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.

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DNA Test? Why?

I wrote about the pitfalls of doggy DNA tests a few months ago — how they might cause people to panic about the potential that their dog is carrying a marker for a genetic disease or lead people to make unhelpful assumptions about the dog’s behavior.

I just saw a review in Wired examining three DNA testing services. So I have to chime in again.

These tests are not very accurate. They basically compare parts of your dog’s genome with all of the other dogs in the database and make guesses based on finding snippets that match. Each service has different dogs in the database, so there will be different matches.

The caveats about deciding what training method to use or panicking about diseases that your dog doesn’t have still hold. Even so, it can be fun to explore your dog’s genetic makeup. But buyer beware.

Like much data collection that exploits human subjects, the fun wrapper is hiding business motives. The parent company of the Wisdom Panel, for example, is a gigantic dog food manufacturer. One that happens to sell overpriced (poor quality) foods targeted at specific breeds. If your dog is found to have a significant proportion of Breed X, guess what? Little ads will start stalking you, trying to get you to buy food tailored to that breed — a concept which is absurd.

Cali sure loves playing with her sister Dora!

On the other hand, Embark is a spinoff of Cornell’s canine genomics initiative, according to Wired. They look at many more disease markers and are building a database that could someday contribute to research on all sorts of doggy health issues. Cool. It’s also the only one that claims to help you find your dog’s relatives. That’s also the most expensive one, of course.

For me, the bottom line is why you’re doing it. The test itself can be mildly uncomfortable for the dog, and the dog certainly doesn’t care about the results. If it’s all in fun, great. But if you’re trying to discover some deep truth about your dog, you’re better off just hanging out with him and getting to know him better. Instead, donate the $70 — $200 you’d spend on the test to your local shelter.

Cali’s Pseudo-Marshmallow Test

Cali, a golden retriever, smiles happily and wears a colorful bandanna after her grooming.

Cali went to the groomer a few weeks ago. Our groomer, conveniently located around the corner, has a nice antique brass coal hod in the entryway, usually filled with dog biscuits. And cleverly located at golden-retriever-nose height.

Cali beelined for the cookie basket, which had only three biscuits. She looked at them, at me, at them, etc. I gave her one, then handed her leash over to the groomer.

A couple of hours later, I returned to pick Cali up. She came out from the back and headed straight to the basket. I gave her one of the remaining cookies, and stood chatting with the groomer and paying the bill for a few minutes.

When we looked back at Cali, she was standing at full attention, chin resting on the edge of the basket, staring at the one remaining biscuit. She could easily have taken it; we hadn’t been paying close attention. The groomer even said that most dogs do, indeed, help themselves. She was impressed with Cali’s manners.

I saw that as Cali’s version of the marshmallow test, and I was pleased that she showed self-restraint and good manners. She’s not always so disciplined, but she has never taken food that wasn’t hers, and she’s generally a very Good Dog.

Is Your Dog Famous?

Cali, wearing a cowboy hat, smiles broadly

Is your dog an internet star? Does she want to be?

Perhaps she needs to sign on with The Dog Agency (home to the most influential animals in the world).

It seems that dogs can no longer become viral sensations without an agent. Loni Edwards, the founder and CEO, is quoted in Fast Company as saying, “We help them think about how to grow their brands.” I think she means the humans who are associated with the celebrity pooches.

She’ll advise clients (and their humans) on how to get ads, book personal (or doginal) appearances, get book deals … all the elements in becoming and remaining a pet influencer.

Not just any dog can sign on, though. She’ll only take clients who already have at least 50,000 followers on Instagram. The human also has to have what it takes.

The top influencers bring in thousands of dollars per post — not to mention the income from all those other deals.

Cali’s out of luck. I don’t even have an Instagram account (though who knows; Cali might …). Maybe we should check it out. Rugged, athletic cowdog types might be in demand. Being supported by my dog would be a nice change …

A Win for the Greyhounds

A greyhound racing dog runs, wearing a cape and a muzzle.
Florida votes to ban greyhound racing!

Hooray for Florida! Odd words for me to write as contentious election contests morph into contentious vote recounts … but Floridians of all political stripes stepped up for the dogs. The measure to ban greyhound racing passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Greyhound racing will at long last be phased out in Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the 11 active tracks have until January 1, 2021, to end dog races.

