Social Distancing When You Can’t See the Distance

Deni walks along a path with Koala, a black Lab. Deni wears a face mask.Guest post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala gives me advance warning when we are about to cross paths with another dog. I can feel added tension in the rigid handle attached to her harness. She keeps walking us straight down the sidewalk, but as the person and dog get closer, I can feel Koala rise up. She walks on her tippy-toes, restraining herself from sniffing as we scoot past the dog.

A person alone on the sidewalk is way less interesting; as far as Koala is concerned, they might as well be a trash can to walk around. In that case, Koala is likely to walk by without giving any indication that there is something that needs my attention. It isn’t until I hear footsteps that I realize that the obstacle we are passing is a living, breathing human being.

In this period of cautiously returning to public contact, what my guide dog communicates has become an urgent matter of concern. Guide dogs know how to squeeze and weave themselves and their partners around any obstacles. They aren’t likely to understand the concept of staying six feet away from others. So, the question for people who are blind or visually impaired is: How can we manage social distancing when we can’t see the distance?

I’ve found that the answer depends on how crowded your community is and on whether the guide dog team is navigating outside or inside.

In areas with lower population and more attuned neighbors, if people see a guide dog working in harness, they may naturally cross the street or provide space. In high population areas or or where sighted people are more focused on their phones than on other pedestrians, the guide dog handler will have to take a more proactive approach.

When walking on harness outside, if the guide dog signals that another dog is nearby, the handler should ask the person approaching to keep the distance. “Please stay six feet away,” is normally all that is required.

It’s harder when your guide gives no warning, and the handler suddenly finds herself  shoulder-to-shoulder with someone on the sidewalk. Again saying, “Please stay six feet away,” is kinder than shouting, “Can’t you see that I’m blind?”

Working a dog in harness inside in the COVID-19 era provides new challenges that most guide dog teams can’t overcome on their own. Some grocery stores have designated aisles as one-way. Any place open for business has six-foot markers for people standing in line at the check-out counter. People with visual impairments are not likely to see any of this. It is kind for sighted shoppers to offer directions, but unfortunately, many sighted people just stop and stare.

The blind or visually impaired person can do some advance planning to make the trip to the store as efficient as possible. If the store has special hours for vulnerable populations, it is good to take advantage of the smaller crowd and the likelihood that the other shoppers will also be working to keep distance. This is one time that it is a good idea to call the store in advance, explaining to the manager that the need for employee assistance. That helper can quickly locate items and help the guide dog team stay out of the way of others, while everyone maintains a six-foot distance.

Some people have pulled out their long white canes as an additional signal for sighted people to keep the right distance. Others who aren’t coordinated enough to handle the dog in harness on one side and cane on the other – I’m one of those – may need to provide additional visual cues for those around them. Vests, tank tops, and tee shirts that say “BLIND” or “VISUALLY IMPAIRED” in high contrast are used by athletes and are available at ruseen.com. These draw more attention to disability than most of us would like in our daily lives. But at this time in the world, it is better to be noticed than infected.

 

What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

When your little girl no longer needs you …

Hangin’ out with the humans
Cali and Dora, golden retriever sisters
Cali and Dora wait to be served at their favorite microbrewery

Cali is so grown up. She has an entirely separate life that I know little about.

For example, the Morris Foundation Golden Retriever study’s latest newsletter featured a poem that I am sure that Cali wrote. It starts:

Well, the weather outside is frightful
But the snow is so delightful!
And even if mom (or dad) says no…
I will roll, I will roll, I will roll!

I had no idea that she was a writer!

Cali and Dora supervise breakfast prep

Even more poignant, she just took her first solo vacation. We dropped her off at her sister’s house in Berkeley. All she took was her leash and some food. (I could learn a lot about packing light from Cali.) She never looked back.

Cali and Dora had a wonderful time hiking, snacking, supervising, and hanging out with Dora’s humans. They even visited their favorite neighborhood microbrewery.Cali and Dora sit by the Christmas tree

She probably posted a bunch of selfies on her Instagram, too, but … I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for that.

I’m torn. I miss having her here, but I am glad that she’s independent and able to get out and enjoy herself — even if she does always seem to need a ride to wherever she’s headed. Next thing you know, she’ll want a credit card so she can have her own Lyft account. Oh, and she’ll need a GizmoWatch, of course.

(All photos by Cathy Condon)

 

The Value of a Dog’s Life

Cali looks up, licking her lips
How much is your dog worth?

How much is your dog’s life worth?

Obviously, most people cannot answer that question, and the closest answer is that our dogs are priceless.

But, for a variety of reasons, it’s useful to have a number, and some researchers have come up with one. (For similar reasons, a number has been attached to human lives as well.)

