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Invisible Dogs
Improv Everywhere stages an unusual canine takeover in New York.

What do you do with 2,000 invisible dogs? Walk them, of course! Last week more than 2,000 New Yorkers took to the streets of Brooklyn with invisible dog leashes. The results were amusing, but don’t take my word for it. Check out the photos on the website and the video below for a good laugh.

Organized by Improv Everywhere, participants showed up having no idea what they would be doing. After a quick pep talk, the organizers handed out the leashes and told everyone to spread out and go on an hour-long walk, acting as if they were walking a live dog.

On the streets, most people smiled, and some even played along with the joke. Some ignored the debacle, in typical New York fashion, and others became angry when no one would explain what was happening. My personal favorites were the dogs they encountered who were understandably confused!

Improv Everywhere’s latest stunt was devised when 2,000 invisible dog leashes were found collecting dust in an abandoned factory. An art group that was transforming the building into an exhibition space contacted Improv Everywhere to see if the leashes could be put to good use. Three thousand RSVPs later and Invisible Dogs was born.

How would your pup react to an invisible dog being walked down the street?

News: Guest Posts
Not-So-Stupid Pet Trick
Bailey rocks Letterman with her last gasp.

When Bailey goes as limp as a rag in Mike Bower’s arms, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Bravura performance by a Beagle--and a perfect antidote for anyone suffering a case of the Tuesdays.   

 

Watch how without any crowd noise, Bailey gives a “killer” performance trying to land the gig as Milk-Bones spokesdog.

 

 

News: Guest Posts
Dogs Decorate for Christmas

These clever canines would make Scrooge smile. Happy holidays, everyone!

News: Guest Posts
Church Sign Dog Debate

No matter your religious persuasion, or lack thereof, dog lovers will likely find these dueling church signs to be pretty amusing. I didn't find this debunked on Snopes, but a graphic-artist friend of mine thinks someone was having fun with Photoshop.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Parents: Talk to Me About My Dog

“How are the kids?”
I always make a point of asking my friends.
They appreciate it and talk about day camp, allergies, Saturday’s visit to the Bronx Zoo, who’s good at math and who was so funny at the pediatrician yesterday. My experience as an uncle seven times over has taught me how to talk to parents about their kids, yet I am surprised how poorly people engage my partner Bryan and me about our seven-year-old dog, Ezra Pound. I’m not saying dogs are exactly like children, but the U.S. dog population recently hit 72 million, and that’s about the same number as kids under 18. Here’s how to score points with a dog owner and be on the right side of the numbers:

1. Ask about the name.
Just as kids are named after someone, Ezra Pound, too, has a backstory. People assume it’s after the famous poet, which upsets my mother, who knows the poet as insanely anti-Semitic. But “Ezra” comes from the founder of Cornell, where Bryan and I (and members of both our families) went to school. “Pound” reminds us he was adopted.

2. Yes, he’s adopted.
We got Ezra when he was eight weeks old from the ASPCA on the Upper East Side. The affinity test they made him take made us feel like he “chose” us. With so many dogs desperately needing homes, we do frown on breeding, though we would never say it to your face.

3. Race is an acceptable topic.
For years, we thought Ezra was a mix of Pit Bull and Labrador and even had to balk at an opportunity to move to London because of their Dangerous Dogs Act. But when we had him genetically tested (what gay people with cash do), we learned that Ezra is actually Chow, Rottweiler and Greyhound. Just don’t use the word “mutt.”

4. Flatter him, flatter me.
Natural or adopted, we all see our young as reflections of ourselves. Ezra has a gorgeous black coat, strong body and soulful eyes, and is often mistaken for a puppy. People think I’m fairly immature too.

5. Ask about his poo.
If you just flinched, you’ve probably forgotten your baby’s first weeks. Ezra’s bathroom activities affect his behavior. Ever loyal, he seems not to go while out with his dog walker, but saves it for walks with me.

