TV’s baddest dog gets philosophical
The dog days of summer officially begin June 20 with the third season premier of Wilfred, television's cult hit on FX. Aussie Jason Gann is the show’s originator/writer/lead actor who embodies Wilfred, a cantankerous lug in a dog suit who drinks beer, smokes pot and humps a giant teddy bear. The show ran for 16 episodes in Australia before jumping stateside. We spoke to Wilfred’s alter ego between takes recently.
How are you?
Have a dog?
Is it tough getting into character?
Where’d the idea for Wilfred come from?
Surprised by the show’s success?
Do you have many doggy encounters?
How would you sum up Wilfred’s philosophy on life?
Look for the new season of Wilfred on FX June 20.
Traer Scott, photographer of Shelter Dogs and Street Dogs, has now turned her lens on some of the sweetest creatures on earth: puppies in their first 21 days of life. Her recently released book, Newborn Puppies, captures these vulnerable, wobbly, utterly adorable beings about to embark, as she says, “on the great adventure of growing up.” More than just a collection of pretty faces, the book also considers puppy mills and the need for humane education.
During much of the time that I was working on Newborn Puppies, I, like my subjects, was adjusting to life as a new mom. Because of this serendipitous parallel, I found myself in a unique position to observe firsthand how many of our most fundamental experiences of motherhood are also shared by dogs. I felt particularly simpatico with the mother dogs, who, despite being initially grateful for a break from their demanding litters and a chance to romp outside, became unbearably anxious after about 20 minutes. They would burst through the door, trampling anyone in their way to get to the whelping box. In a frenzy of licking, nuzzling and sniffing, they ensured that every pup was clean and safe and then, figuratively exhaling, settled down to nurse. I felt the same ebb and flow of relief and anticipation every time I left for work. Being briefly separated from my daughter was restorative, but after a few hours, I ached to hold her again.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
At Memphis’s Shelby Farms, it’s all about size
My five-year-old daughter and I go regularly to Shelby Farms Park to run and ramble with our pup, Lambchop. While people and their pets repeat rituals like these every day at off-leash parks around the country, this park has a unique characteristic, the stuff of dog-lovers’ dreams: size.
Bigger than NYC’s Central Park and SF’s Golden Gate Park combined, Shelby Farms ranks as one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. And within its 4,500 acres, a whopping 150 acres are officially off-leash. Golden fields undulate as far as the eye can see, and to the south, there’s a large pond, smooth mud beaches and a wooded trail. This bucolic spot might just be the nation’s largest municipal off-leash park as well. Moreover, it’s a public park without entrance fees.
The multilayered history of Shelby Farms Park is as varied as its users. Originally Chickasaw tribal lands, between 1825 and 1828, Frances Wright’s Nashoba, one of America’s most well-known communes, was in operation here, with the goal of educating and liberating slaves. During the first half of the 20th century, it was a penal colony, with a truck farm and Jersey dairy herd. In the 1970s, as the use of prison labor for farming declined, the first 270 acres were opened to the public.
In December 2006, the Shelby County commission approved a 50-year conservation easement that will protect all of Shelby Farms for “natural, scenic and recreational” purposes. Next on the agenda is a management partnership between local government and a private nonprofit, possibly the Shelby Farms Park Alliance. Finally, a park master plan is slated for 2008. If done right, it will solidly plant the park in a special place within the hearts of area residents—the most permanent of protections. For Lambchop and the other dogs at yappy hour, that’s already happened.
The legendary comedian stands up for animals
When we think of Lily Tomlin, what comes to mind first isn’t her star turns in films like ShortCuts and 9to5 or on television’s The West Wing—or even Ernestine, the snorty, sassy, snood-sporting operator she played with such aplomb. Rather, we think of Edith Ann and her loyal dog Buster. A precocious tot, squirmy but serious Edith Ann often discussed the adventures she shared with Buster, from ice skating and bath time to making him a sandwich that included mustard, pickles, oatmeal, cheese, pretzels, tuna fish, peanut butter, salami, raisins and one black olive. He didn’t care for it, so Edith Ann decided to order pizza: “Buster likes pepperoni with double cheese and so do I. And that’s the truth!”
Underlying this comedy routine is another truth: Tomlin’s love of dogs, which comes through even when she speaks in the charming, halting voice of a five and- a-half-year-old girl explaining how she made a sandwich so unappetizing that it even went bust with Buster.
