Talking Dogs?

Profile of Cali, a golden retriever, and her silicone-wrapped tag
Cali communicates effectively without words.

It’s been a few months since I first read about Bunny, a dog that supposedly uses a vast network of buttons with recorded messages to talk with her human. I’ve used that time to read the media coverage of her feats, which is disappointingly lacking in critical thinking, and to consider the idea of teaching dogs to talk to us.

Bunny’s human and the FluentPet company, which makes the buttons and hexagonal boards with which to network them together, are not the first to try to teach dogs to talk (or do math). Researcher and author Sean Senechal devised a dog sign language system several years ago.

I tried both and find them to be extremely complicated ways to teach dogs something they don’t need to know: Human language. Dogs communicate with us constantly and effectively. If we’re not getting it, that’s because we’re not trying hard enough, not because the dogs need to learn to use English words.

These tools are complicated in that teaching the dogs to use them requires many steps, much practice, and a degree of consistency that few humans are able to achieve. You have to learn the signs or program the buttons. Teach the dog what each sign or button means. Practice; reinforce correctly, in a timely manner, over and over and over again. Then — hope that your dog agrees to go along with it!

Cali doesn’t want to talk

I bought a test kit of 2 buttons from FluentPet and went to work trying to teach Cali to use the button to go outside. She already knew the “touch” cue and was able to push a button, so I didn’t have to start at the very beginning. I recorded, “Outside, please.” My — I thought reasonable — goal was to teach her buttons for outside and play, then to try to convince her to distinguish between wanting to go out to play ball and needing to go out for bio-breaks. And getting her to ask in a way I might hear if I was upstairs working, rather than sitting by the door.

Outside is an easy place to start, because you, the human, can reliably open the door and let the dog out any time you or the dog hits the button. The next step is in the dog’s paws: She has to make the leap from going out when you push the button and let her out to asking to go out by pushing the button herself.

Cali tries her magic sit by the back door
Cali hopes that the magic sit (or lie down) will produce results — even when no humans are nearby

Cali would push the button for a cookie. She would push the button before going out if I insisted, but she really, really did not see the point.

Cali clearly communicated that she did not want to do this. She’d look away from the button. Do elaborate stretches. Sit staring at the door. Look at anything but the button. Even walk away. This from a dog who always wants to go out.

She was perfectly happy asking to go out in her usual ways. Another problem we quickly discovered is that the button has pretty poor audio quality and low volume, so … it would only be helpful if I were right next to the button.

I decided to stop bugging Cali and see if Koala wanted to talk.

Koala doesn’t need buttons to talk

Koala is quite an effective communicator. She, too, thinks the buttons are silly.

They’re right

We don’t need to jump through — or try to force our dogs through — silly hoops yo get them to talk with us. They already communicate clearly.

And, as much as I like the idea of encouraging dog people to spend time teaching their dogs new skills, I’m pretty sure this is not the right way. It’s frustrating, for both the dog and the human. It’s not easy to come up with ways to explain the concepts you’re trying to teach to the dog. Using buttons or choreographed paw movements to “talk” to us is not a normal doggy thing to do.

Cali and Koala and I get much more enjoyment spending our time together going on smell walks, snuffle-matting, playing ball, or learning Rally. In addition, I think that the claims about what dogs are saying when they use the buttons are overblown. That’s a topic for another post, though.

Doctor Dogs

Most people are aware of guide dogs, mobility service dogs, and possibly hearing dogs. But dogs help people with medical issues in myriad ways beyond these service dog roles. In her latest book, author Maria Goodavage explores dozens of the tasks dogs perform to diagnose, treat, heal, and comfort humans. And the epilogue and acknowledgements sections briefly describe dozens more that were omitted from the main sections of the book (the end sections might have been my favorite part …).

Dogs who detect COVID are in the news; but fewer people are aware of dogs’ ability to detect several types of cancer, as well as diabetics’ sugar highs and lows. Goodavage even has wonderful stories of dogs who detect their human partners’ impending seizures or cardiac incidents …

Moving beyond physical ailments, Goodavage devotes several sections to dogs who assist in times of crisis and trauma, whether serving an individual with PTSD or showing up at court to comfort children testifying in abuse cases, the dogs are on the job.

The book is a comprehensive catalog of ways that dogs help people, but it’s more than that. The thread connecting all of the stories is the human-canine relationship. For many of the “services” dogs perform, neither their partners nor the dogs’ trainers can identify what the dog is detecting. The dogs are deeply connected to their humans and figured out a pattern, decided that the human needed some help, and came up with a way to let them know.

