The Fourth ‘P’

Golden retriever Cali with her tennis ball
Photo by Christina Phelps

Recently, The Thinking Dog published a description of the dogs’ keen strategy for gaining the upper paw, based on three P’s: Patience, Persistence, and Perception.

An astute friend has pointed out a fourth P, one that Cali and Koala also use extensively: Pouting.

When this friend’s dog’s quest for a treat fails, he turns away from his mom — first turning his head, then turning his entire body to show her his back — and radiates his displeasure.

Indeed, when Cali’s tri-pawed strategy of patiently awaiting an opportunity, persistently communicating her desire, and perceptively judging when I am about to cave — or not — fails to produce the preferred payoff, a pouting pup is my plight.

What is the right response?

OK, the right response is to ignore this manipulative behavior.

The realistic response is … it depends.

For instance, I have made the dreadful, and very stupid, error of giving in to the pout in the late evening, when I really want Cali to pee before bed. She has me convinced that she can only pee with a ball in her mouth, so I toss a ball when I let her out.

She’s persistently working on convincing me that, actually, she can only pee after a few ball tosses, you know, to get things moving. Then she needs time to find the right spot, test out the grass in different parts of the yard …

When I do not give in to the blackmail, I wind up with a pouting pup somewhere in the darkness. And then I have to go out and find her and escort her inside

I am already paying dearly for giving in too many times, and it’s not even November yet. It will be a long, cold winter.

On the other hand, Cali and Koala’s persistent attempts to get extra treats have been known to blow up in their faces a bit, as we humans leverage the shreds of our belief that we’re at least as smart as they are, and we devise new chores for them. Cali excels at picking up her toys, for example. (She excels even more at redistributing them within minutes of receiving her paycheck.)

It’s pretty clear who’s winning this battle, and it’s not the ones with the thumbs.

With Patience, Persistence, and Perception, Dogs Have the Upper Paw

Some day, my berries will be ready …

By Deni Elliott and Pam Hogle

Regardless of how many years they have lived with dogs, almost all dog-owned humans wish that the dogs were better behaved. Some dogs continue to bark, despite repeated human attempts to stop the noise. Some dig or raid the garden or sleep on the sofa —despite physical barriers and human reprimands. Others act out when their people are most hoping that they won’t. The sad truth is that the problem is less about human incompetence than it is an indication of canine superiority. Dogs consistently outperform their human companions in three vital areas: Patience. Persistence. Perception.

Patience is the ability to wait for you want and hold on to a goal despite distraction. How many people would have the patience to wait at home for hours while their companions went off to work or play? Or even have the patience to wait for minutes outside of a store, tied to a pole, with no phone to keep them amused? Dogs, who love dependable routines, wait and wait and wait for their people to remember that it is time to play, to walk, or even to feed them dinner close to the usual hour.

Persistence is the ability to continue working toward a goal despite difficulty or opposition. Some dogs bark persistently. Some continually nudge their person’s hand to get petted. Persistently. And others beg at the dining table. Persistently. There is a reason that the term for working tenaciously is “dogged.” People give up and give in long before dogs will. People also reward the dog’s persistence, “just this once,” — maybe to stop the dog’s annoying behavior. At that point, the dog has succeeded at creating the desired human behavior. In most families, the dog will soon have the people well-trained in responding to canine direction.

Perception is the ability to use one’s sensory abilities to take in information in and make it meaningful. Dogs read people — our vocal tone and pitch in addition to our words; our facial expressions and body language. In comparison, most people can barely tell the difference between a dog barking in joy and one barking in warning or in anger. Dogs learn how they should react and what they can get away with by reading their people. Much dog anxiety can be attributed to what the dog reads from their primary person. “If my person is sending signals that he is nervous,” the dog reasons, “I guess I better be worried too.”

Patience, persistence, and perception come together in a trifecta of  superior intelligence that sometimes overwhelms the most dog-savvy of humans. In last week’s Thinking Dog Blog, Pam wrote about Cali eating tomatoes from the garden just before Pam would have picked the tomato for human consumption.