The reasons one might need a value for a dog’s life include:

  • Calculating loss in case of death or serious injury
  • Calculating value in case of, say a divorce where one person has to give up the dog to the other
  • Performing a cost-benefit analysis for anything from public safety measures to developing products or medications

There’s more, of course. It doesn’t address working dogs, like police K9s or service dogs. Some states have laws that spell out a value for these dogs or mete out harsher punishments to anyone who harms them. And the value of the dog doesn’t address intangibles like distress that might factor into damage awards in a lawsuit.

Speaking of lawsuits, currently most courts will only consider market value of a dog. Which, if your dog came from the shelter, is very little. While the value these researchers came up with, $10,000, is far less than the value I would place on my dog’s life, I guess it’s an improvement — and a step toward treating dogs differently from ordinary, inanimate property.

Cali is 7!

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Cali turned 7 a few days ago!

Naturally, we celebrated at her favorite place in the world, conveniently located a short walk from home: Big Dipper ice cream. I know, it’s December. Cali does not feel the cold. Or have much sympathy for anyone who does.

We got our order (to go) and she collected and devoured her puppy cone.

The real treat was the cup of vanilla ice cream she got to eat at home. A few photos, above, show her delight.

Coincidentally, this week I heard about a new way researchers are calculating a dog’s human age equivalent. The common formula of a dog aging seven (human) years for each calendar year is too simplistic.

This new method looks at changes in our DNA over our lifetimes and compares dogs’ DNA changes to map a roughly equivalent human age onto the dog. There’s a calculator at the link above. The study used Labrador retrievers, but claims that the mapping is similar for all dogs. I am curious about whether they will repeat the research on smaller-breed dogs, because those dogs tend to have a longer lifespan so it seems like the mapping might turn out a little different.

In any case, Cali, a golden, is similar to a Lab in size and typical lifespan, so I checked out her age.

I was not happy with the results. Under the old mapping, she’d be roughly at the same life stage as a 49-year-old human; under the new mapping she’s 62!

The aging seems to slow way down after the first year, though. A 1-year-old Lab is roughly equivalent to a 31-year-old human, while a 13-year-old dog maps to only age 72.

Whether she’s 49 or 62 or 7, Cali is still a puppy at heart, silly and playful. And I hope she stays that way for many more years!

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.

Cali Is Excited about Meeting Her New Best Friends

Cali is sure you’re going to be her new best friend!

Cali and I are working on becoming a visiting “therapy” dog team.

We met with the coordinator of the Wind River Canine Partners Therapy Dog Program this week for our first evaluation. We spent about an hour walking around in a Cabela’s store (very dog-friendly). Cali was excited about going shopping! And meeting new best friends!

I had warned the trainer that Cali’s main weakness is getting overly excited about meeting someone. Anyone. Especially men. She saw exactly what I meant when Cali pulled, hard, toward her. A random stranger in a parking lot? Clearly Cali’s long-awaited best friend. Oh wait, that clerk just inside the door: Definitely a best friend. Oh, there’s another one … and a shopper. Oh! A family with a kid!! A dog in a shopping cart!

After greeting a few people, Cali got down to shopping. It’s hunting season in Montana, so … lots of weird lure-type things with feathers? The plastic packaging wrap did not throw Cali off the scent, and she found them fascinating. She was not at all interested int he fake and dyed feathers, only the natural ones. She loved the fishing lures too. Mild curiosity about the actual equipment. No interest in plastic antlers.

Then … the toy department. The hobby horses who made neighing and galloping sounds were mildly interesting. But the small rocking horse, pink, with sparkly green eyes: Downright terrifying. It had a face. It moved unpredictably. And it was looking at her. She was not going near that thing no way no how … well, maybe just a quick sniff. Oh, wait, someone dropped a cookie nearby; maybe she can just reach over and … it’s looking at her again!

That was scary.

More people to greet, more toys to sniff. What’s this? A fake man with no head? Humans have the weirdest toys … Uh oh, that horse again. Huh, maybe it’s okay with cookies …

It was a tiring trip. Cali slept all the way home.

Cali passed with flying colors. Perfect temperament, obviously loves meeting people.

The handler? She needs some work.

Once we’ve improved our handling skills, we can start visiting. Cali would like to try visiting people at the hospital or maybe the veterans center. Anyplace without rocking horses is fine.

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jaxson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jaxson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jaxson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jaxson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jaxson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jaxson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jaxson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jaxson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jaxson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.

 

 

Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond

the cover of Our Dogs, Ourselves by Alexandra Horowitz shows a dog peering up at a personI was excited about reading Alexandra Horowitz’s latest dog book. She’s the person I want to be when I grow up, after all … But, though I enjoyed it, I was also a little bit disappointed.

