Some Like It Hot

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When Jana was a young puppy, she had the strange and (I thought) disgusting habit of shredding, and sometimes eating, the trash. If I left her at home for too long — which, when she was a few months old meant “more than 10 minutes” — she’d empty one or more wastebaskets, usually leaving some of the shredded remains next to the wastebasket. Ick.

I knew that buying wastebaskets with lids or placing the wastebaskets out of reach would manage the problem, but I wanted to stop the behavior. A more-experienced trainer friend had a suggestion: douse the contents of the trash baskets with something very hot or spicy, something that would repel her with its scent or, if that failed, with the first bite. Tabasco sauce, perhaps.

Despite being a bit dubious, I decided to try it out.  The next time I was leaving Jana at home, I liberally sprinkled Tabasco over the crumpled tissues and bits of paper in the wastebaskets. I returned home to a floor clear of shreds … and to empty wastebaskets and a happy dog, wagging her thanks. “Great sauce, Mom, can I have some more?”

Hmmm. Not the reaction I had hoped for.

She’s consistent in her taste, though. Her dad, Moshe, used to give her bits of pita with hummus and schug, a very hot Yemenite condiment that makes smoke come out of my ears with the merest whiff. She now enjoys her breakfasts and dinner with a healthy spoonful of turmeric (a great anti-inflammatory).

I ascribed Jana’s odd penchant for spicy food to her Israeli heritage. Until last week.

We’ve been spending lots of time at the home of Gracie and Scarlett, two Montana goldens whose dad has a beautiful garden. The garden currently is bursting with an abundance of tomatoes, beans, squash and peppers (to Cali’s dismay, the peas are done for the season). Among the peppers that Deni harvested a few days ago were dozens of beautiful jalapeños.

As is her habit, Scarlett (now eight months old) watched like a hawk as Deni harvested and sorted vegetables, pouncing on any that fell to the ground and, when the opportunity presented itself, snatching veggies off the table. Green beans, squash, tomatoes … fine. Then she nabbed a large jalapeño and ran off to her “hiding” spot under the deck. As Deni watched in amazement, Scarlett took a bite, then another and another — until she had eaten the entire jalapeño, seeds, ribs, and all. As if to prove that she can take the heat, she nabbed another the next day and ate it, too. She has not shown any sign of ill effects or even indigestion. She didn’t even gulp down an entire bucketful of water afterward (as I would have).

While I certainly do not advocate feeding spicy foods to dogs, it seems that Jana is not the only girl who’s looking to spice up her kibble, fish, and peanut-butter cookie diet. Who knows? If your dog is turning her nose up at her ordinary meals, perhaps the problem isn’t that she doesn’t like the food — she might just be holding out for the right condiments.

(In case you’re wondering: Jana (mostly)outgrew her trashy habit; now she only shreds one tissue and leaves it for me, and only if she’s angry.)

Her Very Own Key

Surveying her territory
Surveying her territory

Cali got her own key last night.

Readers of Merle’s Door — or Cali, the Ghost, and the Dog Door or A Doorway to Your Dog’s Independence — will understand the significance of this moment.

Deni’s house in Montana has an electronic dog door. The dogs each wear a magnet on their collars. The magnet opens the door, letting the dog go outside, into the fenced dog yard. It’s a nice dog yard with its own deck and a fabulous view of the mountains and valley. Lucky dogs.

Cali had learned about dog doors in our Florida house, but her key privileges were quickly rescinded when she spent her time chasing and eating lizards, digging, and going in and out and in and out and in and out … Our California apartment has no dog door, and Cali’s outdoor privileges are often suspended due to incessant digging and / or barking at the neighbors. If you can’t handle the freedom, I tell her, you have to stay with me.

Cali clearly treasures the privilege, as she showed us the first time she got a key and went in and out and in … She no longer does that, but she does relish opening her own door — often waiting for the dog door to open and using it even when we’re walking through the people door at the same time. Jana and Alberta, on the other paw, will stand by the people door and bark for their staff. When we fail to materialize and open the door promptly enough, they’ll disdainfully resort to using the dog door.

Cali convinced us of her increasing maturity, after spending most of an afternoon stretched out in her “bearskin rug” pose, watching the world go by. That world included a few deer, many squirrels, and an enormous truck that dumped four loads of dirt and gravel on the driveway. Nary a bark was heard nor a hole dug. Our baby is growing up!

Well … not so fast. Increased wildlife activity in the evening required closing the dog door. Barking at deer in the morning prompted a brief suspension of Cali’s privileges.

Even with these bumps in the road, it’s clear that Cali has turned a corner. She’s much more thoughtful and better able to rein in her abundant enthusiasm. She still gets excited (very excited) about meeting new people or heading out to play ball, but she can get a grip on her enthusiasm, sitting and trembling all over rather than jumping straight into a stranger’s arms, for example. As we walk to the play yard, she skips ahead, remembers, backs up, skips ahead, remembers, backs up … over and over. I don’t have to say a word. She rarely even gets to the point of pulling at the end of the leash anymore. And, last week, a friend asked whether 6-month-old Scarlett would “be as nice and calm as Cali when she grows up.” Granted, the friend hadn’t known Cali for very long …still, it was a nice compliment.

Scarlett, at 6 months, already shows her strong personality and intelligence. However, she’s heading full-speed-ahead into adolescence, and she lacks impulse control. Cali was similar at that age. Watching them together provides a nice reminder that, if you get through those crazy months, you just might end up with a wonderful adult dog at the other end of that long, dark, frustrating tunnel.

Be Careful What You Teach Them …

When I was first learning to train service dogs, my instructor taught me that, once you put something on “cue control,” that is, teach the dog to do it when asked, the dog will no longer do it unasked.

Those of you with dogs and a little training experience, stop laughing.

This is one rationale behind teaching dogs to “speak” — bark on command.

Problem is, no one told the dogs about this bit of learning theory.

There is a key caveat to this piece of wisdom: The dog will no longer do it unasked unless he really, really wants to.

Bonnie Bergin (my teacher) discovered this one morning, when a particularly rambunctious group of adolescent Labrador service-dog trainees learned about tugging open a refrigerator door. One day, the ringleader of the litter, Xavier, let himself and some buddies into the training room (opening the door from the outside yard), tugged open the fridge, and helped himself to a large hambone.

The ensuing melee was quite dramatic. None of those Labs became service dogs.

I learned about the “unless they really want to” caveat to the lesson about dogs not volunteering named behaviors too late: I had already taught Jana to speak on cue. She uses her words. A lot. She’s quite opinionated, in fact.

Cookie, please

But I digress. The latest example of dogs doing unbidden that for which they have been amply rewarded in the past involves my shoes. I recently wrote about how eagerly Cali and Jana bring my shoes or sandals when it’s time for our morning walk.

Well, now they bring my shoes and my sandals. And a pair of slippers or flip-flops too. I reward the correct two shoes and wordlessly return the others to their proper place, hoping to extinguish this behavior. Not only is the flood of shoes not diminishing, it’s extending beyond walk time.

I occasionally turn around to find Jana, hopeful look on her face, shoe in mouth, standing behind me … at any hour of the day or evening. When I ask for anything — bowl, leash, collar, toy — Cali will often dash off enthusiastically … and return with a shoe.

On the bright side, they are both really good at “getting the other one,” so I never need to worry about being barefoot or mismatched.

So, be careful what you teach your dog; she might be smart enough to turn it into a game you never anticipated.

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.