The sequence of events illustrates how these concepts come together in dognition: Cali waited patiently for weeks while the lettuce, raspberries, and tomatoes each reached what she considered their peak readiness. When faced with an obstacle, she was persistent enough to figure out new ways to reach the garden treats, getting around the bird netting that Pam had wrapped around the plants. When Cali decided that it was time to eat the tomato she had been eyeing, she reached through the netting to pluck the tomato and let it fall beneath the plant. Then Cali could reach the tomato by burrowing under the netting. Which she did. There she lay, chomping her freshly harvested tomato, while Pam mowed the grass just a few feet away. Cali perceived that Pam was focused on the lawn and not on the dog.

Dogs consistently outperform humans because their PQ (Patience, persistence, perception) is off the scale compared to their human companions. That seems to be a fair trade-off for people getting opposable thumbs to use in our far more primitive way of manipulating the environment we share.

Reward or Punishment?

A tiny, perfect ice cream cone, about an inch tall
Photos by Allison Lester

Cali barked at someone walking past our back gate. I shushed her. When she did it again, I ordered her inside.

Koala looked at me quizzically, then walked to the door and asked to go in. Deni told her that no, she had to stay outside. Her next look clearly asked why Cali got rewarded for barking — and why she was being punished.

For Cali, going inside is punishment. But spending time outside is often, for Koala, punishment.

The dog decides what’s a reward — and what’s not.

In our relationships with our dogs, and especially in training ,the dog decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. If a dog doesn’t care much about food, most food treats won’t be rewarding enough to motivate her to learn or to do something she really doesn’t want to do. If a dog hates having her ears rubbed or dislikes pats on the head, some types of physical “affection” can be unpleasant — not the bonding experience the human might be aiming for.

Cali knows that getting her ears done is worth more — both in number and in value — in treat-payment than getting the newspaper or putting a toy away. She knows that some great things, like coconut ice popsicles and opportunities to play snuffle-mat, are free — while others, like her special meat treats, have to be earned.

Cali’s pretty strongly food motivated, but if she’s got a tennis ball and a prospective ball thrower, she’s not at all interested in any kind of treat. And when she’s at the vet and the tech wants to lead her somewhere — whether a soup ladle is involved or not — it takes an extremely high-value treat to get her to go. Koala, on the other hand, will pretty much do anything for a treat.

For some dogs, especially the high-drive dogs who tend to excel at search, scent detection, and police training, active play with a ball or tug toy is the best training reward they can imagine. Other dogs will give the toy — and the human offering it — some side-eye and then (again) demand their pay — in food.

The owner or trainer or dog-walk can have whatever ideas they want about what the dog should like or want. But if something isn’t rewarding to the dog, it’s not going to work. That’s true whether the human is trying to train, get the dog to do something — or get the dog to stop doing something.

It’s worth figuring out what foods work best as treats and what non-food rewards — praise, petting, toys or other play — work for your dog. Save the very best ones for special occasions — times you need the dog to come over in a hurry or cooperate with a particularly unpleasant experience (ears, nails, vet) — and use the “good” and “very good” ones for everyday training and rewards.

The Puppy Lunch Saga

Koala, a black Lab, noses a treat ball in her downstairs play room

For over two years, I opposed Puppy Lunch. I made fun of it and told Deni that Koala had really wrapped Deni around her paw.

I was wrong.

Cali now has Puppy Lunch every day alongside Koala.

Puppy Lunch is a late morning snack. Ideally it would be a mid-day snack, but Koala has adeptly moved the time forward bit by bit, and it’s now generally served at about 10:30. Soon we’ll need to call it Puppy Brunch and perhaps add Puppy Happy Hour at 2 or 3 pm.

But I digress.

Little puppies eat three times a day. Big grown-up dogs eat twice a day — some only once! (Koala finds that very hard to imagine.) The worst day of Jana’s life was the day she grew up and outgrew Puppy Lunch. Cali’s too, apparently.

