Social Dynamics

A large white structure that served as the dog play pavilion at the Guiding Eyes seminar
Photo by Michelle Russell

Watching dogs figure out the social dynamics of their constantly changing groups is fascinating. Many people assume that it’s OK to put dogs who’ve never met together in any group configuration and they’ll just instantly become friends and play nicely together. That’s an odd assumption, particularly considering that most people also don’t think that dogs communicate particularly well.

At the Guiding Eyes weekend I recently attended, I got to see how a group of experienced dog professionals handled group play. The hotel had given us the use of a covered pavilion — the type where wedding receptions might be held. It was a large space, walled in by a low fence and covered with a heavy, waterproof white cover.

Eighty guide dog teams attended the event, and they were given time slots for dog play. In addition, people wandered in and out of the play area during unscheduled evening and morning hours.

The trainers brought exercise pens to use as dividers and other equipment. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they’d divide up the space, but it was a great idea. They created three smaller play areas, never putting more than three or four dogs together. Each section had a couple of trainers keeping watch. Before putting a dog into a play yard, the trainer removed the dog’s collar, which had tags that could get caught on something (like another dog’s teeth), and replaced it with a plain collar. The dog’s partner was told the color of this temporary collar.

Trainers watch playing guide dogs at the Guiding Eyes seminar; the dogs' partners are seated along the side of the play area.
Photo by Michelle Russell

As the dogs played, the trainers watched them constantly. If a dog became overly excited or rough, the trainers used shepherd’s crooks, slipping the hook under the dog’s collar, to gently guide the dog in a new direction. During the times I was watching, I never saw any play morph into aggression or any dog get hurt, and dogs rarely needed separating.

When a dog was done playing, she’d get her collar back and return to her partner. Once, two similar-sized black Lab girls ended up with play collars of the same color. Though each partner was sure she had the right dog, the trainers scanned their microchips and checked the numbers against a list they’d brought, just to be 110 percent sure that no dog mix-up occurred.

The microchip check is probably not needed in the average dog day care or dog park, but the other precautions the trainers took are. The Guiding Eyes dogs are all very well trained, and many dogs at the weekend conference knew each other — they’d been in the same puppy raiser region or in the kennels for training at the same time. Even so, the trainers were careful to keep play groups small, match size and energy level, and monitor all the dogs’ interactions.

That’s how the pros do it.

That contrasts with what I often see at day cares and other places where dogs play. An indoor dog park a trainer friend recently described, for example, has one huge play space and minimal or no supervision. The managers allow as many as three dozen dogs to play at once. Sounds scary; much as I like the idea of an indoor play space, I doubt I’d feel comfortable letting my dog play there.

Even dogs who know each other well need close supervision when they are playing. In a large group, play can quickly escalate to aggression or bullying. Even dogs who know each other well can get over-excited or possessive of a particularly valuable toy or chew. That’s another thing; the trainers made sure that the only toys in the Guiding Eyes play pavilion were tug ropes, which the dogs, mostly Labradors, loved.

From breaking up the space to using shepherd’s crooks to ensuring constant supervision, the trainers provided a great model for dog play.

Where do dogs go when they’ve gotta go?

Black and red no pooping graphic

Since I posted last week’s description of the continuing education seminar I attended with 80 guide dog teams, I just know that there is a burning question in many readers’ minds. People who work with guide or service dogs always get this question when traveling, and I am sure that the idea of 80 guide dogs in one hotel raises it too: where do they go?

So here’s the answer. The conference team hired a professional scooping crew. Scoop Masters, otherwise known as Tim and Maria Stone, have handled many a guide dog convention. And in case anyone is wondering, the Guiding Eyes dogs had hardly any accidents — less than half the accident rate of a recent guide dog users conference with, you know, dogs from other schools. Just saying.

Scoop Masters alight the day before the conference and case the joint. They figure out the best spots for doggy break areas and set up. They purchase supplies. Sometimes they actually assemble what is essentially a giant wooden litter box filled with absorbent material. At our conference, they didn’t have to do that; the hotel management allowed the dogs to use the grass. Scoop Masters set up bag stations and trashcans. They had scoops and buckets, poop bags galore, paper towels, enzymatic cleaner to clean and deodorize indoor accidents … essentially a giant version of the puppy accident kit that experienced puppy raisers know to take on any socialization field trip (it takes only one field trip to become experienced, by the way). Volunteers provided pickup assistance when needed. Scoop Masters replaced trash bags and poop bags and did spot checks periodically. That’s really all there is to it.