For example, Goodavage is careful to explain that it’s not really possible to train a dog to detect an impending seizure. Many organizations do train dogs to respond in specific ways if their partner has a seizure, though. Some of these trained dogs figure out a pattern of behavior, chemical changes, or something else that reliable predicts a seizure and begin to warn their person. Or a parent, in the case of a child. There are even stories of untrained dogs figuring this all out on their own.

In the case of dogs who are trained to detect the scent of hypoglycemia, for example, or bladder cancer, Goodavage muses about “rogue” doctor dogs — dogs alerting random strangers while out and about. It’s not impossible; some trained dogs have raised the alarm without prompting.

The book is a great read. Goodavage is a stellar storyteller, and she’s done deep research. In addition to interviewing dozens (hundreds?) of trainers, handlers, and people partnered with doctor dogs of all specialties, Goodavage leads readers through all the current research (with a 20-page reference list  to back her up) on how dogs do this and how effective they are. Despite the deep dive into science and research, the book is engaging and readable.

Scarred for Life

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.
Not even an ice-cream cone can erase the traumatic memory of a late dinner.

After more than 20 years of dog parenting, it finally happened. I did the unthinkable.

Dinner was late. Very late.

Sometimes dinner is a little bit late if I am out; often, dinner is extremely early because I am going to be out.

Dinner is supposed to be served between 5 and 5:30. Cali thinks it should be served earlier (and then again later) but we agree to disagree. “A little late” or “acceptably late” — acceptable to the humans, that is — is anytime up until about 7.

One evening, not long ago, I was busy with some stuff. Cali was off doing her own thing. Then, around 8 or maybe (could it really have been?) close to 8:30, I wandered into the kitchen … and noticed that I had not given Cali her dinner. I have no excuse.

When I called her, she dragged her weak, starving self into the kitchen. I apologized profusely and gave her dinner. All seemed to be, if not well, on the mend.

But.

Since then — it has been several weeks — I notice that Cali is anxious if 5 pm passes and there is no food in the bowl. She keeps a closer eye on me. She starts reminding me to stop working earlier and earlier. Then she leads me to the kitchen.

I think she’s scarred for life.

The anti-jackpot

In dog training, there’s a concept we call a jackpot. If the dog does something really wonderful, we “jackpot” them with lots and lots of treats, effusive praise (if they like that sort of thing; Cali just rolls her eyes and asks for more cookies).

Similarly, dogs might jackpot themselves, inadvertently or very intentionally. For instance, the dog who trolls the countertops … and one day discovers that she can reach something wonderful: someone’s momentarily unguarded snack, half a loaf of banana bread, the roast chicken that’s cooling on the counter.

That dog has become a counter surfer for life.

The jackpot, whether delivered by a willing human or self-administered, is highly memorable. The event that immediately preceded it becomes, by association, highly memorable. Better yet, it could happen again.

That’s why Cali tries to walk me to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream stand with free dog cones, every day. Her pleasant experiences there could happen again.

That’s why dogs return to that spot on the dog beach where they found that really cool dead fish to roll in last time … or last year. It could happen again.

That’s why, ahem, feeding the dog a piece of pizza crust just once sets you up for a lifetime of sad puppy eyes, drool on your shoes, and a dog who races to fetch a $20 bill whenever the pizza deliverer appears. (That’s what I hear, anyhow …) It could happen again.

Cali’s traumatic experience with late dinner was her anti-jackpot. It was truly, unbearably horrible, the opposite of an exciting jackpot experience. But even more memorable. And it could happen again.

 

 

Streaming Now: Dogs on the Silver Screen

A tan dog and black and white puppy sit with Istanbul's skyline in the background
Movie poster for Stray

I recently watched not one but two new documentaries focused on dogs. Both are available to stream.

We Don’t Deserve Dogs

We Don’t Deserve Dogs highlights the human-dog relationship by profiling dog people around the world. It offers a fascinating glimpse at dogs and their humans in Uganda, Nepal, Peru … and several other countries where, it turns out, people fuss and fawn over and spoil their dogs as much as we Americans do.

I was ready to love this film until we got to a segment near the end which, to be fair, the Bark review linked above warns about. It addresses the dog meat trade in Vietnam.