6. Eyes in the back of our heads.
You look away a minute, and they find a chicken bone in the gutter. We’re just lucky that, avoiding chocolates and stepping on glass aside, Ezra doesn’t have nut allergies or buy into trends like raw meat. Bones are an expense, but it’s better than chewing Bryan’s sneakers.

7. Discuss major minor rights.
Your child benefits from thousands of protective laws. Ezra is technically Bryan’s property, which means in a bad situation, Michael Vick has as many rights as I do. Worse, in 46 states, we’re not even technically married, which makes Ezra kind of a bastard.

8. Forget about birthday parties.
It’s sweet if you remember his birthday in November, but you wouldn’t want to attend Ezra’s party. The food’s inedible, and getting the hat on involves a 20-minute struggle.

9. Compare routines.
Like any kid’s dance, sports and tutor schedules, Ezra has a full plate too. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he attends a top-rated doggie daycare (private) in Chelsea. Tuesdays and Thursdays, his walker, Michael, takes him to the dog run off the West Side Highway. There was competitive tension between Michael and daycare, but they’ve all learned to work as a team.

10. Are we having kids?
Read above.

Culture: Stories & Lit
An Open Letter To My Puppy
An apology for my dog-owning deficiencies

Alvy, I owe you an apology. I haven’t been the easiest person to live with over the past few months, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your patience with me. I did so many dumb things when you first arrived, I don’t really know where to begin.

 

 I’m sorry that I named you Alvy Singer, which I’ve been told is pretentious. In my defense, “Roman Polanski” seemed too political.

 

I’m ashamed to admit that a few days after you arrived, I fantasized about sending you back to the breeder with a sign around your neck that read: Rosemary’s Fur Baby. (I will always treasure the “devil’s pepper” amulet that you came with.)

 

I’m sorry I never finished that Temple Grandin book—all those Temple Grandin books, actually. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read the entire 66-page complaint filed by Al Gore’s masseuse instead—well, “skimmed” is probably more accurate. I’m even more ashamed of the fact that I listened to the Mel Gibson audiotapes. Three times. Each.

 

That Google search—“how to sedate + puppy”—was just me goofing around. I would never have done it for real. I didn’t “garrote + cat,” now did I?

 

I swear to god, I have no idea how Children’s Benadryl got into your water dish. I don’t even have children!

 

I’m sorry that I skipped so many important puppy-training classes, including the ones where the commands “Sit,” “Stay” and “Leave me alone, I’m eating” were taught. (I really regret missing that last one.) It hasn’t slowed your progress, though. You’re sitting like a pro! It’s almost as if you’ve been doing it all your life. You’re doing it now and I didn’t even ask you!

 

I feel terrible about the things I said about you when you first came here. I take it all back. You are not the Antichrist, and neither are you a Morlock. I know you didn’t bite me on the nose because you wanted to make me cry (though you didn’t do yourself any favors when you high-fived the cat immediately after).

 

I feel sick about the time I called in one of those dominance trainers to help me deal with what I later realized was just your puppyness and not some perverse desire on your part to turn me into your petrified valet. (You were only 11 weeks old! How sick was I?) You’re really going to hate me when I tell you that when I made that desperate call, I was fully aware that the alpha-dog theory had been discredited by serious animal behaviorists long ago—I did get that far in Grandin’s book. I promise never to do anything like that again. In fact, if I ever encounter another one of those jerks, I’m going to alpha roll him.

 

I’m sorry that sometimes I forget you’re a dog and not a baby. The BabyBjörn was absolutely too much, I agree. (It’s in the closet with your bonnet and sleeper, if you were wondering.) But just so you know: that sailor suit you tore to shreds wasn’t cheap.

 

I should never have compared you to Marty, my first dog. You two are very different. He was perfect and you’re evil—kidding!

 

I feel terrible about the first time I took you for a walk, which was really more of a prolonged drag. Now I’m the one being dragged on the walk. But it’s good for me. It’s helping me lose the puppy weight.