The main reason they were there was to take care of any accidents and emergencies. They are on-call around the clock in case a dog becomes ill or a team doesn’t make it outside in the middle of the night. There were very few accidents and no emergencies. Such good dogs!

This is a serious business, though. Besides the conference and special event service, Scoop Masters — and others like them — provide their services to homeowners’ associations, condo and apartment buildings, and even individual homeowners. They can set you up with waste stations and even provide DNA testing programs to identify scooping scofflaws. So if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t all step in it more often … thank Scoop Masters.

The Value of a Tennis Ball

Cali, as a very young puppy, runs through a tunnel holding a tennis ball.
Cali was a young tennis ball addict

Cali showed her entrepreneurial spirit this week when she decided to buy a tennis ball. Cali adores tennis balls. She loves chasing them, holding them, drooling on them. She especially loves getting one really wet and drooly and then rolling it in the dirt she’s carefully prepared by digging a new hole in the yard. She then tries to sneak it into the living room. She’s not allowed to have tennis balls in the house.

I also like tennis balls. When my shoulders feel stiff and sore, I use a tennis ball to loosen the muscle cramp. I learned this trick from Jana, who loved to position a tennis ball under her shoulder and then roll it down the length of her spine while wriggling on her back. My yoga teacher advised using a tennis ball for this as well. There are two ways for people to do this: lying on your back on the floor, with the ball under your shoulder; or standing against a wall with the tennis ball pinned between your shoulder and the wall. Both work. The problem with the floor version, I have found, is that Cali cannot resist temptation, and she tries to steal the ball from under my shoulder. I end up with no tennis ball and a lot of drool on my neck. So I use the wall method.

The other day, there I was, leaning into the tennis ball. Cali was on her bed, watching intently.I think that part of the appeal for Cali is the “breaking the rules” aspect of getting her teeth on a tennis ball inside. She got up, rooted around in the blankets a bit, and found her Kong. Cali has two Kongs, and at the time I was working on the tennis ball, I knew that one was empty and one had a big chunk of a biscuit inside.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

Now, Cali has only recently become a fan of Kongs. Jana was an early Kong addict, and by the time Jana was about 6 months old, there was nothing that I could pack into a Kong that she couldn’t devour in less than 30 seconds, leaving the Kong sparkling clean. But as long as Jana was on the scene, I could not give Cali a Kong. Cali is more leisurely in her approach to Kongs. She’ll work at it for a few minutes, get some of the food out, then abandon it. A few hours later, she’ll find it and work some more. It’s more of an all-day snack than a quick nosh. She’s also more likely to dribble bits of whatever is in the Kong onto the floor, the carpet, her bed … Jana would not let a drop or a crumb escape.

Cali picked up one of her Kongs, walked over to me, and sat. She looked at the shoulder where the tennis ball was, then looked me in the eyes. Back to the shoulder, back to the eyes. Then, still holding the Kong in her mouth, she poked her nose at me a few times, looking me right in the eyes. Oh, I said, are you offering me that Kong? I held out my hand. She placed the Kong in my hand and looked at the tennis ball shoulder again. I handed her the tennis ball. Purchase complete, Cali walked back to her bed, smiling.

I looked at my newly purchased Kong and discovered that it was the one with the biscuit. I pulled the biscuit out and called Cali back to me. She came, leaving her new purchase safely on her bed.

You’ve overpaid, sweetie, I told her. Here’s your change. She accepted her change, ate it, and returned to her tennis ball.

Dog trainers know that the dog gets to decide what a worthy reward is for any task. Cali is more obsessed with tennis balls (and less obsessed with food) than any other Lab or golden retriever that I’ve worked with. But she knows what she values and how to get it. She also knows that a Kong has value, and that one with food is worth more than one without. She doesn’t seem to understand scarcity and how it should affect value, though; we have lots and lots of tennis balls, but only two Kongs. To her, a tennis ball clearly has more value than even a Kong-with-snack, even though one is scarce and the other is common.

