Pictures in an Exhibition
Max Miller is known for abstract paintings that embrace color and line, as well as figurative works with human and animal subjects; dogs are among his favorites. On occasion, he employs both genres in a hybrid style perhaps best described as canine psychedelia. These oils and watercolors explode with color and shimmer with richly decorated backgrounds—it’s as though the dogs have leaped into the paintings and turned to gaze back at us, inviting us to join them. The combination of the two styles is at first disconcerting, but we quickly settle into Miller’s altered reality with its visual cornucopia— traces of Middle Eastern mosaics, bright tie-dye patterns and wild amoebic shapes delight the eye and bring to mind what was called “mind-tripping” back in the day. Careful—you may find yourself leaping into these paintings too…
Culture: Science & History
What do dogs know and how do they know it?
We talk with Alexandra Horowitz, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, about her new book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. This engrossing work is inspired by Horowitz’s experiences with her dog, Pumpernickel, and draws upon her own and others’ research in the field of canine cognition. This book expands our understanding of the nature of dogs and provides a channel to seeing and “smelling” the world from a dog’s point of view.
Bark: Your fascinating new book, Inside of a Dog, begins with a discussion of canine “umwelt.” Can you tell us more about umwelt and how it might affect our understanding of our dogs?
Alexandra Horowitz: The idea of umwelt, which originated with the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, is that the world of each animal is defined by how he/she perceives and acts on the world. Thus, the umwelt of humans does not include infrared light, since we have no perception of these wavelengths and cannot act based on seeing it. However, for bees, who can see infrared light, it is part of their umwelt, and they use the reflected infrared from the center of some flowers to locate nectar. The scale of objects, and their salience, also matters. In our ordinary life, we humans don’t deal on [what we call] the microscopic scale of bacteria: thus, objects that small aren’t part of our impression of “what is out there” at all. A dog’s umwelt is determined by what he can perceive, by his history, by what matters in the world to him. Humans are clearly a big part of the umwelten of dogs, but we don’t register much in the fly’s umwelt (at least, not as anything distinct from other mammals).
For dogs, we can imagine that their world is defined by their perception and action. Their perception includes being able to smell much more acutely than we can (including detecting changes in others’ hormones) and hearing within a greater range than we can. Thus, they will be able to respond to stimuli we don’t even notice. At another level, their umwelt is defined by the things they can bodily act on: They handle the world with their mouths, so the world gets divided into things-that-fit-in-the-mouth and things-that-don’t-fit-in-the-mouth—a way of seeing the world that is quite different than our own.
If we begin to understand what dogs think about, what they can see and smell (and what they can’t), I think we’ll have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a dog—the dog’s perspective, if you will. Appreciating his perspective goes a long way toward making a closer relationship (as it does between people!).
B: The dog’s amazing olfactory powers make their worldview different than ours. Can you explain why?
AH: As we go about our day, we see the world first, using vision to help make sense of the sounds (conversation, sudden honking, a nearby thud) and the smells (something rancid or sweet wafting on the air) around us. Dogs smell the world first, using olfaction to organize and make sense of what they see and hear. The richness of our visual world is matched, if not surpassed, by the richness of their olfactory world.
This leads to some profound differences in the way the world looks, which I describe at length in the book. For instance, smells deteriorate over long distances, and are carried hither and thither by currents of air. The visual scene does not change with the breeze, and with distance, only looks “more distant.” The result is that the world is mapped differently for the creature who primarily “sees” it via his nose rather than his eyes.
B: You note that dogs couldn’t really see TV in the pre-digital conversion days; the physiological reason behind this is significant—can you explain it?
AH: It has to do with how we process light. Specialized cells in the eyes of mammals translate light waves into neural activity by changing the pigment in the cells. In the milliseconds that the pigment is changing, the cell can’t receive any more light. This leads to what is called the “flicker-fusion” rate: essentially, the number of snapshots of the world that the eyes can process each second. Our flicker-fusion rate is about 60 images per second.
