A lifetime of adventures worth telling
The broken jaw was suffered over a decade ago, courtesy of a kicking horse, and the broken leg was a result of an unplanned exit from the back of a pick-up truck a couple of years after that. Being attacked by a raccoon left him with a cut so bad his jawbone was showing through the cuts in his gums.
Gus is a 14-year old Heeler/Pit Bull cross and about as sweet a dog as I have ever met. He visited us this weekend when his guardian, David, was doing some electrical work in our kitchen, and his elderly comportment gives no signs of all the living this dog has done. Despite his rambunctious youth, Gus now moves slowly, reliably remains calm and is gentle with kids and adults alike. He’s changed a bit a from his barking, chasing, heel-nipping days, though his basic personality remains the same.
Born in Montanta on a 400-acre alfalfa ranch, Gus later lived in California in a triplex apartment after David was badly injured, then moved to Arizona where he once again had room to run around. That was when his guardian worked as the lookout at Lemmon Rock lookout on Mount Lemmon, and where Gus acquired the nickname “Smoke Detector”. Gus was so popular there that David’s boss joked with him, “We didn’t hire you because of you. It’s because of Gus. You don’t have to come back, but we’d sure like to see Gus again.”
Last summer, Gus lived in his fourth state when David worked as a firefighter in Washington. (Friends watched him when David was working.) Gus was used to living with lots of people since he spent his first year living in the bunkhouse of the ranger station in Montana, and he no doubt raised morale in the place just by being himself.
It’s good news that he is such a lovely dog given all that has happened to him and his beginnings. The mom was the family’s gentle Pit Bull, but his litter was the result of an unplanned breeding between that dog and the neighbor’s aggressive male Heeler. The eight puppies all went to firefighters and EMTs that worked with David, and I can only hope that the other seven had lives so filled with friendship and adventure.
The life of every dog is made up of stories, and I love it when people share them with me. I especially love hearing the tales of elderly dogs. Not only have they usually had a greater number of interesting escapades since they have been on the planet so long, but they have almost always had adventures that don’t seem to match with their gentle older selves. They make me think of old men sitting on a porch starting every other phrase with, ”Did I ever tell you about the time I. . .”
Have you ever had an old dog whose life story was just begging to be told?
“First Kiss” parodies were inevitable
What will happen when strangers kiss on film? We still don’t know because this past week’s viral video that claimed it was “magic” turned out to be a clever advertisement for a clothing company. Since the “First Kiss” video had over 10 million views in a matter of days and is now approaching 50 million, it’s no surprise that parodies of it have begin to surface. Obviously, one that involved dogs was bound to make the rounds, and here is an example.
Just like the original that inspired it, “First Sniff” is in black-and-white, it shows some diversity of characters though all are attractive, it is set to moving music, has close-ups of faces and shows positive emotional interactions between the pairs.
There are so many parodies, and another of my favorites is First Lick: A Film by Jimmy Fallon, which includes both dogs and cats.
I think that the puppy who gets distracted by his own tail is the breakout star of the film, although the facial expressions of the Basset Hound are priceless.
Do you have a favorite part of any of the parodies of the First Kiss video?
But we share their whole life
Though I could go on endlessly about the fine qualities of dogs, I could also babble for a little while about some of the drawbacks. I could do without cleaning up vomit, excessive shedding, and the tendency of the heaviest dogs to stand on my foot without even realizing they are doing it, but only the shortness of their lives really, truly bothers me. I have often said that not a single dog has ever lived long enough, and I stand by that statement.
So, at the risk of sounding a little over the top in a rose-colored glasses, accentuate-the-positive, glass-half-full kind of way, I thought about dogs’ short lives in a new way when I saw a set of paired pictures of animals recently. Every animal (mostly dogs with some cats and one turtle) is shown twice—then and now. Some of the pictures show the dogs with just a few months of separation while other photos were taken 16 or 17 years apart.
As I looked through these photos, it struck me as beautiful that we are able to share a dog’s whole life. That’s quite rare in people’s relationships, which is why those friendships that began in early childhood and last forever are so cherished. In contrast, many dogs come into our lives as puppies or adolescents and remain with us until the end of their lives. Granted, that end comes too soon as I am always saying, but there’s something special about sharing all the stages of their life with them from youth through middle age and into the golden years.