Or maybe the joke’s on me: She might also know that she’ll get the Kong back, filled with biscuits, each morning when I head out the door. So it’s not a scarce resource after all.

Now really, who’s the smart one here?

Are Raw Diets Safe?

Jana holds her food bowl in her mouth

A recent Canine Corner post by Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-known writer on canine cognition strongly suggests that they are not. I’d like to present an opposing view of this often contentious question.

Full disclosure: I feed Cali a partially raw diet; I did the same for Jana for several years and she thrived on it. Cali’s sister Dora recently added raw food to her diet, and she’s healthier and more energetic than I have ever seen her. Other dogs I know have had similar experiences. So, with some caveats, I favor raw or partially raw diets. How’s that for hedging my bets?

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Coren; I’ve read most of his (copious) work on canine intelligence and relationships with people; I’ve even taken a graduate seminar with him. He’s a psychologist, though; not a nutritionist, so I am skeptical of his advice on canine nutrition.

His column starts with a terrible story about someone who fed raw until her child got salmonella; he then goes into detail about why many veterinarians recommend against raw diets and how the people who feed raw diets tend not to trust vets. I have no idea if the statistics he quotes are accurate or representative. But it doesn’t really matter.

I go to my veterinarian, as I go to a doctor, for medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of medical problems. Just as my doctor might advise me to lose weight or warn that my weight could cause health problems, I’d expect my vet to warn me if my dog were severely overweight. (If my golden retriever were underweight, I’d already know there was a problem!) If a medical condition indicated a particular dietary restriction, I’d expect the vet to tell me that, too. But if I needed more detailed diet advice, I’d go to a dietician, not my internist. Similarly, when I seek nutrition information for my dogs, I look to experts who specialize in canine diet and nutrition.

In most cases, that is not the vet. Surprised?

Just as vets are the wrong address for questions on behavior and training, the vet is not the best source of information on canine diet. Of course, just as some vets are also certified companion animal behaviorists, some take an interest in nutrition and become experts, even board-certified nutritionists. But these are the exception. And the nutrition courses that vet schools offer are unlikely to focus intensely on canine nutrition; vets learn to treat many species of pet and farm animals.

I’m fortunate that one of Cali’s vets has taken a deep interest in canine nutrition and has continued to study nutrition and new research throughout her career. This vet firmly believes in and advocates a raw diet for dogs. She urges low-carb diets, too, and, since most kibbles have a lot of carbs, she’s not a huge fan of kibble. She argues, convincingly, that fresh, real food is far more healthful, and, based on dogs’ ancestry, a more natural diet for dogs than hyper-processed cooked kibble.

Another source of in-depth information about canine diet is The Whole Dog Journal. It takes no advertising, so is not beholden in any way to pet food companies. This is markedly different from the average vet, who sells (and profits from) so-called “prescription” diets and who may also push a particular line of foods for all their clients. The Whole Dog Journal publishes detailed reviews of canned, dry, and dehydrated raw dog foods every year. It has published several articles exploring the pros and cons of raw diets as well. (See: Raw Dog Food and Salmonella Risks and High Pressure Processing and Your Dog’s Raw Food, for example.) When evaluating commercial foods, WDJ asks probing questions of the manufacturer; it has a fairly high bar for including a company in its list of acceptable or recommended foods. I’ve said it before: If you don’t subscribe to The Whole Dog Journal, you should!

Recently, a nutritionist who works with Deni’s guide dog school recommended a raw diet for Koala, Deni’s guide. Koala has “leaky gut,” and the nutritionist said that the raw diet was easier for her to digest than kibble and would allow her gut to heal. I found that interesting because one of my hesitations with raw diet was that I thought it was recommended only for dogs with a healthy digestive system. But Koala is doing very well; she has not had any of the issues — vomiting, stomach upset, etc. — that she had consistently on a kibble diet.

I still would be very careful about introducing a raw diet to a dog with a compromised immune system, but I think it is a healthful and desirable option for most dogs.

What is my other area of concern? Well, the story that Dr. Coren based his blog post on illustrates it nicely: safe handling.