Grey2K and other rescue and shelter organizations are already gearing up to handle an expected flood of retiring racedogs. Thousands of greyhounds currently race in Florida, and, though some will be moved to states that still allow racing, most will probably need homes.

And rehabilitation. Several years ago, while working on an article on prison-based dog-training programs, I visited a prison in Michigan. The head of the training program there, where dogs from a nearby shelter and retired racing greyhounds were getting training prior to placement, explained how much the greyhounds needed to learn.

They spend their racing lives in cages and don’t understand how to function in a normal environment. It took three men and a boatload of patience to teach the rescued greyhounds how to walk down stairs, for example — something that can be easily taught to a puppy in a few short sessions.

The few rescued greyhounds I’ve interacted with all seemed to grasp some of the greatest comforts of life-with-kind-humans pretty easily though, enjoying soft beds, warm sweaters, and yummy regular meals. They are large but quite gentle and often shy — perhaps a result of spending much of their early lives isolated from most other dogs and humans.

Spokespeople for the industry claim there was no abuse of the dogs, who were well cared-for; 500 deaths of racing greyhounds in Florida in just the last 5 years says otherwise, as do state reports of injuries and deaths, some with video documentation. Add in the rabid opposition from the industry to any kind of  regulation, like tracking injuries or prohibiting steroid use, and I somehow am having difficulty feeling too bad for the people whose livelihoods will be affected by the ban — track operators, breeders, track workers. I do hope they find work in a less-cruel industry.

Bubba for President

My name is Bubba, and I approved this message.
My name is Bubba, and I approved this message.

I spent some time recently with a wonderful dog, Bubba. The first time we got to hang out was right after a particularly vulgar Republican presidential debate, and the contrast got me thinking about how this dog (and many, many other dogs) embody traits I’d like to see in a presidential candidate but that are sadly lacking in the current Republican contenders.

Some background: Bubba is the spokesdog for a local rescue organization, the Petaluma branch of Marley’s Mutts. He experienced some of the worst abuse that anyone can imagine. Actually, it’s worse than I could have imagined before reading his case file. The amazing Sacramento DA who put Bubba’s tormentor in prison, will be Skyping in to my dog law class, so I had to read the entire file.

I generally don’t give my students “trigger warnings,” but before posting these documents, I not only warned them, I put little Adobe sticky notes in the PDF to flag particularly graphic sections. It was that bad. I won’t go into details here, except to point out that Bubba’s missing eye is the result of repeated injuries caused by the monster who abused him.

So why does Bubba trump any current candidate in the Republican field?

He’s not angry or vindictive. He’s suffered real injury, unlike many Tea Partiers or angry primary voters. Rather than seek a scapegoat or, say, hold all white men responsible, he has forgiven all humans. He loves everyone. He eagerly approached every new person who entered the fundraiser where I was visiting with him. His tail was always wagging, his face openly welcoming and friendly. He was gentle with small children. He appropriately introduced himself to and played with a 4-month-old Rottie puppy who stopped by, and he was equally friendly with the several other dogs there.

He’s goal-oriented, too. When he detected a whiff of potential treats emanating, say, from my pocket, he focused on me like a laser, using the mind meld that Jana has perfected over the years. “Feed me a Charlee Bear. Feed me a Charlee Bear.” It worked. He also mind-melded the server, who brought him at least six cookies, and that was just what I saw. Nothing gets past this dog; he carefully checked all newcomers for the scent of treats. He just might be a Labrador wearing  a very convincing disguise.

Bubba doesn’t back down in the face of an army. When he met my class of 20 students a week later, he sized up the challenge, then gave each one a warm greeting — and the sniff test. He very quickly figured out that the little black pouches many students had contained treats, and he went to work. The students never stood a chance. Bubba probably didn’t need dinner that night.

What else does candidate Bubba have to offer? I’m not sure what his health care plan includes beyond “kisses to make it better,” but the price sure beats my current insurance, and it is a treatment with a long track record of success. His education platform emphasizes motivation and rewards. And, though we didn’t discuss specific issues, his domestic and foreign relations approach heavily focuses on interspecies cooperation, collaboration, and peacemaking; he disdains the threats, calls for attacks, and shunning of those who are different that are so much a part of the current campaign.

In all, he’s an admirable candidate. He’s overcome a difficult past, shows intelligence and integrity, and has a demonstrated ability to cross the (species) aisle and negotiate favorable deals. Bubba has my vote!