The image on old TVs and film is really a sequence of still shots sent quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing a continuous stream. Given our flicker-fusion rate, the film needs to be only slightly faster than 60 still images a second to trick our eyes into seeing motion. Dogs, though, have a faster flicker-fusion rate—about 70 or 80 stills per second. When watching film, they can actually detect the individual frames as well as the dark spaces between them. With the recent conversion to entirely digital television broadcasts, though, the flicker-fusion rate is no longer relevant, since digital TV works differently. So dogs can, in theory, watch TV—though it still is not very olfactorily interesting!
B: Why do you think it took researchers so long to truly study the dog?
AH: I think it took scientists a long time to see dogs as cognitively interesting because they reasoned that animals who are closely related to us—like apes and monkeys—were more likely to display behaviors similar to those of humans. As it turns out, in social cognitive tasks such as interpreting others’ gestures, dogs often surpass chimpanzees in performance! Additionally, I suspect that it was felt that dogs were already “known,” because they are so common and familiar to us as pets. What we are discovering is that in some cases, we are correct about what dogs know and understand, and in many cases, our common-sense understanding of dogs is not quite right.
B: A lot of your research involves dog play. Why is play so important?
AH: Play is a terrific venue in which to see dogs’ fast-paced, coordinated behavior; they are highly skilled players. As many dog owners may know, most bouts of play begin with a play signal, such as the familiar “play bow,” in which one dog bends down on his front legs, holding his rump high and his tail up and wagging. Another signal is the “exaggerated approach,” in which one dog lopes toward another dog, often with an extra-bouncy stride. These signals are considered requests to play, or announcements of an interest in playing. It appears to be important to play signal before starting to play, since play involves behavior that would be considered aggressive—biting, mounting, bumping—in another context.
When I looked at play sequences in very slow motion, what I was able to see was that dogs were very good at getting the attention of their hoped-for playmates before play signaling. And they seemed to know what kind of attention-getter would work in different situations: a more forceful attention-getter when the other dog is distracted, a mild one when the dog is standing idly. With humans, a person might need to shout to get the attention of someone talking to someone else; similarly, we don’t need to barge into someone standing right in front of us in order to get his attention. Dogs seem to know that. And then, only after getting the other dogs’ attention, did they signal an interest in playing.
B: Dogs of the same “breed type,” like herders, seem to enjoy playing together and appear to have different styles of play than other breed types. For instance, they use the “eye,” and play “who winks first gets to be chased.” Have you studied behavioral traits in breeds and how they are expressed during play?
AH: I find it extremely interesting that breeds often gravitate to other members of their breed to play. Indeed, it seems that even similar-looking mixed-breeds often play together. Some of that could be explained by their owners’ interest in the familiar-looking or -acting dog (if owners loiter together, it gives the dogs more time to get acquainted). But most of it presumably comes from the dogs’ mutual recognition of characteristic behaviors in one another: the way the other dog solicits play, how he uses his tail and, as you suggest, even showing “eye” or other breed-typical behaviors. My own research did not control for breed, and I don’t know of any other studies that have specifically identified whether or not certain behaviors are more likely during play among members of one breed than play among members of another. It’s ripe for the investigating!
B: It was interesting that you said that long-time or close playmates can exchange shorthand signals with each other. How can we learn to read our dog’s shorthand?
AH: The shorthand is usually a component of the play signal. The play bow involves bringing the forelegs down and the rump up—so, a shorthand version of that is what I call a “play slap”: just bending down on the front legs, usually with an audible slap. Similarly, many signals involve an open, almost grinning-looking mouth; as shorthand, a dog can do a very short open-mouth display with another dog. If you know the components of the signals, you can see how dogs break them up to use with their regular playmates.
B: In regard to your statement that dogs don’t hunt cooperatively—since dogs evolved from wolves, who do hunt cooperatively, it would seem that dogs would, too.