Tomlin—who, upon seeing a stray running by the roadside, has been known to pull her car over and attempt to lure the frightened pup off the busy street by means of a fast-food sandwich— has lived with animals all her life. Recently, she headlined “Stand Up for the Animals,” a comedy-and-causes benefit at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood devoted to bringing attention to the work of Voice for the Animals.
We hopped on the phone to chat with her about her work to improve the lot of Los Angeles Zoo’s Billy the elephant and other animal-related topics, and she also shared a few stories of the dogs she has known. As it turns out, Lily has lived with and loved beasties of all stripes throughout her life. She speaks movingly of Chi Chi, the dog she had as a teen; a Corgi-mix named Princess she doted on for years; and her current critters, cats Murphy (who came into her life when she joined the cast of Murphy Brown, natch) and Roddy McDowell, so named because, Tomlin says,“he’s elegant…and sensitive.”
She has vivid and emotional memories of her pets, including the death of one of her beloved dogs. “I knew she wasn’t well. I went out in the yard with her, and we lay on the grass for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes. She died later that evening.” We both paused to consider the moment, and then she continued.“ They’re our creatures, they’re just everything.”
Although Tomlin has lived with a number of dogs, she hasn’t worked with all that many, except for a comical elevator scene from Big Business, in which a dog she’s walking gets on an elevator and the doors shut. I asked about the connection between Hollywood and hounds beyond the larger topic of animal actors, and if there were any lessons humans working in showbiz could take from dogs in general.
She spoke about the authenticity of pups—“They have an innocence and a goodness because they’re not ambitious …”—and what performers can learn from that. Summing it up perfectly, Tomlin observed that “dogs want to love their people, and actors need to love their audience. Dogs have all the empathetic qualities that a good actor should have.” Dogs seem to inspire just about every calling, it seems.
Including conflict resolution. Remembering a time when she had a lot of animals in the house—including a goat named Bucky that she would take on outings with her dogs (“You’d have to walk behind him with a little lobby dustpan and a broom, sweeping up his pellets.”)— Tomlin recalled how one of her dogs would take on the role of mediator. “We had two cats in the house; the cats loved to torment Diva [a Doberman] because she was so easily cowed. One day, the cats were at the bottom of the stairs and Diva was at the top: They were at an impasse. Tessie [a Terrier], who was a little bossy thing, ran through Diva’s legs and stood there, barking at the cats and Diva too, as if to break it up.”
While tales of Bucky and Diva were not told during the “Stand Up for the Animals” night, Edith Ann did make an appearance, to much applause. Later, I learned more about Voice for the Animals from executive director Melya Kaplan.
Kaplan’s approach to animal assistance could be described as multi-dimensional. Among her organization’s projects are Billy the elephant’s well being, an animal assistance hotline, a senior-animal rescue program, and efforts to help the huge population of dogs and cats living on the streets in Greece. She’s also assisting families facing foreclosure with keeping their pets. And she isn’t shy about sending praise to one of her most front-and-center advocates. “Lily is absolutely phenomenal,” says Kaplan. “She’s been the celebrity who took the lead, just saying it like it is.”
Hearing about Tomlin’s work with this group, and her animated tales of Tessie and Diva and Chi Chi, it’s not surprising that she’s a friend of the furry. Now, whenever we catch a clip of Edith Ann bragging about Buster, we’ll think of all the real Busters Lily’s loved along the way, and her willingness to extend that love to dogs and cats (and elephants) today.
Canine co-pilots inspire a range of tattoo tributes
At a waterpark last summer, I counted a dozen suburban moms with tattoos dotting their ankles, necks and lower backs. It was, for me, a watershed tally. What I’d been reading in trend stories for years finally sank in: Tattooing is mainstream.
According to tattoo artists I’ve talked to since, average Joes and Janes have been going under the needle for decades, but popular TV reality shows such as Miami Ink have revved the phenomena like a Harley engine. Some estimates put the number of tattooed Americans at one in seven. A Pew Research Center poll released last year revealed that four in 10 Gen Xers sport at least one tatt and 36 percent of all Gen Nexters (the oldest of whom just turned 26) have begun blazing a body-art trail that should put them on track to eclipse their elders.
