Dog Parks: The New Spectator Sport

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Cali loves going to the park, just as many sports fans love going to the stadium. McNear Park, about eight blocks from our apartment, is an off-leash dog run for a few hours every morning. A group of very nice, well-mannered dogs are regulars, and I have only very rarely seen any inappropriate play. It’s a wonderful place for Cali to get some off-leash ball play, since our yard is very small.

Every morning, she bugs me to get going. Hurry up! She brings my shoes and nudges me to get out the door faster. She noses her favorite ball to remind me to take it along. When we get there, she demands that I throw the ball immediately. She eagerly chases it.

Then she lies down in the grass and surveys the park. She’ll occasionally bring the ball back and let me throw it again. Once. She moves from sunny patch to shade, carrying her ball with her and carefully placing it between her paws as she resumes her reclining position on the grass. Watching other dogs play.

A few dogs try to engage her, bowing and bouncing. Once in a great while, Cali will play for a couple of minutes, then, worry furrowing her brow, search out her ball, sigh in relief, and lie down, the precious ball resting safely between her paws once again.

Sometimes, I go over and get the ball to throw it for her. She’s happy to chase it, tail rotating like a helicopter blade … and then, again, lie down and watch the action. Or not, in which case, she’ll hold tightly onto the ball, not letting me take it and throw it.

Cali sees the park as a sports arena where she gets to watch other dogs play ball, Frisbee, and tag. She’d be happy to stay there all day, observing, but I usually get annoyed and threaten, “Play — or we’re going home.”

Meanwhile, Jana is doing her thing. She grazes a bit, then rolls in the grass. Stretches out, does a bit of yoga, sunbathes. The walk there and back is enough exercise for her. But Cali really needs to run and burn off energy.

When I finally give up and snap leashes back on, Cali usually digs in her heels, refusing to leave. She might, grudgingly, let me take the ball and throw it a few times then, before we leave.

When we get home, what does Cali want me to do? Throw the ball for her, of course.

“I’m So Angry I Could Eat a Tissue”

Photo by Cathy Condon

When Jana gets angry at me, she takes one thing (usually a tissue) out of the wastebasket, shreds it, and leaves the pieces next to the wastebasket.

A quick Google search will turn up dozens of articles on why dogs eat trash or how to get them to stop, and many will suggest that they’re attracted to the food or your scent on items, or that they are obeying an irresistible impulse. Some will suggest that training can solve the problem; some will suggest management (trash cans with lids). Many dogs get into the trash; why do I think it is a reflection of her anger with me? I know my dog.

When Jana was a puppy, she nearly always shredded the trash when I left her home. As a dog newbie, I once followed the advice of a trainer to put hot sauce on the trash to discourage this behavior. Instead, I discovered that Jana loves spicy food. And spicy “food.” (Her definition of food is much, much broader and more inclusive than mine.) After she had enthusiastically thanked me for adding condiments to her snack, I asked her to help me pick up the remnants and put them (back) in the trash can. She did. I never put sauce on her snack again.

As Jana matured, she became a responsible dog who follows the rules and respects boundaries. She’s very helpful and thoughtful. I could leave a steak dinner on the counter and go out for the day (unlikely; I keep a vegetarian home) and it would still be there when I got home. She is 100 percent trustworthy around guests and snacks, even if the snacks smell really good and are at dog-nose level on a coffee table. She has mostly stopped the trash-shredding behavior.


When I leave her at home at a time that is just wrong — it’s close to mealtime, or I have already been gone much of the day and I come in and leave again soon after, or it looks like I am going to do something fun that should include dogs — I will come home to a single shredded tissue on the floor next to the trash can.

I know that serious dog scientists (most of whom seem to never have actually lived with a real dog) will howl over my interpretation of this behavior, but here it is anyhow. I think that Jana is expressing her hurt feelings and anger in a way that is uniquely her own. She could be very destructive; thankfully, she’s not that kind of girl. She could ignore me when I returned, but she’s not the type to hold grudges, either. I believe that she has thought this through and decided that shredding one piece of trash makes a statement.

