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.

Scarred for Life

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.
Not even an ice-cream cone can erase the traumatic memory of a late dinner.

After more than 20 years of dog parenting, it finally happened. I did the unthinkable.

Dinner was late. Very late.

Sometimes dinner is a little bit late if I am out; often, dinner is extremely early because I am going to be out.

Dinner is supposed to be served between 5 and 5:30. Cali thinks it should be served earlier (and then again later) but we agree to disagree. “A little late” or “acceptably late” — acceptable to the humans, that is — is anytime up until about 7.

One evening, not long ago, I was busy with some stuff. Cali was off doing her own thing. Then, around 8 or maybe (could it really have been?) close to 8:30, I wandered into the kitchen … and noticed that I had not given Cali her dinner. I have no excuse.

When I called her, she dragged her weak, starving self into the kitchen. I apologized profusely and gave her dinner. All seemed to be, if not well, on the mend.

But.

Since then — it has been several weeks — I notice that Cali is anxious if 5 pm passes and there is no food in the bowl. She keeps a closer eye on me. She starts reminding me to stop working earlier and earlier. Then she leads me to the kitchen.

I think she’s scarred for life.

The anti-jackpot

In dog training, there’s a concept we call a jackpot. If the dog does something really wonderful, we “jackpot” them with lots and lots of treats, effusive praise (if they like that sort of thing; Cali just rolls her eyes and asks for more cookies).

Similarly, dogs might jackpot themselves, inadvertently or very intentionally. For instance, the dog who trolls the countertops … and one day discovers that she can reach something wonderful: someone’s momentarily unguarded snack, half a loaf of banana bread, the roast chicken that’s cooling on the counter.

That dog has become a counter surfer for life.

The jackpot, whether delivered by a willing human or self-administered, is highly memorable. The event that immediately preceded it becomes, by association, highly memorable. Better yet, it could happen again.

That’s why Cali tries to walk me to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream stand with free dog cones, every day. Her pleasant experiences there could happen again.

That’s why dogs return to that spot on the dog beach where they found that really cool dead fish to roll in last time … or last year. It could happen again.

That’s why, ahem, feeding the dog a piece of pizza crust just once sets you up for a lifetime of sad puppy eyes, drool on your shoes, and a dog who races to fetch a $20 bill whenever the pizza deliverer appears. (That’s what I hear, anyhow …) It could happen again.

Cali’s traumatic experience with late dinner was her anti-jackpot. It was truly, unbearably horrible, the opposite of an exciting jackpot experience. But even more memorable. And it could happen again.

 

 

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.

 

Dogs Are in Sync with Their People

Cali, a golden retriever, wears a cowboy hat, red bandana, and a huge smile

Stay calm. I’ve got this.

Way back when I first started learning about dogs and dog training, I learned something cool: Dogs synchronize with their people. This synchronization is more pronounced in dog-human pairs with a strong bond; the New York Times recently described dogs syncing with their human families’ children.

This is a great illustration of the strong connections that dogs develop with all members of their human family — not only the adult who feeds or walks them or, to dust off an old and thoroughly debunked concept, the “alpha” in the family.

The dogs might synchronize physically, facing the way we do or adapting their gait and speed to sync with ours or sitting when we do. The internet is full of adorable videos of dogs syncing with or mimicking their humans’ yoga poses.

They also sync with our emotions. The closer the relationship, the more the dog is likely to synchronize with the person (or the person with the dog!).

A teaching tool

When I was learning to teach dogs new verbal cues and associate them with behaviors, I learned to use this. For instance, we’d say “down” is a deep, calm voice. And “let’s go” in an energetic and upbeat way. This was meant to encourage the dog to synchronize with the emotion and energy level we were conveying to strengthen the association of the action with the word.

This feels a little manipulative (because it is), but it works for teaching. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to understand — or change — your dog’s behavior.

Cali can be unpredictable when we encounter other dogs on our walks. She’s nearly always happy to see and even meet dogs who are smaller than she is. She’s usually eager to say hello to other goldens, and most Labs. She’s nervous about other dogs who are her size or larger, and there are some breeds (yes, Cal is a doggy racist …) that she dislikes on sight, chief among them any sort of doodle.

So, naturally, when I see someone walking toward us with a friendly, enormous doodle straining to say hello, I feel anxious.

While my reaction came from multiple experiences with Cali’s negative reactions, it is now feeding or even causing her to become anxious — and react to the dog with an even more extreme amount of grumbling and even growling. Cali!

That’s because she is synchronizing with my negative emotions.

On the other hand, if I notice the dreaded doodle when we’re far enough apart, and I stay calm, soothing Cali with “you’re fine, let’s just keep going,” as we pass, leaving plenty of space between the dogs, she might give them a look or mutter under her breath, but she won’t pull or growl.

Cali is a natural

Cali uses this principle to help out her best friend, Maisy. Maisy is a lot more anxious about other dogs than Cali — any and all other dogs. And some people too.