So, when a nearly photographic likeness of a Pug permanently inked into DeAnna Miller’s arm arrived in my inbox—apropos of nothing and shortly after my waterpark revelation—it seemed natural to wonder: Where exactly are our dogs in all of this?
A few strategically sent emails to tattoo-savvy associates revealed a simple truth: Roll up the pant leg or draw back the sleeve of a tattoo-loving dog person and you’re likely to discover everything from Kanji-script dog names to painterly canine portraits.
“It’s relatively new,” says C.W. (Chuck) Eldridge, a tattooist who researches and documents tattoo history and is the owner of the Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Dog portraits in the past weren’t really popular. Now it’s actually quite common. Not just dogs, but cats, snakes and birds. You name it. You know how people love their pets.”
Kelly McGuire was a tattoo-free zone (a “virgin” in parlor parlance), when she entered a Topeka tattoo shop seven years ago, soon after the unexpected death of Geisha, her five-year-old Pug. Geisha was the first dog of McGuire’s to die, and the loss was devastating. “It killed me. I cried every day,” she says. With her husband’s encouragement, McGuire got a tattoo of Geisha’s face on her arm. “All of a sudden, it felt like a weight was lifted off me. I felt so much better.”
Though McGuire tells me that she thinks her story sounds weird, she’s neither weird nor unique. Several people, including a woman who added a smidge of her late dogs’ ashes to her tattoo ink, described tremendous grief relief after getting a memorial tattoo.
The mere idea of her dog’s mortality drove Janet Beeby, a canine massage practitioner and avid agility competitor, to a tattoo shop. “As she was getting older, I was starting to get very panicked,” Beeby says about her 10-year-old Kerry Blue Terrier, Gabby. “She’s been an amazing partner to me.”
Gabby—the first Kerry Blue to earn a master’s agility champion title—inspired a rock star design. In the tattoo, she leaps through a bright red collar (her signature “jewelry”) on Beeby’s thigh. “The idea was, I’ll have Gabby on my lap for the rest of my life,” Beeby says. It’s a portrait, but in a bold, illustration-style. “My non-doggy friends are like, ‘I guess you’re the only one with that tattoo,’” Beeby says. “My doggy friends are like, ‘that’s hot!’”
DeAnna Miller, whose Pugsley Ann portrait inspired my tattoo odyssey, says, “Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who want to pet my arm.”
Probably the best-known dog in American tattoo history is the United States Marine Corps bulldog. When World War I German fighters referred to the Marines as “Devil Dogs,” a smart flack at the Corps created a recruiting poster featuring an English Bulldog running down an Iron Cross–wearing Dachshund. Just as actual Bulldogs were adopted as mascots, jowly Devil Dogs in helmets turned up on Marine biceps everywhere.
“That’s probably the most famous dog in tattooing. Snoopy might be next,” Eldridge says. “All the cartoon dogs, the comic dogs are quite common.”
Often inspired by Native American stories, wolves, coyotes and wild dogs are also on the list of standard icons. “The wolf howling at the moon in silhouette is a classic tattoo design,” Eldridge says. A wolf is wrapped in the roots of a tree of life in Melissa Lynch’s tattoo. “The wolf for me isn’t necessarily the wolf. It represents all dogs,” says Lynch, a private dog trainer. “Wolves are very family oriented—loyal and strong. My roots wrap around that.”
With long blond dreadlocks, Lynch isn’t afraid of attracting attention, and she put the striking black-and-gray tattoo between her shoulder blades for a reason. “I wanted everybody to see it,” she says. “So they ask me about it, and then I can talk to them about rescue and shelter and adoption and training.”
“It hurts, but it’s not painful where you think you’re going to die,” Sellers says. “The day after was worse. I felt like I had a huge road-rash down my leg.” But she’s thrilled to have a memento of her dogs while they are alive and someday, after they are gone. “When I look at the tattoo when they’re gone, I can remember when I still had them. It was a good time in my life.”
An image of a particular dog isn’t for everyone. “I was afraid to get a portrait,” says Karen Mountain, owner of Bark Natural Pet Care. “I’m afraid [the tattoo artist] won’t capture what I see.” The names of her dogs, Boone and Bubba, are framed by the outlines of bones on her ankles. To mark Boone’s death, she added a tipped halo over one end of the bone. She hasn’t decided what more she’ll do for Bubba, her Staffordshire Terrier mix who sleeps in the storefront window most days. She only knows that she’ll need some sort of tattoo within the first week after he’s gone.
