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.

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Just Stop It.

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
No robot could replace this face

Stop. Just stop saying that soon ____ will replace dogs. Nothing and I mean nothing will replace dogs.

Here’s the latest, a “robot bloodhound.”

I have no idea how much money is poured into efforts to replace dog noses with machines that detect:

  • Cancer (multiple kinds)
  • Low blood sugar
  • Other medical conditions
  • Narcotics
  • Bombs
  • Contraband, including veggies in a traveler’s suitcase
  • Contraband, including smuggled animals, plants, or anything else in shipping containers
  • Scent trails on land
  • Scent trails on water
  • Cadavers (on land or under water)
  • Identify human cremains
  • Endangered / rare wildlife
  • Endangered / rare plants
  • Insects
  • Rats
  • Other pests and parasites
  • Truffles

I could literally list millions of things that dogs can be taught to identify and find by scent. Sometimes, humans don’t even know what the dog is scenting. But dogs are so smart and capable that we can teach them to reliably find it anyhow.

To replace the dogs, a machine would need to be able to identify the exact chemical combination that creates the scent. The machines, so far, are less accurate than dogs. This might be because identifying a scent is not a cut-and-dried, easily reproduced, often repeated set of identical steps.

It’s a process that requires thinking and intuition and understanding of the goal. Dogs can do all of that. They do it all the time, every, in their interactions with us — even without training. The machine does exactly what the human programmed it to do. It might be able to “get better” with practice, but only within parameters determined by the humans who programmed the algorithm. Regardless of what you might hear about how smart computers are, they are not thinking on their own.

Dogs are.

And, dogs can go into all kinds of situations, flexibly adjust to different working conditions, offer feedback on what’s happening, and learn from their successes and their failures. They can work in any kind of terrain and in weather that would defeat many mechanical imposters, uh, substitutes.

Additional dog teams can be trained far less expensively than fancy schmancy robots can be built and moved around to world to anyplace they might be needed. Dogs can hop onto a plane with their handlers and go help — at a disaster site, in a large-scale search-and-rescue operation, at a field hospital.

Remember, scenting is only one of dozens, maybe hundreds of ways dogs assist people. Or make our lives better without a specific task — just by being dogs.

So just stop it. Stop pouring millions of dollars into machines to “replace” dogs. Focus that money and effort on training dog-and-handler teams. That could prevent things like what I heard on the radio this morning: In a story on the return of remains from North Korea, which are likely to include the remains of many American servicemen who died there more than 60 years ago, a comment was made about how difficult it is to find human remains because there’s no technology that can detect them. Maybe there’s no technology, but trained cadaver dog teams could certainly find them. They wouldn’t falsely alert on bones from nonhuman mammals, either, preventing the “return” of nonhuman remains (which has happened).

And remember, each of those expensive robots does only one task. A different robot is needed for each task. The dog team? That dog can be trained to do multiple related (or unrelated) tasks. Besides, who wants to cuddle up with the robot bloodhound at the end of a tiring day of searching?

 

Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.

 

The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together

 

My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar

 

Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day

 

Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers

 

They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open

 

The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.

A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.

Last Night Alone

koala-in-showerA guest post by Deni Elliott

Tonight is my last night alone. After four months of crawling into bed without Guiding Eyes Alberta snorting and snoring a few feet away, tonight is my last night alone. Tomorrow I meet Guiding Eyes Koala. As hard as I’ve squinted at photos and video and as tightly as I have clutched each new piece of information, I find it odd how little I can imagine about our future together.

Koala’s passed all the tests and has exceeded expectations. I’ve heard that she leaps into her harness and back-channels routes after only one trip. She eagerly solves problems and pivots on a dime, ready for new adventure. A personality match for sure. But I remind myself that I need to go slow and not expect too much of this 2-year-old.

At the cusp of this unknown relationship curving to be real, my tummy flutters with butterflies of anxiety and anticipation. I can imagine the home trainer better than the dog he is bringing me.

Jim Gardner, GEB director of home training, will fly from New York to Tampa with Koala curled at his feet. I imagine Jim cheerfully answering the questions I am annoyed to be asked. “Are you training that dog?” someone will ask. “Yes,” he’ll smile, “This is a new, young guide dog. I am taking her to meet her blind partner.” When asked, I put on the same “please the public” smile, but say in a way that invites no further intrusion: “Every day is a training day, but I am blind, and she is my guide dog.”

I imagine Jim calmly replying, when asked the dog’s name, “We don’t tell people that because we don’t want them distracted.” Knowing that despite 16 years of guide dog use that I am still paralyzed by strangers asking my dog’s names, other trainers have had me practice giving a fake name. I don’t lie well. Saying, “I won’t tell you,” feels rude. “Leave us alone,” is definitely rude. Saying, “If I tell you the dog’s name, you will immediately say it and distract her and that is exactly what I don’t want you to do,” is too long and complicated. So, I quickly say, “This is the dog’s name, BUT DON’T SAY IT.” As those words come out of my mouth, I concurrently offer a treat so that the dog doesn’t pay attention to what the other person might say. We then hurry away.

