The saddest sounds

10-week old Cali, a golden retriever, lies on a brown dog bed
Don’t leave me …

A recent Bark column muses on humans’ susceptibility to manipulation by dogs. Specifically, by the sounds they make in sadness. Sadness that occurs only because we humans are not meeting their expectations.

Boy do I know how that works.

When Cali was a tiny pup and Jana a beleaguered 8-year-old with a new baby sister, I made a point of taking Jana for a (very short) solo walk each day. This was partly to get Cali used to being alone briefly. The first time we did this, within seconds, the saddest, most mournful howl I have ever heard wafted out through an open window. I was probably a whole 10 feet from Cali but, you know, there was a wall in between.

Cali has deployed this mournful howl a few additional times over the years. (She’s 7 now.) She’s added to her repertoire, too. She has a range of sounds, including sighs, snorts, scowls (ok, those are silent), exasperated exhalations, grumbles and mutters under her breath, and more. And, yes, a whine. It’s a tiny whine, very soft and short. It’s also very, very sad. Heartbreakingly sad. This whine is used only when Cali is outside and wants to come inside, and no one is there to make the door magically open.

This, naturally, happens only when Cali has refused to come inside despite being offered several opportunities, and I have given up(!) and gone upstairs to work. Within oh, about 3 minutes, there’s that tiny whine. I could easily miss it but somehow it penetrates whatever fog of concentration I am in. When I go back downstairs to let her in, Cali is always happy, relieved, and reproachful, all at once.

I’m not the only one to be expertly and repeatedly manipulated by a sad dog.

My doggy cousin, Jaxson, has created a magical combo, a unique whining sound plus guilt-inducing look, that gets him the most coveted seat in the house: Literally in between his mom and dad. The one space on the sofa he’s theoretically (very, very theoretically) not allowed. There’s nothing unique about dog whines, of course. Whole orchestras could be woven out of different dog whine. Jaxson’s whine is unique in that this specific note is deployed only when he’s on the sofa but not between them. That is, only one pair of hands can reach him to pet him and only one person’s attention is focused on him. The unique sound effectively terminates this intolerable condition.

The Bark column mentions research that found that humans with pets are more susceptible to animal distress vocalizations than other people and that “dog whines sounded saddest of all, and sadder than cat meows.” Other research has found huge changes in canine vocalizations as a result of their domestication. Sure. They’ve got our number. They’re pulling out all the stops in their quest for the upper hand … er, paw … in the household.

 

Siberian Puppy a Link to Early Dogs

Domestic dogs may have evolved in several different areas of the world.

I enjoyed a recent Washington Post article about an 18,000-year-old puppy who might be a missing link between wolves and dogs.

The dog, actually a young puppy, was perfectly preserved in Siberian permafrost for 18,000 years. He’s so well preserved that his fur and teeth are intact!

Researchers first assumed that “Dogor,” a name recently given to the puppy, was a young wolf. Now, they’re not sure. They are sequencing his genome, but they are considering the idea that Dogor is neither dog nor wolf. Dogor might truly be a missing link, an actual example of a proto-dog from the still-mysterious period when many ancient wolf species were dying out and dogs were becoming domesticated.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how dogs came to be. It’s likely that domestic dogs evolved in several different areas of the world at different times.

Little Dogor might teach us a lot about the evolution of dogs in Russia and about the early relationship between dogs and humans. It’s an exciting find, and I am looking forward to learning more about this ancient puppy.

Missed Opportunity

 

Cali, a golden retriever, looks very sad
I’m not angry; I am just disappointed …

Cali recently had a doctor’s appointment. She has a couple of small lumps, and I was thinking about having the vet remove them. So … you know what’s coming … Cali had to skip breakfast.

I apologized profusely. She did that sad face thing, where she just looks at me to let me know how disappointed she is by my behavior — my utter failure to meet her needs.

She moped around, sighing loudly, the whole time I had my coffee and washed dishes. Fewer dishes since, you know, hers was still clean from last night.

Outside, she foraged vainly among the raspberry canes, brown and sad after our early snow. She hoped she might find some overlooked berries to help her stave off her hunger. No luck. No dropped apples from the neighbor’s tree either. Greedy birds had eaten all the seed. Sigh.

We went for our morning walk. She trailed sadly behind me, her low energy the result of being starved by her cruel human.

Suddenly, she spied a miracle: Someone had dropped an entire ice-cream cone on the grass!

She stared, disbelieving. She stretched her nose over to sniff. She drooled.

She then made a critical error. She looked up, up at that cruel human. Who of course said, “No.” Seriously, is that the only word moms know?

The rest of that walk was … just exhausting.

The nice vet said Cali didn’t need surgery. Then she gave Cali a whole handful of cookies. Maybe she wants another golden retriever …

Cali gave me another look. This one said, “I’m shopping for a better mom.”

