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.

Advertisements

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.

Teach Your Dogs Well …

Jana and Cali rest under a retaurant table

My mom recently spent a week in Italy, where she noticed dogs everywhere — in restaurants and shops, walking politely down crowded sidewalks — often stylishly clad in jackets. She mentioned multiple times that the sidewalks were spotless.

In chatting with other dog-loving and well-traveled friends, we heard stories of other European countries where well-dressed dogs hobnobbed with humans in restaurants, stores, and even historic homes that the humans were touring.

Obviously, the dog culture is very different in Europe than in the U.S.

I can’t tell you how or why it’s so different, but I can tell you what works: socialization and practice. Dogs who are out and about have to learn manners and be held to high standards of behavior. American pet dogs generally stay home and, too often, are allowed to develop poor manners and habits. It’s a vicious cycle: The dogs are unruly, so we don’t take them in public. Lacking exposure and practice, they don’t learn to behave better. So it’s too much effort to take them to even the few places they are welcome. So they don’t learn …

I’m not criticizing, just observing. I am as guilty as the next dog owner. Many times, I’ve decided not to take Cali into, say, our local dog-friendly Ace Hardware because I just want to get my shopping out of the way. She loves going in, and she’s not horribly behaved — but she puts a lot of effort into looking for employees whom she can hit up for cookies, and I do have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t shoplift those dog treats that are in a nose-level bin. I’d love it if she just calmly walked by my side, ignoring the treats, but I haven’t put in the effort needed to get her to that point.

In my service-dog-training days, I took many, many puppies on many, many trips to stores, restaurants, and every kind of public place. In those instances, I was 100 percent focused on the puppy, not trying to do my own errands, and I taught the puppies to behave properly (I hope). It takes a lot of effort, though it’s well worth it.

I admire the European owners who’ve managed to combine training with living their lives. Obviously, behaving calmly in various situations will come more easily to some dogs than to others, but all puppies need to be taught. Taught to settle down quietly and not demand attention while the humans are eating or talking. Taught not to search for and pick up scraps of food or trash. Taught not to beg at restaurant tables. Taught not to seek attention from strangers. These are, of course, skills that are valuable at home, too, especially when the doorbell rings or a repair person is working in the house.

Everyone’s ideas of what behavior is intolerable and what’s “good enough” are different. Teaching dogs manners is hard work and demands a lot of repetition and consistency. Lots of us are not very good at that, but we really do get out of it what we put in. Maybe it’s time to take Cali to Ace for more practice …

 

 

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.

Why bother?

Sophie, a large mixed-breed, chews an enormous stick
Off leash time is as important as regular walks

Lots of people who have dogs rarely walk them. A recent UK study found that fewer than half of the respondents walked their dogs daily, and that, when they did, the walks were very short. I read a similar study several years ago on US dog owners.

Some dog owners leave their dogs outside (alone) for several hours a day, assuming that the dog will take care of her own exercise and toileting needs.

That’s not okay. Why bother haveing a dog if you are not going to meet her needs and take care of her?

Dogs are very social and need to be part of a family group. If you have two dogs, they can provide company for one another (if they like each other), but they still need their human family. It’s not enough to put down food twice a day and open the door to send the dog outside.

Walks provide mental stimulation and a chance to bond. They allow dogs to catch up on the news and explore the world beyond their own house and yard. They are also great for the people, providing regular exercise, fresh air, and a chance to relax.

Even better for the dog — a chance to run off leash while the human walks. If you are fortunate enough to live near an open space where it’s safe to hike with your dog off leash, try to build that into your schedule at least a couple times a month.

I know that many people who have dogs work full time and also have families. They don’t have a lot of free time. But the dog is a member of the family and deserves some attention too. Make play and exercise time with the dog a high-priority part of your daily schedule. You’ll all feel better and, guess what? Your restless, high energy dog will be better behaved, because she’ll be getting her needs met for exercise, mental stimulation, and connection with her family.

 

 

 

The Magic Harness

Cali, aged about 4 months, shows off her new red Sense-ation harness.
Cali got her first Sense-ation harness when she was only a few months old.

