What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

Your Dog May Be a Math Genius

Jana, a golden retriever, wears a graduation mortorboardAnyone who has ever out two treats in her pocket and then given her dog only one knows that dogs can count.

Well, it’s more nuanced than that.

Despite many hoaxes and dubious claims, dogs can’t actually count, at least not without extensive training — but dogs are aware of quantities and relative sizes, without any training at all. And, it turns out, they use the same part of their brains that humans do to assess the approximate number of items in an array or group of items.

About those treats — they definitely know when they are being shorted, or the other dog is getting a bigger piece. And they always know when there is (or recently was) a treat in your pocket. They have excellent noses, you know.

Researchers at Emory University (including my favorite dog researcher, Dr. Gregory Berns) put their well-trained dogs back into the MRI and showed them various groupings of black dots on gray backgrounds. This study doesn’t sound like it was as much fun for the dogs as the ones where they got ordinary treats and good treats so the researchers could see how the pleasure centers in their brains lit up … but I bet the dogs were paid well in treats after all the dots.

The published paper talks a lot about the different parts of the brain, but the upshot is that humans and dogs (and lots of other mammals, apparently) react differently when seeing a small quantity of something (fewer than 4) vs. a larger quantity. This useful skill, called numerosity, benefits both predator and prey animals in their search for food or attempts to avoid becoming food.

The dogs in the study had no math training prior to their MRI experience. The advanced mathematical skills that (some) humans possess use the same area of the brain. I wonder how far the above-average dog could get in math with the right teacher.

 

Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part one)

Cali, a golden retriever, sits in the kitchen doorway

I’ve recently heard not one but two experienced trainers, trainers I admire greatly, say that dogs don’t generalize.

What?!

The most recent incident was in a training class. The trainer was talking about practicing at home and said that dogs don’t generalize as a way to explain why the dog’s reaction to a cue or a piece of training equipment might be different at home than at the training center.

Generalization, in a dog-training context, means that the dog can recognize a cue in different environments. Some examples:

  • Your dog has been to your  neighborhood dog park a bazillion times. She’s been to the dog park near your parents’ house a half-bazillion times. When you take a road trip and stop at a dog park you find near your hotel, she immediately recognizes it as a dog park and runs off happily to play.
  • Your dog has a toy box. Your sister’s dog has a toy box. Your parents’ dog has a toy box. Your dog happily helps herself to toys from the toy box at each home. You visit a dog-owning friend for the first time. Your dog homes in on the toy box, grabs a toy, and the dogs start playing.
  • Your dog knows to sit quietly and wait while you prepare her dinner, waiting until you say, “OK” before gobbling her food. She does this whether you’re at home, in a hotel, at your mom’s, or anywhere else.
  • You’ve taught your dog not to jump on visitors. A new visitor comes into the house. Your dog has never met this person before, yet she knows not to jump on him.

I could go on, but I am guessing that you get the picture.

Of course dogs generalize. They could not possibly learn otherwise. No one could. There is simply no way to create and practice every single scenario where the dog will be asked to sit or lie down or wait for food or not jump —  or do / not do anything you might imagine.

Dogs learn to generalize as they learn to learn — with repeated practice. With a new puppy (or newly adopted dog of any age), you start teaching the dog house rules. You also (one hopes) teach basic manners, things like not jumping on people, not mouthing people, not barking every time the next-door neighbor walks past the window. Then, other members of your family ask the dog for the same things. And visitors do. You ask for them when you are in the kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the back yard. And on a walk or a road trip.

Your dog learns, after experiencing this phenomenon a few times, that the cue applies everywhere. The dog then generalizes that knowledge to other cues. Verbal cues: “Sit,” or “Quiet.” Visual cues: the toy box or dog park. Routine cues: you putting on the shoes you always wear for walks or closing down your laptop at 5 pm. These cues, and similar cues, take on meaning that applies even if you are not in the same room or you’re visiting someone else’s house or the toy box looks and smells different.

By the time you’ve taught your dog a few cues, she’s figured out generalization.

You can also teach your dog to specialize, which I will talk about in next week’s post.

 

No Time to Train?

Cali brings a red bootIt’s a paradox: Training a dog takes a lifetime; but everyone has time to do it. How’s that?

Dogs, like humans, continue to learn throughout their lives. It is, in fact, possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and doing so enriches their lives (and yours).

At the same time, each training “session” can be only minutes long.

People often think training a dog takes hours a day and requires special skills and they just don’t have time for it. Instead, they spend hours cleaning up messes made by unschooled puppies or rearrange their schedules to walk their reactive dogs very early in the morning, hoping to avoid other dogs. Or, rather than spend 1 minute a day brushing their dogs’ teeth, they spend hundreds of dollars annually and accept the many risks associated with sedating their dogs for a professional cleaning.

