Over the Top

Jana, a white golden retriever, smile happily as she shows off the sand coating her entire body.
Jana was happiest at the beach, covered in as much sand as she could rub into her fur.

Two people sent me this article for the July 4 New York Times on the absurd lengths that people go to to “pamper” their pets. I am skeptical that it is truly pampering for many (most?) pets. It’s really what the human owners think of as pampering or as necessary; I do not think that the pets themselves would choose … OK, where do I start:

Neuticals? Too easy. These fake manly bits exist exclusively for the humans who cannot get past the horror of neutering … a human. Dogs don’t care. In fact, dogs who suffer miserably when forced to live in a human world following human rules are generally far less frustrated, less anxious, and possibly less aggressive post-alteration. Many more of them actually get to remain in their comfy homes, too.

Gender non-conforming pets? Since the reasons given for what is termed “gender reassignment surgery” in pets sound plausibly medically justified, I am not too upset about the examples given. But the discussion of gender-(non)conformity and pets is … absurd. The ideas of gender come from the humans. The dogs go about their doggy lives peeing in whatever position  works best for them and don’t give each other any grief about how (or where) they do it. We could learn from them. And, yes, they mount one another, even if they are female. It’s not all about sex; sometimes it’s about status or control. It’s a very doggy thing to do, even if it is rude.

The idiotic haircuts and styling are a step too far. Even dogs who enjoy going to the groomer — and most dogs don’t — don’t need all that fuss and oh-so-human bother. Let dogs be dogs.

Which brings us to the worst offense: Cosmetic surgery. I cannot believe there are vets who would do this, but I guess in any profession, there are some who are just in it for the money. “Popular procedures include tummy tucks, nose jobs and eyebrow and chin lifts,” according to the NYT article. Seriously? Isn’t there a veterinary code of ethics? In what universe is forcing unnecessary surgery on a sentient, sensitive, loving being who cannot (and would not) consent even close to ethical?

Again: Let dogs be dogs. Want to pamper your dog? Forget the spa and the glitter. Head for the dog beach or a nice creek. Spend a couple of hours walking in a forest, preferably where the dog can safely be off leash. Heck, stay home, toss a ball for a few hours (“Heaven …” Cali murmurs), and fire up the grill. Throw an extra burger or steak on for your best buddy. (“Is that even possible …?” Cali wonders. “Does it have to be a tofu hot dog?”). Wrap up with a long belly rub (for the dog) while you watch TV together (DOGTV is not necessary or even very interesting to many dogs) or sit outside and stargaze.

Dogs love to be pampered, sure. But their idea of pampering is not the same as ours. If the spa really wanted to appeal to the dogs, they’d replace the oatmeal soak and blueberry facial with a “rotten fish roll” — and I don’t mean bread. Or, they’d swap out the mud “mask” for a (post-shampoo) chance to wallow in a mud bath — then shake off in an all-white room provisioned with a freshly laundered white bedspread and pristine rug to roll on. That’s the ticket!


What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!


Why We Miss Our Dogs So Much …

Five dogs pose; all wear bandannas and Cali, in the center, sports a cowboy hat.
Montana posse: Hannah, Jana, Cali, Alberta, and Ziggy

A friend recently forwarded me this column about grieving the loss of a dog.

It’s so true that losing a dog can be harder than losing a human family member, as friends and relatives who’ve recently lost dogs (recently = in our lifetime) can confirm. I still miss my Jana, after a year and a half.

Why is this so hard to bear? As the column-writer notes, dogs are more intimately part of our lives than most of our human friends and even relatives. Other than a longtime spouse, your dog is probably the person (yes, dogs are persons …) who has spent the most time with you, seen you at your best and worst, and who knows you best. I’d argue that dogs know us better than any human can, since they can read so much more of our body language and, in most cases, read our minds!

They’re also great company. Sure, Cali sulks when I won’t share my dinner and huffs and stalks off when I pick up my phone. But she — and most dogs — offer largely uncritical companionship. They’re easy to be with, comforting when you’re having a hard time, and always up for some fun. They never, ever try to talk you out of a late-night ice cream binge, for example — or, to be fair, a long hike.

