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.

Take It Downstairs!

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When they get amped up playing inside — in the living room or dining room, to be specific — we tell them to “take it downstairs.” And they DO.

Downstairs is a mostly finished basement with a large room we inaccurately call the TV room. Sure, there’s a TV there, and a sofa. There’s also an open space and an overflowing toy box. And usually a half-dozen toys scattered around the floor. And, of course, a large dog bed. So it’s really the dog playroom, where we are sometimes allowed to watch TV. While cuddling one or more dogs on the sofa.

They are allowed to tug and play growl and wrestle and roll around to their hearts’ delight — downstairs. Not upstairs, where small rooms house my nice(r) furniture, my books, breakables …

In the summer, I have been known to shoo them outdoors when they start playing, but, as Koala points out (hourly): It’s Montana out there.

What’s impressive about the girls’ “taking it downstairs” is that their most energetic play sessions seem to coincidentally coincide with our phone or zoom conversations. Even so, even though they know we are distracted, they’ll take their toys and head downstairs.

A few minutes later, panting, happy dogs will reappear and settle down on the living room rugs for a nap. A tired dog is a good dog, after all.

Shift Work

Both dogs are on duty to supervise meal prep

We’ve finally figured it out.

Cali and Koala have odd habits. For instance, one of them checks in with me if I fail to get up to minister to their needs by 6:30 am. That’s necessary because, although one or both dogs are usually curled up in their dog beds when I go to sleep, they’re not there when I wake. Or at least not both of them. Cali usually strolls in from the living room when my alarm goes off. Koala often makes it upstairs by the time I have let Cali outside.

Similar oddities occur when we are watching TV. Deni and I are on the sofa. Koala is often there as well, instructing us on where to massage her. Then, she’ll get off the sofa. And … moments later, Cali appears. She sometimes even allows us to cuddle her.

The other day, it finally dawned on me: They’re working shifts.

Someone is on duty at nearly all times to keep the needy humans occupied. Occasionally they both manage to creep off somewhere for a nap on a sofa. Either sofa will do, but they rarely share. Shift change can be subtle, but I figured it out when their timing was exact and, as Koala handed us off to Cali, they gave each other a little nod.

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell my it is time to stop working
Quitting time

Cali is generally responsible for getting me away from the computer as dinner time approaches (or is about to approach in the next hour or two). Koala is in charge of the morning walk.

Koala excels at keeping us to the schedule and ensuring that we don’t forget our daily chores — putting kibble in the balls for puppy lunch, setting up the snuffle mats, walks of course, and meal preparation. Both are at hand to supervise meal prep; it’s far too important a task to risk errors.

They seem to take turns at entertaining the humans, but Cali enjoys the task more and puts her whole heart into it. She especially enjoys running in circles while playing keep-away with her ball, just to see how long it takes to make the human dizzy. Koala, in contrast, is clearly just doing her job when she halfheartedly runs after a tennis ball, counting on the silly human becoming distracted well before Koala has to actually pick the thing up in her mouth and, ugh, return it to the human. Who is only going to throw it again anyhow. Why?

When Koala heads back to Florida in January, Cali will have to work overtime to keep me in line. As will Koala; I am sure that corralling Deni is more than a full-time job. I guess we need to be understanding when they steal an extra nap on the sofa now and again, while they still have the luxury of shift work.

 

Just Watching the World Go By

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the living room, peering out a large window

Dogs just want to watch the world go by. And interact with it sometimes. Some dog owners clearly understand that!

A brown dog peers through a rectangular hole in a wooden fence
Photos by Ken Gagne

My first encounter with the idea of “fence dogs” came while my friend Ken was spending a few weeks in Missoula this summer. The fence between his AirBnB and the neighboring yard featured an odd window. The purpose of this opening quickly became clear on his first morning there, when a fuzzy canine head appeared.

It turned out that there were three “fence dogs” who liked to visit, supervise the goings-on next door, get nose scratches, Golden retriever Cali looks at the two dogs peering through a fence windowand occasionally bring Ken a tennis ball to inspect.

On a visit to Ken, Cali “met” the fence dogs — and probably wondered why her fence does not have such nice windows.

Several weeks after he’d left Missoula, I was reminded of Ken and the fence dogs when I saw an article about a family’s creative approach to letting their dog watch the world go by.

Then, just last week, I saw an even funnier post. These dogs apparently spy primarily on their mom’s comings and goings, and they have to line up just right with their viewing portals.

