Sympathy Pains?

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

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

That morning, and the previous day, Jackson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jackson 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 Jackson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jackson’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, Jackson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jackson 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, Jackson 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 Jackson 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.

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.