As Cali does with hiding before brushing her teeth, Jana is telling me how she feels. Both girls do this articulately and in their own way — and then move on. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were so mature and as effective and clear in their communications?

Just Where I Left It …

Looking for these?
Looking for these?

Dogs’ memories — how well they remember things over time, whether they remember people, other dogs, or their mothers and siblings years after they last met — are the topic of much speculation and, lately, of serious research.
As Jana gets older and begins to show her age in some ways, I sometimes wonder whether she’s becoming forgetful or confused in the ways that many humans do as we age. She sometimes will stand and look at me and bark (and bark and bark), for example, and I cannot figure out what she wants or needs.
But then there are the encounters with smelly things on walks. She’ll find something — scraps of food, something dead, sometimes even worse things — that she wants to eat and that I do not want her to eat (or roll in). I’ll give her a stern, “Leave it,” and encourage her past the Thing. I’ll make a mental note to remember this Thing on our way home. A half hour or 45 minutes later, we’ll be walking home. The Thing will, of course, have completely slipped my sieve-like mind. Not Jana’s though. She beelines for it.
Sure, she could be smelling it as we approach. While that’s a reasonable explanation for Thing encounters on daily walks, the same thing can happen with encounters that are weeks or even months apart. At the dog beach we used to visit in Florida, she’d remember where a really good dead Thing had been — months later. It was never still there, and the tides, the wind, the cleanup crews, the other dogs and other animals would have obliterated any remaining scent. On hikes, she’ll dash off to pick up a rock she noticed on the way in — sometimes a couple hours later, as we head to the car. She seeks out remembered toys and beds at friends’ houses, too.
While generations of scientists and dog lovers have accepted the idea that dogs live fully in the moment — and they really seem to — that does not mean they don’t also remember and plan. Dogs clearly make “mental notes” of significant things, as we do. They appear to be far better than many of us at actually remembering to seek those things out (and remembering where to look for them).
We should all enlist this talent to keep track of our eyeglasses, car keys, and cellphones!

Let Your Dog Choose


Jana choosesIn “Communication Goes Two Ways,” I wrote about learning to read your dog’s body language, especially to recognize when she’s stressed or afraid. You can take your communication to the next level by teaching your dog new ways to communicate with you. Some ideas?

    • Hang a bell on the door your dog uses to go out in the yard for potty breaks. Encourage the dog to nudge the bell each time you let her out. She will soon connect the bell with getting you to open the door, and ring it when she needs to go out. A word of caution: Some smarty-pants dogs will use this system to train you, demanding to be let out every time you sit down or stop paying attention to them.
      One clever dog of Deni’s used this system to get rid of a pesky young puppy sibling. She’d ring the bell; puppy (and Deni) would come running; Deni would open the door; puppy would run out — and clever older dog would not. She’d stay inside to enjoy the calm, now puppyless, house.


  • Offer your dog choices: Do you want to play with the tennis ball or the Frisbee? Which treat do you want? Do you want a walk or should I toss the ball? This can be as simple as offering two items for the dog to choose. But you can, with training, teach the dog to answer simple (two-option) questions. A student in my canine-human communication class taught her dog to choose between two options (sometimes yes and no) by nosing one hand or the other. A researcher in Florida taught dogs to choose a reward for a task they had completed by nosing a card with a picture of the desired reward — a ball, a food treat, a tug game, etc. She found that each dog had definite preferences!
  • Let your dog decide which direction you head on your afternoon walk. Jana and I have an informal agreement. The morning walk, which always includes Cali, is to the park where Cali plays ball. Afternoon walks, which are often just the two of us, are Jana’s choice. She likes to head toward the river and walk past her beloved dog training school, stopping along the way to visit her friend in the office on the corner (a very kind woman who always offers Jana a cookie).
  • Many people use hand signals to communicate with their dogs. These can substitute for (or work in tandem with) verbal cues — a raised hand for stay, for example, is widely used. Some trainers have made the leap to teaching dogs signals that they can use to communicate back to us, similar to the Baby Sign Language some parents use with pre-verbal babies. This takes more planning and teaching than some of the other ideas.