 

I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were trying to loosen me up, show me that life can be fun and not an endless march to the office, the gym and, ultimately, inevitable extinction. I still march, but dammit if there isn’t a spring in my step! That’s owing to you, my little Morlock.

 

Finally, and this one is hard for me to talk about, I’m sorry I lost my temper and screeched at you like a banshee that night. That really was our darkest hour, and I swear it will never happen again (yes, I know, it did, one more time; but never again!). I learned a valuable lesson from it though. I can be an animal sometimes, too.

 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Goofy as Hell

The other day my daughter confided that she and her friends had that day engaged in an argument, one that’s been raging, it seems, forever. They weren’t discussing the origins of war, or why evil exists, or whether God exists, but a question just as troubling— is Goofy a dog?

My heart was warmed that these young people were confronting the same issues I’d confronted when I was their age. How well I remember those youthful discourses!

Pluto is a dog— that’s a given. And yet Pluto cannot speak. Goofy appears to be a dog, yet he possesses the power of speech. What’s the deal here?

Take a trip around Duckburg. See the Beagle Boys? They have shiny black noses like dogs, yet they walk just as men! Most of the citizens of Duckburg, as a matter of fact, are some kind of bizarre dog/human hybrid— werewolves, if you will, or some ungodly mutant created by Gyro Gearloose in his fiendish laboratory. And who paid for it? I’m not going to accuse anybody in print, but I will say that every time I see that miserly plutocrat Scrooge McDuck my blood runs cold.

But let’s not go there.

Instead let’s look at the larger picture. What are the Cartoon Rules of Dogs?

1. All cartoon dogs like bones. If they don’t have bones, they scheme to take bones from others.

2. Cartoon dogs are always male. There are a few exceptions (Lady comes to mind), but if you look at the pantheon— Deputy Dawg, Tramp, Mighty Manfred, Snoopy, Foghorn Leghorn’s nameless adversary, or the cast of All Dogs go to Heaven— they are always male. Female dogs only exist in cartoons so a male dog can howl, slaver, make his eyes bug out and get distracted by them, so some other dog can steal his bone.

3. If a dog has a comfortable existence inside a warm, cozy house, some outside force will arrive to drive him into the yard where it’s always pouring rain. This outside force is usually a cat. If a dog has a comfortable existence in his doghouse, some outside force is always trying to get him to leave it. This outside force can be represented by many things— a mailman, a cat, a bird, even a rival dog trying to gain access to his bone.

4. In the cartoon universe, if a dog is the protagonist, a cat usually represents the force of evil and/or chaos, unless it’s a cute little fuzzy kitten. Either way, the dog will be distracted from his bone.

5. Cartoon dogs can go from joy to rage in an instant, and back again.

6. A dog’s personality is determined by its breed. Sheepdogs are loyal. Dobermans are fierce. St. Bernards are tenacious. Shepherds are protective. Chihuahuas are nervous. Poodles are vain. Bulldogs are irascible. Mutts are scrappy. Etc.

7. If a dog is clever, he’s usually not clever enough. If a dog is stupid, he usually perseveres— that is, he gets the bone in the end.

8. Dogs are never evil. They can be obsessive, but never self-absorbed.

9. There are no cowardly dogs. If they’re needed, cartoon dogs always come through.

10. In confrontations with cats, dogs usually lose. In the cartoon universe, mice and cats defeat dogs.

I think these rules are pretty much written in stone, don’t you? So what does that make Goofy? Well, he’s male, he’s stupid and he’s not evil. But does he like bones? No. Do cats give him a hard time? No.

