Energy Boost Ethics

Cali sits on grass holding a green disc toyAs I mentioned several weeks ago, Cali is taking magic mushrooms (not that kind!) to boost her immune system and slow tumor growth. Between the mushrooms and the chemo, Cali is still — as far as we know — free of large tumors.

She also has a lot of energy, which she wants to expend — incessantly — by playing with her flying disc. What she wants, specifically, is for me to toss it so that she can leap acrobatically — yes, stocky, elderly Cali — into the air and execute heroic catches. She’s quite good at this, and it is very entertaining to watch. You’ll have to take my word for this since I have no photos (because I am of course tossing the disc…).

So, the first, and more minor, ethical question is whether I should “allow” and enable Cali to do something where she might get hurt.

She plays the cancer card a lot, and uses her large, soft, brown eyes to convince me to let her do whatever she wants … and I think that’s mostly OK. She’s happy and playful, and I want her to stay that way for as long as possible. And if playing with her disc keeps her happy, well, I’m going to keep tossing it gently, not too high, and letting her leap to catch it.

Then there’s Orly. I am giving Orly a smaller dose of the mushroom blend. (I’m using it too…) I don’t know whether the immune boosting claims are real, but I do think that the blend boosts energy. Orly’s and mine, though there is nothing in the world that could enable me to match Orly’s energy level.

And that’s the issue.

Orly is a healthy adolescent golden retriever. The last thing she needs is more energy. I cannot keep up with her on a good day (no mushrooms, a long hike with her dog buddies), much less on a mushroom day when she does not go hiking.

Would it be ethical to deny her the potentially significant (but unmeasurable) health benefits of the mushrooms … so I could get some rest?

I’m pondering that, as I sit for a moment, catching my breath.

Meanwhile, I am recruiting all of the young dogs within shouting distance — there are several — as playmates for Orly. On hike days, on non-hike days, at the same time, one after another — it doesn’t matter. Anything that will tire her out. Wait; that’s impossible.

I’ll settle for anything that will burn off a tiny fraction of her boundless energy!

Cali’s Bucket List

Golden retrievers Cali and Orly play in a shallow river near our house.As we wait for Cali’s next ultrasound, we’re filling in the time doing things on Cali’s bucket list.

For example, we head to the river to play in water almost every day. Deeper water for actual swimming is a little more tricky. I’m trying to take Cali to a little spot nearby a couple of times a week, but I can only manage it when Orly is busy elsewhere.

Cali sits on grass holding a green disc toyAside from swimming, much of Cali’s bucket list involves eating ice cream and playing with her beloved flying disc and tennis balls. Those are pretty easy.

9-month-old Orly, a golden retriever, licks a frozen treatShe’s visited Dairy Queen and Big Dipper. I’m also making frozen treats at home with Greek yogurt, fruit, and peanut butter. And pupsicles with coconut water and berries. Since the weather has remained absurdly hot (for Montana) for weeks, the frozen treats are popular. Honestly, though, I think that Cali would be just as excited about them in February.

When Deni was in town, we even took the girls to a baseball game, where everyone shared popcorn and had fun … for a few innings. They enjoyed drinking from a cup (water!) and people-watching.

Goldens Cali and Orly enjoy a drink at the ball game

Leave Me Alone!

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Orly has hit adolescence.

She’s full of energy, eager to explore the world and try out everything … and has very little common sense. She is also fearless and a little too eager to test boundaries and live on the edge.

I work from home, so I am not always available to play. I’m working on some arrangements to get her tired out — regular dog walks or hikes with a lucky someone else, play dates with the neighbors’ dogs, things like that. And I frequently offer treat toys, snuffle mats, and games of “find it,” where I hide little boxes with smelly, yummy treats inside and she and Cali use their noses to find the treats. It’s not enough.

All that adds up to a dog who bugs Cali.

The most egregious behavior occurs when we’re playing outside. Orly will launch herself off the deck and run, full-speed, toward Cali … and tackle her. Or race after Cali when Cali is racing after a tennis ball … and grab Cali’s tail or her leg and tug. Hard.

I step in each time this happens and put Orly back inside, but the lesson is not sinking in. I also let Cali out without Orly and throw the ball, while Orly looks on, sadly, from behind the screen door. Again, she’s not making the connection.