Here’s the thing. You have the time — and the skills — to teach your dog the basic manners that will make your lives (yours, your dog’s, your family members’, and your guests’) better.

Young dogs can only handle a few minutes of training at a time. Even if you’re doing formal training, such as teaching tricks or putting behaviors like sit, lie down, or keeping 4 paws on the floor when greeting people, on cue, you can really only actively train for a few minutes at a time. Under 5 minutes for puppies; maybe 10-15 minutes for older dogs. But 5 minutes is fine for them, too. You can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.

Training doesn’t have to be formal, though. You’re teaching your dog how to behave all the time, whether you think about it or not. What makes it informal training is thinking about it — how would you like your dog to behave? And how do you teach her what you want? Then, build that into daily routines.

You feed your dog, right? (I hope so!) Teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or in a specific spot, out of your way, while you prepare her meal by guiding her to the spot and saying, “Wait on your mat,” — or any cue words you want. As long as you use the same cue each time, you’re fine. The dog will learn to associate the place, and the words, with meal prep. The other piece of this equation is a “release” word that gives the dog permission to come over to her bowl once her meal is ready. It can be the same release word, like, “OK” that you use for other things, like going out the front door or greeting another dog or … just about anything you’d like your dog to wait for permission to do.

Your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, but putting those behaviors on cue control means that you can ask for them. All that means is teaching the dog to associate hearing a word, the cue, with doing the action. In other words, learning that sit means sit. One way to build this association is catching the dog doing the behavior and naming it. Another is using a lure, like a cookie, to induce the dog to sit (or lie down, etc.) while introducing the cue. Many trainers practice eliciting the behavior before using the cue to be sure that the dog learns to associate the right behavior with the cue and not, say, think that “sit” means “sniff my hand for a cookie.”

Here’s the daily routine part: You do stuff every day that your dog could and maybe should sit for: Put down a bowl of food, put on a leash for a walk, go out a door or down stairs, pet your dog, allow your dog to greet a visitor. Practice using the sit cue and waiting for the dog to sit before doing these things. The meal itself can be the reward for sitting nicely while you’re serving it; for other behaviors, you might reward with attention and petting or use very small treats as rewards. (Very small treats means maybe one Charlee Bear or piece of kibble; not a huge dog biscuit. The idea is to teach the dog, not make him obese!)

Some behaviors are more challenging. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on leash, for example, takes a long time. If your dog is very reactive to people, cats, or other dogs on walks, you may need to call in a trainer for assistance. But for basic manners, and even fun things, like shaking hands or bringing you things you’ve dropped, spending a few minutes a day teaching your dog will produce great results. Besides, it’s fun!

Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!

Too Much Nurturing?

Jana, a white golden retriever, wears a mortarboardReading about this study will make you want to go back to college.  A team of undergrad researchers had the best job ever: Watching hundreds of hours of puppy videos.

They were looking at the differences in how moms at The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school in New Jersey, treated their pups. Some were very attentive, constantly licking and cuddling their newborn pups. Others spent as much time as they could out of the whelping box, away from the babies. Some lay down to nurse, making it easy for the pups to gorge themselves. Others stood, perhaps longingly eyeing the happy hour menu just out of reach. The researchers not only studied the moms’ behavior, they also measured their levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress. Moms with higher anxiety tended to spend more time with their pups and coddle them more.

Guide dog puppies are set up to succeed. They have great genetics and prenatal health care, as well as top-notch vet care throughout their lives. They get early enrichment and socialization, lots of training. Even so, many don’t make it. A dog who is nervous or fearful makes a poor guide, as does one who can’t think independently and solve problems. Puppies who learn faster, solve puzzles faster, or figure out how to contend with obstacles naturally make better guide dogs. So do puppies who are confident and unafraid of new or potentially scary objects or situations. Temperament tests for puppies abound, but it’s still hard to reliably predict adult temperament or success.

It might seem that pups with attentive moms would be more confident and therefore more likely to succeed. But that’s not what the research indicated. The pups who had to work a little harder to eat and those who were less coddled by their moms turned out to be more independent and better problem solvers — scrappy, tough little dogs who had higher success rates in guide dog school. The coddled pups showed higher anxiety and less problem-solving ability. Even these pups are far ahead of the average pet dog in terms of temperament, ability to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and general health, though. But helicopter moms seemed to put their pups at a disadvantage.

It’s hard to determine just how much of the pups’ success or failure is linked to maternal behavior and how much is genetic, so more study is needed. But the attention to maternal behavior could help shape early training and enrichment. It could also point to ways that we could more successfully help our older puppies and adult dogs cope with anxiety (less coddling?).

Anyhow, doing more research is so appealing. Sign me up to watch those puppy cams!

The early study on maternal behavior is available online: Characterizing Early Maternal Style in a Population of Guide Dogs.

The abstract of the later study is available here: Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success.

It’s All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. She had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.