While non-pet people may never understand why the loss of a pet is so hard, pet people should know that there are many, many people who do understand. And who also know that even when, as many of us do, we get a new dog, we’ll never fill the hole left by the ones we’ve lost.

This column is dedicated to Hannah and Ziggy, my sister’s dogs (pictured with Cali, Jana, and Alberta) who passed away in February.

Too Young to Leave Mom

Tiny Cali immediately tried to take over big sister Jana’s bed

Last week, I fumed about puppy mill “rescue”; this week, I’ll take on  unethical breeders.

In the months I have been in Montana, I have been lucky enough to meet and play with many puppies. I’ve noticed a distressing pattern, though. Several of these puppies — all different breeds or mixes — were really tiny. Upon asking how old they were, I have heard, over and over, that the proud new owners got their puppies at six weeks of age. Six weeks!

That’s too young. Some states even have laws prohibiting the sale of puppies under a minimum age, usually seven or eight weeks. Not Montana, sadly.

Puppies are generally weaned by five or six weeks; their sharp little teeth are coming in, and Mom wants nothing to do with them. They’re also getting to be rambunctious; they move around well and their eyes and ears are fully open. Both the canine mom and the human family may be ready for the puppies to move on to their permanent homes. But that doesn’t mean that the puppies are ready to leave the litter.

Weeks six, seven, and eight are important weeks in their social development. They play and wrestle with their littermates. Those new, sharp teeth are tested out on siblings’ ears and limbs. Puppies learn that biting too hard elicits a sharp yelp and a temporary shunning. Puppies who persist in biting their siblings find themselves left out of puppy games.

Singleton puppies and those taken from their litters too soon do not learn these important lessons. They may never develop the appropriate interdog social skills that they need to be “easy” dogs — dogs who can go to parks and people’s houses and be walked without the humans having to fear encountering another dog.

Another consequence is that the puppies don’t learn bite inhibition from their siblings. Who is around for them to try out those new needle-like teeth on? The human family, of course. Many of these besotted new puppy owners sport dozens of scabs and scrapes on their arms and legs. Ouch. They’ll need to put a lot of painful effort into teaching the puppy not to mouth or nip.

If there’s an older dog in the home, that dog might be able to teach the pup some manners, but he’s not likely to be as effective as a whole litter of biting siblings. For one thing, the puppy won’t experience being bitten and gnawed on, as she would in her litter. For another, adult dogs tend to give young puppies a lot of license before disciplining them. The puppy could develop some bad habits before the older dog (or human) loses patience. The rough-and-tumble of a litter is the best place to get that initial bite inhibition training.

I know many people who will only get a dog from a breeder because they believe that all shelter dogs have “issues.” My response to them is that any dog can have issues, and that many breeders cause those issues, either through poor breeding or poor handling in the pups’ early life. Breeders who send home puppies at six weeks are at the top of that list.

A law shouldn’t be necessary to keep puppies with their mom until at least seven, but preferably eight to nine weeks of age. A responsible, caring, knowledgeable breeder would do that — would insist on it. Sure, there might be cases where a lone puppy or a few puppies wind up in a shelter; in those cases, taking them home might be better than leaving them in a crowded, noisy environment. But when you’re getting a puppy from a breeder or family? Steer clear of the person who presses you to pick up your puppy too early. There are likely other ways in which that person is not acting in the puppies’ best interests.

In case you are wondering, Cali came home at eight and a half weeks. My friends and I picked her up, along with her sister Dora, and flew home with them. Our biggest worry leading up to that date was whether our pudgy little furballs would still fit into their travel kennels when we got to the home of their wonderful, wonderful breeders.




Photo by David Trawin via Flickr

A recent article in the Washington Post described the hurdles that would-be dog adopters often face when trying to offer good homes to dogs who need them.

I’m ambivalent about this. I think that rescue groups and shelters should ask that potential adopters show that they recognize the needs of a dog and that they are prepared and able to meet those needs. And they should have procedures in place to weed out people who have a history of neglecting or abusing animals. But from stories I have heard and read, many groups may be going too far.