Of the nearly 15 dog-inspired tattoos I tracked down and the dozens more I saw in artists’ galleries, only one included a person with the dog. “I drew it with a Sharpie on a piece of paper and took it into a tattoo parlor,” says Ali Johnson, describing her first—and right now, only—tattoo. The 30-minute, $30 ankle art is as simple as it sounds—a stick figure person with a ponytail running with a stick figure dog.
Johnson decided she wanted a tattoo to celebrate running three half-marathons, all of which she trained for with an Australian Shepherd named Osa. “She ran the 13-mile training run, came home and dropped a ball at my feet like, ‘What’s up with you?’” says Johnson, who quit graduate studies in biochemistry at Duke University to become a dog trainer and now owns Kinship Dog Training.
“The tattoo stands for a lot of the things I care about—that I partner with my dogs and that I care about my health and theirs,” Johnson says. “I didn’t put a leash in it because I wanted to show that we chose to be together.”
British Invasion Redux
Blame it on the London Olympics, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or fascination with the royals, but Brit-speak seems to be all the rage these days. Oft-heard terms such as cheers, brilliant, posh, loo, toff, mate, queue and even crikey are creeping into our everyday conversation. So, let’s bring these dog-related expressions across the pond as well.
Dog’s bollocks: Something really fantastic. (Not to be confused with “bollocks,” which is rubbish, er, nonsense.) Often shortened to “the dog’s.” Perhaps derived from dogs’ fascination with and time spent investigating their “down-unders.”
Mutt’s nuts: Something fantastic or excellent. Often shortened to “the mutt’s,” which is another way of saying, yup, the “dog’s bollocks.”
Puppy’s privates: The best; yet another, slightly more refined, take on the previous two.
Dog’s breakfast: A real mess. (Ed. note: I guess they don’t do gourmet pet food over there.)
Dog’s dinner: To be overdressed, or ostentatiously decked out.
Dog ride: Tagging along with someone doing an errand, or simply out and about.
Dog collar: A type of collar worn by the clergy. Also, the oversize head on a pint of Guinness.
Dog-end: A corruption of “docked-end”— a cigarette butt.
Dogsbody: A go-fer, or someone doing menial or boring work.
Dog-eye: Keep a look out.
Doggy: Stylish, of smart appearance.
Dogs are barking: Feet are tired and aching. For example, “Do you mind if I sit? My dogs are barking!”
Dog’s wages : Working just for food as payment for one’s services (Scots slang).
Give a dog a bad name: Someone with a bad reputation who’s blamed for everything.
And, lest we forget, there’s Cockney rhyming slang:
To all of which we say, “Dog save the Queen!” Given her devotion to her Corgis, that’s not much of a stretch.
Jim Heimann discusses roadside vernacular architecture
They’re part of the great American road trip—curious artifacts that startle the eye along the highway: giant oranges, artichokes, cows or coffee pots whose shape is meant to suggest what they sell. Or sometimes the shape tells a story, like “What fun it would be to spend the night in a teepee!” or “Let’s visit Santa in the summertime!” Mostly they’re relics of a time when food-gas-lodging signs were not standard interstate equipment, and nationwide chains had not yet homogenized the roadside landscape. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the dawn of the automobile age, motoring was an adventure into a countryside full of regional flavors and anarchic architectural impulses.
In his new book, California Crazy and Beyond (Chronicle Books, 2001), designer/historian Jim Heimann catalogues hundreds of sightings, photographs and archival images of roadside vernacular architecture. While this sort of building can be traced to historical prototypes—cerebral 18th-century French architects designed things like spherical cottages and barns in the shape of giant cows—essentially, California Crazy is a true American folk architecture, enthusiastically improvised out of equal parts crass commerce, naïve charm and wacky poetry. We asked Heimann to shed some light on this fascinating subject.
Bark: The Pup Cafe in Culver City, California, graces the cover of California Crazy—do you think giant dogs have a particular significance in the world of wacky roadside architectural images? I counted a couple of elephants and several pigs, fish and chickens, but no cats. Do dogs appear more often than any other animal? Or at least more than any other non-edible animal?