I imagine Jim chaperoning Koala and me on our first neighborhood walk. “What can we do for our first outing?” I will ask. “Two miles? One mile? 250 steps?” I have three routes mapped out just in case.  For the months I’ve caned my way through twice-daily walks, I’ve imagined being guided by new dog instead. I whisper “Right-right,” and “To the curb please,” and “Good dog, good job.” I’ve counted the number of streets I cross on these daily laps so that I can help Koala learn streets where she needs to stop and driveways where she doesn’t. I imagine the neighbors that I pass daily expressing surprise and sending best wishes when they see me with Koala in harness instead of gripping a cane.

I cry when I imagine Jim and Koala arriving from the airport tomorrow night. I have joked about lighting candles and pouring wine for the new girl’s arrival. In truth, I have stocked the house with beds, toys, crate, food and treats. I ache with the knowledge that none of these will fill her heart tomorrow night. All I can do is make promises that she won’t understand.

She’ll wonder where her most recent caregivers, Graham and David, have gone. She’ll look for her special canine friend, Wrangler. Some visual or scent will call to mind her puppy raiser mom, Eileen, although it has been six months since they’ve seen one another. From Alberta, I know that well-raised guide dogs never forget previous family members and greet them with great joy. I suspect Koala would prefer we all live together in one pack. I can’t make that happen, but I will promise to keep her connected with the dogs and humans who matter to her most.

koala-and-deniI will promise to keep her safe. I hope that she never needs to know that I will instinctively fold her under my body for protection if anything threatens her just as I did when Alberta and I were attacked by a stray dog.

I will promise to trust her today and for all of the tomorrows we have together. When I am utterly confused, I will follow her lead, knowing that she’ll have better ideas that I about what to do next.

I can’t imagine Koala at my side because I don’t know yet the person she will turn out to be. But I can promise to show her day after day that I will love her for being her own best self and for who we can become together. Maybe that’s enough for the first day.

Postscript: Koala and Deni are off to a great start!

Dogs Understand Our Words — and Our Tone of Voice

janaNYT

This week, many media outlets have run stories on a recent Hungarian study that might show that dogs not only understand the words we say to them, they also understand the tone of voice. I haven’t yet read the full paper, but based on several articles, here’s the gist.

The 13 dogs, trained to lie still in an MRI machine (so already a select group of highly educated individuals …), were tested on four sets of cues: Praise words said in a “praising intonation,” described as a higher and more varying pitch than neutral speech; the same praise words in a neutral tone; neutral words in a praise tone; and neutral words in a neutral tone.

From interactions with dogs, most of us know that we can get dogs to respond to pretty much anything we say in an excited or happy tone. And we know that they respond to some words even if we barely whisper them. For instance, a whispered “c…o…o…o…o…k…i…e…e…e…” gets a reliable response even if the dog is 100 yards away, playing happily with her buddy. But this research study, like several other MRI studies by this team and an American team, looked at the response in specific areas of the dogs’ brains, not their actions.

Praise words, regardless of tone, caused reactions in the left hemisphere of the dogs’ brain; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing speech. Neutral tones, regardless of words, produced a reaction in the right hemisphere; this is similar to what the researchers would see in a human brain that is processing generic acoustic information. And, when the praise words were spoken in the praising tone, the reward centers of the dogs’ brain lit up. This shows that the dogs were able to integrate the meaning of the words and the tone and deduce meaning from them.

This study seems to show that dog brains process speech similarly to the way human brains process speech, which is what this article on Smithsonian.com reports. Other media reports said that it also means that the dogs understand human language, like this one from NPR.

Some experts, like one of my all-time-favorite scientists, Dr. Gregory Berns, told Smithsonian.com that the paper has been “wildly overinterpreted,” partly due to its methods. He pointed out that responding to speech and tone is not the same as understanding it.

That may well be true. On the other hand, the NPR article warns of the perils of life with such smart dogs, particularly if — as I do — one leaves NPR on for them to listen to all day. My dogs are, indeed, both smarter and better-informed than I am, especially now that I work in an office and do not listen to NPR all day.

However, in all seriousness, I think the overinterpretation also may be oversimplification. Yes, our dogs learn that certain words, even sentences, have specific meanings. They learn our habits and routines, and through experience with us, they associate all kinds of things with words. In our household some examples are: Leashes and fun and ball-playing with, “Who wants to go to the park?”; bowls of yummy food with “How about some dinner?”; and a careful backing up so that just her large, furry front paws are over the threshold with “Out of the kitchen, Cali.” The front feet then scootch back almost imperceptibly in response to, “The entire dog, please.” So yes, my dogs understand and respond somewhat appropriately to several sentences; I suspect that each family’s dogs have a set of favorites.