From reading the Bark review, I was expecting it. But I was unprepared for how long and how graphic it was. This segment ruined the movie for me. Bark says it starts at about an hour and seven minutes in; if you watch, I recommend stopping the movie at that point.

Stray

Stray, the second documentary, offers a dog’s-eye view of life on the streets in Istanbul, a city known for its huge population of stray dogs and for laws protecting them. (There are even special vending machines to feed them!)

Following Zeytin, a beautiful mixed-breed, as she goes about her life is fascinating. There’s not really a story and no dialogue. Some overheard conversations provide the only human interaction in the film.

Zeytin has a pack of canine buddies whom she hangs out with, plays and fights with, and finds food with.

She also seems to have a community of humans she’s in regular contact with. Among this group are a group of young men, refugees from Syria, also living on the streets in Istanbul. The film is a subtle commentary on the experience and treatment of both the dogs and the humans.

The real story of the movie, though, emerged when I watched two short films bundled with Stray. Interviews featuring the filmmaker, Elizabeth Lo, these extras brought out Lo’s view of dogs and the cultural differences she saw while researching and making Stray.

It’s the difference between seeing dogs as needing to be owned and “protected” by humans and seeing dogs as independent beings, capable and deserving of the opportunity to live life on their own terms.

 

Dogs Are in Sync with Their People

Cali, a golden retriever, wears a cowboy hat, red bandana, and a huge smile

Stay calm. I’ve got this.

Way back when I first started learning about dogs and dog training, I learned something cool: Dogs synchronize with their people. This synchronization is more pronounced in dog-human pairs with a strong bond; the New York Times recently described dogs syncing with their human families’ children.

This is a great illustration of the strong connections that dogs develop with all members of their human family — not only the adult who feeds or walks them or, to dust off an old and thoroughly debunked concept, the “alpha” in the family.

The dogs might synchronize physically, facing the way we do or adapting their gait and speed to sync with ours or sitting when we do. The internet is full of adorable videos of dogs syncing with or mimicking their humans’ yoga poses.

They also sync with our emotions. The closer the relationship, the more the dog is likely to synchronize with the person (or the person with the dog!).

A teaching tool

When I was learning to teach dogs new verbal cues and associate them with behaviors, I learned to use this. For instance, we’d say “down” is a deep, calm voice. And “let’s go” in an energetic and upbeat way. This was meant to encourage the dog to synchronize with the emotion and energy level we were conveying to strengthen the association of the action with the word.

This feels a little manipulative (because it is), but it works for teaching. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to understand — or change — your dog’s behavior.

Cali can be unpredictable when we encounter other dogs on our walks. She’s nearly always happy to see and even meet dogs who are smaller than she is. She’s usually eager to say hello to other goldens, and most Labs. She’s nervous about other dogs who are her size or larger, and there are some breeds (yes, Cal is a doggy racist …) that she dislikes on sight, chief among them any sort of doodle.

So, naturally, when I see someone walking toward us with a friendly, enormous doodle straining to say hello, I feel anxious.

While my reaction came from multiple experiences with Cali’s negative reactions, it is now feeding or even causing her to become anxious — and react to the dog with an even more extreme amount of grumbling and even growling. Cali!

That’s because she is synchronizing with my negative emotions.

On the other hand, if I notice the dreaded doodle when we’re far enough apart, and I stay calm, soothing Cali with “you’re fine, let’s just keep going,” as we pass, leaving plenty of space between the dogs, she might give them a look or mutter under her breath, but she won’t pull or growl.

Cali is a natural

Cali uses this principle to help out her best friend, Maisy. Maisy is a lot more anxious about other dogs than Cali — any and all other dogs. And some people too.

But Cali loves meeting new people. She’s convinced Maisy to say hello to families, kids, and even unfamiliar men! Maisy’s reaction to other dogs is a lot calmer when she’s with Cali too — as long as Cali (and I) stay calm — and make it possible for her to stay a comfortable distance from the other dogs.

The trick, of course, is seeing the other people and dogs first. If we’re surprised by someone coming around a corner, the dogs’ reaction is much faster than mine and things can quickly go south. Even then though, the solution lies in projecting calm as we walk away — not always easy to do.

I’m not suggesting that staying calm will magically cure your anxious dog, but it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve. Deepening our ability to stay calm in unpredictable circumstances is beneficial to us as well as to our dogs! The best part is that the synchronization thing is circular. Your dog syncs with you more as your bond deepens. And the more in sync you are, the closer your relationship will become.

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!