Jim Heimann: I’m not sure they have a specific significance, but I think their popularity was bolstered by the fact that dogs had more of a media presence in the ’20s and ’30s. There were cartoon dogs like Bonzo and Betty Boop’s dog [Bimbo], as well as Little Orphan Annie’s pooch [Sandy]. There was Pete the Pup from the Little Rascals, the RCA dog [Nipper], and Buster Brown’s dog [Tige]. So dogs were pretty well ingrained in pop culture and the public’s visual awareness. Of course, the relationship of dogs to hot dogs can’t be dismissed. I think people in general related to dogs as a familiar and comforting image. As far as I know, dogs beat out other animals. The cat thing is interesting. I have never run across a cat building, but there are some great cat images from the first half of the century that would have made great buildings. Go figure.
B: Can you talk a little bit about the dog-inspired architecture in the book—the physical structures, the owners and builders, the history of these businesses?
JH: Unfortunately, most of the owners and contractors were long gone before I was able to interview anyone. As far as their construction goes, the view of the Chili Bowl in the front of the book gives a good indication of how they were constructed: very simply, with two-by-fours, chicken wire, tarpaper and stucco. Most were built by the owners themselves or a local contractor. Codes were simple or non-existent, so you could get away with lots of things. When the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles reconstructed the Dog Cafe for its permanent exhibit, they had to do much more for earthquake and structural construction. The plans for these buildings were usually done by the owner or a relative or friend, and a sketch was handed over for the builder to figure out. Remember, lots of L.A. contractors did movie set work, so some had a background in constructing things with strange shapes.
B: I recall a time when many people thought of roadside oddities—giant hot dogs, doughnuts and the now-beloved Doggie Diner heads—as “hideous.” Do you still encounter any negative response to California Crazy–style buildings?
JH: Every once in a while some idiot won’t get it, but for the most part [the current book and its first edition, published in 1980] made it clear this was just another aspect of architecture. There are certain camps in the architecture profession that dismiss this stuff, but there are just as many defenders. Certainly, the passage of time has made us look differently at this disappearing architecture; we can better appreciate its place in history.
B: So many of these wonderful buildings were designed for the moment and are often falling into disrepair; what percentage of them still stand?
JH: Most are gone. There are no guidelines, and they keep disappearing despite preservation efforts. Two months ago, a 50-year-old giant Santa Claus in Carpenteria, California, was destroyed after intense lobbying by preservationists. The developer won out because of money and his own wish to make the roadside stop more like an East Coast Cape Cod village. This was one guy who thought this architecture was hideous and, like many developers, was looking out for his own personal interest and financial gain rather than preserving a part of the past. If they can destroy a landmark Richard Neutra house in Palm Springs [California], there certainly is little hope for these roadside buildings.
B: So what are these buildings? The meeting of architecture and marketing? The first conceptual architecture? Pure kitsch?
JH: They were really a product of their times—a response to the loosening up of social mores, the burgeoning roadside culture. How do you get people to notice your business going down the road at 35 miles an hour, versus walking down a main street where customers have the time and eye level to peruse a product? Southern California has the most concentration of these structures, because there was a lot of cheap affordable land and small suburbs connected by roads and highways. But it was also a national phenomenon. These were buildings as signs; they were whimsical and innocent and very definitely American-built by people who were unaware of the snooty architects and architectural critics.
Family Dog: Touring band’s pups.
Things we learned:
Our band, The New Trust (Josh Staples, bass, vocals; Sara Sanger, guitar, vocals; Julia Lancer, drums) just returned from a five-week, nationwide tour, accompanied by our canine entourage: Josh and Sara’s Border Collie Murray and Julia’s Border Collie/Heeler mix Stella. We were in a new city every day, and we always started with a visit to the local dog park, where we’d chat with other dog owners. The friendliness we found at the dog parks offset the tour’s hard moments, lack of comfort and too much time spent in gas stations and diners.
We had a good night at Rubber Gloves, a great live-music venue in Denton, Texas; the dogs were allowed in after the show was over, and they had their very own mosh pit. In Chicago, they hung out in the Electrical Audio studios while we recorded our new album, Keep Dreaming (Josh wrote the dogs into the lyrics of the title track).
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Both Ends of the Leash: Walking the Talk
Alex, the world’s most famous African Grey parrot, died September 6, 2007, and the world is a sadder place for it.
You may be wondering why a column about dog behavior would begin with a memorial to a parrot, but there is an important connection between Alex’s behavior and that of your dog. It was Alex, and his human, Irene Pepperberg, who stretched our understanding of what goes on in the minds of nonhuman animals, including the furry best friend lying at your feet.