AH: You make a great point. Some dogs may hunt together—and dogs definitely act cooperatively with each other in many settings, including play. My point is a little different, however. What I wanted to emphasize was that typical dog behavior has changed considerably from typical wolf behavior in numerous ways. The studies on which I base my statement were on free-ranging (stray) dogs who need to hunt or scavenge to eat; researchers found that the dogs did not hunt together cooperatively, as we see in wolves. These groups are perhaps the closest model that we have of what is natural social behavior for dogs unmodified by the immediate presence of humans. Dogs bred for hunting may also act very differently, of course, than mixed breeds.
B: Pointers can “honor” the point of another dog while hunting—a truly amazing thing to see. Mark Neff at UC Davis is collecting evidence of the genetic basis of this behavior. Are you familiar with this behavior?
AH: Following another dog’s hunting point is very consistent with all the recent experimental research showing that dogs are quite good at following dogs and humans who indicate (by pointing or looking) where a hidden toy or food is. This may seem obvious to some dog owners, but to psychologists, it is quite meaningful that dogs follow points; most non-human animals don’t seem to use pointing as an informational cue. It is also a testament to the quality of the experiments that we see this ability in the dogs’ natural lives as well.
B: I was happy that you discussed dogs’ fascination for novel objects (neophilia). But have there been any studies that actually showed this to be true?
AH: Yes. In 2008, Kaulfuss and Mills published a study showing neophilia in dogs. The dogs in their study were given the choice of new or familiar toys, and most preferred the new toys. This doesn’t mean they will always be interested in a new toy; rather, it indicates that dogs have a sense of what is familiar and what is novel, and are curious enough to investigate the novel.
B: How can you tell if your dog feels or is expressing guilt?
AH: It is an open question whether dogs feel guilt, one that we all have our hunches about but that is very hard to confirm empirically. I recently published a study testing whether the “guilty look” that dogs show—ears back, tail down, slinking off or avoiding eye contact—actually indicates that the dog has disobeyed and possibly feels guilty. I found that dogs showed the most guilty look not when they had actually disobeyed, but rather, when they were scolded or confronted by a suspicious owner, even if they had done nothing wrong.
What most dogs do seem to know is that some actions—those that have provoked punishment in the past—are “wrong,” off-limits or at least likely to provoke punishment again. This is not the same as feeling guilt. They may do the guilty look as an entreaty not to be punished.
B: How can you tell if your dog is bored? I know that is one of the biggest concerns of dog lovers.
AH: Boredom in dogs looks remarkably similar, in broad strokes, to what it looks like in humans: flagging energy, reduced activity, poor attention, sleeping too much. Dogs may pace (similar to zoo animals kept in too-small enclosures with nothing to engage them) or do repetitive actions, such as licking or chewing themselves obsessively. If you come home to find your house in disarray, socks mauled, pillows disemboweled, it’s likely that your dog was bored—at least until he found those socks and pillows with which to occupy his time. Boredom can be sated by giving the dog something to do: play with him, give him plenty of social time with other dogs, or hide safe toys or treats for him to find when you’re away.
B: You said that “in many ways, dogs act as if they think about their memories as the personal story of their life.” What do you mean by this?
AH: It is an intriguing question whether dogs think about themselves—that is, whether they have a sense of their own life story, their autobiography. It is also a very difficult question to address scientifically. I am proposing, however, that much of dogs’ behavior, such as what they remember—where they buried that bone last summer, the dog who was hostile the last time they met, a shortcut home—indicates that they are in fact thinking about their life in an autobiographical way.
B: A final question. Is there a possibility that dogs co-evolved with us, especially since the dog genome dates the wolf/dog split to almost 100,000 years ago, about the same period during which Homo sapiens was developing? Also, the change “out of wolf” began so long ago that it would seem to predate human settlements. So perhaps the theory of dogs “taming” themselves as scavengers around our “settlements” might not be right.