Cali, and occasionally Koala, also enjoy watching the world. They use the large window in my living room that looks out on the driveway — and gives them a great view of the road. Cali grumbles at people walking past, escalating to irate vocalizations when a dog dares to walk on her sidewalk. She looks out sadly, staring me right in the face, whenever I back out of the driveway in a dogless car.

Golden retriever Cali peers out a large windowCali just loves watching what’s going on, and dog-height windows were an appealing feature when I first saw what became our home.

She adopted this space immediately. I briefly put a bench with several plants in “her” window, partially blocking the view, and she let me know that this was unacceptable. Very unhappy, she paced, tried to peer out, gave me dirty looks. I soon moved the bench.

I don’t like walking past yards where dogs fence fight or go ballistic, barking and lunging as I pass, especially if the fence is mostly open. But I think there is a balance. For dogs who can handle the stimulation (and who are supervised and brought indoors when they bark at neighbors), a fence window (or an actual window) is a great idea! Dogs are curious about their world and, for the most part, their lives are contained. Many dogs spend a lot of time at home with no access to see or even smell the outdoors. If we can offer them a way to watch the world, why not?

Puppy Potty Problems

Tiny Cali grew up to be a master people-trainer

A couple of people have asked me recently about issues housebreaking puppies.

Teaching puppies to potty outside is deceptively easy — and unbelievably challenging.

It’s easy because they want to be clean and have strong instincts to keep their home, especially their sleeping area, clean and because they develop associations and habits relatively quickly.

And challenging because it requires constant vigilance and consistent, immediate responses. We humans tend to be terrible at both of those things.

It’s easy …

Here’s the easy part. Figure out where you want your dog to “go” and think about a reasonable daily routine. Recognize that if you are dealing with a puppy, you will need to go out far more often than when you have a housebroken adult dog. Even adolescent puppies can hold on for more reasonable periods. But young puppies, up to 4 or 5 months, need to go often.

Puppies generally need the chance to pee when they wake up in the morning or after a nap, when they have been playing, and pretty soon after eating and drinking.

… And challenging

And here’s where we tend to mess up. Soon is immediate, especially for little puppies. When the puppy wakes up from deep sleep, soon = instantly. After a shorter nap or play session, you might have a couple of minutes. While we dink around getting our shoes and our jacket and hunting for the flashlight, we’re likely to find that we need to pivot to cleanup mode.

So tip #1: If you have a little puppy, get slip-on shoes and keep them with your flashlight, leash, jacket, whatever right by the door. When the puppy wakes or stops playing, grab her and run out.

The other way we mess up is thinking about the pup in too-human terms. When we wake up, for example, we need to go … but it’s not so immediate. So we don’t rush. Or we expect the dog to give some kind of very clear, obvious signal of her distress.

The puppy is probably trying very hard to communicate with you, but you’re missing it. It might be a particular look, or walking to the door (if you are very lucky!), or a tiny little whimper or whine. It can be very subtle. The problem is, if you miss it enough times, the dog might stop trying.

Tip #2: Pay very close attention to your puppy the first few days you are together and learn how she communicates with you. Respond immediately; by meeting her needs and learning to understand her, you will start building deep trust and understanding.

The other way we think as humans and not as dogs is, when we take our pups out, we launch straight into fun. We play with them or head out on a walk filled with amazing smells. The pup might pee before or during or might not. She might get distracted by the fun. Chances are, though, she’ll need to go again after. By which time we’ve come inside, removed our shoes and jacket … only to turn around and find that we now need to clean the floor.

Tip #3: Commence playing only after the pup has peed. Then play your hearts out. Then give the pup a few minutes to pee again before going in. I don’t know where they store it, but puppies never seem to truly empty the tank.

Tip #4: A great idea is coming up with a verbal cue — time to go, or get busy, or go potty. It doesn’t matter what cue you use, as long as you use the same one all the time. Say those words as soon as you go outside, and then wait. Don’t interact with the puppy at all. If you need, to, say the cue again.

When the pup goes, throw a party — praise, maybe a treat, whatever. Mark the occasion. Then play or walk (another reward). Use the cue again before going in.

In time (surprisingly little time, actually), the dog will associate the cue with doing her business and might often actually just go when you ask her to. How cool is that?

A warning

So, if I’m so smart about all of this pee business, how did Cali train me to play ball with her before she goes?