Koala convinced Deni as well as the Guiding Eyes trainers and nutritionists that she could not possibly survive — much less work(!) — without the sustenance that Puppy Lunch offered.

Cali did just fine without Puppy Lunch.

Then Cali lost some weight and was looking a bit thin. Her vet pronounced her in excellent health but underfed. Cali said, “I told you so!” about a thousand times. Cali’s vet, her favorite human on the planet, suggested … a mid-day meal.

Here’s the part I misunderstood, though: Unlike breakfast and dinner, Puppy Lunch is not simply food poured into a bowl. Puppy Lunch is a small amount of kibble served in a treat ball. Cali and Koala each have an orange treat ball that is used solely for this purpose. Koala brings the balls upstairs; Deni fills them. The girls then bump their balls around the basement play area until the balls are empty. Koala then returns them to the toy box.

Cali, a golden retriever, sniffs out treats that are buried in her snuffle matIt’s a nice routine. More than that, it’s an enrichment activity. They have fun, use their noses and paws, and get a break in their fairly dull days of watching us work at our computers. Both girls have become skilled at keeping their balls from rolling under things or behind furniture.

Cali often has a second break in the afternoon, with her snuffle mat although, for some reason, Koala rarely joins her. (Hmmm… perhaps Cali has already trained me to provide Puppy Happy Hour …)

When Deni and Koala are working at the university in Florida, Puppy Lunch gives Koala a nice work break and a chance to play in the middle of what can be long workdays.

Cali’s weight is back up to where it needs to be. She’s fit and very healthy. But the routine continues — because adding some fun into her life has been good for her. It’s an easy enough thing to do, especially with Koala reminding one or both of us about Puppy Lunch well in advance…

Obsessively neat?

Koala, a black Lab, considers playing with one of everal toys
So many toys; so hard to choose

It’s always interesting to teach a dog a new skill and see where she takes it.

When I taught Jana that she could make choices, she started weighing in on where she wanted to go on walks. She’d put on the brakes, hard, if I tried to head in the “wrong” direction, for example.

Koala has built on many of her skills, adding new dimensions. She’s great at finding shortcuts to places that she and Deni walk to frequently. She quickly learns regular routes. Those skills come into play when they travel: She can find their hotel room after being in it once. She also uses her search skills — and her excellent nose — to find a trash can anywhere she happens to need one.

She learned to put away her toys some time ago. Cali has learned this as well. They both know to bring a toy and drop it into the toy basket. Usually, this is a mercenary exchange, with treats demanded after each successful toy drop as well as a final, larger paycheck at the end. It also requires considerable encouragement and cheerleading.

And Koala routinely gets her treat ball when it’s time for puppy lunch. When she’s emptied it, and when Deni asks her to, she brings it to Deni to put away.

Recently, though, Koala did something unexpected. She selected a toy, chewed it for a moment, decided that she wanted a different one — and put the first one away before choosing another. She did this twice before settling in with her third choice, an antler, to chew.

Has she become obsessively neat? Has she finally figured out that if she leaves her bones scattered on the floor, people trip over them (and if so, does she care)? Or is she worried about being unemployed while she’s in Montana, since Cali has a lock on the best two local jobs?

As I look at a living room scattered with Cali’s toys, I wonder whether there’s enough work to support two dogs in the toy-cleanup business.

Sympathy Pains?

Jackson, a boxer, steps gingerly off the sofa
My leg hurts … or does it?

Jaxson’s dad had knee surgery and was using crutches to get around on his heavily bandaged left leg.

That morning, and the previous day, Jaxson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jaxson started favoring his left (rear) leg.

He was holding the leg up or touching the floor gingerly, limping around. Outside, though, he raced along the fence to chase a squirrel. Occasionally he seemed to forget his injury inside too, rushing to the window to angrily warn trespassers to get off his property if they dared walk past the house.

