Unacceptable!

2 golden retrievers run in a huge meadow with tall grassesTo say that Cali is a “good eater” and not at all fussy about food and treats is to vastly understate. Which is why I was astonished when she rejected proffered treats recently.

We have a hierarchy of treats. This is an essential element of training and motivating dogs to do the right thing. The harder the “right thing,” the better the treat. High-value treats — treats that dogs will do anything for, must be reserved for the most challenging situations, or they lose their value.

I have special treats that I use only for off-leash recalls. This can be practice in an enclosed area or, more commonly, when we’re hiking in the wide-open spaces around our Missoula home. For more ordinary moments, and for walks in familiar places, I use doggy trail mix, a try-your-luck mixture of second-best treats like freeze-dried liver, lower-value, but still delicious, treats we find at the local holistic pet store, and “filler” treats — Charlee Bears and Cheerios, usually. These take on scent and taste from their better cousins in the doggy trail mix jar and are usually accepted eagerly by Cali and Orly.

I would have said “always accepted eagerly” until yesterday.

The weather was dicey, and I wanted to get them out for a run. When the rain paused, I grabbed girls and leashes, and off we went. Astute readers will note no mention of grabbing the good treats. Indeed. The dogs noticed that too.

I always have a handful of doggy trail mix in my coat pockets, and a reserve supply can usually be found in the car. So we’re walking along, dogs off leash, me periodically calling them back and offering treats Continue reading

The Modern Dog Apparently Needs Her Own Phone

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPadThose of us old enough to have been teenagers before everyone over the age of 4 had smartphones in their pockets may remember how desperately we wanted our own phone. By which I mean a physical telephone that was an extension of the family landline, but one that we could use (for hours) in the privacy of our own bedrooms.

Not only are today’s children more likely to have their own phones, apparently, so are some dogs.

The DogPhone, invented (one must wonder why) by a Scottish professor, is a device that allows a bored, lonely, anxious, or playful dog to call her owner’s cellphone. Actually, the device triggers a video call, which puts the dogs in a technical skills league ahead of many adults …

Showing some insight into dog behavior, the inventor of the DogPhone packaged the phone inside an appealing ball. This nicely sidesteps the problems of dialing without opposable thumbs and an inability to read the numbers on those tiny keys.

Apparently, your dog also needs her own laptop or tablet, as moving the ball triggers a video call which connects the dog’s laptop with the owner’s phone.

The inventor, Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, told Gizmodo that the device is intended to enable researchers to “study the way dogs experience technology” and “improve and study the user experience for dogs.”

I wasn’t aware that my dog had a smartphone “user experience” other than leveraging the observation that I am using one as a chance to bark or otherwise demand attention. It had also never occurred to me that Cali might “experience technology” other than as the source of many irritating noises or as competition for my attention. So if you’re mystified by the need for this device, you’re not alone.

Cali has many talents but holding up her end of a conversation is not among them. And I can deliver neither treats nor belly rubs via video phone; I also cannot let her out / back in or throw a tennis ball. Since those are my only useful functions, I am not sure how much use Cali would have for the device.

A short YouTube video about the DogPhone offers some interesting insights. A hint: Despite her statements about the importance of giving dogs agency and control over their use of technology, I am not convinced that this is actually about the dog. For instance, Hirskyj-Douglas mentions feeling anxious if her dog doesn’t phone at his “usual” time.

I’m all for giving dogs agency and choices — but within limits. And within parameters that are meaningful to dogs. I let Cali choose which toy to play with or which direction to go on our walks, for example. But I do not let her order takeout or borrow my credit card to shop at the Holistic Pet Nutrition Center, her local grocery, treat, and toy emporium.

Anyhow, most of us have enough friends and family members calling, texting, Snapchatting, and Slacking us throughout the workday to torpedo our productivity. Do we really need to add a bored dog to the mix? How are we going to resolve her boredom from afar anyhow? Or, consider the other end of the spectrum — the dog who just loves to play with this specific ball… triggering constant chats until the battery dies!

So no, Cali is not getting her own phone for Hanukkah this year (or any other year). And I am adding this to a growing list of dog-focused technologies that just did not need to be invented. Just because we can make a phone for dogs, that does not mean that we should!