There are many more options, requiring various amounts of preparation and teaching, but you get the idea. Encouraging your dog to express her preferences and communicate her needs will increase her independence. It is empowering for her, and it shows that you respect her as an individual, which will enrich your relationship by making it a tiny bit more reciprocal.

Communication Goes Two Ways

An entire industry, dog training, is dedicated to teaching dogs to understand what we want. Even dog owners who don’t go to training classes or hire private trainers spend a lot of time trying to communicate to their dogs (and often being frustrated at their apparent failures). Literally hundreds of books offer tips for teaching dogs to understand what we tell them.
What about helping us understand what our dogs are saying?
Our dogs are excellent communicators. Even the ones who don’t seem all that smart because they never do what their moms and dads ask probably are reading Mom, Dad, and all other humans better than any human ever could. Those dogs are also, most likely, using their whole bodies, putting heart and soul into trying to tell those very humans what they need, want, and feel.
We’re just very poor listeners.
Dogs use their tails, their ears, their hackles, their voices to communicate. A slight lift of a lip tells a story, as do exposed teeth, a lowered head, a low, slow tail wag. Each bark, yip, and growl has a different meaning. All dog owners should strive for a general understanding of what dogs in general say with their bodies.
The most important place to start, I think, is recognizing when a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. Since some of the body language can look similar to friendly or happy dog body language, many people miss important signs.
For example, that wagging tail. It means a happy dog, right? Not always. Dogs’ tail wags are very nuanced. A tail held high and wagged fast generally means an excited or happy dog, but a lower, slower wag can be a sign of apprehension or discomfort. If the tail is stiff, or the tail is moving slowly and the rest of the dog’s body is stiff, you are not looking at a happy dog.

Cali relaxed

“Smiling dogs” are another area of confusion. If the dog’s lips are pulled back in what looks like a smile, and her eyes are soft and her tail is wagging loosely, she’s happy. But if the eyes are hard or are darting between you and someone or something else or the hackles are up, you are more likely looking at a stress smile. That dog is scared or stressed.
Take a look at these photos of Cali (when she was a much younger puppy). The right-hand photo shows her with soft eyes, and her mouth is relaxed. She looks soft. Happy. But the photo on the left (below) shows stress. Her eyes are hard and scared. Her mouth is more rigid.

Cali stress

Other signs of stress? Sweaty paws, furrowed brow, ears plastered back against the head, repeated lip licking or yawning, tail low or tucked, stiff posture, and panting. Many dogs will refuse treats in a stressful situation. Watch for avoidance behaviors: Some will sniff the ground when faced with a strange dog or even try to walk away.
A general understanding of what dogs’ body language means is important for anyone who spends time around dogs. But it’s even more valuable to invest some effort in learning your own dog’s body language and vocal vocabulary. What are her stress signs? How does she show you affection, share joy, express empathy? Learning her cues will strengthen your relationship.
Then, you can take the next step and start giving your dog ways to ask for what she needs!

