Cali’s Quiet Competence

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I was in charge of puppy lunch the other day.

Puppy lunch is Deni and Koala’s name for the midday treat ball break that Koala has trained Deni to give her. The time keeps moving up; it would be more aptly named Puppy brunch, since Koala starts asking for it around 10 am, but that is a different story. Deni and I call it PL, as if Koala, and now Cali, won’t know what we’re talking about. Right.

But I digress.

Koala gets about a quarter-cup of kibble in her large orange treat ball. Cali now gets a smaller amount of kibble in a smaller yellow treat ball. Before anyone howls about unfairness, keep in mind that most dogs stop getting puppy lunch at about 4 months of age. Koala is over 4 years old and Cali is 6. Neither needs puppy lunch, but Koala has everyone convinced that she must eat multiple small meals a day to survive.

Also, Cali doesn’t seem to care. When I gave her a larger treat ball, she lost interest in it well before it was empty. Her lack of fanatical, desperate obsession with food is the least golden-ey thing about her.

They get PL in the downstairs TV / dog play area.

I’ve written in the past about how good Koala is at avoiding obstacles and keeping her treat ball from rolling under things. This large open area is easy for her. She rolls and chases the ball the full length and width of the room, vacuuming up the kibble as it falls out.

Cali has a different strategy. She takes her ball to the dog bed that is in a corner. It’s got walls on two sides and the sofa on the third. She stands in the open end, and gently bats her ball around the small, contained space. It can’t roll under the sofa because the dog bed blocks the bottom opening. This gives her a very easy way to keep track of the ball, get all of the kibble, and stay out of Koala’s zooming, looping path.

This simple strategy shows Cali’s characteristic calm, almost offhand, intelligence. She figures things out and makes the world work for her, in a quiet, unassuming way. She’s fine letting Koala’s exuberance claim the spotlight, and she doesn’t seem to mind that Koala’s treat ball fun lasts a bit longer.

It’s similar when the girls are picking up their toys (which does not happen often enough). Koala leaps and runs and bounces around, flinging toys toward the basket. One occasionally lands inside; others land nearby. She’ll toss the same toy at the basket 3 or 4 times, growing increasingly agitated — at the lack of praise and cookies from Deni. Cali, meanwhile, slowly gets a toy and thrusts it into my hand. (She and I have not worked much on putting things into the basket, for which I take full responsibility.)

Cali’s not always quiet and calm; she’s true to her golden heritage when visitors come or we meet a human, any human, walking down the street. She’s as wriggly and excited to meet a new friend as to greet an old friend. But I really do enjoy her thoughtful approach to problem solving.

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Finding Shortcuts

When she’s done eating, Koala picks up her bowl and takes it to Deni. But she’s come up with a new approach. If Deni is not in the kitchen, Koala first goes to find her. She then takes the bowl to Deni. This saves her having to wander around the house carrying her bowl, which is not really her favorite thing to do. It’s a shortcut.

Each of Deni’s guide dogs has found shortcuts on walking routes they do often (by which I mean, more than once). Some dogs’ shortcuts are kind of offensive to human sensibilities. (Think: drinking from the commode when the water bowl is empty.) Others, like figuring out new routes home or ways to carry multiple toys at once, are clever.

But whether you like the shortcut or not, the idea that a dog can do that is pretty amazing. Well, it would be amazing to people who don’t believe that dogs can think and problem-solve.

Koala is smart in so many ways. I love watching her roll a treat toy around. She has an orange treat ball where Deni puts her “puppy lunch,” a little bit of kibble. Koala rolls it around to get the food out. She’s strategic about how she rolls it, carefully avoiding edges it could roll off or furniture it could roll under. It’s an intelligent approach to problem solving that could be seen as a shortcut; after all, it saves her having to go find a human if the ball gets stuck under a bed.