AH: I think it is quite appropriate, based on the evidence we have, to say that dogs and humans co-evolved. As I discuss in the book, there is archeological evidence that dates the intertwining of our lives to 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, though most researchers believe that we lived together for perhaps thousands of years before that time. The interesting and more recent finding (using mitochondrial DNA)—that wolves split into two different groups, one of which was to become what we now know as the domestic dog—is suggestive that the connection between humans and dogs may have been quite long ago. It is also possible that these “proto-dogs” were well suited to later domestication, but weren’t yet associating with humans (or our forebears). The evidence simply isn’t all in yet.
To listen to an interview with Alexandra Horowitz on NPR, click here.
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Is that a Setter, a Spaniel, a Dalmatian? Nope, he’s a Large Münsterländer (a German breed with Longhaired German Pointers and English Setters in the line) and Helene Rubinstein’s Boog. Named after the 1970s Baltimore Orioles first baseman, Boog Powell, the two-year-old pup has yet to meet a person or dog he doesn’t like; at the dog park, they call him the “ambassador,” because he’s the only one who’s never gotten into a tussle. Boog lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., with his big “sister” Georgie, a seven-year-old Border Collie mix who has done quite well in agility. Boog is also learning agility, and though his hunting nose sometimes distracts him from the jumps and tunnels, he can do some mean weaves! This Large Münsterländer is indeed large, but Rubinstein thinks he’s worth every inch. Boog rolled out his biggest grin for photographer Amanda Jones.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Tagged for success in Colorado
With its plentitude of open space (43,000 acres), trails (130 miles) and glorious mountains—plus its progressive humane perspective—Boulder seems like an ideal place to have a dog. Now, with the launch of its “Voice and Sight Dog Tag Program” (TAG), an off-leash registration and educational outreach effort administered by the department of Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), the city is taking steps to balance wise stewardship of open space with public/recreational usage.
To achieve this challenging balance, OSMP worked closely with the dog community, represented by FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space), to design the program, which is intended to ensure the continuance of off-leash privileges. Under its terms, in order for dogs to be off-leash on trails and even in city dog parks, they must be registered. Compliance with the ordinance is signified by a tag (worn by the dogs) indicating that the human half of the pair has watched a short video on Boulder’s “voice and sight” control ordinance and basic dog/human etiquette and paid the $15 fee.
What seems to be the most difficult part of the regulation, the “come immediately” command, was part of a dog-related ordinance enacted in 1996, a spokesperson for FIDOS explained. The best way for programs like TAG to achieve success is for, as FIDOS hopes, “enforcement [to] focus on those that are clearly causing problems.”
When it comes to off-leash issues, it is often the case that the misdeeds of the minority color the way the majority is perceived. Let’s hope that Boulder’s proactive educational approach minimizes the number of misdeeds and prevents conflicts. For more information, visit osmp.org
It’s time dog lovers had their own all-star baseball team. To qualify, one needs only a name or nickname dog-related. Each of the following players were major leaguers:
Manager: William “Ruff” Carrigan
In the bullpen: Marcus “Fido” Baldwin; James “Collie” Colliflower; Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser; William “Bird Dog” Hopper.
On the bench: John “Scotty” Alcock; William “Spot” Bethea; James Bowser; Anton “Mutz” Ens; George “Doggie” Miller; Freddie “The Flea” Patek; George “Pooch” Puccinelli; Dino “Dingo” Restelli; John “Mutt” Riddle; Lewis “Old Dog” Ritter.
Environmental justice advocate, MacArthur Fellow, president of her eponymous green economic consulting firm: by anybody’s definition, Majora Carter is a dynamo. Born, raised and still living in New York’s South Bronx, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, and by 2003, had implemented the highly successful Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program—a pioneering job training and placement system that seeds communities with a skilled workforce that has both a personal and an economic stake in its urban environment.Among her landmark projects is the conversion of a stretch of debris-strewn riverside to a vibrant neighborhood park and the beginning of an 11-mile greenway. And she might never have discovered the place or its potential had it not been for her dog, Xena.
Bark: Tell us how Xena came into your life.
