Sympathy Pains?

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

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

That morning, and the previous day, Jackson had been fine. But, soon after Dad got home, Jackson 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 Jackson was injured or simply mirroring his dad’s pain. As Dad got better, Jackson’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, Jackson was supervising. That’s thirsty work. And the humans hadn’t thought to provide their supervisor a cool drink.

Jackson 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, Jackson 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 Jackson 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?

Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.

How much is that in dog money?

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I had house-guests recently, and the girls put their entrepreneurial spirits to work. As I have described in other posts, the girls bring me my shoes when it’s time for a walk. They also bring their bowls when they are done eating. For each of these, as well as for getting the paper and for other tasks, they are paid in cookies.

There’s a cookie hierarchy in dogdom and therefore in our home. When requiring the girls to do something they dislike, such as submit to ear-cleaning or nail-trimming, I reward them (some would say bribe, but it happens after the fact) with high-value treats — freeze-dried liver, perhaps, or the dried beef patties we discovered at Costco. When we are practicing recall (come here, right NOW!) they get very high-value treats. We have special tooth-brushing cookies, which are of medium value. Ordinary chores like bringing the paper, shoes, etc. get ordinary treats — a few Charlee Bears or a small biscuit. This, it seems, is the currency of the dog world. They expect to be paid, and, so far, they have been willing to accept the prices I am willing to pay.

They showed a basic understanding of economics when they started bringing things I hadn’t asked for and expecting payment. It reminded me a bit of those kids who used to come out of nowhere and wash your car windshield while you were sitting at a red light, then ask for money. But the girls are cuter and very earnest.

Then my guests came along. One was so enchanted by the dogs bringing shoes — random shoes, no less, maybe taking my shoes to her or a single sandal when she needed her boots — that she inflated the payout. At least once, but I suspect more, she gave Cali a beef patty — a whole one! — and Cali had not even brought her the right shoes! I don’t even want to know what she paid for the girls’ dinner bowls.

Well. Jana and Cali don’t have MBAs, but they don’t need them. The girls quickly understood inflation and supply-and-demand economics. And bargaining: I’ll give you this shoe — and a boot — for one of those beef patties. I’ll throw in a phone or a TV remote if you’ll give me two. What? A measly Charlee Bear? I am going to hang on to this slipper. When your foot is cold, you’ll pay more.

Just what I need. A looming winter of cold feet and fat dogs. I’d better go to Costco this week. We’re gonna need more beef patties.