It’s Here!

Golden retriever Cali sniffs to check whether any berries are ready
Do these berries pass the smell test?

With the incredible heat wave we’re having, raspberry season arrived early!

Cali waits for the raspberries eagerly each summer. She checks at least hourly to see if they are growing, then ripening. She naps in a little space between the berry canes so she won’t miss anything. A space that she created by pulling out, chewing, or flattening whatever was growing there.

As the tiny berries start to appear, her inspections increase. Until! There’s a partially ripe one. She grabs it!

As the days unfold, she gets more selective, choosing only the juiciest ripe berries. She’s careful to avoid the tiny thorns and, unlike me, is rarely clumsy enough to knock a perfect berry off, letting it fall into the thicket of canes (and weeds).

Cali plucks ripe berries from a mixed cluster, leaving green ones behind
Yum!

The season is ramping up, and there are enough berries for both of us. I pick the ones higher up on the canes, while the lower ones — and the ones I drop — are Cali’s. I also get all the ones in the back alley.

When I pick berries, I tend to put at least as many into my bowl as I put into my mouth: One for me, one for the bowl, one for me  …

Not Cali. She picks hers like this: One for Cali, one for Cali, one for Cali, one for Cali…

 

 

 

Doctor Dogs

Most people are aware of guide dogs, mobility service dogs, and possibly hearing dogs. But dogs help people with medical issues in myriad ways beyond these service dog roles. In her latest book, author Maria Goodavage explores dozens of the tasks dogs perform to diagnose, treat, heal, and comfort humans. And the epilogue and acknowledgements sections briefly describe dozens more that were omitted from the main sections of the book (the end sections might have been my favorite part …).

Dogs who detect COVID are in the news; but fewer people are aware of dogs’ ability to detect several types of cancer, as well as diabetics’ sugar highs and lows. Goodavage even has wonderful stories of dogs who detect their human partners’ impending seizures or cardiac incidents …

Moving beyond physical ailments, Goodavage devotes several sections to dogs who assist in times of crisis and trauma, whether serving an individual with PTSD or showing up at court to comfort children testifying in abuse cases, the dogs are on the job.

The book is a comprehensive catalog of ways that dogs help people, but it’s more than that. The thread connecting all of the stories is the human-canine relationship. For many of the “services” dogs perform, neither their partners nor the dogs’ trainers can identify what the dog is detecting. The dogs are deeply connected to their humans and figured out a pattern, decided that the human needed some help, and came up with a way to let them know.

For example, Goodavage is careful to explain that it’s not really possible to train a dog to detect an impending seizure. Many organizations do train dogs to respond in specific ways if their partner has a seizure, though. Some of these trained dogs figure out a pattern of behavior, chemical changes, or something else that reliable predicts a seizure and begin to warn their person. Or a parent, in the case of a child. There are even stories of untrained dogs figuring this all out on their own.

In the case of dogs who are trained to detect the scent of hypoglycemia, for example, or bladder cancer, Goodavage muses about “rogue” doctor dogs — dogs alerting random strangers while out and about. It’s not impossible; some trained dogs have raised the alarm without prompting.

The book is a great read. Goodavage is a stellar storyteller, and she’s done deep research. In addition to interviewing dozens (hundreds?) of trainers, handlers, and people partnered with doctor dogs of all specialties, Goodavage leads readers through all the current research (with a 20-page reference list  to back her up) on how dogs do this and how effective they are. Despite the deep dive into science and research, the book is engaging and readable.

Streaming Now: Dogs on the Silver Screen

A tan dog and black and white puppy sit with Istanbul's skyline in the background
Movie poster for Stray

I recently watched not one but two new documentaries focused on dogs. Both are available to stream.

We Don’t Deserve Dogs

We Don’t Deserve Dogs highlights the human-dog relationship by profiling dog people around the world. It offers a fascinating glimpse at dogs and their humans in Uganda, Nepal, Peru … and several other countries where, it turns out, people fuss and fawn over and spoil their dogs as much as we Americans do.

I was ready to love this film until we got to a segment near the end which, to be fair, the Bark review linked above warns about. It addresses the dog meat trade in Vietnam.