Growing Up

9 Weeks

Janas Bed age 2






Cali turned two recently, so by some definitions, she is an adult. I had this fantasy that, at age two, she’d “click in,” showing maturity and leaving behind the seemingly endless adolescent phase.
Hasn’t happened.
But all is not lost. She is showing signs of growing up.
For a couple of weeks now, she’s been trying very hard not to pull on the leash when we are walking to the park where we play every morning. She has excellent leash manners on most regular walks, but she’s so excited about the park that our morning walk there has been a constant struggle.
I repeatedly stop and ask her to stop pulling. She bounces into position next to me, then, within a few seconds, is out in front, pulling hard. As we walked, my patience would wear thin and my requests would grow sharper.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that she wasn’t pulling so much as … well, vibrating. When Deni was here for a Thanksgiving visit, she asked why Cali was” bouncing like that.” Cali now walks out in front of me, but the leash is a bit slack and she bounces and quivers, and, every so often, moves back and walks next to me for a few steps. She is trying so hard not to pull.
Another sign of impending adultness is that she actually tried on her own, without being asked, to pick up her bowl after dinner this week. I’ve been trying to get her to do this, as Jana does, for months. The best she’s managed is to sort of lift it by one edge and drag it to my waiting hand. And that only happens if I have a really good treat in the other hand. But there she was — and, because of raging hotspots, she was wearing her cone — trying mightily to lift her bowl.
Finally, the best sign yet of maturity came yesterday. For a few months, every time our neighbors walk their dog, Ernie, Cali has barked madly at him. She does not bark when the people go by without Ernie. She is fine meeting Ernie in the parking lot or at the play yard, where they occasionally show up when we are there. But they walk Ernie a lot. Several times a day. And Cali has always done her crazy dog impression, barking her loudest, fiercest bark.
Until yesterday. Earlier, the other neighbors had returned from a walk with their two dogs, and both Cali and Jana let them know whose territory this was. I let them know how unacceptable their barking was.
About 15 minutes later, I saw Ernie and his people walking by. Dead silence from both dogs. Until I threw them a party. Good GIRLS! Lots of cookies!! Woo-hoo! When the trio came back from their walk, again, silence. This morning, again. Can it be that she has finally learned??
It’s easy to get frustrated at our dogs. And to assume that they know what we want them to do (or not do) and are disobeying out of spite. Or general badness. How many times have I told Cali that she’s the “baddest dog in the whole #$&^ town”?
But she’s not. And chances are, your dog isn’t either. They are trying. But it takes a lot of maturity and self-restraint to follow human rules that make no sense in a doggy world.

Is Your Dog Smarter Than A …

Is your dog as smart as a human 2-year-old? A 5-year-old? A (gasp) teenager? Does it depend on what breed your dog is?
We can’t help it, we humans. We want to put everything into neat little human-constructed boxes. That is, I think, what is going on when people try to define dogs’ (or other non-humans’) intelligence in human terms. That and the common, if arrogant, human assumption that we are the smartest creatures, so everyone else — dolphins, dogs, starfish — can and should be evaluated, based in how they compare with us in human-like ways.
But really, how many human 2-year-olds would you trust to guide you across a busy street? Or turn loose in the wreckage of a natural disaster or terror site, with the expectation that the little tyke would let you know where the survivors are trapped? We use dogs to find lost 2-year-olds, don’t we? And protect them (and other humans) from diabetic coma or severe peanut allergies, warn of their impending seizures, coax those who have autism or have suffered trauma to connect — and so, so much more.
The basis for comparison is obviously flawed. Dogs are much like human toddlers in many ways, it’s true — their unbounded love of play; their sweet willingness to befriend just about anyone. Yet they are so much better at some things than any child could ever be — better at some things, such as anything based on scent, than any human of any age could ever be.
So, how should we measure, evaluate, understand canine intelligence?
We can start by acknowledging that intelligence is a complicated concept — there are many types of intelligence. Among people for example, there is social intelligence or emotional intelligence, there is numerical or problem-solving or analytical intelligence. Business acumen, logic, performing well under extreme stress — all of these might be considered different skill areas or types of intelligence. Intelligence is what helps you (or your dog) navigate life, with all the challenges and detours it throws in your path. We are all stronger in some areas, weak or ridiculously incompetent in others. The same is true of dogs.
We can also think about the skills that dogs have that have no parallel in human ability or intelligence — and the myriad ways we can help dogs develop and use those skills in partnerships that make life better for humans and dogs.
Some dogs excel at reading people’s body language. According to several prominent dog cognition researchers, among them superstars Brian Hare and Adam Miklosi, dogs — even very young puppies — excel at reading humans’ pointing gestures and where their humans gaze. This is a type of social intelligence. I am sure that many, many dogs excel at this. However, not all dogs do. I know. I live with one who fails miserably at reading gestures.
Other dogs (including the one who cannot follow a pointing finger to save her life), can intuit a person’s mood and provide exactly what is needed: comfort, humor, affection, appeasement, a favorite toy.
Still other dogs are great problem-solvers. They analyze each new situation and map out a solution.
Some dogs are born to … fill in the blank: Provide mobility assistance, search out bombs or drugs, find lost or hurt people, detect tumors, comfort lonely elderly people, make children laugh.
I don’t think it matters whether your dog is smarter than a toddler. I don’t think it is a fair or relevant comparison. What does matter is assessing each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, his or her specific areas of intelligence. Then, we can figure out how to stimulate and challenge each dog in the ways that will allow him or her to succeed, thrive, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Sisters at Play