The woman in the story let her young son feed the dog, handling the raw food. I don’t eat meat or seafood, but when I did, I would not have trusted a child to handle and prepare it safely or to thoroughly clean the utensils that had been in contact with it. Similarly, I would not let a young child feed Cali her raw food or do the cleanup. I wash everything carefully, just as I would with raw meat if I were cooking that for myself. It seems like common sense. But if I had young children in the house, I probably would avoid a raw diet just because it would be harder to enforce the safe handling protocols.

So, all that is a long lead up to this: I think that raw diets are perfectly safe if handled with proper care. The presence of Salmonella in some samples does not worry me; eggs and chicken commonly carry some Salmonella. Many dogs “shed” Salmonella and other pathogens in their feces; that is not an indication that they are sick and most never have symptoms. But it is an argument for picking up your yard often — and washing your hands afterward. Dry foods have more recalls for Salmonella contamination than raw dog foods, though that might just be a question of volume. Lots more dry food is out there than raw!

The bottom line is, we eat food — as do our dogs — from an imperfect system that exists in a world full of germs and pathogens. We therefore should take precautions with all of our food. A raw diet has many, many benefits for dogs, and, if you can afford it and handle it safely, it is something that I think is worth considering.





Who Gets the Dog?

Dogs are family. That’s obvious to most people who share their lives with family. But under the law, pets are treated like property — no different from a table or a toaster. That causes a host of issues, one of which is, if the family splits up, who gets the dog?

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, thirty-two states allow courts to protect pets under domestic violence protective orders. A law passed in 2006 requires that state and local disaster plans include provisions to evacuate and care for pets and service animals. So, slowly, some laws are acknowledging that dogs are not toasters. But, while some judges have been willing to consider pets in divorce court, there has been no legal prod for doing so.

Until now.

Alaska is the first state to require courts to consider the “well-being of the animal” in custody disputes. The law took effect January 17.

While pets are often major points of contention in divorce cases, no one has represented their interests. People fighting about property and messily ending a relationship might, it can be imagined, be concerned with their own feelings; they might also be driven by a desire to seek revenge, hurt the other party, or just to “win,” whatever that means. Their judgment as to what would be best for the beloved dog or cat might be clouded. Recognizing this and specifically directing the court to consider the pets’ interests is a huge step forward.

Kudos to the ALDF, which has long advocated for courts to take this step. And, let’s hope that Alaska starts a fifty-state trend!

Mood Collars


Package for Mood Collar, which is not a real product. Shows cartoon dog with "mood ring" type stone in his collar.
The Mood Collar is no longer available from Moody Pets, but lots of cool toys are. Check them out.

I saw an article recently on a collar that lights up in different colors to reflect the emotion the dog is showing — a mood ring, or mood collar, for dogs.

The collar, called Inupathy, was developed by a Japanese biologist. The collar monitors the dog’s heartbeat and shows whether the dog is calm, excited, anxious, or angry. Co-creator Joji Yamaguchi told the BBC that he wanted to better understand his dog’s emotions. Fair enough.

But couldn’t he just pay closer attention to his dog?

It’s not always easy to tell distinguish an anxious or scared dog from an aggressive one, unless you get really good at reading the early signals of stress. By the time the dog is barking, the frightened, overwhelmed dog looks a lot like an aggressive terror.

If this collar had a sensor that was sensitive enough to pick up on early signs of anxiety, it could be a great training aid. I could see using it to figure out what the stress triggers were, then teaching the dog’s human to recognize and avoid or manage those situations. It would also make it easier for trainers to teach the dogs’ humans to recognize the early signs of stress — calming signals for example. If they saw the dog yawning or licking his lips a lot and the collar started showing anxiety, well, the owner could be trained to notice and respond to those signals.

I read somewhere else, a while ago, that someone was working on a collar that would translate barks into the language of the owner’s choice. That seems less useful (and less possible) to me. The mood collar, though, sounds groovy. And useful. I think it would be a great training aid!

The Original Thinking Dog

Jana, a white golden retriever, lying in front of a gate

She was only about 4 weeks old when we met. She stood out from the litter because, well, she tumbled right over to say hi. Jana had 2 sisters and 3 or 4 brothers; I looked only at the girls. After the first few minutes, I really looked only at Jana. I saw friendliness and curiosity each time she ran over to greet me; what she really was, I soon understood, was a girl who knew what she wanted and always, always got it.