When, in 1977, Pepperberg began teaching Alex to use words to communicate, the consensus was that animals could be taught to associate sounds with objects (“Go get your ball,”) but not concepts. Concepts are abstractions that live only inside your brain. For example, try picking up a “bigger,” or giving someone a “different” as a birthday present.
The argument used to be that nonhuman animals could only respond to something directly in front of them, and weren’t capable of the kind of cognitive gymnastics that abstractions require. However, Pepperberg’s research taught us that not only could Alex use words to label an object’s shape, form and color (“Alex, pick up the blue triangle out of all the other objects on the tray.”), he had little trouble grasping concepts like “different” and “bigger” (“Alex, what color is the object that is shaped differently from all the rest?”).
Alex’s thought processes, and the way he communicated them, went far beyond answering questions put to him during his training sessions. One day, while looking in the mirror, Alex said, “What color?” Mind you, Alex had been trained to answer questions, not ask them. When the surprised trainers answered, “grey,” Alex was then able to identify other grey objects.
That wasn’t the only time Alex surprised his handlers. I am still amused by a video I saw of Alex working with an impatient trainer. After several interactions, clearly frustrating for person and parrot alike, Alex belted out, in a startlingly clear Bronx accent, “Go away!” But the bird’s most compelling vocalization took place when Pepperberg had to leave him alone, for the first time, at a veterinary clinic. As she walked away, Alex said in a soft and quiet voice, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” (This knowledge has made leaving my dogs at a vet clinic a hundred times harder for me, and I pass it along to you with my own soft and quiet, “I’m sorry.” Ignorance indeed can be bliss.)
When Pepperberg first began working with Alex, there were suggestions that certain other animals could understand simple concepts, but it’s only been during the last 20 years that this issue has gotten the attention it deserves. We’ve found that many animals—including rats, pigeons and a surprising star in cognitive research, the octopus (honest)—can functionally use concepts like “different” and “bigger.”
But what about our dogs? If an octopus can understand the concept “different,” surely our dogs can too. Or can they? Until very recently, research on our best friends has lagged behind that on primates and laboratory rats; apparently, “familiarity breeds contempt” in science as well as in the rest of life. But dogs are finally becoming hot topics in cognitive research—check out, for example, recent issues of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Here’s a little about what we’ve learned so far. Research confirms that dogs can also functionally use concepts like “larger” and “different.”* What’s more, in certain contexts, they can also be taught a more complicated procedure called “delayed non-matching to sample.” Here’s how the experiment works: The dog is presented with an object that has a piece of food underneath. He’s allowed to move the object and get the food. Then, after a delay of a varying amount of time, say, 10 seconds, the dog is presented with two objects. One item is the same as before, the other is different. The “right” choice is the different object.
When researchers first conducted the study, the dogs failed miserably. After hundreds of trials, the dogs were still unable to identify the different object. In comparison, rhesus monkeys figured it out pretty quickly. But when the researchers changed the procedure and asked the dogs to choose an object in a different location, our best friends turned into academic stars, getting the answer right 90 percent of the time—even after waiting 20 seconds between presentations.
So, here’s where musings about cognition leave the land of the research lab and settle into your living room. Of the words you use (whether they reference actions, objects or concepts), how many do you think your dog understands? The answer may be more complicated than we think. Let me illustrate with a story:
Last night, as we have for many nights, my young Border Collie, Will, and I worked on his ability to label objects with names. He is the fastest canine learner I’ve ever had— and that’s saying something, since I’ve had many other dogs, seven of them Border Collies. This dog learned to lie down on his side for acupuncture in less than five minutes. He learned to stretch out his foreleg on cue in less time than I can write about it. I can ask him to “Go get your toy,” five minutes after he has dropped it 200 yards away and he will retrieve it. In short, he’s one of those “oh-wow” dogs who make training look easy.
But when I ask him to pick out his “ring,” or his “ball,” he looks like a dunce. For three weeks, I’ve reinforced him for touching a toy after I’ve said its name. I started with one object at a time, saying the name “ring” or “ball” and reinforcing a correct response with treats or play. I’ve done that hundreds of times, and if the only toy visible is the one I ask for, he’s—not surprisingly!—always right. Recently, I’ve been placing two objects on the floor and asking for just one of them. At first, I make the right choice easy by placing it close to him, while the “wrong” object is farther away. But as soon as Will has a real choice, his accuracy plummets and his responses become random. He enthusiastically chooses one, and then deflates when I slowly shake my head no. Over and over, he desperately tries to figure out what I want him to do. For a while, he was choosing the last location reinforced. When he realized that wasn’t it, he lay with his head down on his paws.