Good question. I blame long, gorgeous Montana summer evenings. We’d go for the last walk in the evening and, I think to delay going in, she’d take forever to pee. And I never caught on, since I was also enjoying being outside. Once she got her very own yard, she would suggest ball games to delay having to go in. And again, I never caught on. She’s a very good people trainer. So a final tip: Pay attention to what your dog is doing and don’t get sucked into the same trap!

Dogs & Consent

All in?

Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)

Did you ask for their consent first?

The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.

But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?

It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.

As dog-respecting humans, we should:

  • Not pet dogs we don’t know
  • Never pick up dogs we don’t know
  • “Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
  • Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
  • Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
  • Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
  • Not allow others to pick up our dogs
  • “Ask” our dogs before picking them up

We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.

Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.

Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.

Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!

Good News for Rare Dog Breed

The New Guinea singing dog, also called a highland wild dog, was long thought to be extinct in its natural habitat. But a few years ago, some wild dogs were seen, then captured briefly so that DNA samples could be taken. The wild dogs turned out to be from the rare and ancient highland wild dog breed.

The dogs figure into some theories on dog domestication, as the dogs are closely related to both Australian dingoes and early domestic dogs from Asia. They could be an early ancestor of Japanese breeds like the Shiba Inu and the Akita, according to the New York Times. They share much common genetic heritage with the small captive populations of singing dogs, but those dogs are badly inbred and lack the genetic variation of the wild dogs.

No wild singing dogs had been seen in decades, and researchers feared that they had inbred with village dogs, leading the wild dog into extinction. But in 2012, an ecotourism guide snapped photos of a wild dog that led to research expeditions in 2016 and 2018. A total of 15 different dogs were observed, and DNA samples were collected from two living and one deceased dog. The analysis showed an overlap of about 72% of their genes with captive singing dogs descended from eight wild dogs captured in the 1970s, a CNN story reported.

With Patience, Persistence, and Perception, Dogs Have the Upper Paw

Some day, my berries will be ready …

By Deni Elliott and Pam Hogle

Regardless of how many years they have lived with dogs, almost all dog-owned humans wish that the dogs were better behaved. Some dogs continue to bark, despite repeated human attempts to stop the noise. Some dig or raid the garden or sleep on the sofa —despite physical barriers and human reprimands. Others act out when their people are most hoping that they won’t. The sad truth is that the problem is less about human incompetence than it is an indication of canine superiority. Dogs consistently outperform their human companions in three vital areas: Patience. Persistence. Perception.

Patience is the ability to wait for you want and hold on to a goal despite distraction. How many people would have the patience to wait at home for hours while their companions went off to work or play? Or even have the patience to wait for minutes outside of a store, tied to a pole, with no phone to keep them amused? Dogs, who love dependable routines, wait and wait and wait for their people to remember that it is time to play, to walk, or even to feed them dinner close to the usual hour.

Persistence is the ability to continue working toward a goal despite difficulty or opposition. Some dogs bark persistently. Some continually nudge their person’s hand to get petted. Persistently. And others beg at the dining table. Persistently. There is a reason that the term for working tenaciously is “dogged.” People give up and give in long before dogs will. People also reward the dog’s persistence, “just this once,” — maybe to stop the dog’s annoying behavior. At that point, the dog has succeeded at creating the desired human behavior. In most families, the dog will soon have the people well-trained in responding to canine direction.

Perception is the ability to use one’s sensory abilities to take in information in and make it meaningful. Dogs read people — our vocal tone and pitch in addition to our words; our facial expressions and body language. In comparison, most people can barely tell the difference between a dog barking in joy and one barking in warning or in anger. Dogs learn how they should react and what they can get away with by reading their people. Much dog anxiety can be attributed to what the dog reads from their primary person. “If my person is sending signals that he is nervous,” the dog reasons, “I guess I better be worried too.”

Patience, persistence, and perception come together in a trifecta of  superior intelligence that sometimes overwhelms the most dog-savvy of humans. In last week’s Thinking Dog Blog, Pam wrote about Cali eating tomatoes from the garden just before Pam would have picked the tomato for human consumption.

The sequence of events illustrates how these concepts come together in dognition: Cali waited patiently for weeks while the lettuce, raspberries, and tomatoes each reached what she considered their peak readiness. When faced with an obstacle, she was persistent enough to figure out new ways to reach the garden treats, getting around the bird netting that Pam had wrapped around the plants. When Cali decided that it was time to eat the tomato she had been eyeing, she reached through the netting to pluck the tomato and let it fall beneath the plant. Then Cali could reach the tomato by burrowing under the netting. Which she did. There she lay, chomping her freshly harvested tomato, while Pam mowed the grass just a few feet away. Cali perceived that Pam was focused on the lawn and not on the dog.