For example, some organizations routinely turn down applicants who do not have a fenced yard. While having a fenced yard is certainly ideal, millions of dog owners (including me, at the moment) live in apartments. We walk our dogs. The dogs are fine. Besides, putting a dog out, alone, in a fenced yard and assuming that that equals meeting the dog’s needs is absurd. Dogs don’t exercise themselves! And they need social interaction — with their people, and maybe with other dogs.

Another criterion that, while ideal, is unrealistic as a requirement is that the owner should work at home. I work at home, but that doesn’t mean I play with my dog all day! And when I’ve worked in offices, I have had a variety of arrangements from dog walkers to friends who provided play dates to going home at lunch to walk the dog.

If an adopter has a multi-person household and/or shows awareness of and a plan for meeting the dog’s needs, that is preferable to leaving the dog languishing in a shelter. And, some of the same organizations who turn down working adults also reject seniors as too old. So … working age is out and old is out. That leaves …? College students? Un- or under-employed people who cannot afford a dog? Busy stay-at-home parents who may already be over-extended? Even if all of those people adopted dogs, there’d be hundreds of thousands more dogs needing homes — and those situations aren’t ideal for all dogs either!

An even bigger problem is that adopters who don’t meet the lofty ideals of a rescue might end up buying a dog from an unscrupulous breeder or front for a puppy mill, since those folks do not ask any questions. So, rather than aiding the dogs who’ve already become victims of a system of unethical breeders, pet stores, and unprepared owners that channels millions of dogs into the rescues each year,  the rescues are actually fueling that economy and, yup, helping to pump more dogs into the rescue and shelter system.

A better approach would be to look at the individual needs of each dog and match them with the needs and lifestyle of the adopters. For the apartment-dwellers who work full-time, maybe the 9-month-old Lab isn’t the best choice, but a smaller, less-active, or older dog might be very happy with two walks a day and a comfy sofa. Sure, shelters are full of young, active dogs. They’re also full of senior dogs, dogs with medical issues, and dogs who are really just fuzzy couch potatoes or lap warmers. Not all dogs have the same needs.

I don’t know what the best answer is, but there has to be a way to place more of the countless dogs and cats who need homes than ruling out good people because of overly idealistic criteria.

Travel Nightmares

United Airlines is, once again, drowning in terrible publicity. This time, it’s about major screw-ups with canine passengers. I’ll put the news-averse among you out of your misery: In two of the three incidents, the dogs survived.

I’ll start with those. One dog, who was supposed to go to Akron, wound up on a flight to St. Louis; earlier in the week, a German en route to Kansas traded places with a Great Dane bound for Japan. Traveling with a dog checked in as cargo is nerve-racking enough without having to worry about whether the dog is headed to the same destination you are. But there really has to be a better way to arrange pet travel.

Which forces the conversation to the third incident on United: The puppy who suffocated. I don’t know who to be more angry with: The flight attendant who ordered a frazzled mom to put her puppy into the overhead bin — which is against policy, not to mention common sense; the mom who did it; or the other passengers who watched, heard the puppy crying … and did nothing.

Here’s my rant: You are your dog’s only advocate and voice. If someone tells you to do something that would harm your dog, there’s a simple response: Refuse. Don’t do it. I wasn’t there, and it sounds like the mom had more than she could handle. But that doesn’t let her off the hook. I’m sure that being a flight attendant is extremely stressful. That doesn’t let the flight attendant off the hook. And the other passengers? I don’t even know what to say.

Everyone let that puppy down, but the primary responsibility is with the owner. If you have a dog, you have accepted the enormous responsibility of being that dog’s advocate and protector.

United has the most incidents resulting in pet loss, injury, and, especially death. The airline has a terrible record. But the numbers (which anyone can look up here, on the FAA’s consumer complaints site) don’t tell the whole story. Why not? Because some airlines won’t accept pets as cargo. Others won’t accept pets on board. Some won’t accept pets at all. Many pet-owners have bypassed the system by pretending that their pets are emotional support animals, though airlines are beginning to close that loophole.

People who need to get pets from one place to another have few options. No trains or buses. Driving isn’t always feasible. I heard recently that Pet Airways, which closed down a few years ago, is coming back to life. I don’t know what their plan is or whether that will become a solution, but … Maybe we should all just stay home!


Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.


The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together


My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar


Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day


Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers


They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open


The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.