IMG_1137Cali’s sister Dora visited recently for the weekend, which meant nonstop action. Cali actually has lots of sisters. She lives with Big Sister Jana full time. Jana has been an excellent role model, teaching Cali necessary life skills, including barking at passersby and rolling in sand so joyously and thoroughly that, between them, they make sure to take the beach home with them. Then there is Alberta, the part-time sister and playmate. They are evenly matched in size and have similar energy levels. When they are together, everything becomes a tug toy.
But DorIMG_1141a is special. Dora is Cali’s litter sister. They were plucked from their siblings on the same day (Cali by me and Dora by my close friends) and whisked away, first on a long car ride, then on an airplane where everyone made a huge fuss over them. They spent a scary first night away from Mom snuggled together in a crate. Since then (or maybe even before) they’ve shared a special bond. Whether it’s been days, weeks or even months since they last met, their greeting is rowdy, loud, and energetic. Their play is very physical and rough, but no one ever gets hurt. At rest, they often touch paws or sleep in a heap.
Play is often seen by researchers as practice for important life skills. One researcher, Dr. Marc Bekoff, suggests an additional crucial role for play: it is the basis for developing social ethics. In play, young dogs (or other social beings) learn not to hurt each other, to follow certain rules, to communicate their intentions honestly.
Both Dora and Cali have excellent social manners. When meeting new dogs, they exhibit all of the correct doggy signs for getting acquainted and inviting play. Both are wise enough to be deferential to larger dogs and to show respect for elderly dogs. They’ve internalized those ethical practices that they have learned through playing with a variety of dogs. But sister play is different.
InIMG_1134 their sister play, they also bow and use the full range of doggy play signals, but the signs are sometimes abbreviated or perfunctory. They feel safe enough to throw themselves into play without worrying about being misunderstood. There is lots of ear-pulling and gnashing of teeth. Their faces wear fierce expressions. They emerge panting and wet. And wearing huge smiles. There is a level of familiarity and trust between them that gives their connection a quality that Cali’s play with others — even Alberta and Jana — lacks. Social manners matter most when dogs assess the intent of strangers. Smart dogs know when they need to be polite. And when they don’t. And, for Cali and Dora, family is safe enough that politeness can take a backseat to full-on fun.

You Need a Large Toolbox

I met a wonderful family recently. They are puppy raisers for a guide dog school in the Northeast (one of the best assistance dog organizations that I am familiar with, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Yorktown Heights, NY). They told me a story that perfectly illustrates the importance of knowing and treating each dog as an individual.
The ability to lie still and just hang out is a crucial skill for service and guide dogs in particular, but, really, all dogs need to learn to do this. After all, we humans can rarely provide 24/7 entertainment and fun. Even if we could, this would be over-stimulating for the dog. Dogs need to learn how to calm themselves and just chill out.
These puppy raisers said that the way they had originally learned to teach dogs the importance of just being still (often using a cue like “settle”) was to give the dog food treats as rewards for lying quietly near them. For many dogs, this works well — the dog can initially be rewarded simply for lying down (when working on a strong “down”), and, very gradually, the rewards can be delayed until the dog has remained quiet for a few seconds, then 10 seconds, 15, etc. When the dog is able to relax in place for longer times, intermittent treats, with the interval getting longer, can reinforce this behavior and convince the dog that just lying there really isn’t so bad.
What was wrong with this approach? For many dogs, nothing. Then there were those extremely food-focused dogs. Funny how many of those are Labs and goldens — the very dogs that service and guide organizations use the most. Some of these dogs, it seems, would take to asking for food. The more independent ones would cut out the middleman entirely and start looking for dropped crumbs on the ground. These behaviors are annoying in any dog, but particularly unacceptable in a dog who works in public. These dogs need to learn to ignore tempting morsels in restaurants, supermarkets, and other places where there could be food on the floor.
So, the trainers came up with a solution: Reward the dog for lying quietly with a very gentle stroke along the dog’s back. Not active petting or interaction; simply a single, gentle, calming stroke. Again, for many dogs, this is indeed a desirable reward and something that will even deepen the calm, relaxed state the dog is in.
Then there are all of those other dogs. The ones that get wildly excited at the slightest stimulation. Even reaching toward these pups to stroke them is likely to be read as an invitation — and is more likely to elicit a play bow than a calm, relaxed dog. Or the dogs who regard touch as an invitation to cuddle or the ones who roll on their backs to solicit a belly-rub at the slightest hint that a hand is near. And don’t forget our analytical canines — the ones for whom touch is not rewarding, those whose social styles tend more toward more reserved contemplation of humans than actual up-close-and-physical contact.
You get the picture. This method of rewarding lying still is not going to work for all dogs — any more than food rewards would work for all dogs. That is exactly the point of using a cognitive approach to teaching dogs: Treat each dog as an individual. Starting with that essential principle, we can figure out which dogs to reward with food, which to reward with stroking — and which need something else entirely.
There is no one correct way to teach or reward any particular behavior, as my new friends learned. And individual dogs may respond to different rewards at different times. Applying this knowledge has made them better puppy raisers — and, I am sure, better people.
The methods and rewards are as varied as the dogs (and trainers) are. Be on the lookout for new ideas and ways of teaching or rewarding a dog. Every trainer needs a constantly expanding toolbox of techniques.