In the set of photos that inspired these thoughts about dogs’ lifespans, I especially love the second set of photos which shows a young man holding first a black puppy and later a 10-year old black dog. Even though the dog is large, he looks content to be held by this guy, and that’s not common. The brindle boxer puppy lying on top of the fawn boxer also charmed me. Even though just 3 months passed between the photos, the puppy has grown so much, and the older dog seems to have accepted the new addition to the household.
In all the photos, I love seeing the joy in most people’s faces as they pose with their pets months or even years apart. There are big changes in the dogs and sometimes, depending on the time difference and whether the first photo showed a child or an adult, big changes in the people, too. I adore how the behavior and expressions are often consistent over time, even taking into account the purposeful reposing that obviously happened and the inability of many dogs to fit into spaces that used to accommodate them easily.
Do you have photos that span your dog’s lifetime?
Great support or more pain?
“My best support came from my dog,” is a common sentiment among people who have been through a divorce. That’s no surprise given the well-known benefits of dogs. They ease feelings of loneliness, make us feel loved, encourage exercise, promote playfulness and facilitate social interactions. They don’t put pressure on us to cheer up, to get back out there or to stop dressing like a slob. They always seem glad to see us. There are countless ways that they make life better for people in any kind of emotional pain, including those whose marriages have ended.
On the other hand, if your ex gets custody of the dog, the agony of the split may be compounded. Not only is your spouse gone, but so is your dog. When I’ve talked to people who have not gotten custody and miss the dog, sometimes that pain seems more raw and intense than the loss of the human relationship. In some cases, that may be because the relationship with the dog is better and healthier than the marriage ever was, and sometimes the loss of the dog is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Either way, losing one’s dog adds to the pain of divorce.
It takes commitment to help a dog through the changes divorce brings. For some people, the focus on the dog is a helpful distraction, but for others, it’s just one more exhausting challenge. One friend of mine knew that her ex would be the best guardian for the dog because he works from home and runs with the dog every day. In contrast, she works long hours and travels a lot, and exercised the dog only on the weekends. To her credit, she did not fight for custody, although she does have visitation rights. She loves the dog, so in his interest, she agreed to a situation that she knew would be more painful to her, and it has been.
If you’ve gone through a divorce, how did your dog play into the pain and the process of healing?
Recognizing the problem is the first step
The dog’s left legs were aimed a little bit skyward as he was lying on his right side. Excessive weight prevented them from being in the usual position—resting on the body with the feet on the ground. His guardian said that their veterinarian wants them to work on shedding some of that weight for health reasons, but that he thinks the dog’s size is just fine.
The problem of overweight dogs is certainly not new, but the trend towards lack of concern about dogs who are way too heavy continues to grow. Lately, many of the people I meet whose dogs seem far heavier than they need to be don’t seem to think that their dogs are overweight and need to lose weight. As a society, we seem to have become accustomed to dogs with a rounder shape, and overweight dogs no longer stand out because there are so many of them. Dogs at healthy weights may even look too skinny to people who are used to heftier dogs.
Recently, one woman proudly introduced me to her dogs, both of whom were significantly bigger than dogs who are at their perfect weight. As I began to pet them, she said to me, “Can you believe my vet thinks they are overweight?” Both of these dogs could probably have lost a quarter of their weight and still not been svelte, so yes, I could believe it.
It’s common for people to be advised to put their dogs on a weight reduction program, but many people decline to participate. Some of that may be because of the effort it takes to help out pets lose weight. The careful consideration of food type and amount as well as the attention to extra exercise make weight loss a big project. Another reason may be that people are just not convinced that their dogs needs to be any lighter.
Does your veterinarian’s view of your dog’s weight match with your own view of it?
Strong opinions sometimes change
We saw a couple on the trails last weekend with two small dogs, and though one was on the ground, the woman was carrying the other one. My husband and I glanced at each other in silent understanding. We had just been talking earlier that day about how odd it seems to us to carry dogs when out on a walk. The benefits of walking dogs include giving them exercise and the chance to explore the environment. Dogs who are in our arms miss out on both of these.
One of the dogs was running along experiencing these benefits and my kids asked if they could pet her, which was fun for all. During the course of our interaction, we asked the dogs’ names and ages, and were surprised to learn that the dog being carried was 17 years old. The couple told us that she just couldn’t walk all those miles anymore, but that she did love to come along and walk a little bit along the way.
They set her down and as she moved, I could see how ancient she was. She walked slowly, stiffly and with disjointed movements, but sniffed the ground, wagged her tail and seemed quite content with her surroundings. She was old, but happy.
