pet owners, including COVID-19-related information and resources. While professionals pay for the courses and certification, pet-owner resources are available for free. There’s also a search function to help pet owners find fear-free professionals nearby (Cali’s vet, whom she adores, is one of a half-dozen Missoula-area vets who are certified).

Obsessively neat?

Koala, a black Lab, considers playing with one of everal toys
So many toys; so hard to choose

It’s always interesting to teach a dog a new skill and see where she takes it.

When I taught Jana that she could make choices, she started weighing in on where she wanted to go on walks. She’d put on the brakes, hard, if I tried to head in the “wrong” direction, for example.

Koala has built on many of her skills, adding new dimensions. She’s great at finding shortcuts to places that she and Deni walk to frequently. She quickly learns regular routes. Those skills come into play when they travel: She can find their hotel room after being in it once. She also uses her search skills — and her excellent nose — to find a trash can anywhere she happens to need one.

She learned to put away her toys some time ago. Cali has learned this as well. They both know to bring a toy and drop it into the toy basket. Usually, this is a mercenary exchange, with treats demanded after each successful toy drop as well as a final, larger paycheck at the end. It also requires considerable encouragement and cheerleading.

And Koala routinely gets her treat ball when it’s time for puppy lunch. When she’s emptied it, and when Deni asks her to, she brings it to Deni to put away.

Recently, though, Koala did something unexpected. She selected a toy, chewed it for a moment, decided that she wanted a different one — and put the first one away before choosing another. She did this twice before settling in with her third choice, an antler, to chew.

Has she become obsessively neat? Has she finally figured out that if she leaves her bones scattered on the floor, people trip over them (and if so, does she care)? Or is she worried about being unemployed while she’s in Montana, since Cali has a lock on the best two local jobs?

As I look at a living room scattered with Cali’s toys, I wonder whether there’s enough work to support two dogs in the toy-cleanup business.