What Is Cognitive Education for Dogs?


Jana and Turbo toy_crop
Welcome to an all-new, improved Thinking Dog blog! It is re-launching with a new focus — cognitive approaches to educating dogs.

What does that mean? Think of it as a contrast to the more traditional approaches, many of which use force, to train dogs.

Cognitive-based dog education means teaching dogs to think their way to becoming their best selves.

Their best what, you ask? Well, that answer is different for every dog — just as it is for every person.

It’s not a new idea: In 1963, Clarence Pfaffenberger wrote a book called The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior. A line in that book beautifully captures the essence of cognitive education.  Pfaffenberger writes that the first time a puppy to removed from his or her littermates for training, the puppy is given “the dignity of being an individual.” All dogs deserve this. It is this understanding that forms the basis of cognitive education for dogs.

In 1995, Vicki Hearne published a classic piece, “A Taxonomy of Knowing: Animals Captive, Free-Ranging, and at Liberty.”  In it, she describes the ideal relationship between a human and a non-human partner (most of her examples are dogs): the team shares a goal, recognizing and respecting the unique abilities that each member of the team brings to the joint pursuit of that goal.

An animal working at liberty, Hearne writes, is one “whose condition frees her to make the fullest use of some or all of her powers.” A great example is a search-and-rescue team. The dog brings amazing powers of scent detection and tracking to the partnership; the human brings logistical planning abilities and much more. The point is, neither partner, alone, could be as successful in the goal of finding a lost child as they are as a team.

Dogs in at-liberty partnerships are being the best that they can be. Cognitive education can get you and your dog there.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Psych 101)? Basic stuff like food and shelter are at the bottom. More esoteric needs, like social acceptance and aesthetic enjoyment, are higher up. The highest level is self-actualization — being the best you that you can be. That is what cognitive educators want for each and every dog.

As Pfaffenberger acknowledged, each dog is a unique individual with likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses — and an idea of what he or she wants (and does not want) to do. Cognitive educators understand this and teach each dog as an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to training.

This approach enables each dog to be the best (fill in the blank) that he or she can. Some dogs can become fantastic service dogs; others are destined to work as scent detection or search and rescue dogs, serve in the military, or provide loving companionship to their humans. Some pets are great athletes who enjoy dock diving; others prefer Rally, flyball, agility, or freestyle dancing. Whatever your pet’s skills and preferences, you, as a cognitive educator, friend, and companion to that dog, can help your dog explore and develop and grow.

If this sounds like something you believe in or want to learn more about, stick with The Thinking Dog blog. We’ll be exploring cognitive education from every angle — who does it and how; what it looks like in daily life; how to think like a cognitive educator; what dogs are telling you about their likes and dislikes and how to better understand them … and so much more.

Check back often, subscribe to the blog, and be sure to share it with all of your dog-loving friends.