But even armed with my years of knowledge of their intelligence, along with my new realization of their eruditeness (is there a dog-oriented radio station that I could leave on instead of NPR?), I do not think that they process and understand human language in the same way that a human adult does.

What I do think, based on a combination of experience and having read dozens of research papers on dog-human communication, is that they read us really, really well. They don’t respond only to the words we say or the words combined with the tone of voice. Humans don’t either; so much communication is based on body language and other cues, even between humans. But dogs really read our body language. They also read all the scents we are giving off, including pheromones that we are completely unaware of. They read our microexpressions and our posture and our facial expression and pay attention to what we are doing as we are talking to them. They can figure out our emotions from these cues. They know when we “mean it” and when they can push the boundaries just a bit further.

Cali is much quicker to listen to my “get out of the kitchen” phrases when I am fixing her dinner than when I am doing the dishes. She’s learned that I will stop fixing her dinner and wait for her to leave the kitchen. She doesn’t like that consequence. But she doesn’t much care if I get the dishes done and maybe even wants me to stop doing them so I can pay attention to her.

The point is, looking at dogs’ response to words and voice in isolation doesn’t make sense, because in their lives with us, that is not how they use language. Another important thing to remember about dogs, as opposed to any other nonhumans, is that so much of who they are has been shaped by the fact of their lives with us. The dog-human connection is unique; our communication with them is different from our communication with any other nonhumans (even cats).

The most important point, though, is that dogs pay close enough attention to us to learn the meanings of the different things we say to them. They care whether we’re happy with them — or just whether we’re happy. I’m excited about new discoveries about dogs’ intelligence and cognitive abilities. But I am even more excited about new reasons to cherish the relationship I have with my girls and that others have with their dogs.

 

Just Hangin’ Out

Jana_aging

We all know that our dogs love us, right? It’s not enough to know that, though; researchers have to prove it. Fine. First we had the wonderful Dr. Gregory Berns and his MRI studies that showed that the pleasure center in dogs’ brains lights up when they catch a whiff of a familiar human. Then we had oxytocin studies that showed that a meaningful gaze is also therapeutic — for dogs (more about that in a future post). Now, my favorite: A study showing that dogs will actually learn and perform a task for what reward? A chance to spend a minute with their person.

The study was published in the fall issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Titled “Application of Functional Analysis Methods to Assess Human-Dog Interactions,” the study itself if a tough read. Do yourself a favor and read Dr. Stanley Coren’s “translation” in his column for Psychology Today.

The study only looked at three dogs, so it is not exactly definitive. But these dogs were tested on several different scenarios. First, they learned to perform a task that would open a door and allow them access to a room where their human was sitting. They actually figured out — taught themselves —a task, then performed it over and over again, just to get to be with their humans. They could hang out with (and be petted by) their person for one minute, then they were taken back to the room.

Initially the room was bare and boring. But then the researchers upped the ante. They gave the dogs some toys. Later, they added the dog’s favorite bed. In each case, performing the same task would let them out and give them access to their person. Yes, they chose to leave a relatively comfortable room and their toys to be with their humans. One dog had a harder time leaving the toys than the empty room, and one of the dogs chose not to leave the comfy bed.

The next level test put the people and dogs in the same room. Now, the dogs had no bed, no toys, and a human who was working on a computer. The door was open; the dogs were free to head to their toys, their beds, out. Yet, even though the person wasn’t paying paying any attention to them, the dogs showed a preference for being with their person. They stayed, rather than head to a more stimulating place.

Remember, this is a very small study. But it tracks with my experience of living with many dogs over many years, and spending time with dozens (hundreds?) of dogs whom I knew well but did not live with. It also lines up with our understanding of dogs as great therapy visitors, empathetic creatures, and just plain good friends.

I live in a tiny apartment, but, in addition to the living room where I spend much of my time, the dogs have access to the yard most of the time, a bedroom (with very comfy dog beds), and the kitchen and bathroom,which offer a cool floor in hot weather. The vast majority of the time, Jana chooses to be in whatever room I am in. She gets up and moves if I do. Even if I tell her, “Don’t move; I am coming right back,” she goes with me. In fact, ages ago, tiny 7-week-old Jana attempted a huge flight of stairs when I ran upstairs to get something and she just didn’t want to be left alone for even a minute.Janas Bed age 2

Cali is less consistent. If I move, she always comes to see if something fun is about to happen. But she often likes to nap on my bed or hang out outside when I am working in the living room. Even then, though, she comes and checks in very frequently.

This study seems to say that dogs enjoy just hanging out with their people. I am happy to know that. The more time I spend with dogs, the more I appreciate the true friendship between us; it’s nice (though not necessary) to see research studies confirming that this bond is valued by dogs as well.