Many people interfere with dogs’ attempts to solve problems, maybe worried that the dog will pick up something he shouldn’t (a shoe?) or just spoiling the dog by doing things for him. But that can limit the dogs’ opportunities to creatively solve a problem. If you catch yourself stepping in to help the dog, hold off for a moment. Maybe your dog will do something brilliant!

The Making of a Cherry Monster

Cali with her tennis ball, in the shade of a cherry tree
Cali discovered delicious snacks under the cherry trees.

It started out innocently enough. Cali wandered over to that nice shady corner of her yard by the cherry trees. One day, she found something red that smelled delicious. She ate it. She found more of those delicious red balls and ate them, too.

I noticed and told her to cut it out. She carefully spit out the cherry pit that was in her mouth and wandered away.

If only it were that simple.

Soon Koala discovered cherries. She taught Cali that if you swallowed the pits, you could eat a whole lot more cherries, faster, even after one of the mean policemoms caught you and told you to stop.

We went from a pit spitter and a pit pooper to … well, you know.

Then Koala packed up and went back home to Florida. Cali had to figure out stealth cherry chomping on her own. She’d keep an eye on me to see if I was watching. If I was talking on the phone or (!) went inside, she’d steal over to the cherry patch and grab a few cherries. She’d still spit the pits if she felt as if she had time to dine more leisurely. But, if she saw that I’d looked her way or — worse — was walking over to ruin her snack — the gobble rate would speed up.

I chased her away from the cherries. She went back. I threatened to make her go inside. She stayed away for a few minutes but was always drawn back. I cleaned up the dropped cherries. She found more. The call of the cherries was irresistible.

She got very sneaky. She’d wander around the yard feigning nonchalance. If I didn’t react, her loops would take her closer and closer to the cherries … Or she’d head that way and glance casually over her shoulder. If I wasn’t paying attention (or she thought I wasn’t), she’d pick up the pace and head right there. If I was watching, she’d change direction, look again, react appropriately … this meandering ultimately always ended at the cherry feast.

Finally, nearly all the cherries were ripe. I picked several million one Sunday morning. A friend helped me pick most of the remaining billions of cherries one evening after work. We cleaned up the dropped cherries pretty well. Cali went into deep depression.

Now, the only cherries left are too high for me to reach, even with a ladder.  The birds and squirrels help Cali out by dropping and knocking them down.

But Cali has pretty much moved on.

She discovered the raspberries this week.

She picks the low-down ones, being careful to avoid the spiky branches. When I am out there picking, she’ll stick her nose into the bowl and try to steal the fruits of my labor. I tell her to go get her own raspberries. She does, even burrowing into the bushes to go after a particularly juicy berry.

There aren’t as many raspberries, and they have no pits, so I don’t worry as much about her eating those. But somehow, Raspberry Monster doesn’t have the same ring.

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

Hero for a Day

No breakfast is always a bad sign.

Cali pokes me hopefully with her nose. Remember me? I’m hungry. I hug her and apologize. It’s your Morris Study Day, I tell her. I promise her a really good breakfast after the exam.

We head to the vet. For once, everything goes smoothly. No traffic (!). They take Cali immediately. No emergency comes in to delay taking the endless samples — the usual stuff, plus blood, fur, toenails. I assure the vet that I have not touched Cali’s nails since her March grooming. Her nails are always so short that it’s hard to get a sample. This year, at least her dewclaws are long.

As we’re talking, I realize that I completely forgot to collect samples on our morning walk. Not a problem, the tech reassures me. We’ll get them. I tell Cali she’d better poop for them. You can’t get out of here until you do, I tell her. That means no breakfast until you poop. She poops. She eats lots of treats. In fact, she’s done in an hour. Hooray!

Cali has breakfast. We play ball for a few minutes. She’s fully recovered. She also gets a special treat at dinner (sardines). Definitely recovered.