What was going on? For two days, we all debated whether Jaxson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jaxson’s foot, too, spent more time on the ground. He eagerly went for a long walk (no limping) and joined Dad and a friend as they wandered down to the nearby pond.

We’ll probably never know what was going on in his mind…

This is the same dog who demonstrated his problem-solving — and engineering — skills earlier in the summer. The whole family was working in the yard. Well, the humans were working. As I heard the story, Jaxson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jaxson noticed a tiny leak in the garden hose, though. He idly licked at the drops. Then he got an idea.

He started scratching at the dirt under the drip. By the time he got yelled at for digging, he’d excavated a small hole. He wandered away when he was told off.

But several minutes later, Jaxson went back to check on his engineering project. Yep; it had worked. The dripping water had filled the hole, providing him that drink of water he was after.

Dogs like Jaxson show me — maybe show us all — that no matter how good we think we are at reading dogs, no matter how much we think we know about them and what makes them tick, we still badly underestimate them. We also are too quick to assume that they are doing something “bad” — digging — when, really, they’re just solving the problem of our human failure to meet their needs. Again.

 

 

Your Dog Is a Logician

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala loves to cuddle

Guest Post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala and I have few conflicts, but those that we have get tiresome for the person-side of the partnership. Licking. Koala is a licky dog. I don’t like to be licked. I think I have found a solution to the licking conflict and realized something more about canine language comprehension.

I’m not unreasonable. A quick kiss now and again is appreciated and fair exchange for an ear scratch or a snuggle. But, spare me what became a nightly routine: The enthusiastic leap when I invite Koala to come up on the people bed for a cuddle, ending with her upper body on my chest and nose at my chin. “Oh, you let me up on the bed!” her body language says. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m so happy to be up here!” Rapid tail wag. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m such a lucky dog!” LICK LICK LICK. My plaintive, “Enough!” or commanding, “Off the bed!” ended the licking, but ignored Koala and her intent. This was not how I wanted to end the day with my canine partner.

Recently, I invited her up on the bed and, as she came close to my face, I calmly and nicely said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.” Koala stopped. She lay down next to me with more restraint than usual, nose close to my chin. Her tongue slowly reached out to touch my face. Again, I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.”

She stopped. Sighed. Relaxed against my side so that I could stroke her head. Soon she shifted to her back so that I could rub her belly. No licking, just a peaceful, happy dog. A few minutes later, I said that it was time for her to go to her own bed, which she did without protest and without being rejected. I heard Koala settle down on her dog bed next to her Golden Retriever sister and thought about why my warning worked.

Conditional reasoning starts with compound sentences that use “If, then.” Dogs know the “if, then” construction. Sometimes the conditional is time, such as when Pam says, “We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll give you dinner.” Koala and Cali know the concepts of “walk” and “dinner,” but on hearing this sentence, they head for the door, not the dinner bowls. More often the conditional is action: “If you get the paper, then I’ll give you a cookie,” “If you sit quietly for a few minutes, you’ll get your dinner,” “If you come here, then I’ll rub your ears the way that you like.” The “if, then” condition sets up a trust relationship between dog and human. Dogs that stop coming when called do so because they think that their humans have fallen down on their part of what should happen when they obey.

Koala’s understanding of the “if, then” connection when I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed,” was even more complex. This sentence had a condition — If you lick — but a negative consequence. Koala needed to turn the sentence around to reason, “I don’t want to get off the bed, so I better not lick.”

And even more complicated was her realization that she’d have to get off the bed in a few minutes anyway to go to her own bed and that that part of the nighttime routine was not a punishment. The question was whether she could control her licking so that she got a cuddle on the people bed for a few minutes first.

Koala’s success was evidence for her ability to master human language and what is implied by what her people say. Its mastery that all of our dogs are capable of achieving. The limitation is with us humans, who often fail to see how asking our dogs to use their conceptual abilities can make life easier for both humans and canines.