The puppy and I looked at each other, but I didn’t really have any huge emotional moment where I felt I had to save this animal. I was working to save humans from noxious environmental planning by the City of New York at the time. But something attracted me to her, so I took her home, dried her off, found some food in the fridge—which she devoured—and spent the next year trying to recover chewed shoes, books, furniture and other household objects that fell before the wrath of this energetic and fast-growing pup. The vet who checked her out (and continues to do so) said she was four months old when I found her. I named her Xena.
B: We understand that Xena had a paw in the revitalization of the illegal dumping area that became Hunt’s Point Riverside Park. How did that happen?
Xena used all of her 80 pounds of young dog energy to drag me deeper into the abandoned lot. Past refrigerators, needles, stacks of tires, oil drums, old tar roofing, thistles, dead things and a bunch of other items I was thankful were not on her list of things to roll in that day.
Just as we began to get too far out of sight of the road for my comfort level, I caught an unfamiliar glint of light out of the corner of my eye. Xena pushed through the last patch of tall weeds as she bounded forward to her goal, and right there in the morning light, the Bronx River flowed, with ducks landing and butterflies dancing.
Except when I went to Connecticut for college, I had lived in that part of the South Bronx—called Hunts Point—all my life. I could see on the subway maps that we were surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers, but I never actually saw the water because their banks were crowded with waste and sewage treatment facilities, truck lots, power plants, and illegal dumps like the one we discovered that day.
It was so beautiful to see the river there that morning. I knew I could play a role in turning that land into a park, where families could get connected with nature and each other in a positive, healthy atmosphere.
B: How is the neighborhood using the park? Does your schedule allow you time to go there with Xena?
Aside from the obvious recreational benefits, members of the community are employed maintaining the riverfront, and are using it to train other workers for future waterfront restoration projects. I don’t get to the park nearly as often as I’d like—especially when you consider how much time I spent working to make it happen. But I did have my wedding there on the first day it was opened. Xena was my flower girl!
B: Environmental justice is a large concept; can you scale it to a one person/one dog level?
B: Environmentalists and dog lovers have a number of intersecting interests. One of the more obvious is that in densely populated urban areas, both people and dogs appreciate and need environmentally healthy open spaces in which to walk. What can dog people do to improve their local environments?
B: What channels do you recommend following to address local environmental issues?
B: Are there tools individuals can use to make a case for attention? Taking along a videocam (or using a cell phone) to document problems encountered while out walking with our dogs, for example?
B: We also understand that you have a degree in film, and an MFA. Do you have occasion to use this training in your current work?
A Celebration of the Pooch in Popular Music
Musicians and dogs are a lot alike. Both operate on instinct and feeling. Both have finely tuned ears that can pick up good and bad vibrations. And both make the world a better place by helping others feel a little less lonely.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that there’d be mutual appreciation of the musical kind. While dogs compose their own spontaneous tunes—“I Haven’t Seen You in Forever!” and “Scratch My Chin Again” are two favorites—musicians have been a little more considered in their creations over the years.
The story of dogs in popular music began in 1853, when American songwriter Stephen Foster was given a beautiful English Setter, whom he named Tray. Foster so loved his pal that he wrote “Old Dog Tray,” a sentimental ode that became the blueprint for bow-wow ballads from then on.
In the early 20th century, dogs were roving through Tin Pan Alley in hits such as “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” and “Fido Is a Hot Dog Now,” a 1914 song about a naughty pooch who ends up in Hell.
But the modern era of pup pop didn’t begin until the mid-’50s when Patti Page wondered about the price of the doggie in the window and Elvis Presley complained about a hound dog on a cryin’ jag. Since then, artists from the Beatles to Neil Young to Red Hot Chili Peppers have done the dog. To celebrate this genre, here are the stories behind ten purebred faves.
“Martha My Dear”
Later, McCartney revised his take on “Martha,” calling it a song about “a muse.”