What would make the connection is a correction from Cali. A well-placed, sincere warning. But Cali is too nice. She just rolls her eyes and looks to me for help.

I could just keep them separate, but that’s not what either of them wants. They do love to play together, and Cali often initiates play, whether it’s a game of tug, wrestling, or racing around the yard together.

I’m going to call in reinforcements. The young male dog next door. The puppy who lives behind us. Koala, who is coming for a visit soon. Dogs who, like Cali, want to play with Orly but who, unlike Cali, are likely to set and enforce boundaries.

The combination of playmates who establish ground rules and additional activities to tire Orly out just might be the magic we all need. I’ll let you know!

Koala’s Day Off

Black Lab Koala runs with a red and white fabric frisbee on grass
Girls just wanna have fun sometimes!

Sometimes, a girl needs a day off.

Koala let her boss know that a couple of weeks ago. It was a Saturday, and they were going for a walk. A nice leisure activity — for the human. But Deni wanted Koala to guide. To work. After a long week filled with lots of work.

Koala wanted a day off. She wanted to wander and sniff and run on the grass (and maybe go into the water…?) … not work.

Koala is pretty clear in communicating what she wants (or doesn’t want) to do. If she doesn’t want to work — and, this is critical, she knows that her work is not essential — she slows down, gives Deni that look, and indicates that she’d rather head toward the grassy park or lie down than put on her harness.

She does have a strong work ethic, and if Deni and Koala are in any kind of situation where Deni needs Koala to work, Koala excels.

But, more and more, she has days when she’d really rather not (I can relate!). She might be dreaming about retirement, though she’s still a relatively young 7-and-a-half years old.

Or, she might be reading up on the Great Resignation / Great Reshuffle. And, like millions of other American workers, she might be re-thinking her work-life balance. I’m guessing that Koala has realized that there’s too much work and not enough life in that mix.

A friend asked me not long ago when I get a full day off — not only off from my job, but free of all types of work, errands, obligations, and other have-tos. I rarely do — and Koala is likely in the same boat.

The great thing about giving Koala (or any dog) a “day off” — a fun day — is that it feels like a day off for the human(s) too: I’m getting ready for a visit to the dog beach with Koala, as I am taking (most of) a day off following a busy work week at a Florida conference. I think it will do both of us a lot of good!

But even on regular work days, I think we all need to build in some fun time for ourselves and our dogs, especially the ones with demanding careers. If Koala gets more time to run and play, will she return to work with more pep and enthusiasm? It’s worth finding out.

 

Peer Pressure

Black poodle Maisy and golden retriever Cali wait for a bagel shaped dog treat
Cali and Maisy share a doggy-bagel snack after playing outside.

One of the first things I learned in dog-training school was the ways that dogs synchronize with their humans. That’s why using an upbeat, energetic voice can get dogs amped up for a training class — and a low, calm voice can help them settle down.

But I’m increasingly finding examples of how dogs synchronize with their doggy friends as well. I first saw it with Maisy, Cali’s BFF, who clearly takes her cues from Cali when we’re on walks.

Maisy often gets very excited or anxious around unfamiliar dogs, and she used to get that way around unfamiliar people, too. But when we all went walking together, Maisy saw how much Cali loves meeting new people.

Instead of being nervous when a stranger approaches, Cali strains toward them, entire body wagging an eager hello. Cali has not figured out that not all humans want to pet the dog.

At first, Maisy would watch, uncertain and ready to bark, while Cali greeted people and made new friends. Cali convinced her to try it though, and Maisy has decided that saying hello and getting pats and compliments is fun. She’s not quite sure about other dogs yet, but then again, neither is Cali.

The next example of peer pressure and inter-dog dynamics came during playtime. When there are two dogs, they play together well; when there’s a third dog, two tend to gang up on one.

Unfortunately, Cali is often the gang-ee.

She and Koala often play well together, though sometimes Koala can be a little … pushy. Cali’s pretty confident about telling her to back off, and, if that doesn’t work, Cali literally takes her ball and goes home. Well to her little hideout in the back corner of her yard.

Maisy and Cali play very well together. They are BFFs.

BUT.