It’s Teaching, Not Training


Jana peruses several cards, then chooses "tug," asking to play tug.

Someone whom I admire greatly, though I have never met her, wrote a wonderful column a while back. It was emailed to me recently, and I’d like to bring it to readers’ attention. She describes an approach to educating dogs that she calls “Non-Training.” I’ve called this “Cognitive” dog training.

Whatever you call it, the idea is the same: Treat the dog as a partner and student, not as a robot who must obey.

It is a positive, motivation-based approach to teaching dogs that relies on their intelligence and problem-solving ability — not rote memorization of specific, inflexible responses to commands barked at them by an “alpha” human.

It starts with giving dogs choices. Teaching dogs a simple “yes” or “no” response is pretty easy. You can use your hands or ask the dog to do a different response, such as raise a paw or nose your knee. It’s up to you (and your dog) what response works. But once the dog gets the concept of a choice, the sky is the limit.

You can ask your dog whether she wants to go out, wants water, is hungry (use caution if you have a Lab or a golden!), wants the ball or the tug toy, wants a walk or a ball game, wants to rest, is hurting somewhere … Really, as in so many areas of our relationships with dogs, the limitations are imposed by our lack of imagination, not the dogs’ lack of ability or willingness.

Cognitive training goes beyond simple choices, though. It is about teaching dogs to think and solve problems, rather than waiting for us to tell them what to do. It is about shared goals, rather than humans ordering dogs around. It is a dramatic re-imagining of the human-dog partnership. It requires letting go, once and for all, of the idea that dogs “have to” obey humans, just because we have thumbs, or that they do stuff for us out of unconditional love.

A relationship with a dog is just that: A relationship. It takes work, mutual respect, a two-way avenue of communication that acknowledges what each contributes and what each needs from the other.

I won’t go so far as to say that it is or should be a completely equal relationship. Sometimes — often — the human gets to make the decisions. Much as some people loathe the comparison, it is like parenting in that way. The adult human is in charge, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to respect and encourage the dog’s (child’s) individuality, allow for expression of preferences, and allow the dog to make choices when appropriate.

I encourage you to read the column, “Teaching Your Dog to Say Yes or No: The Art of Non-Training.”

 

It’s All About Strategy

I recently wrote about how Koala uses tools, using a round chew toy as a base and holder to position a more desirable chew (an antler) for better chewing. But there’s more to her entertainment strategy than tool use.

Although she is a two-and-a-half-year-old working adult, Koala still gets puppy lunch. This is a point of contention in the family, because Jana thought she should get puppy lunch forever (but I did not agree), and Cali thinks, not unreasonably, that if Koala gets puppy lunch, she, too, should get puppy lunch.

What is puppy lunch, you ask. Large-breed puppies, because they are growing quickly, get three meals a day. Adult dogs, who only grow wider, get two (and in some cases, one!) meal a day. Puppy lunch is the mid-day meal that goes away when a dog is about a year old. Unless she’s Koala.

The first puppy-lunchless day is a day of infamy and trauma in the lives of goldens and Labs everywhere. Jana never really recovered.

Koala’s puppy lunch is a portion of kibble, served in a treat ball. The ball gets rolled and batted around, dribbling bits of food for Koala to munch. It’s fun. I have several treat balls, and sometimes give Cali food in one. She gets bored with it far more quickly than Koala, partly because she’s less food-focused. But Koala really enjoys her mid-day snack-and-play breaks.