As they walked away up the path, the three-year old dog raced back and forth covering twice as much distance as the people. Their old dog followed behind, in no particular hurry, and I felt sorry for her. My first thought was that they should pick the poor dear up so she didn’t have to endure the discomfort of being on those geriatric legs. Then, I felt an urge to laugh at my response. These poor people—I was literally judging them coming and going! (Shame on me.)
Of course, mostly I was impressed that they had a 17-year old dog and that they were still taking her out on walks. It was crazy of me to object to that dog being carried or to having a chance to walk for a bit. They were clearly taking fine care of her and making sure she’s living the good life right up to the end.
Do you have an elderly dog who is small enough to be carried on walks, at least part of the time?
The similarities are considerable
If you’ve always thought that you and your dogs understand one another’s emotions, you increasingly have scientific evidence supporting your views. The use of MRIs allowed researchers to demonstrate that the brains of both dogs and people have a similar response to human voices, crying and laughter, among many other sounds. Researchers conclude that the brains of both dogs and people have similar reactions to the emotional cues in many sounds.
Eleven dogs and 22 people were subjected to the same MRI scans during which they had to remain still for up to 8 minutes while exposed to various sounds. (A lot of training went in to teaching dogs to remain motionless during the scans.) The study is called “Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI” (only the abstract is available online) and it was published last week in the journal Current Biology. It is the first study to use this technique to compare the brain of humans to a non-primate animal species.
Over 200 different sounds were played to each participant in the study over a number of sessions. There were sounds such as whistles and car noises as well as dog vocalizations and human sounds. The responses to human sounds in both people and dogs occurred in similar regions of the brain. This study is the first time such a similarity to humans has been shown in an animal species that is NOT a primate. Both the people and the dogs also reacted in similar regions of the brain to emotional canine vocalizations such as whimpering and intense barking.
Along with the similarities, there were also differences in responses between the two species. Humans were better at distinguishing between the sounds of the environment and vocalizations than dogs were. Additionally, both species responded more strongly to vocalizations of their own species.
It is impossible to say from this study whether these vocal regions of the brain evolved in a more ancient lineage than was previously thought or whether the dogs have evolved this similarity during the period of domestication as a mechanism to allow better communication and understanding between dogs and people.
Future studies that investigate brains of additional species may be able to determine the reason for the similarity between dogs and people. These scientists next plan to study the response of dog brains to human language, which was not a part of this study.
The dogs’ behavior is fascinating
The kinship I feel with dog lovers allows me to share the following with no concern that any of you would fail to understand: Yesterday I was in need of an emotional pick-me-up, but I was short on time, so I wandered over to YouTube to look for a dog video that would quickly make smiling a sure thing.
The first video I came to was called “Dogs Welcoming Soldiers Home” and I watched it once just for pleasure, enjoying the reunions. I especially loved the Great Dane at about 1:20 because a Great Dane on its hind legs is always a striking image and because this was my childhood breed.
Then, I couldn’t help myself, and I watched the video again. This time, I observed the dogs carefully the way I do when I am working. Several aspects of the dogs’ behavior interested me.
The most obvious behavior was also the least surprising. These dogs were exuberant, leaping and spinning (presumably joyfully) when greeting their returning soldier guardians. They were out of control in the best possible way.
They were so revved up that energy was exploding out of them, and that included vocalizations. Many of these dogs were whimpering and whining and making other loud sounds, but not barking. It’s hard to say what all these vocalizations mean, but I feel comfortable saying that they were likely indicative of dogs feeling intense emotions. The sounds they made seemed very expressive to me, even though I can’t claim to know precisely what they were expressing. It is interesting to me that so many of the dogs made these sounds. Since this was a compilation video, it is possible that the loudest dogs were chosen because the person who compiled the clips found these sounds interesting, as do I.
The close physical contact that the dogs sought with the people was fascinating. The dogs generally seemed not to be able to get close enough to the people. Many of them seemed to be pressing their bodies against the people in a way that’s not typical. Primates, including humans, often seek out the ventral-ventral (bellies together) contact of hugs, but it’s not very common dog behavior. Even most dogs who jump are more likely to make contact with just their paws rather than with their bodies.
