Cali’s Pronouns Are She, Her, Hers

Cali holds a toy that looks like a "banned" sign
Don’t call me “it.”

It’s long past time to consider our dogs, and of course all other sentient creatures, as living beings. Not as “it”s.

A letter signed by dozens of animal rights and animal welfare luminaries was recently the subject of a radio op-ed by NPR’s Scott Simon. The letter asks the AP, the Associated Press, to change its style and use the correct gendered pronouns when referring to animals — and the nonbinary “they” in other instances. The current AP style for animals is “Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name.”

The letter states, “This is too limiting to writers as well as fellow nonhuman animals, most of whom are discussed abstractly and thus their sex is not established.We pay respect to humans whose sex is indeterminate or gender fluid by using he/she or the non-binary term they. That same courtesy should be extended to all animals, as they are gendered beings.”

As a writer and editor, I work for several organizations that use AP style. I work with it every day. I also read a lot of news media from outlets that use AP style.

Simon’s op-ed supports this change and calls attention to how much of life we share. Indeed. If the role of pets in getting us through the pandemic doesn’t show that, I don’t know what would.

I can think of numerous compelling arguments for recognizing nonhuman animals’ dignity and worth with pronouns that don’t objectify them. Starting with their obvious vitality, consciousness, intelligence, empathy … and other traits too numerous to mention that set dogs, cats, birds, and thousands of other species apart from toasters, shoes, or cardboard boxes. They are not “things.” They are beings.

It’s also more accurate. Accurately labeling living beings is low-hanging fruit in media organizations’ efforts to regain trust and build up their credibility.

Treating nonhumans as things and describing them that way makes it easier to justify mistreatment of them. We don’t have to acknowledge their suffering if they are seen as equivalent to inanimate objects.

Organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose head signed the letter, have spent years fighting for legal rights for nonhuman animals, for giving legal weight to treating them differently from other property owned and used by humans. Cleaning up our language is an obvious place to start.

Language is powerful. Propagandists, politicians, and marketers have long known that. And language evolves. Simon describes how our use of pronouns has changed, from wide use of a supposedly generic “he” to more inclusive pronouns that fully recognize humans all along the gender spectrum. Marketers and advertisers increasingly (and gratingly) use “who” when talking about corporations. Using “who” rather than “that” for a living, breathing sentient being surely makes more sense than that!

Cali would like everyone to know that her pronouns are she, her, hers. She is not an it or a that. She’s also a huge fan of Scott Simon and NPR. And she really, really hopes that the dogs hold on to their title by winning pet wars on Montana Public Radio’s spring pledge drive next week.

 

Hanukkah Dogs!

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back with unlit Hanukkah candles in the background
Is it time for Hanukkah cookies yet?

Cali and Koala love Hanukkah, after discovering their Jewish-dog cores this year.

It all started last year. We were on a road trip during Hanukkah. I found a creative solution to celebrating without setting fire to our hotel room and being evicted into the winter night: a little advent box for Hanukkah,A blue box with a hanukka candelabra, showing a picture of a flame for each night and two open drawers with dog treats inside

Each night, we’d open the tiny cardboard drawer, eat the treats that were inside, and turn the drawer around to show the lit candle image.

I saved the box, and this year, I filled the drawers with dog treats, offering a different treat each night. This provided something easy and fun for Hanukkah without having to actually buy gifts.

Deni and I called the dogs over each evening and lit the candles. I said the blessings in Hebrew. Then we gave the girls their nightly treat.

By day 4, they’d really caught on.

We did a mid-day app-powered candle-lighting with friends in Israel. As the family in Israel lit their candles and (it was only noon in Montana, so we weren’t actually lighting yet) sang the blessings, Koala woke from her nap, raced upstairs, and sat next to me, wearing an expectant look. Seconds later, Cali emerged from the bedroom, shaking off sleep, and joined Koala.

Blessings finished, I chatted with my friends for a few minutes. The dogs sat. And waited.

I finally caught on — they were waiting for their treats!

They eagerly assembled later in the day for the real lighting, with cookies.

It had taken only 4 repetitions of blessing, then cookie, for the girls to learn that all they had to do was show up while the human was mumbling something unintelligible and they’d get a surprise treat. Why does it take so many more repetitions (like, 100) for them to learn to … say … put a toy in the basket to get a treat?

All good things, even Hanukkah, come to an end. Koala looked devastated as she watched me carry the Hanukkah box down to the basement. Don’t worry, girls; we’ll save the magic treat box for next year. Happy Hanukkah! 

Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

Your Dog Is a Logician

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala loves to cuddle

Guest Post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala and I have few conflicts, but those that we have get tiresome for the person-side of the partnership. Licking. Koala is a licky dog. I don’t like to be licked. I think I have found a solution to the licking conflict and realized something more about canine language comprehension.

I’m not unreasonable. A quick kiss now and again is appreciated and fair exchange for an ear scratch or a snuggle. But, spare me what became a nightly routine: The enthusiastic leap when I invite Koala to come up on the people bed for a cuddle, ending with her upper body on my chest and nose at my chin. “Oh, you let me up on the bed!” her body language says. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m so happy to be up here!” Rapid tail wag. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m such a lucky dog!” LICK LICK LICK. My plaintive, “Enough!” or commanding, “Off the bed!” ended the licking, but ignored Koala and her intent. This was not how I wanted to end the day with my canine partner.

Recently, I invited her up on the bed and, as she came close to my face, I calmly and nicely said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.” Koala stopped. She lay down next to me with more restraint than usual, nose close to my chin. Her tongue slowly reached out to touch my face. Again, I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.”

She stopped. Sighed. Relaxed against my side so that I could stroke her head. Soon she shifted to her back so that I could rub her belly. No licking, just a peaceful, happy dog. A few minutes later, I said that it was time for her to go to her own bed, which she did without protest and without being rejected. I heard Koala settle down on her dog bed next to her Golden Retriever sister and thought about why my warning worked.

Conditional reasoning starts with compound sentences that use “If, then.” Dogs know the “if, then” construction. Sometimes the conditional is time, such as when Pam says, “We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll give you dinner.” Koala and Cali know the concepts of “walk” and “dinner,” but on hearing this sentence, they head for the door, not the dinner bowls. More often the conditional is action: “If you get the paper, then I’ll give you a cookie,” “If you sit quietly for a few minutes, you’ll get your dinner,” “If you come here, then I’ll rub your ears the way that you like.” The “if, then” condition sets up a trust relationship between dog and human. Dogs that stop coming when called do so because they think that their humans have fallen down on their part of what should happen when they obey.

Koala’s understanding of the “if, then” connection when I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed,” was even more complex. This sentence had a condition — If you lick — but a negative consequence. Koala needed to turn the sentence around to reason, “I don’t want to get off the bed, so I better not lick.”

And even more complicated was her realization that she’d have to get off the bed in a few minutes anyway to go to her own bed and that that part of the nighttime routine was not a punishment. The question was whether she could control her licking so that she got a cuddle on the people bed for a few minutes first.

Koala’s success was evidence for her ability to master human language and what is implied by what her people say. Its mastery that all of our dogs are capable of achieving. The limitation is with us humans, who often fail to see how asking our dogs to use their conceptual abilities can make life easier for both humans and canines.

Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.

 

The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together

 

My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar

 

Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day

 

Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers

 

They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open

 

The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.

In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.

 

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

Miscommunication

IMG_3201I was on deadline, struggling to communicate with my computer (and failing). Cali came over and ever-so-gently nudged me. I patted her and kept working. Another nudge. I had taken a ball-throwing break about 10 minutes earlier, so I distractedly said, “Not now,” and kept working.

Another nudge. I ignored her. More nudges. Insistent, but so, so gentle and sweet. I patted her, told her to wait a few minutes, told her she was cute. Not what she wanted. This went on for about 10 minutes, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Finally, deciding that rebooting my computer was the only possible step, I shut everything down, rebooted, and got up. “OK, Cali, where’s your ball?” I asked, wandering outside.

Cali wasn’t outside. Neither was her ball. I called her again and looked around the yard. No Cali, no ball.

IMG_3195I went inside. Cali was standing in front of the sofa. She came to me, then walked back to the sofa. Touched it gently. Looked under it. Touched it. Looked at me.

The ball was under the sofa. Actually two balls were under the sofa, one dry, dusty, covered with tufts of fur. So much for my housekeeping skills. And my communication skills.

I gave her back the ball. She graciously allowed me to throw it twice, but really, all she wanted was her ball. And her long-lost second ball. She happily stretched out in the yard nuzzling the balls as I went back to work.

I’m constantly amazed by how clearly our dogs communicate — if we’re paying attention. And of course, this clear and detailed exchange reveals how little actual words matter to human-dog conversations. No, our communication does not suffer from dogs’ inability to speak human language. It suffers from our inability to pay attention, to focus on what they are saying — without words, but with eloquence nonetheless.