All of that background offers the context for Koala’s strategic play approach. I was watching her eat her puppy lunch not long ago and I saw her using a fairly sophisticated tactic. We were at a hotel (at the Guiding Eyes weekend, actually) and the room had a dresser, sofa, bench, bed, etc. Lots of places a ball could roll out of reach. Koala is an exuberant dog, never more so than when playing, so the ball was getting batted around at a good clip. But it was not uncontrolled ball batting. She’d pounce, roll the ball, whap it with a paw … but always, always keeping track of the many sand-trap equivalents. Never once did she let the ball roll under or behind something. She’d pounce on it or bat it just in time, sending it in a different direction. She almost seemed to be gauging how close it could get to the edge of the bed, say, before she’d lose the ability to steer it out of danger. She’d watch, position herself, and, bam, send it careening away toward the next potential obstacle. It only takes her about 10 minutes to empty the treat ball, so this high-stakes bowling / golf game took place at an impressive level of intensity and speed. She’s really good at this entirely made-up game.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve seen a dog play a game that she has created. What held me spellbound was both the intensity and the advanced strategy. She had an intuitive understanding of a fluid situation. Much as dogs do when they catch a Frisbee or dive into a river at the precise moment needed to grab the ball or stick as it floats by, she showed a far better grasp of physics than I ever could.

The geneticist at Guiding Eyes says that each generation of their dogs is “better” — smarter, more suited to guide work, healthier — than earlier generations. If the dogs get any smarter than Koala, we won’t need to worry about robots taking over our jobs; the dogs will beat them to it.

 

Breaking News: Researchers Discover That Dogs Can Remember Stuff!

Science has once again confirmed the obvious: Dogs can remember things.

Specifically, a new study shows that dogs might have something that resembles episodic memory in humans — the ability to remember and learn from events and experiences. It’s a different kind of memory than “semantic memory,” which is memory of facts, meanings, and concepts. While these are learned, they are not experiential or shared with others; they are general knowledge.

Note that I am not at all unsure about this; all the conditional language is how science tends to express “discoveries” about nonhumans doing things that some humans think only humans can do. Like remember or use language. I am sure that dogs can do both, often better than many humans do.

Much of what we formally teach dogs — to sit on cue, to play with their toys rather than chew our shoes, to eat their own food rather than graze the pickings on the kitchen counters — falls into the categories of learning facts and concepts.

But anyone who’s ever taken a puppy to a puppy class has been exposed to a kind of teaching that aims to create positive episodic memories. The goal of “socializing” a puppy — teaching him to love children or not fear loud noises or car horns or skateboards or to feel confident and comfortable when experiencing a loud, busy place — all of that builds on the ability to form and learn from experiences. Episodic memory, in other words.

If your puppy has very positive experiences at her vet’s clinic — Cali’s puppy vet gave out the best cookies — then your dog is less likely to be among those who tremble and shake when the car pulls into the clinic parking lot. Or, worse, those who associate every car ride with an unpleasant experience and don’t even want to get into the car.

If dogs didn’t have the ability to form episodic memories, why would Cali bounce around like a very excited pinball (well, she would if she weren’t securely attached to her doggy seatbelt) when we cross the bridge that takes us to Berkeley and sister Dora’s house?

So, yeah, the scientists have, once again, proven something really obvious about dogs.

What’s cool about this study, though, is that the researchers used “imitation” or “do as I do” training. This sort of training shows that dogs have great flexibility and creativity in their ability to learn and extrapolate. The training works a little like Simon Says. The person tells the dog to “watch me,” then does something unusual. In the study, it was touching an open umbrella. The person then tells the dog to “do it,” and the dog is supposed to imitate the human. It’s pretty cool that dogs can look at our very differently shaped bodies and imitate what we’re doing. That they can and eagerly do join in this silly and fun human game is just one of the, oh, trillions of wonderful things about dogs.

And, I think that the training itself requires that the dogs have episodic memory. It’s not like teaching a cue that means a specific action: You say sit, the dog’s butt hits the floor. Imitation training requires that the dog say to herself, in doggy language, hmmm, I shouldn’t do what I did last time we played this and she said “do it”; instead, I have to watch what she’s doing now and do that.

That is more similar to remembering what you experienced in a place (beach or vet clinic) and deciding whether you are happy to return to that place than it is to remembering that hearing this word means do that action. It’s a different kind of learning, and it is based on experience, not association or remembering a fact.

So. That the researchers could even do this study shows that dogs have episodic memory. Now, isn’t that obvious?