I initially planned to raise and train Jana as a service dog. That idea lasted, well, maybe for a few weeks after she came home. But it was soon clear that I was Jana’s person and that was that. She wasn’t going anywhere unless I went too.

We moved from Israel, where Jana was born, to the U.S. a little before her second birthday. I took her to Petsmart to choose a birthday toy. She’d never seen anything like a Petsmart. Rows and rows and rows of treats and toys — and fish in aquariums, and hamsters and guinea pigs and iguanas — what an amazing plaPink stuffed pigce! When she finally focused on selecting her birthday present, Jana zeroed in on a bright pink pig. Jana, I said to her, Jana, you are a Jewish girl from Israel. This toy is not an appropriate choice. How about this nice fleece doggy?

Jana got the pig (and the doggy).

I could tell Jana stories for pages and pages. Or I could write the usual obit stuff about Jana — where she traveled, for example. She drove cross-country with me several times and visited at least 45 states. I could write about all of her skills — how seriously she took her newspaper job, how quickly she learned new skills — or about her strong, independent personality, or how she invented no-touch cuddling. She wanted to be nearby, possibly leaning against a beloved person, but the person had better not pet her. She accepted touching only on her terms; anything else was considered an assault on her dignity. She’d give the clueless human a dirty look and walk away, settling in the farthest corner of the room. Jana did not like to be treated in any way like a dog.

But Jana was so much more than stories and adventures. Jana was my teacher.

From Jana, I learned to see dogs in a completely new way and to appreciate their complex intelligence, their ability to communicate their needs and preferences. I learned to pay attention to each dog’s unique foibles and personality. I learned to see the thinking, feeling individual inside each dog.

I’m not alone. Jana touched so many people and showed them, too, what she — and other dogs — could do, learn, understand, communicate. I knew that Jana had many friends and fans, but the sheer volume of notes, comments, Facebook posts, phone calls, and cards that I got this week showed me how badly I’d undercounted. Some were from people we hadn’t seen in years; others from people we’ve never even met. And every memory that comes to mind includes more people. Knowing how many other people loved Jana means a lot to me; Jana lives on through all that she has taught us about seeing dogs more clearly.

The Thinking Dog blog itself was named for Jana, a deep thinker. She planned, she analyzed, she weighed her options — starting when she was only a few weeks old and she chose me to be her person. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Being a Dog

Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog, is as much about being — and sniffing as — a human as it is about dogs and their world of smells. Horowitz does a great job breaking down the science of how dogs smell and how humans do (or, rather, fail to). I finally understand how different the dog’ s sense of the world is, in a way that superficial comparisons of the number of smell receptor cells dogs and humans have never could convey.

Dogs process and understand smell in a completely different way from humans. Smell is an entire language. Sniffing stuff on a walk is like reading an entire encyclopedia. Horowitz says that dogs don’t judge smells the way we do either. Smells are information; neither good nor bad. That explains a lot!

A couple of weeks ago, I described “smell walks” but I wasn’t sure exactly how these were supposed to work. Jana will be devastated to learn that not all walks need to be smell walks, but she will be delighted with the news that she deserves frequent smell walks. She sort of gets them already: The rules are that the dog gets to decide what direction to head, when to change direction, when to stop, and when to continue moving. If you and the dog never make it down the front steps, so be it. Luckily, we don’t have front steps.

I’d guess that it’s best to smell-walk one dog at a time, though Cali seems pretty happy with letting Jana choose smell sites. One must not head out on a smell walk when one is pressed for time. Especially if one is walking Jana; her smell walks could easily last from breakfast until dinner, especially if one remembered to bring refreshments for along the way.

There’s a lot more to the book than smell walks, though. There’s a lot of science, much of it having nothing to do with dogs but lots to do with smells. There are some great chapters on working dogs that barely scratch the surface of what career options are out there for dogs with working noses. There’s also a description of Horowitz’s experience taking her dog to a nosework class. He, like Jana, was a natural. But her descriptions of some of the other class members, nose-impaired and inhibited, were very sad.

Nosework classes are a dog’s idea of heaven on earth. The dog is in charge. The human cannot tell her “no” or hold her back. She gets to climb on things and under things and stick her nose anywhere she wants to. She can bark as much as she wants. And the reward for finding something smelly is a ton of treats. Not hard to figure out why Jana loved it. Cali would, too. She deserves a smell class of her own, come to think of it.