I took Cali home and gave her breakfast. We walked by the Spot, but the ice cream was gone. Some lucky dog with a nicer human …

I gave her extra treats all day. I took her out for ice cream a couple days later. I kept apologizing.

None of it matters.

We walk past that Spot, where the miracle (almost) occurred, on every walk. Cali stops, sniffs the ground where that magical cone was. She sniffs, gives me the sad face. Looks mournfully at the Spot again, sniffs again, and we walk on.

Some opportunities come once and poof! They’re gone in a second, with the “No” of a mean mom.

Cali is now firmly in the “ask for forgiveness — not permission” camp.

She’s learned her lesson: If you see a miracle, eat it right away.

Plenty of time to bat your blonde eyelashes at the angry human, look remorseful, and apologize afterward.

Friends Forever

Happy brown dog on grass
This photo from the Daily Dodo website shows a grown-up dog who recognized her foster mom.

Dogs have long memories. They’ll recognize a person they love even several years after they last met.

A news story a few weeks ago about a woman who found her missing dog after 12 years as well as one about a pup who recognized her foster mom after a year reminded me of a couple of similar experiences.

I fostered a puppy once in Israel. She stayed with me for a couple of weeks before I found her a great home. Several months or a year later, I was walking down the street in downtown Jerusalem, and this huge dog walking toward me got very excited. Always a sucker for a cute dog, I stopped to say hi. And realized it was the foster puppy, all grown up.

And just this past summer, Cali and I were walking along the river in Missoula, when Cali spied a friend waaayyyy down the path. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Cali sees an actual friend or a friend she hasn’t met yet, but she was very excited. As we got closer, I recognized friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Dog lovers, they stopped. The husband recognized us, but the wife had eyes only for the dog. She commented on how friendly this dog was as she petted and cuddled Cali for a few minutes  … and finally looked up to see me and her husband stifling our laughter. Of course Cali was happy to see her! Cali adores her!

This of course confirms that our dogs do really love us. And, in the case of the lost dog, underscores how important it is to microchip your dog (and keep the registration current) — that’s how that Florida woman in the first example was reunited with her dog after 12 years!

To me, it also means something else: The current trend toward acknowledging that dogs and ther sentient animals are different from inanimate property is long overdue. We need to do a better job of looking out for their interests and considering their well-being.

Of Course Your Dog Loves You

The New York Times published an interview with one of my favorite ethologists, researchers, and authors, Carl Safina this week. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the most important part: Of course our dogs love us.

If Carl Safina says so, it must be true. In addition, he says that dogs, as well as elephants, primates, and more, have consciousness.

None of this is news to people who know dogs well — but it is great to see scientists willing to talk openly about these ideas. As little as 10 or 15 years ago, talking about dogs having consciousness would have ended a person’s research career.

Safina describes his reasoning: “What is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones.”

When you’re home, where do your dogs hang out? If they hang out with you, when they could choose any other room, well … they want to be with you.

I’m trying really hard to be OK with the fact that Cali spends a lot of the day on my bed, watching the neighborhood — while I am upstairs working.

(To be fair, she spends a large part of most days up there too and is wherever I am in the evenings and when I am not working.)

If you’re not convinced by your dogs’ behavior, read some of the MRI studies by Gregory Berns and others. Your dog loves you … and it’s not only because of the treats and belly rubs.

A Place to Play

Koala noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

 

Everyone needs a place to play. Even dogs. Especially dogs.

Cali loves, loves, loves her back yard. She’d live there if I let her. She’d also dig it up, rearrange the plants, harvest all the green tomatoes (but get good and sick inside, preferably on a rug), and dine on raspberries every night.

Cali and Koala do play in the yard a lot. But Koala is a delicate Florida Labrador, and cannot take the cold Montana mornings. Or the warm Montana afternoons. She wants to be inside.

It’s a dilemma.

I don’t want them wrestling and playing tug in the living room, but they can’t or don’t want to play outside all the time.

We’ve solved this issue by making the TV room in the basement a dog play area. Now, when they pick up a toy and Cali gets that mischievous gleam in her eye, we intervene. Before she entices Koala to play and gets them both in trouble, we tell them to “take it downstairs.”

It took a bunch of repetitions with us steering them downstairs, but they’ve caught on. Now they happily trot off down the stairs and play freely (and loudly). When they have friends over, they might take their friends down to play in the rec room.

They have a toy basket downstairs where most of the tug toys are kept. Well, that’s the idea, anyhow. There are often toys scattered over every inch of the floor, but sometimes, Koala even picks up the toys and puts them away. They’ll both clean up with a lot of encouragement (and a few cookies).

How do you choose the “right” trainer?

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

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

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

What approach does the trainer use?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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