“I mean, I’m not really speaking to Martha. It’s a communication of affection but in a slightly abstract way—‘You silly girl, look what you’ve done.’ Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it’s actually a dog. And our relationship was platonic, believe me,” he added with a chuckle.
Shannon came into Gross’s life via his marriage in the mid-’70s, about the same time he was opening tours for the Beach Boys. Gross and Carl Wilson bonded over Irish Setters, as Wilson’s had recently been killed by a car.
To this day, Gross still gets letters from fans who find solace in the tender-hearted song. “Whenever somebody loses a dog, they hit henrygross.com,” he says. “I just e-mailed a guy who lost a dog—and this may sound corny, but I said, ‘Whenever a great dog dies, I see it as an opportunity to save another poor dog, to share your love with a soul nobody wants.”
“We wanted to write something really raunchy,” says Jerry Leiber of the song that became Elvis’s most successful single. In its original incarnation, Leiber says, the song was “about a woman kicking a moocher out of her house. He wasn’t literally a hound dog and he didn’t chase rabbits.” A few years after Big Mama Thornton’s original recording, Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell & The Bellboys did a comedic version of the song. They changed the mooch to a pooch. Elvis loved this version and basically copied it. Leiber says, “The lyric change bothered me, and I wasn’t crazy about Elvis’s version at first. But a couple of years later, it kind of grew on me.”
On June 5, 1956, Elvis caused a national sensation with the hip-shakin’ rendition of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show. A month later, a supposedly contrite Presley did the song on The Steve Allen Show. Dressed in a tuxedo, with instructions to curb his pelvic movements, he sang to a Basset Hound outfitted in a top hat. “That was Steve Allen’s humor,” Elvis said. “To me, it was about as funny as a crutch.”
“How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?”
As for Merrill, when he tried to write more legit music, his novelty tune dogged his trail. In 1957 he said, “When producers heard I was the guy who wrote ‘Doggie in the Window’ they wouldn't even listen to my songs." He eventually broke through on Broadway as a lyricist for Funny Girl, writing the hits “People” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
Recently championed by Bob Dylan on his XM show, Theme Time Radio, “Dog” is enjoying a resurgence. Dorough, 80, has been getting occasional requests for the ultra-wordy tune at his live gigs. “I can perform it with two weeks notice,” he laughs.
“Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”
But Gernhard loved it. So much that he landed the Guardsmen a record deal. Three weeks later, the single was soaring like Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel up the charts. While Peanuts author Charles Schulz ended up taking a sizeable cut of the royalties (Gernhard didn’t get permission to use Snoopy), the Guardsmen pushed out a litter of follow-ups—“Snoopy’s Christmas,” “Snoopy for President” and in 2003, “Snoopy vs. Osama”—but never recaptured the glory of the first hit.
“Me and My Arrow”
Everything except round-headed Oblio, who is banished to the pointless forest along with his faithful Arrow.
When Red performed the song, grown men were known to weep when he reached the line about how Shep “laid his old head on my knee.”
In 1945, a 10-year old Elvis Presley made his first public appearance, singing “Old Shep” at the Alabama State Fair and winning a $5 prize.
Covered by many artists, including Johnny Cash and Alabama, this classic ballad was also the indirect inspiration for Old Yeller.
“Everything Reminds Me of My Dog”
“I learned a lot from my dog,” Siberry says. “I never would’ve been so tuned in to the minute nuances of the everyday light, except I had to walk him all the time. Now that I don’t have a dog, I notice how much less connected I am with the outdoor world.”
When Young’s bus pulled off the highway for a pit stop, Elvis hit the ground running, in search of olfactory pleasures. Young quickly lost sight of him. Then there was a burst of drenching rain.
Young knew that even with his super-sniffing nose, Elvis wouldn’t be able to find his way back. A search was fruitless. Neil had to make the next gig, but couldn’t bear to leave the dog behind. So he put down his old “lucky shirt” and a bowl of chow by the side of the road. Once he reached the venue, he sent a roadie back to the spot, and there was Elvis, ready and wagging.