But every year, I wonder: Is this process OK with her? She’s happy but also a little nervous at the vet clinic. She’s been clingy since Jana died several months ago, and at the vet’s office, she “ups” on my lap and snuggles in. Sweet, but also a sign that she’s not comfortable, mildly stressed. At this vet office, the techs collect samples “in the back,” — away from my sight. I trust them; I know they are not hurting Cali any more than necessary to get a blood sample or clip her nails. But she’s nervous; she hesitates for a second before running after the tech who’s leading her away.

Every year I go over and over this in my head. It’s not that different from a regular exam, which I would do every year even if Cali were not in the study. The study is collecting a huge amount of data that might point to ways to reduce canine cancer. That is a big deal. I believe in what they are doing. I trust the vet and techs at this clinic. Is all of that enough? I decide it is.

But what does Cali think? She’s so easygoing and forgiving that she seems to just shake it off. She enjoys the extra attention and treats both at the clinic and once we get home. But her nervousness haunts me.

The Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study started enrolling dogs shortly before Cali was born (she’s four and a half). The oldest dogs who were eligible were two. That means that none of the 3,000 “heroes” are older than seven. Some have already had cancer; some have already died. This study matters. I know too many golden retrievers and other dogs who have had cancer, including some very young dogs. The study looks at genetics, exposure, diet, lifestyle. We (the human participants) fill out a very detailed questionnaire every year. What we feed our dogs, including occasional treats and supplements. How much exercise they get. What they’re exposed to: Pesticide? Secondhand smoke? It’s all in there.

The research team will have an enormous amount of data. I am looking forward to seeing what they find. I hope they look at other things besides cancer and that they release information about what they’re seeing already, about five years in.

But so far, after Cali’s fourth visit, I find myself wondering more than ever what she thinks of it all.

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.

What Marshmallow Tests Mean

I’ve written about both Alberta’s and Koala’s adventures with the marshmallow test and I’ve been thinking about what it tells us about each dog. Is Koala a “better” dog because she didn’t have to work as hard as Alberta? Is she more obedient ? (No!) More — or less — intelligent?

Dr. Walter Mischel, the psychologist who originated the test, wrote a book about it a few years ago; he also was interviewed in The Atlantic. The topic of both book and interview was some common misunderstandings about the test.

Mischel said that it is less about self-control than about achievement and making choices. It’s also, to some extent, about how and when a person (or dog) chooses to exercise self-restraint, not whether she can. Other research shows a phenomenon called willpower fatigue; exercising self-control takes cognitive energy. Using that energy on one task means you have less of it available for other tasks, whether they are cognitive tasks or exercising self-restraint.

Maybe Koala would do less well on the marshmallow test after navigating Deni through a strange airport, hotel, and restaurant than she did in the morning on her home turf.

After reading the interview with Dr. Mischel, I don’t think that the test tells us whether a dog is “good” or smart or even obedient. It tells us that training helps a dog make good decisions, and that making those decisions comes more easily to some individuals or at some times. Dr. Mischel told The Atlantic, “What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have.”

In other words, when we’re challenged, we fall back on our training and experience.

Alberta and Koala both had excellent training and socialization. They were also both taught the “leave it” cue. The original children tested were from affluent, educated families. These children, as well as Koala and Alberta, had some respect for and trust in authority figures (the children were tested, as were the dogs, by a familiar adult). These circumstances set up a person or dog to succeed. A random puppy pulled from a shelter pen by a stranger would likely not fare so well on the test.

That’s why it is so important to teach puppies to sit quietly, even if only for a few seconds, before they get to eat or greet someone; it’s why it’s important to ask them to wait at doorways and before jumping out of a car. Yes, we are teaching them manners and protecting their safety. We’re also giving them models and a basis to form “self-standards” that include self-restraint.

They might slip up sometimes. Cali gets so excited about meeting new people that she wriggles and dances. And when we approach the office of her friend the cookie lady, she’s a jumping, pulling, dancing demon.

It’s not just Cali. We all experience willpower fatigue. For instance when the scent of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies … mmmmm!