But Cali loves meeting new people. She’s convinced Maisy to say hello to families, kids, and even unfamiliar men! Maisy’s reaction to other dogs is a lot calmer when she’s with Cali too — as long as Cali (and I) stay calm — and make it possible for her to stay a comfortable distance from the other dogs.

The trick, of course, is seeing the other people and dogs first. If we’re surprised by someone coming around a corner, the dogs’ reaction is much faster than mine and things can quickly go south. Even then though, the solution lies in projecting calm as we walk away — not always easy to do.

I’m not suggesting that staying calm will magically cure your anxious dog, but it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve. Deepening our ability to stay calm in unpredictable circumstances is beneficial to us as well as to our dogs! The best part is that the synchronization thing is circular. Your dog syncs with you more as your bond deepens. And the more in sync you are, the closer your relationship will become.

Dog Photos Are Good For You. Really.

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell my it is time to stop working

It’s official. Science has demonstrated that looking at pictures of dogs increases your sense of well-being.

It’s funny how often science simply confirms what we dog lovers already know, have always known, and use daily to our benefit. Think about it — if looking at a picture of a dog makes you feel good, how much better do you feel when you look at, or cuddle your actual dog. Bonus points if you have multiple dogs.

The study may have stacked the deck a wee bit, though. Participants were put into one of three groups. They all answered questions about how they were feeling, then they looked at different online content. One lucky group looked at pictures of dogs. Another looked at popular funny posts. The unluckiest group spent the time reading tweets in (then-president) Trump’s official feed.

They then answered the questions again. All three groups had significant changes in their feelings of well-being. The Trump tweet group felt worse — even the people in the group who were Trump supporters felt worse. The funny post people felt a little better. But the lucky dog people — well, you know what I am going to say.

Enough chatter. Just look at some dog pictures. Here are a few to get you started. You’re welcome.

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.

 

A Secret Weapon in the 2021 Brackets?

An empty NCAA bracket form

Is your dog into sports?

One lucky dog owner had help — or a secret weapon? — when completing their NCAA basketball brackets this year: The family dog.

Apparently, with a lot of time on their paws, Satchel, the dog, took to chasing basketball statistics. And came up with a winning bracket. Satchel’s owner filled out the bracket (following careful instructions, no doubt) to prioritize teams with canine mascots (Go Huskies!). Those with non-canine non-human animal mascots came next.

As a person who rarely (OK, never) watches TV sports, if I were to fill out a bracket, I would have done exactly what Satchel did. I mean really, how else would you choose?

Besides, Satchel is hardly the first non-human to excel at sports betting. Remember Paul, the octopus who correctly predicted the outcome in a majority of Euro 2008 and all World Cup 2010 football (soccer to Americans) matches? Paul is probably the only octopus with a biography on Wikipedia, too …).

Satchel and Paul are joined in sports betting prowess by Cruz, a parrot who correctly bet on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win this year’s Super Bowl. (Cruz was alone in the Washington Post roundup of animal predictions; the unnamed tortoise, dolphin, sand cat, and panda all chose Kansas City.) Jane the river otter, a Tampa resident, and fellow local Buffett (a manatee) also loyally — and accurately — picked the Bucs. Their friend Nick, a dolphin, unfortunately chose the Chiefs, ending his yearlong winning streak.

So, next time you need some assistance with your sports predictions, just check with your dog. Whatever you do, don’t ask the dolphin.

Dogsheep

Black Lab Koala relaxes on a dog bed
Would a Koala-wool blanket keep us warm in a Montana winter?

We all know about sheepdogs — dogs whose job it is (or was) to herd sheep, protect flocks, and herd small children … but what about dogsheep?

A recent New York Times article describes an ancient dog-human relationship: Coast Salish peoples, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, kept large numbers of small dogs … for their fur. The dogs were sheared like sheep (not killed for their fur), and the fur was used, along with fibers from goats and other animals, to make wool for weaving. The dog fur strengthened the yarn.

This is an intriguing possibility. Research indicates that these dogs, like their humans, ate a diet made up primarily of seafood. The dogs ate a lot of salmon, anchovies, and other Pacific fishes — much like Koala’s modern-day diet. Koala has a gorgeous thick, glossy coat. She appears to have far too much of this luxurious fur, as she leaves copious quantities of it … well, everywhere. Perhaps we should be gathering it and knitting it into warm blankets.

There’s another piece of this article that is interesting: The dogs were often buried with their humans or in the same burial grounds, and some graves are as much as 5,000 years old. As researchers dug into the evidence of the dog-human relationships, they realized that Coast Salish raised and bred animals far earlier than many history books reveal.

Unfortunately, the small woolly dog breed no longer seems to exist. As the NYT says, “with colonization” came imported textiles and reduced demand for the local wool. Though who knows? The recent re-discovery of New Guinea singing dogs offers some hope that a “lost” ancient breed could still survive … somewhere.

The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

They Did It!

close up of dog nose
The “big gun” to combat COVID-19 spread

The Finnish dogs win!

In late September, Finland launched a pilot program using dogs to detect travelers carrying COVID-19 at the Helsinki airport!

Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).

Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.

The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.

The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.

Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!