An easy-to-make meal
We are big fans of a good meatloaf, and our dogs Jordan and Gertrude were too. We adapted a basic meatloaf recipe using lean meats and adding different grains and vegetables for variety. Our dogs loved garlic, so we always added it, finely chopped; if you have concerns about feeding it to your dog, it can easily be left out.
We would make a few of these at a time to freeze, using different flavors for variety. Use beef, ground turkey, chicken, or lamb, but avoid pork or veal, which can be too fatty. In place of the oatmeal, you can try other whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and place the oven rack in the middle slot. Mix all the ingredients together with your hands. Transfer the mixture to a loaf pan, or use a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and form a loaf in the center. You can also use a roasting pan, just space the loaf in the middle of it, you can cook potatoes or sweet potatoes in the pan at the same time too. Bake for 1 hour.
Feed according to your dog’s size and calorie needs.
• 2 pounds ground turkey or other meat
[Optional: pulverized calcium. Nori (seaweed), chopped pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Can substitute bread crumbs for the flaxseed meal.]
Adapted from Eco Dog by Corbett Marshall and Jim Deskevich, photographs by Aimée Herring. Reprinted by arrangement with Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2008.
Hummed or howled, tunes find a receptive audience.
YES, IT’S EMBARRASSING, but many people have the urge to sing to their canine companions. Don’t worry about it—it’s natural. In fact, singing to your dog can be a lot more fun than crooning to a baby or toddler. For one thing, your dog will never develop the capacity for irony or satirical thinking so annoying in humans, so any stupid or caustic lyrics you make up won’t be understood. And your doggie will never fling these songs back to you in a family counseling session, or years later as you lie on your death bed.
The guidelines for satisfying canineoriented singing are not stringent, but you might want to consider a few strategies for making the most out of your warbling sessions with your pet.
>When choosing a name for your pooch, consider making it five letters. This enables you to use the famous song B-I-N-G-O as the base melody for special songs you can make up for your dog. For example, my new dog’s name is Nimby. I really didn’t choose it for that reason (long story—he’s named after a fairy character I created for my daughter), but WOW, what a boon! And Nimby was his name-o!
>Dig back into your past and find the songs you really enjoyed performing as a child, including perennial chestnuts such as Old MacDonald Had a Farm (for which you can substitute the repeating verses with a BARK BARK here, or a GROWL GROWL there…)
>Never underestimate the power of a narrative song, such as Little Rabbit Foo-Foo. For the uninitiated (bless you), Little Rabbit Foo-Foo is an involved tale about a little bunny who seems to go into the forest, where he scoops up all the field mice and inexplicably bops them on the head. And then a fairy descends—well, you kind of get the warped idea. So you only need to substitute your dog’s name, and perhaps his prey of choice (squirrels? moles?), and you have the makings of a really fascinating song.
>Classic folk songs are great. Consider the ballad John Henry, one version of which reads, “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his papa’s knee…” Think how wonderfully you can put your dog’s name in there: “When Mortimer was a little puppy, sucking on his mommy’s teat…” >Don’t discount the standards. You can adapt Cole Porter or George Gershwin pretty well to doggies. Consider “I’ve got you under my fur…” or “I get a bite out of you…” Or how about Irving Berlin? “God bless my doggie girl/Pup that I LOVE!!!/Stand beside her, and guide her…”
Well, these are merely guidelines. You must constantly look for inspiration in every facet of your past and present life—old Girl and Boy Scout songs and commercial jingles (gum, SpaghettiOs, Pepto-Bismol, late-night carpet advertisements, mnemonic bank lyrics, cereal ditties). Finding a suitable tune and putting your dog’s name into it, along with, perhaps, a few choice lyrics, is really the auditory equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
Singing to your dog is one of life’s simple pleasures. Just remember that, should you be caught doing it, you’ll have to act as though you’re warming up for choir practice. Once, someone came upon me as I was doing show tunes geared to my dog down at our community garden, and I had to pretend that I was an American Idol contestant.
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