I have to stand by my original assessment, and I’ve had a lifetime to think about it. I don’t know what the hell Goofy is. He may even be part dog for all I know, but by and large I’d have to say that Goofy is the unholy spawn of hell, an unnatural creature who should be destroyed while there’s still time. But that’s probably just me.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Top Secret
A Tale of Dogs, Flatulence and Giardia
Dog Winks

People’s names in the story I am about to tell you are not real. To protect the health and safety of the husband who told me this story, I’ll call him Harry and the woman’s name will be Sally — because if she finds out, he gets hurt. In fact, I am changing the name of the couple’s dog to protect the dog’s identity. You can see this is a serious situation, so don’t start laughing, OK? The name of Harry and Sally’s dog is Rocky.

One day, as Harry and Sally sat in the living room watching television with Rocky at their feet, an odor like passing gas filled the room. Naturally, Sally thought it was Harry and Harry thought it was Sally. Not wanting to embarrass the spouse, neither of them mentioned it for several weeks. But when Harry smelled gas and Sally wasn’t home, it became apparent that Rocky was the one passing gas. The couple called their veterinarian.

The vet said to retrieve Rocky’s stool (I am not talking about what he sits on but something he leaves outside) and bring it in for testing. This was done, and it turned out Rocky had giardia. The couple lived in San Francisco, and Harry had been walking Rocky around the neighborhood. Rocky was a chick magnet, and women would stop to admire him, which made Harry a happy man. Rocky would lick the women’s faces and hands. (Remember, it was Rocky doing this, not Harry.) Based on how many times this happened over the last year, it’s safe to say that fifty percent of women in San Francisco now have giardia.

Now, back to the vet’s report. When the report from the vet came, Harry and Sally started treating Rocky right away. At this time, they both admitted to having a gas problem themselves. Sally looked up information about giardia on the Internet and found out that humans can get giardia; one symptom was gas. Since Harry and Sally’s problem was lasting several weeks, they concluded they should see a doctor and be tested for giardia. The couple went to a local clinic and saw a woman doctor — which made Sally comfortable but almost caused Harry to pass more gas, especially when he was examined and poked in the stomach by the woman (but he didn’t lick her face or hands).

Thinking in advance, Sally and Harry had brought stool samples with them in a small cooler. (They probably never again will put anything in that cooler.) The doctor said the samples might have been contaminated by urine, as they were fished out of the toilet (how I don’t want to know), and so more samples were needed. To accomplish this, Harry and Sally were given something referred to as a “hat.” Harry described the hat as something no one with a sound mind would ever wear. It’s made of plastic, and you place it on the rear of the toilet seat and sit down. Then you “take care of business,” according to Harry. They each had to prepare samples from four different occasions, if you get my drift. On top of that, the samples had to be refrigerated until dropped off at the doctor’s office.

As chance would have it, the couple was entertaining friends for dinner. Sally warned Harry to make sure his samples were covered in plastic bags in the refrigerator, just as hers were, so they could not be detected — in case a guest got up to get something out of the refrigerator before he could be tackled. Luck was with them, because bad weather caused dinner to be rescheduled. This allowed time for the couple to complete the samples and drop them at the doctor’s office. Now they had to wait for the lab report, which would tell them if they had giardia.

It was three days later when four couples joined them for the rescheduled dinner. Everyone was having a wonderful time, chatting away, when the phone rang. Harry and Sally each assumed it was a solicitor, so they ignored the call and let the answering machine pick it up. This was a bad choice. In the middle of the dinner conversation, this message erupted over the chatter: “This is Doctor Bartlett. Your test results came in this evening, and I wanted to alert you. You both have giardia, which as you know is highly contagious. Please come into the office tomorrow and pick up the prescriptions you need. We will have to check your stools again after you’ve been on the medication for ten days. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me.”

The room fell silent — like it was a wake rather than a dinner. All the guests suddenly remembered pressing events requiring their presence at home. In less than five minutes the four couples had left; some even forgot their coats in the closet. As for Harry and Sally, the last time we talked, Harry said they were starting to provide another round of samples, Rocky’s stools were now clear, and they were thinking of moving to another state.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Teacher’s Pet: Boning up at Ivy League
Harvard puts canine cognition to the test
Ivy League Dog

My dog was a little late for her test at Harvard University. Penny Jane was clearly nervous. Then she saw the testing room’s slick linoleum floors and the glare of the fluorescent lights, which screamed veterinarian’s office to her. She trembled and panted lightly as she scanned the shadowless room, probably for a syringe. When she turned her black nose up at a salmon-flavored treat, I worried that my Border Collie mix was going to flub her Ivy League school exam.