From reading the Bark review, I was expecting it. But I was unprepared for how long and how graphic it was. This segment ruined the movie for me. Bark says it starts at about an hour and seven minutes in; if you watch, I recommend stopping the movie at that point.

Stray

Stray, the second documentary, offers a dog’s-eye view of life on the streets in Istanbul, a city known for its huge population of stray dogs and for laws protecting them. (There are even special vending machines to feed them!)

Following Zeytin, a beautiful mixed-breed, as she goes about her life is fascinating. There’s not really a story and no dialogue. Some overheard conversations provide the only human interaction in the film.

Zeytin has a pack of canine buddies whom she hangs out with, plays and fights with, and finds food with.

She also seems to have a community of humans she’s in regular contact with. Among this group are a group of young men, refugees from Syria, also living on the streets in Istanbul. The film is a subtle commentary on the experience and treatment of both the dogs and the humans.

The real story of the movie, though, emerged when I watched two short films bundled with Stray. Interviews featuring the filmmaker, Elizabeth Lo, these extras brought out Lo’s view of dogs and the cultural differences she saw while researching and making Stray.

It’s the difference between seeing dogs as needing to be owned and “protected” by humans and seeing dogs as independent beings, capable and deserving of the opportunity to live life on their own terms.

 

How Clean Are Dogs’ Paws?

a dog paw and two human hands connect
My paws are clean. Are yours?

A common objection heard from people who dislike (or fear) dogs and don’t want to allow dogs to enter their space is that dogs are dirty.

In response to too-frequent denials of access to assistance dog teams, some researchers in The Netherlands decided to check into this contention. “The main argument for denial of access is that dogs compromise hygiene with their presence, which could cause a health hazard. Meanwhile, people are allowed to walk into and out of public places freely,” they wrote.

They recruited volunteers — 25 assistance dog teams and 25 pet dog / human pairs. The volunteer dogs and humans took 15-30 minute walks together, then allowed the researchers to collect samples from their paws and the soles of their shoes (respectively). The researchers tested the samples for Enterobacteriaceae (a common cause of hospital infections), Clostridium difficile, and other bacteria.

And guess what?

The dogs’ feet showed significantly less bacterial contamination than the people’s shoes. “The general hygiene of dog paws is better than that of shoe soles,” the report concludes. They speculate that dogs’ habit of grooming themselves, including their feet, could be the reason — even people who remove their shoes before going into their own homes rarely clean the soles of their shoes. Dog saliva contains high levels of “antimicrobial substances,” the study says.

In addition, some people routinely clean their dogs’ paws upon returning home. I do that if we’ve been walking where people have used snow-melt chemicals or lawn “greening” chemicals or if Cali is excessively wet and muddy.

To be fair, dirty paws are not the only reason that people think that dogs will bring dirt into their houses or businesses. I haven’t found a study that compares the amount of biological ick (yup, that’s the scientific term) humans shed vs. dogs but … I suspect that goldens and labs would not come out on top. Then there are the drooly breeds … Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

Hats off to ‘Thoughts of Dog’

Book cover of Thoughts of Dog shows simply drawn yellow dog with stuffed elephant

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.

Nelson got started sharing his uncanny dog wisdom a couple of years ago (don’t know HOW I missed it …) with “We Rate Dogs.” You can see some examples on this blog post: 50 Times People Asked To Rate Their Dogs, And Got Hilarious Results.

Calendar page showing dog saying "Today I waited patiently while the human checked little boxes to try to change the world"I first heard of Thoughts of Dog when a friend shared a page from last year’s calendar. I immediately ordered the 2021 calendar.

Highly recommended whenever you need a lift or a laugh.

Default Behaviors

A back view of golden Cali and lab Koala as they watch the human prepare their dinner
Both dogs sit while they supervise meal prep

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.

Cali tries her magic sit by the back door
Cali hopes that the magic sit (or lie down) will produce results — even when no humans are nearby

My example was the “Magic Sit.”

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.

Good luck!

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.

Favorite Stops on Our Smell Walks

Golden Cali and Lab Koala agree to sniff deeply at a grassy spot
Pooling the “sniff” budget pays off

“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.