I didn’t think teaching him “ball” and “ring” would be that hard. After all, when I say, “Get your toy,” he picks up an object without hesitation. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve known for years that dogs can use sounds to label objects (you might well have a dog who knows his ball from his tug toy). Rico, the famous European Border Collie, not only knows the names of more than 200 objects, he could to match an unfamiliar name with an unfamiliar object in a carefully controlled experiment. How could my brilliant little dog be such a slow learner?
I think Will’s struggle relates to concepts. Until I began to ask him to choose one toy over the other, the sounds I made to Will had always been associated with actions: Lie down. Walk up (on sheep). Wait. Bow. Get your toy (go pick up something). It looked as though he understood that “toy” referred to his play objects—except when I experimented and said, “Go get your —” and he immediately picked up the closest object. When I asked him to “Go get your wallaby,” he hesitated a moment, and then picked up the closest toy.
Naming seems like such a simple concept, yet many of us can remember the scene in the movie Helen Keller, when, after infinite periods of frustration, Helen finally realizes that the sign she is being taught stands for the cold water running over her hand. Another riveting story is told in the book A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller. She describes a deaf man who had never been taught even the most basic communication skills bursting into tears when he first realizes that objects could be labeled, and signs could be used to converse with others about those objects.
I’m sure Will’s “Helen Keller” moment will come sometime in the future, but in the interim, his struggles are a constant reminder of the ongoing challenge to understand what’s going on in our dog’s brain. It’s important to understand which concepts dogs understand and which they don’t. Keep that in mind, and think of the following questions as wonderful ways to entertain yourself and your dog through the last cold days of winter: How much of what you say does your dog understand? What could you do to try to find out? What type of everyday concepts does your dog understand? Does your dog understand that the words you use can represent both actions and objects? Can you teach your dog to distinguish “larger” from “smaller”? You may get some definitive answers, or you may generate more questions, but whatever happens, you’ll keep your dog’s mind (and yours) entertained and engaged until spring arrives!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Tell-tail signs that your dog is feeling groovy
The next time your dog greets you when you come home, closely watch his tail. Scientists have discovered that a happy dog will wag harder to the right and an anxious dog will wag harder to the left.
The study’s findings, “Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli,” was recently published in Current Biology. Co-authors include neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste in Italy, and veterinarians Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari in Italy.
In humans, it’s well documented that the brain is divided into two cerebral hemispheres—left and right—which serve different functions and control opposite sides of the body. Most animals also demonstrate a difference between “left brain” and “right brain” functions. It is believed that the left brain in animals specializes in “approach and energy enrichment,” such as finding food. The right brain specializes in “withdrawal and energy expenditure,” such as fleeing in response to fear. Because the dog’s tail is located along the body’s midline, researchers questioned whether or not the tail displayed emotional asymmetry.
Thirty mixed-breed dogs, family pets, served as the researchers’ subjects. Each dog was put in a cage specially fitted with cameras to capture the precise angle of the dog’s tail movement. The dog was then shown four separate stimuli—his owner; a stranger; a friendly cat; and an unfamiliar, intimidating dog—for one minute each.
Upon sight of their owners, all 30 dogs wagged their tails more strongly to the right side. After a 90-second rest period, the dogs viewed a stranger. The dogs’ tails still favored the right side, but the angle was more moderate in comparison to seeing their owner. The cat elicited a bias to the right side, but it was even more subtle than when they saw the stranger. The large, unknown dog caused all of the dogs to wag their tails to more to the left.
The authors concluded that when the dog felt positive, or curious (as in the case of the cat), the tail wagged right. If the dog felt negative or apprehensive, the tail wagged left. Since the left brain controls the right side of the body, the right muscles of the tail expressed those good feelings. The left muscles of the tail signaled caution or concern, which is controlled by the right brain.
It’s always a good idea to observe your dog’s body language, whether you’re relaxing at the dog park or waiting to see the vet. Now, thanks to your dog’s tail, you have another way to tell how he really feels.
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