The book is definitely worth a read. Horowitz’s last book, Inside of a Dog, was billed as offering insight into how dogs experience the world. But I think that Being a Dog does a much better job of that. Scent is what defines the dog’s world; as much as most humans rely on what they see to understand the world, dogs turn to scent. Gaining a better understanding of what that means is the best way to try to understand dogs. When you’re done, sign your dog up for a nosework class. Maybe Cali and I will see you there!

Trust Your Dog

Jana, at 4 months old, gets the paper

Jana gets the paper every morning. She has had this job pretty much her entire life. She’s good at it. Really good. She is also very serious about it.

She has carried papers up stairs and the length of country driveways that you can’t even see the end of. For several months a few years ago, we actually had to walk out to the end of the road for the paper, maybe a quarter-mile. She carried the paper all the way home, no matter what essential business might need to take place on the way.

Now, living in Petaluma, she listens for the delivery person. We have a great delivery person at the moment. He or she comes at 4:30 every morning. Rain, shine, weekend. Doesn’t matter. Drives into our parking lot and tosses the paper in the general vicinity of my gate. How do I know this? Well, if I am not awake, Jana hears the paper arrive and lets me know that it is time to get the paper. She’s very polite about it, but quite insistent. She does have a snooze button, and I do use it. But still. Most mornings I am at least briefly awake at 4:30.

The paper subscription expired recently, and I actually considered letting it lapse. Then I felt guilty. I would deny Jana her greatest pleasure? Fire her from a job she has performed dutifully for more than 13 years? For no good reason??

So. This morning, a Sunday, we both heard the car and the thud of a paper. A while later, after a couple presses on Jana’s snooze button, Cali woke me up. Cali does not have a snooze button. She wakes me up by jumping onto the bed and shoving her nose in my face. GOOD MORNING she breathes into my face, wagging her tail furiously.

So, Cali got me out of bed, and Jana was eager to get the paper. Out we went. No paper.

Jana looked under the car and along the sidewalk and by the neighbors’ gates. No paper. She got very interested in the small bush by the gate and was quite sure the paper was in there. I looked under the bush. No paper. She kept looking at the bush and sniffing at it. I poked around some more. No paper. I convinced her to go inside.

Then, since she had been so sure there was a paper, I took the big flashlight and went back out for another look. No paper under Jana’s bush  But: The paper was, indeed, under a bush. Not the one Jana had fixated on, but one very close by. I pulled it out, and called for Jana. She was very excited about this development and practically danced outside. She grabbed the paper, the big, heavy Sunday paper, and held it up triumphantly. She carried it inside and traded it for a cookie. She wagged hard, still smiling.

She knew there was a paper, and she knew it had gone into a bush. You should always trust your dog, even if she’s sniffing at the wrong bush.

Better and Better

Jana enjoys springThis will be a short post to update you on Jana. She’s doing a lot better.

In the weeks following her bout with vestibular disease, she visited a neurologist, an ophthalmologist, and an additional vet. The vet, someone whom we like and trust very much, was Cali’s pediatrician and Jana’s vet a few years ago. Her clinic is pretty far from where we live now, but I decided to check in with her anyhow. She offers fantastic Western veterinary care and also Eastern medicine.

Jana, it turns out, had an ear infection. She and Cali each had a foxtail in her right ear, which has nothing to do with the vestibular incident but was very uncomfortable. They were amazingly good and let the vet remove the foxtails; both girls are feeling much better now.

Jana is also taking Chinese herbal medicine, plus she just finished some pills that helped get her over the last of her dizziness. She’s still a little wobbly on her feet, but much, much better. She still tilts her head a little bit, too.

But she seems to be focusing better; and her selective hearing is excellent when she wants it to be. She was back on the job, retrieving the paper, in less than a week, and she demanded to rejoin the long morning walks to the park after about three and a half weeks of recovery. She does get tired easily, but, at her age (the rough equivalent of a 92-year-old human), that’s not surprising.

She seems to get stronger every day, and she’s her usual happy, bossy, food-focused self. At the park, she made the rounds, visiting with her many friends — and demanding cookies.

In short, Jana is back to normal.