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.
In a recent conversation about puppy training, Deni mentioned trainers that “teach puppies false beliefs” about humans. One example she gave was that some puppy trainers “teach puppies that they can control” what the person does — by their own behavior.
I thought about that for a minute, then responded that I didn’t think that was what was happening. Instead, I describe that as teaching default behaviors.
I don’t see that as teaching puppies that they can control the human’s behavior (though that belief may be naive …). I describe it more in behavioral terms: The puppy learns that good things happen when she sits. If her trainers or human family members are consistent, the puppy also learns that those same good things do not happen when she jumps, whines, paws, or does other unwanted behaviors.
If puppy training starts very young (3-4 weeks of age), as it does for some service- and guide-dog puppies, the puppy catches on very quickly. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll have a tiny puppy who sits as hard as she can, placing herself right in front of you, to show you how good she is being. In hopes of getting a cookie, of course. This is where Deni’s reading of the situation comes in. The puppy (and older dog) does try to use this “good” behavior to get rewards on demand.
Who’s in charge here?
But that’s not how it is supposed to work. The human is supposed to retain some modicum of control. (Hey, it’s a nice idea, right?)
If the human is paying attention, they will ask the puppy to sit in many situations: Before going out an open door; while the human is getting meals ready for the puppy; for grooming; when greeting visitors or returning family members. You get the idea.
When the sit is paired with predictable situations and equally predictable rewards, the puppy internalizes the idea that the thing she wants — dinner, access to her yard, attention — arrives when she sits. And only when she sits. So sitting becomes the “default” behavior — what the puppy tries when she wants something the human has or controls.
Soon, the human doesn’t even have to ask the pup / dog to sit. When we’re about to get dinner for Cali and Koala, a meaningful look is enough to get them to sit at the kitchen doorway, quiet and not underfoot.
Unfortunately, most humans have a tough time being consistent. And puppies will always remember very fondly that one time (or one hundred times) she got rewarded when she jumped, barked, or whatever. And try it again. And again.
Dogs are pretty good at getting us to do what they want and need. Luckily for us, though, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
If your dog’s usual way of getting you to play with her or feed her or let her out is too rough or pushy, start teaching her a new way to ask. (Enlist a positive trainer if you need some help getting started.)
Once the old way stops working, the dog will eventually stop trying it. Remember, though, if your dog has spent years successfully getting you to play with and pet her by jumping up on you, for example, it could take a very long time to convince her that that no longer works.
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.
“Smell walks” with Cali and Koala are undergoing an update. It’s going better than I expected, actually.
Smell walks follow a suggestion from Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog. Basically, they are walks where the human actually lets the dog stop to sniff things. Since in the dog’s world, that is the one and only purpose of a walk, they tend to be mystified and frustrated by the large number of humans who seem to think walks are about walking.
Koala takes the concept beyond the extreme, though, sniffing Every. Single. Tree. And rock, blade of grass, and other, ickier stuff. After realizing that my usual 20-minute morning walk with Cali takes well over 45 minutes when Koala joins us, I knew that changes were needed.
I decided that each dog could choose 3 spots for long, deep sniffing sessions. The rest of the time, we’d walk. There’s one other rule: The deep sniffs do not include other dogs’ droppings.
I explained these rules to them carefully, and off we went. I counted each stop and told them how many they each had remaining in the bank. Even so, on the first modified walk, they seemed surprised and, yes, annoyed when I hustled them along after their 6 deep sniffs.
But they caught on pretty quickly. Soon, they started choosing their spots together, rather than taking turns. I could see one turn to the other, the other give a look — and both dive in. I think this approach provides them both with a greater return from their sniff budget.
They have started to return to the same spots, walk after walk. I’m guessing that those are spots favored by our neighborhood deer friends as well as the numerous other dogs who stroll the sidewalks.
Koala is quickly mastering the “walk-by sniff” — she samples an area with a quick sniff-survey of the air as we approach. Before we’re even there, she’s rejected it as a stop, quickly collecting all the information she needs without even slowing down.
Koala is efficient in another way: She often combines a deep-sniff session with other business needs. I appreciate that she frequently does that near one of the two trash cans on our usual route.
We’ve almost settled into a new routine. I can predict 3 or 4 of their stops already. Maybe they are weighing the others and will make their choices soon. Or perhaps they will always reserve 2 spots for impulse stops. Even dogs need some variety in their routines, after all.
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.
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.
Have you ever picked up a small dog or a puppy? (Of course you have!)
Did you ask for their consent first?
The first time I really thought about dogs consenting was when I read Gregory Berns’ How Dogs Love Us. He was very careful to ensure that all the dogs participating in his MRI studies did so voluntarily. They were not restrained and were free to walk away at any time.
But that was for a specific research project. How do dogs consent (or not) in daily life?
It’s a problem for leashed dogs, and an even bigger problem for dogs who are small and often carried by their humans. They can’t escape.
To summarize, it is terrifying for many dogs, especially small ones, when humans loom over them, put their faces up close, or, especially, snatch them up with no warning and lift them into the air. A dog who is being held cannot escape unwanted petting or kissing. A dog who is leashed often can’t either.
As dog-respecting humans, we should:
Not pet dogs we don’t know
Never pick up dogs we don’t know
“Ask” if a dog wants to be petted by proffering a hand and letting the dog approach us
Only pet dogs who approach or otherwise solicit a pet
Not allow strangers to pet our dogs unless the dogs indicate willingness (Cali does this by dragging me over to a person, any person, and wagging her tail while furiously batting her long blond lashes at them)
Not allow children to handle dogs roughly, play with them unsupervised, pick them up, or otherwise treat them as they treat inanimate dolls
Not allow others to pick up our dogs
“Ask” our dogs before picking them up
We should also follow some of McConnell’s tips for teaching dogs a cue to warn them if we want to pick them up — and check with them for consent. Some people use a cue word, a gesture, or both. Some dogs learn to offer a cue that they are willing to be picked up. The dog’s body language might offer some information, too. If they duck, back off, or otherwise try to avoid us when we’re picking them up … we should pay attention. And yes, some dogs love being held, sitting on laps, and constant cuddling. But a dog who loves sitting you your lap while you read doesn’t necessarily want to be carried around. And the dogs will generally let us know when they want cuddling — and when they do not.
Why does this matter? It’s a matter of respect and kindness.
Also, the key reason many small dogs bite or nip is fear. If they are frightened and cannot escape, we leave them few options. The teeth are usually a last resort but, well, we’re ultimately responsible for backing them into that corner. Even the ones who don’t bit might become anxious, avoid contact with people, and generally suffer.
Little dogs and of course puppies can be irresistible. But before indulging our desire to cuddle them, let’s all ask for their consent first!
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.
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.
Cali is in love. When the object of her affection is heading our way, she knows, instinctively. She gets increasingly excited until he walks in the door.
Then she dances and squeals with joy. And grabs a toy to run around with because that’s just her thing.
Ken is a digital nomad, and he’s spent the past few months in Montana. We were lucky enough to have him in Missoula for 4 weeks!
For Cali, it was love at first sight. They played in the back yard together. They picked raspberries. They played ball. We all went on several hikes. Cali even got to have a sleepover at Ken’s house! And, through it all, Cali spent plenty of time gazing adoringly at Ken.
Sadly, the nomad is moving on. To Arizona, of all places! Where he will foster a dog from Best Friends, just over the state line in Utah. (I’m not telling Cali that part; she’d be crushed.)
Poor Cali. I wonder if she’s the type to heal her broken heart with ice cream …
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.
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.