When the three of them are together, Koala and Maisy become like the mean girls in middle school. They grab Cali’s tail and play tug. They each grab an ear. They behave like brats.

When all three are together, I have learned to organize separate play pairs. Cali and Koala each get a chance to play with Maisy — without each other. And Maisy goes home very tired and happy.

 

Dog Play

When your dog plays with another dog, do you worry that they’re fighting? Or that the apparently very rough play could turn into a fight?

Most of the time, there’s no need to worry. Normal dog play often looks scary, but it’s fine.

Some of my favorite dogs agreed to let me share video of their play so you can see …

Cali, Maisy, and I were on a nice walk. The sun was out, the grass was freshly mowed … and, suddenly, Cali simply had to play. She bowed to Maisy, and they were off. I dropped their leashes to let them move more easily. I don’t recommend letting dogs roughhouse with their leashes on, but I let them do it this time, just for a minute.

They often go for each other’s necks. They’ll flip over and wrestle. Maisy occasionally leaps right over Cali. If Maisy gets too enthusiastic, Cali lets her know by walking away or giving her a look.

Stella and Luna (gold star to anyone who gets the literary reference) are sisters. Sometimes, it looks like Luna (gray) is about to rip Stella’s head off. Often, it looks like Stella is chowing down on Luna’s neck. They’re not.

The most important signs that the dog play is fun and fine with both are:

  • They take turns; sometimes it looks like one is killing the other; sometimes the reverse. They both get to be chaser and chasee in turn.
  • They take little breaks or pauses — a few seconds maybe — and both re-engage.
  • When one does ask for a break, the other respects the request and they take a longer break.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s play, watch for the above positive signs and intervene if it looks like one dog is trying to call a pause and the other’s not listening. Or someone cries in pain. Or multiple dogs seem to be piling onto or chasing one — always the same — dog.

Cover of Doggie Language book

But most of the time, your dog’s just having fun in a very doggy way. And, though it looks like the other dog’s ripping her ears off or tearing a hole in her neck, she’ll walk away with nothing more than a bunch of slobber on her coat.

Learn more about dog body language and communication from this adorable book: Doggie Language

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.

Koala Discovers Her Inner Labrador

Koala is not a typical Labrador. Yes, she’s affectionate and cuddly and very, very food focused. But she’s also serious and rule-bound. She holds us to a schedule. She has no sense of humor.

She has her moments — she loves to play, but on her terms only. And she does love to stomp through puddles, but she’s not as eager to get into a body of water as most Labs. She’s usually indifferent to a ball tossed into the water. (Not Cali! Cali, a golden retriever, was born to swim after tennis balls. Over and over and over again.) Koala will fetch a ball on land, if you ask her to, but it’s clear she’s only humoring the silly human.

And Koala hates cold weather. She was born in Upstate New York and raised in Connecticut, so maybe by the time she moved to Florida, she was really just done with winter. At not-quite-2 years of age.

So, here she is in Montana, yet again. And yet again, it’s cold. It’s late October and … we had a blizzard. Somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of snow fell overnight.

When I opened the door to let Koala and Cali out in the morning, it was still snowing. She gave me her “are you nuts??” look, a look I know well. I convinced her to go out to pee.

Cali of course was delighted. But then Cali is usually delighted: She loves snow. She loves water. She loves rain. She loves sun. She loves grass. She loves summer. She loves winter.

Cali was a bit worried when she went to her toy box and all that was in there was a bunch of white powder, but she nosed around a bit and located a frozen tennis ball. She gave me her look … and I ventured out, in slippers and robe, to free the frozen treasure and toss it for her.

And Cali was off, racing around plowing through the snow with her nose to find her ball. Dropping it into the snow so she could find it again. Begging me to come out to play …

Koala looked on in disgust.

I beat a quick retreat indoors.

Then I looked out the window: Koala was racing around the back yard and — what was that? A wagging tail?! She made a couple of joyful, very Labrador-esque laps.

She must have sensed me watching.

She glanced over her shoulder, stopped running, and started sniffing the ground. She did her business and quickly came back inside.

Her burst of typical Labrador playfulness, her flash of joy as she played in the snow disappeared as quickly as it appeared. But Cali and I both saw it: Koala’s inner Labrador.

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.

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!