Dogs consistently outperform humans because their PQ (Patience, persistence, perception) is off the scale compared to their human companions. That seems to be a fair trade-off for people getting opposable thumbs to use in our far more primitive way of manipulating the environment we share.

Stop, Thief!

Golden retriever Cali eyes the tomato plants

So we all know how much Cali loves raspberries. She was lucky this summer; we had a lot of raspberries. But, all good things come to an end — including raspberry season.

With that in mind, Cali has decided to broaden her diet. She grew tired of waiting for our very small first crop of blackberries to ripen, so she ventured farther afield. Or agarden.

Right over to the tomato plants.

Our tomatoes got off to a very slow start. The first plants perished in a late frost. The next group shivered through a chilly June before starting to grow and blossom. By late July, several medium-sized and small tomatoes were starting to ripen. One, in particular, looked almost ready.

Then, suddenly, it was gone!

Deni asked if I had picked it. I said I thought she had. Hmmmm…

Suspicion landed on Koala, who had been spotted pilfering strawberries. She denied any knowledge of tomatoes or their disappearance. Besides, as she reasonably pointed out, Cali spent by far the most time in the yard, often alone.

Cali feigned innocence.

Nevertheless, I got out some bird netting, which also promised protection from hungry animals other than birds. I wrapped the tomato patch, clipping the netting to the tomato supports with clothespins. We scored a few ripe tomatoes, which were delicious.

Just yesterday, I had my eye on one that was ripening nicely. I decided to give it another day, and wandered off to mow the lawn. A few minutes later, as I was carefully pushing my mower up and down, a few yards from the tomato bed, Deni came outside and asked, “What’s Cali eating?”

The crafty thief had poked her nose under the netting and stolen the tomato! Right under my not-so-watchful eyes!

Severe consequences were in order.

Deni had it covered. First she offered Koala a few bites of the ravaged tomato. Then she gave the rest of the tomato to Cali. And then she took both girls inside and gave them their special Friday dinner, which includes sardines.

I am confident that the lesson got through loud and clear. If Cali steals another tomato, she understands the dire consequences: Getting to eat the tomato, with sardines for dessert.

Take that, you little thief!

P.S.: Cali has also managed to pilfer a few blackberries, but boy, are they sour!

A Nose for … Ferrets?

Deni stands with golden retriever Cali and Guiding Eyes Koala in the woods
A gorgeous day for a hike in Montana!

I’ve written about Working Dogs for Conservation before, but I thought it was time for an update. They’re on my mind because we spent a recent Sunday hiking around a beautiful Montana property as part of a fundraiser for them. Tough work, I know, but Cali and Koala decided that we were up for it, so off we went.

Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs to search for all kinds of rare and endangered wildlife and plants. They’re based here in Missoula, and they do a variety of interesting projects here and around the world.

Working Dogs for Conservation logo features a dog standing in the grassLocally, besides the hike / run fundraiser, they also partner with REI to clean up popular dog-walking and hiking areas.

But their real work is in conservation, obviously. A new project in Arizona uses telemetry — remote data collection and transmission — and radio-collared ferrets to hone their dogs’ ferret-tracking skills. They use the telemetry equipment to locate ferrets. The handler doesn’t know the exact location of the ferret, only the general area. The dogs signal a find by lying down next to a burrow that has a ferret inside. The handler can then check the data report to verify the dog’s find. The dog’s reward is a ball game. (Cali would love this job!)

The dogs in training are good at this. They successfully identify burrows where a ferret is or has recently been 97% of the time. I don’t know about you, but I probably make a lot more errors than that in my work …

Their dogs also identify watercraft infected with invasive mussels in Montana, detect invasive insects and weeds, combat poaching and trafficking in endangered wildlife … and more.

There’s a lot to like about Working Dogs for Conservation. They train rescued shelter dogs, for one. They’ve started a program called Rescues 2the Rescue that networks with shelters all over the US to identify high-energy, intense dogs. These dogs are hard to place in family homes, but are often ideal candidates for search, detection, law enforcement, or other skilled work that requires a high drive. Rescues 2the Rescue matches up the candidate dogs with trainers and organizations who can employ them.

They also really “get” dogs and respect dogs’ abilities. “Their extraordinary abilities help us collect more and better data in the field, and their potential to find conservation targets is seemingly endless,” the website says.

Check out this organization. Better yet, if you’re in a position to donate or volunteer, consider helping them out.