Dog News Round-Up

Conan, a Belgian Malinois, smiles for his portraitLet’s wrap up 2019 with a look at a few good-news stories about dogs!

1. More dogs have great jobs

A 2-year-old Labrador in Chicago that solemnly swore to uphold the law and comfort children is working hard in the Cook County courthouse. Hatty, the dog, was trained in part by inmates. And her job is to comfort children or others with anxiety or mental illness who are testifying in court cases. Hatty is a role model for dogs everywhere.

2. Dogs who travel for their jobs are getting better working conditions

Slowly, slowly airlines, the FAA, and others in the airline and transportation arenas are coming to their senses and enforcing some (very minimal, but there’s hope …) rules around which non-humans are allowed to fly and what behavior is acceptable. Service dog teams are involved in the struggle as more and more horrifying stories of untrained emotional support animals interfering with their work emerge. Everyone deserves a safe and respectful work environment, including service dogs.

3. Dogs are teaching humans about compassion and empathy

The heartbreaking story of an ill, orphaned giraffe was made a tiny bit less awful by the dog. Hunter, a guard dog, befriended the young giraffe immediately. And when Hunter realized that his friend was ill, he remained with the baby giraffe night and day, even keeping vigil after the giraffe died.

4. People with dogs live longer, happier lives

It’s long been known that dog ownership alleviates loneliness and social isolation and encourages people to get more exercise. Now we can add improved longevity after a heart attack or stroke to the list. A Swedish study found that individuals who had had either a heart attack or a stroke and who lived alone had a 33% lower risk of death following a heart attack and a 27% lower risk of death following a stroke.

5. Romance thrives

Sometimes, the girl next door is just the one. A romantic at heart, Harry just knows that Holly is the girl for him. This golden boy has been courting his love for seven years. He politely asks her parents if she can come on dates, and he even brings her presents.

6. Heroic dog makes full recovery

Conan, the dog hero who took down an ISIS leader, made a full recovery from injuries suffered during the operation. The Belgian Malinois, who is a noncommissioned U.S. military officer, was also honored at the White House for his brave service.

Have a wonderful 2020, and please be on the lookout for good-news dog stories to share here!

Friends Forever

Happy brown dog on grass
This photo from the Daily Dodo website shows a grown-up dog who recognized her foster mom.

Dogs have long memories. They’ll recognize a person they love even several years after they last met.

A news story a few weeks ago about a woman who found her missing dog after 12 years as well as one about a pup who recognized her foster mom after a year reminded me of a couple of similar experiences.

I fostered a puppy once in Israel. She stayed with me for a couple of weeks before I found her a great home. Several months or a year later, I was walking down the street in downtown Jerusalem, and this huge dog walking toward me got very excited. Always a sucker for a cute dog, I stopped to say hi. And realized it was the foster puppy, all grown up.

And just this past summer, Cali and I were walking along the river in Missoula, when Cali spied a friend waaayyyy down the path. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Cali sees an actual friend or a friend she hasn’t met yet, but she was very excited. As we got closer, I recognized friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Dog lovers, they stopped. The husband recognized us, but the wife had eyes only for the dog. She commented on how friendly this dog was as she petted and cuddled Cali for a few minutes  … and finally looked up to see me and her husband stifling our laughter. Of course Cali was happy to see her! Cali adores her!

This of course confirms that our dogs do really love us. And, in the case of the lost dog, underscores how important it is to microchip your dog (and keep the registration current) — that’s how that Florida woman in the first example was reunited with her dog after 12 years!

To me, it also means something else: The current trend toward acknowledging that dogs and ther sentient animals are different from inanimate property is long overdue. We need to do a better job of looking out for their interests and considering their well-being.

A Mind of Her Own

A dirt path, some tall grass and trees. Cali, a golden retriever, is hiding
Where’s Cali?

I was talking to a friend the other day who said of her dog,”She’s smart. She doesn’t obey, but she is smart.”

I said that obedient is not at all the same as smart, and maybe the least obedient dogs are some of the smartest.

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define or measure “intelligence” in non-humans. Some dog writers and scholars equate trainability and / or obedience with intelligence. I disagree.

Life is certainly simpler and often more pleasant if your dog generally does as you ask. But, unless the dog is likely to face severe punishment for disobeying, I don’t think that following orders has much to do with intelligence.

Cali is a case in point. When it really matters that she listen, she usually does. But one area where we constantly clash is that, when we’re in an off-leash area and I decide it’s time to go home, she nearly always disagrees.

Cali is nestled among grass and weeds, well hidden
Found her

She’ll then play her favorite game, “Snake in the Grass.” She lies down in the tallest grass she can find and suddenly, coincidentally experiences a bout of total deafness.

She does this at home, too, but the grass is greener and shorter so she’s not actually invisible (unless she’s hiding among the raspberry canes).

It’s not that she doesn’t know what I want; she knows. She simply disagrees and is asserting her own agenda. Often, she’s right; our hike or play session was much too short. She is not at all sympathetic to the argument that I need to get back to work (she thinks I work far too much).