Both of our anxieties were misplaced. No one was going to get an F or a vaccination. Penny Jane’s “test” was part of an ongoing study at Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab. The lab was started in early 2009 by Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition, to research how domestic dogs think. To do so, Hauser has enlisted the help of Boston-area dog owners such as me to provide the tailwagging subjects for his research. A couple of thousand pooches have been tested so far. Penny Jane was somewhere around number 350.

Many a dog owner through the centuries has wondered what goes on in his pooch’s mind. But the question has held little interest for scientists, who have devoted endless hours to studying how other species think— especially rodents, pigeons and primates. Meanwhile, the animal brain right at our feet or in our laps went unexamined.

That is changing. There are currently canine cognition labs at the University of Florida, Duke University and Barnard College, as well as several in Europe. In July, some 500 scientists from around the globe gathered at the second Canine Science Forum in Vienna, Austria, to deliver papers on dogs’ understanding of human communication and how domestication has shaped their social skills.

“The field is a little crowded just now,” says Hauser.

The scientist, who has worked with cotton-topped tamarins since 1992, is a relative latecomer to the trend. This is his first cognition study with dogs. Why Hauser switched from diminutive monkeys to the family dog speaks to the practical reasons behind the growing interest in canine cognition. For starters, funding for primate research has become scarcer and scarcer, according to Hauser. Working with pet dogs means a lab does not have to bear the expense of keeping animals. Pet dogs also provide Hauser with volume. Rather than study 20 tamarins, Hauser will have results from several thousand dogs by the end of his current study. If one dog’s trial, say Penny Jane’s, goes awry, it won’t statistically throw off the whole study as it would with only 20 animals.

Moreover, scientists can explore issues with pet dogs that they can’t with other species, such as how domestication has affected a species’ thinking, or if there are ways Canis lupus familiaris has become more like Homo sapiens. “Unlike all the other animals, there is some possibility that they have acquired some of our moral behavior,” Hauser says.

And as always, by studying another species we can learn about our own, and chip away at the age-old question of how we became unique. In my specific case, I feared the study would demonstrate, despite all my efforts to the contrary, what an anthropomorphizing egomaniac I was. Though I prided myself on what a cool head I had about animals, I’d gotten off to a bad start before the two of us even arrived at the lab by bragging to all my friends that Penny Jane was going to Harvard. Did I, like so many dog lovers, ultimately see my pup as a reflection of myself?

That question was not on Hauser’s list. Rather, he’s investigating how dogs respond to physical as well as emotional cues, how much patience they have, and whether they understand the concept of sameness, as in two identical objects. To answer these and other questions, dogs are ushered into a large, mostly bare room with a broad window facing south on one side and a mirrored wall on the other. Here, pups are repeatedly asked to choose between two identical buckets, but in varying circumstances.

As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.

In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.

There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”

The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”

Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.

With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.

I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.

After a break, Penny pulled herself together and finished the entire trial, including a last section that tested how she used her sense of smell to differentiate between the identical buckets. In the end, her results were pretty typical, except that she chose the correct bucket each time in the very section that gave her trouble.

As we left, the lab assistant handed me a Harvard diploma of a sort with Penny Jane’s name inked on it in big letters. I laughed it off to the lab assistant, but called my husband on the drive home to crow that our pound pup had a Harvard degree. The results of Hauser’s study and what they say about how dogs think are still in the offing, but as for what it said about me, the results were already painfully clear.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Stories & Lit
Musings on the world's oldest friendship in personal essays, memoirs, fiction, classics and, of course, humor.

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