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!

 

Dogs & Consent

All in?

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.

A recent blog post by Patricia McConnell, “I’m Little And Adorable. Don’t Make Me Bite You.” describes the problem — and some potential solutions — very nicely.

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!

Stop, Thief!

Golden retriever Cali eyes the tomato plants

So we all know how much Cali loves raspberries. She was lucky this summer; we had a lot of raspberries. But, all good things come to an end — including raspberry season.

With that in mind, Cali has decided to broaden her diet. She grew tired of waiting for our very small first crop of blackberries to ripen, so she ventured farther afield. Or agarden.

Right over to the tomato plants.

Our tomatoes got off to a very slow start. The first plants perished in a late frost. The next group shivered through a chilly June before starting to grow and blossom. By late July, several medium-sized and small tomatoes were starting to ripen. One, in particular, looked almost ready.

Then, suddenly, it was gone!

Deni asked if I had picked it. I said I thought she had. Hmmmm…

Suspicion landed on Koala, who had been spotted pilfering strawberries. She denied any knowledge of tomatoes or their disappearance. Besides, as she reasonably pointed out, Cali spent by far the most time in the yard, often alone.

Cali feigned innocence.

Nevertheless, I got out some bird netting, which also promised protection from hungry animals other than birds. I wrapped the tomato patch, clipping the netting to the tomato supports with clothespins. We scored a few ripe tomatoes, which were delicious.

Just yesterday, I had my eye on one that was ripening nicely. I decided to give it another day, and wandered off to mow the lawn. A few minutes later, as I was carefully pushing my mower up and down, a few yards from the tomato bed, Deni came outside and asked, “What’s Cali eating?”

The crafty thief had poked her nose under the netting and stolen the tomato! Right under my not-so-watchful eyes!

Severe consequences were in order.

Deni had it covered. First she offered Koala a few bites of the ravaged tomato. Then she gave the rest of the tomato to Cali. And then she took both girls inside and gave them their special Friday dinner, which includes sardines.

I am confident that the lesson got through loud and clear. If Cali steals another tomato, she understands the dire consequences: Getting to eat the tomato, with sardines for dessert.

Take that, you little thief!

P.S.: Cali has also managed to pilfer a few blackberries, but boy, are they sour!

Reward or Punishment?

A tiny, perfect ice cream cone, about an inch tall
Photos by Allison Lester

Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.

Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.

For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.

The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.

In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.

Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.

Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.

For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.

The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.

It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.

How Old Is Your Dog?

Golden retriever Cali relaxes in the grass with a tennis ball
Cali keeps fit to stay youthful

How old is your dog in “human” years?

We used to just assume that a “dog year” equaled seven human years and estimate our dogs’ human-age-equivalent with a simple multiplication. Cali is 7 1/2 years old (calendar years) so she’s  … roughly my age in human years. (She still has a lot more fun though.)

Turns out that that doesn’t work.

Sometime last year, I first saw a chart that estimates dogs’ ages with adjustments for smaller- and larger-breed dogs since smaller dogs tend to live longer. Cali’s vet has this chart hanging on the wall, and I have seen it several places online. Essentially, in a dog’s first calendar year, she matures about as much as a human does during her first fifteen years. Then in year two, while your human offspring is a terrible two, your dog becomes almost civilized — roughly as mature as a 24-year-old human adult.

Guess what? According to this chart, Cali’s human-age equivalent is … drum roll … roughly the same as my age. And exactly the same as the old “7 years” trick.

But … yeah, that one doesn’t work anymore either.

Now we’ve got a shiny new method of calculating dogs’ ages. All you need is an advanced degree in mathematics …

Seriously. According to the Washington Post, all you have to do is “Multiply the natural logarithm of the dog’s age by 16, then add 31.”

Easy-peasy. Wait, what’s a natural logarithm??

Wikipedia to the rescue: “The natural logarithm of a number is its logarithm to the base of the mathematical constant e, where e is an irrational and transcendental number approximately equal to 2.718281828459.”

Or … not.

I have no idea what Cali’s age-equivalent would be with this formula. I’m going to just pretend it’s something like 25. And holding.