Her best work so far — aside from her academic papers — is Being a Dog, with its deep dive into the world of scent and how dogs experience it. Our Dogs, Ourselves lacks the insights into dog-focused science I hope for from Horowitz. It also shares little of her fascinating and groundbreaking work in dog cognition.

It’s about life with dogs. Mostly, her life with her dogs, with a few broader forays into the lives of the rest of us and our dogs — or at least the dog-owners she encounters in her New York City life with dogs.

While much of the book reads like a collection of blog posts or short essays, a couple of chapters explore larger, more serious issues. These chapters, in my opinion, redeem the book:

  • “Owning Dogs” examines dogs’ status as property. Horowitz clearly articulates how and why that’s wrong and at odds with how we think of dogs — spelling out the need for a status between “property” and “person.” Her vision of a “living property” status requires attention to dogs’ welfare as well as enabling “full dogness” — opportunities to do truly doggy things, like sniffing, digging, chasing, and chewing.
  • “The Trouble with Breeds” spells out the history and harms humans have caused through generations of selective inbreeding. She also describes related damage. One example is breed-specific laws that fail to account for individual dogs’ differences or for actual behavior. Another is many humans’ tendency to choose a breed that looks appealing to them — without considering “genetic tendencies” that, for example mean that border collies are miserable spending their lives as pets of busy, apartment-dwelling humans.
  • “Against Sex” lays bare the harms we do to dogs by “de-sexing” them, especially at very young — prepubescent — ages. Horowitz dispels many myths surrounding spay and neuter, from the impact on euthanasia rates (negligible) to a long list of the health problems it causes in our pets, including the risks of the actual surgery. She bravely confronts the uncomfortable truth that neutering our pets is an easy out for humans; we don’t have to think about, much less manage, our dogs’ reproductive lives.
  • Finally, “Humorless,” paired with the chapter on “Dog Stuff,” struck a chord with me. Horowitz eloquently describes something I share — an inability to see the “fun” or “humor” in some cultural trends that poke fun at dogs, often by projecting human feelings and motivations onto our dogs. From dog-shaming websites to embarrassing dog clothing to the thousands of so-called funny videos of dogs and kids, where the dogs look stressed and terrified, much of what humans laugh at about dogs amounts to ridiculing or even abusing the dog. This is not always the case, of course, and some functional dog clothing is fine or necessary.
    But many dog find humor in situations that really are not funny. This is largely due to misinterpreting dogs’ body language. The worst results of this are, of course, dog bites. But, and I say this as a reformed dog owner, who is guilty of putting past dogs into Halloween costumes: A lot of what’s fun or funny to humans is unpleasant or worse for the dog. A scared or frightened dog who cannot escape is likely to defend himself, possibly with a bite. Who hasn’t heard a story of a bite “with no warning,” often from people who simply missed many clear signals from the dog.

Overall, there’s enough strong chapters that I do recommend the book — it’s a fun read in parts, more serious in others. But, if you’re expecting a more scientific look at dogs, stick with Being a Dog.

 

 

Those Puppy Eyes …

Cali looks up, licking her lips
Who can say ‘no’ to these eyes?

That sad puppy look your dog gives you… that look that Cali uses every time we’re within a block of her favorite ice cream stand … that look has been perfected by dogs over millennia. It’s no wonder we’re helpless to resist it!

It turns out that dogs’ “expressive eyebrows” enable them to raise their inner eyebrows in a way that makes their eyes look larger and, to humans, sadder. A study found “compelling” evidence “that dogs developed a muscle to raise the inner eyebrow after they were domesticated from wolves.”

What’s more, it’s mostly our own fault for breeding these manipulators: A Science Daily report on the study suggests that this eyebrow muscle, which wolves lack, “may be a result of humans unconscious preferences that influenced selection during domestication.”

It’s working out well for the dogs. The expression elicits a strong response from most humans who feel protective toward the “sad” or “worried” dogs. Dogs who use this eye movement get adopted faster from shelters, according to the study.

The muscle difference evolved very quickly, according to researchers, and seems to have had an outsize impact on human-dog relationships. Eye contact plays a huge role in dog-human communication, and the dogs have clearly learned to use their anatomical gift to full advantage.

Humans pay close attention to eyebrow movement, even if we aren’t really aware of it. “In humans, eyebrow movements seem to be particularly relevant to boost the perceived prominence of words and act as focus markers in speech,” the study points out. It hypothesizes that we’re especially tuned in to eyebrow movement because it “is a uniquely human feature.”

Or was. Until the dogs figured out how to hijack it.