Lots of dogs have poor leash manners. This is partly the fault of their humans (not enough training or the wrong kind of training). But it’s also partly just how dogs are.

They are eager to explore. To check out interesting smells. To meet fascinating people. To chase smaller animals. Also they lead pretty dull lives, mostly inside, often alone. Going for a walk is stimulating and fun. So they pull.

There are a couple of problems with this. One is that it’s annoying for the human and makes walks with the dog a chore, rather than a pleasure. If you don’t think that walking your dog is one of life’s greatest pleasures, a) I feel very sorry for you and b) please read Dog Walks Man.

The other problem is that, since most dogs’ leashes are attached to a collar, when the dog pulls, she puts a lot of pressure on her throat. Some dogs have thick, muscular necks and don’t really feel it. But for many dogs, the pressure could cause damage.

Luckily, there is an easy solution. It’s not 100 percent guaranteed to work, but with many dogs, the results are close to miraculous.

What is this magical cure? A chest-fastening harness.

A standard harness with the leash hooking into a ring on the dog’s back will not help. It will actually enable the dog to pull harder (no throat pressure).

But something about a chest-fastening harness inhibits most dogs from pulling. I tried it with a friend’s 6-month-old puppy just this week, and the change was instantaneous.

Several brands are available, and they all fit a little differently. Some are a little complicated to put on, at least initially. The best thing to do is go to a large pet store and try a few on the dog.

Note: Don’t confuse chest-fastening harnesses with the halter-type deals that go over a dog’s nose. Dogs hate those. And if either the dog or the human pulls or jerks too hard, the dog can seriously injure her back or neck. I do not recommend those at all.

That’s not always possible. I’ve had great luck with the Balance harness (also rated #1 by the Whole Dog Journal) and the Sense-ation harness, which is easier to find. I dislike the Easy Walk because even if I’ve adjusted it correctly, it loosens up and slips around on the dog. I either haven’t tried or I’m neutral on several other brands.

What are you waiting for? You could be enjoying a walk with your dog!

Drug Dogs Forced into Early Retirement

Hundreds of drug-detection dogs are taking early retirement, their jobs disappearing as marijuana legalization makes their skill set obsolete. It’s not the dogs’ fault; the blame lies with human myopia.

A police dog wears a star-shaped badge.

Dogs can be taught to identify pretty much any scent, even scents that humans cannot detect. The dogs who sniff out cancer or flag diabetics whose blood sugar is dropping, for example, are responding to scents that humans cannot smell.

Dogs can also be taught to reliably distinguish scents and alert to more than one scent. And they can of course be taught to respond to each scent with a unique behavior — a bark, sitting, lying down, spinning in a circle. It really doesn’t matter what; the dog can learn it.

But the humans. Oh, the humans.

There are the trainers who take the “easy” path of teaching their canine pupils to give the same alert to any contraband. Easier to teach. Easier for the handler to remember. But it makes the dog’s skills useless when you no longer want her to alert to marijuana.

There are the humans — trainers, handlers, lawyers, judges — who do not believe that dogs can discriminate the scent of meth from the scent of marijuana. Or who do not believe that dogs can reliably signal which one they’ve detected.

For these reasons, many drug-detection dogs who’ve served faithfully and honorably are being pushed out of their jobs. In places where marijuana is now legal, basing an arrest on the dog’s say-so is too risky. Defendants can argue that the dog alerted to a legal substance.

Many detection-dog trainers are have already stated training dogs on other forms of contraband but not marijuana. And new recruits,  who’ve graduated with this newfangled curriculum, are stepping up to take the retiring dogs’ jobs. Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine. The thousands of humans forced to adjust when their jobs vanished will understand how tough this can be.

The retirees’ future is not bleak, however. Most of these dogs are headed into a cushier retirement than many people can look forward to. Many of them have years of experience under their vests and deserve to enjoy their golden years. And who knows? Some may pivot to new careers. I hear there’s growing demand for conservation dogs