She shares her own opinions often — in choosing the direction of our walks or picking a toy or choosing to sleep downstairs instead of in her bed in the bedroom or any number of things. She can be very determined, too.

She knows her own mind, has preferences, and figures out ways to communicate them. I see these as signs of intelligence — more than simply and consistently doing as she’s told. Though that would be nice sometimes.

Of Course Your Dog Loves You

The New York Times published an interview with one of my favorite ethologists, researchers, and authors, Carl Safina this week. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the most important part: Of course our dogs love us.

If Carl Safina says so, it must be true. In addition, he says that dogs, as well as elephants, primates, and more, have consciousness.

None of this is news to people who know dogs well — but it is great to see scientists willing to talk openly about these ideas. As little as 10 or 15 years ago, talking about dogs having consciousness would have ended a person’s research career.

Safina describes his reasoning: “What is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones.”

When you’re home, where do your dogs hang out? If they hang out with you, when they could choose any other room, well … they want to be with you.

I’m trying really hard to be OK with the fact that Cali spends a lot of the day on my bed, watching the neighborhood — while I am upstairs working.

(To be fair, she spends a large part of most days up there too and is wherever I am in the evenings and when I am not working.)

If you’re not convinced by your dogs’ behavior, read some of the MRI studies by Gregory Berns and others. Your dog loves you … and it’s not only because of the treats and belly rubs.

Snuffleupagus

I always loved Mr. Snuffleupagus. Maybe that’s why I immediately found the idea of a snuffle mat appealing; I like the name. Too lazy to make one, I’d sort of been looking to get one for Cali, but hadn’t actually done anything.

Then, at my friend Tom’s house, I saw one for the first time. I knew that Cali would love it. The idea is that you bury kibble or treats in the mass of fleece strips, and the dog uses her nose to sniff and snuffle — and find the treats.

Cali loves food (she’s a golden, after all) and she loves using her nose. Perfect.

Tom told me that he got it from a fellow trainer who lives nearby. That’s “nearby” in Montana terms, which may not mean what you think it does.

In any case, Deni and I decided to take a nice drive one Sunday afternoon. We met trainer Joni Muir, who makes these mats during long Montana winters. We chose two colorful mats and were on our way.

Unsurprisingly, the highly food-focused girls needed little guidance. Their noses work just fine, thank you.

I took Cali’s upstairs. While I’m working, she often hangs out with me. When we need a break, I take a few minutes to hide treats in the fleece forest. I keep telling her not to watch while I hide them, but she doesn’t listen.

She then spends about 10 minutes finding them. She first does a survey of the entire mat and nabs the obvious ones. I’m using Charlee Bear treats, and they are always tucked out of sight. So the obvious ones are not obvious to me.

She then does a methodical up-and-down sniff of the entire mat, in rows. Then a second survey in columns. She is very thorough. Only once have I found a single overlooked (oversmelled?) Charlee Bear.

Koala joined us upstairs a few times while Deni was away, and I set them both up with their mats. Cali was a little pushy and got started a few seconds ahead of Koala, the instant I put the first mat on the floor. Even so, I think they had a photo finish, both scenting and scarfing their treats in a few minutes.

I suspect that, the more we use the mats, the more they will smell like food and the harder the girls will have to work to suss out the hidden treats. But their noses are so much more sensitive than mine that I can only speculate. Freshly hidden treat could smell completely different from day- or days-old treat residue. Only the dogs know!

 

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.

It’s That Time of Year …

Can I please have a cookie?

Cali knows the drill by now. No breakfast. People at the vet’s office making a big fuss over her but not offering cookies, no matter how many times she helpfully points out the cookie jar that is right there under their noses. And her own nose and rumbling tummy.

They poke and prod her, take about a gallon of blood, clip her nails, and try to make her pee into a cup. She sure shows them, though. They chase her around with that huge black stick with the cup for hours. She has to stay at the vet’s office nearly all day … oh, wait.

It’s her annual physical for the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali would rather be in this other study her mom just read about. The one testing a vaccine for cancer. It just started and the 800 dogs are getting shots. Half will get the experimental vaccine; half will get placebos.

This 5-year study is uses a vaccine developed at Arizona State University to target lymphoma, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma,  mastocytomas — common canine cancers — and four other types of cancer. The idea is to inject abnormal proteins that occur on the surface of cancer cells, along with a substance to stimulate an immune response. If it works, “researchers believe the vaccine could serve as a universal defender against cancer by ‘turning on’ the immune system to recognize and defeat cancer,” according to a press release from ASU.

Those dogs only have to get four shots over a few weeks, then get regular checkups. They don’t have to pee in a stupid cup on a stick.

The Morris Study looks at dogs’ diet, exposures, lifestyle, and genetics to attempt to determine causes of cancer.

Both hope to find information that could reduce cancer in dogs, and, ultimately, other animals — including humans.

Cali doesn’t really understand the big picture. She knows the routine though. The day starts off pretty badly, but after the blood draw, she tends to get lots of treats. Who knows … she might even get some ice cream.