In other contexts, such as cuddling on the couch or floor, many dogs do seek close contact, but that is more often lying next to or on top of people, rather than behavior that looks more like a human hug. These dogs were not resisting hugs and being picked up the way many dogs often do, but seemed quite comfortable with those human actions. (A few even jumped into the soldier’s arms.) One exception is the Golden Retriever at about 4 minutes who tolerates but doesn’t love the prolonged hug from behind. Even this dog soon settles in and seems somewhat more comfortable with full contact with the person in a slightly different position.
The most surprising behaviors I noticed were the tail wags. It has been well documented that dogs experiencing positive emotions tend to wag their tail higher to the right, and the study found that to be particularly true of dogs greeting their guardians. I would have expected dogs to be so joyous when greeting a guardian after a long absence that their tail wags would be to the right. Yet, in this video, many of the dogs exhibited left-biased tail wags, which I found curious. Certainly, the dogs seemed happy to see the people. After all, their enthusiasm is what makes this video so wonderful in the first place.
I can only speculate about why left-biased tail wags were so prevalent in this video. Dogs cannot understand the concept of deployment, and since most of these service members were probably gone for about a year, it’s likely that the dogs were surprised to see them again. It is my belief that many dogs whose guardians are gone for extended periods of time have already grieved for these people as though they are gone forever, which could make their return wonderful, but also startling. Perhaps confusion or shock factored into the emotions of the dogs enough to counteract the joy of the reunion that I thought would lead to right-biased tail wags.
If you have had an extended separation because of military service or any other reason, what was your reunion with your dog like?
Dog flexibility strikes again
If you’re not amazed by the diversity of dog body type and the huge number of habitats in which they can live, then you’re in the minority. Scientists, dog lovers and scientists who are dog lovers consider the domestic dog a species of considerable interest for the great number of forms that have evolved over a relatively short time. Some of the variation is obvious because it involves shape, size and color, while some of the behavioral tendencies are subtle. Even less obvious are the physiological difference between different types of dogs, including the recent discovery of adaptations to high altitude by the Tibetan Mastiff.
This breed of dog is most closely related to the Chinese native dogs, but in recent history, has been selected to live high in the mountains of Tibet at elevations of nearly 15,000 feet. The biggest challenge to life at such heights is the low level of oxygen. Even individuals who are quite fit can become out of breath just from walking at a casual pace under the low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions at high altitude. So, how do Tibetan Mastiffs thrive in Tibet? They do it in much the same way that wild animals and humans do—with genetic changes that affect hemoglobin concentration, the formation of extra blood vessels and the use and production of energy.
In a new study called “Population variation revealed high altitude adaptation of Tibetan Mastiffs”, scientists found that this breed of dogs has at least a dozen areas in their genome that represent adaptations to the high life. One of the genes that helps them survive in their high-altitude/low oxygen environment is similar to a gene present in the Tibetan people, who are also adapted to the high life. The rest of them are different than those of the people as well as differing from animals such as the yak and the Tibetan antelope that are also adapted to this environment.
Though much selection on our companion dogs has changed their behavior and appearance, there are also examples of changes that are far harder to observe such as the Tibetan Mastiff ‘s adaptations to high altitude.
It’s not news, but it is science
I hardly think it will be a shock to anyone reading this, but according to a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, positive training techniques are better than negative methods. Specifically, they promote less stress in the dog, and are better for the dog-person relationship.
A soon-to-be published study called “Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog-owner relationship” supports the beliefs of many trainers, behaviorists and guardians that there are substantial advantages to training with positive reinforcement.
In this preliminary study, researchers compared the behavior of dogs being training with positive reinforcement (desired behavior results in the appearance of something positive such as a treat or toy) to those being trained with the use of negative reinforcement (desired behavior results in the disappearance of something negative such as pressure on the leash or body). The data were collected in advanced dog training classes at two different training centers and the behaviors of interest were sitting and walking nicely on a leash.
The dogs being trained with negative reinforcement performed more behaviors that indicate stress in dogs (such as licking their mouths and yawning) and more lowered body postures (the tail down and either the ears lowered or the legs bent in a crouching posture) than dogs being trained with positive reinforcement. The dogs trained with positive reinforcement gazed at their guardians more often than the dogs trained with negative reinforcement. This suggests a stronger connection in those pairs, although the authors acknowledge that those gazes could be a result of dog looking for the reinforcement.
The researchers conclude that positive training techniques are less stressful for dogs and likely better for their well being. This matches my experience with dogs and the people training them. How about you?
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