Kiki loves winter. He wears the season like a second skin. As I write this story at my kitchen table, he’s probably outside, lapping up the Canadian cold.
The snow delights and confounds him. It’s a mystery substance he futilely tries to solve by his powers of jaw and claw. Shovel snow off the backyard deck, and, as it powders through the air, he’ll discombobulate himself in a slacktongued fool’s quest to catch it in his mouth, cartwheeling on no fixed axis. Then he’ll go to the spot where it landed and he’ll dig, dig, dig, mining for that one elusive snowflake, and in the end, yet again, hit dirt rather than pay dirt.
In the park, he’ll bound through the thick snow like Tigger (who, let’s face it, is much more dog than cat). He seems to feel he owns the whitened park in a way that’s not true when the green grass is growing. Maybe it’s simply because there are fewer dogs outdoors on the cold days, for their owners’ sakes. Arriving back home, he’ll want out into the yard, so he can sit in the cold for hours, surveying his white realm like a little polar bear on the edge of an ice shelf, sniffing the air for scent of seal or squirrel. And at the end of the day, he’ll lie not at the fireside but by the front door, to feel its chill draft sneaking onto his back.
When I was in better shape, circa 1842, I’d take Kiki for cold runs around the reservoir in our town north of Toronto. I’d let him loose on the wooded paths as I plodded along in my 18 layers of gear. He would use the paths as a departure point for explorations of who knows what, and by the end of the run he’d be dressed in snowy icicles. He was happy.
I don’t know how he got this way. He’s a Bichapoo, not a breed apt to be confused with Samoyed or Husky. And he was born in June, so it’s not like winter is the first thing he knew. Maybe it’s my fault for leaving White Fang lying around where he could read it. Maybe he really is a miniature polar bear. Beyond that, I’m stumped.
Kiki loves winter, and that’s why he’s not our dog anymore. I landed a job in Abu Dhabi, fast-growing capital of the United Arab Emirates. In this Phoenix of Arabia, temperatures reach 120ºF in August. And it’s humid.
At first we planned on bringing him with us. But then I went ahead to Abu Dhabi while my wife and daughter stayed in Canada to, respectively, wrap up our affairs and finish the school term. I saw how scarce dogs are in the UAE, and we feared the heat could prove fatal to Kiki during the summer months. He’d known nothing like it during his first five years — what if he couldn’t adjust?
And so, when I returned to Canada for a week in December to gather up my family, we drove Kiki to his new home in a new town, with outdoorsy friends who we know will take good care of him. We visited for an hour, and gave them a rundown of his habits (yes, he gets his own stocking at Christmas). Then his new dad and sister took him for a walk in the snow. I could see his tail in the air as they went down a hill and out of sight. We got in our car and drove away. We figured it’d be less confusing for him if he didn’t see us leave.
I think we did the right thing by Kiki. It was more responsible to take ourselves away from him than to take him away from winter. But that’s cold comfort when we miss him, all the times we miss him.
News: Guest Posts
Part I: Sniffing researched
The holiday season is in full swing. But before you dive into Aunt Bessie’s famous cookies, you might have to get past a few pinched cheeks and possibly some bad breath.
You know what I'm talking about—from handshakes and hand-kisses, to “man hugs” and double kisses, between now and New Year’s, we humans enter hardcore greeting mode.
Accompanying the acceptable greeting rituals noted above, we also engage in the more discrete variety: the up-and-down glance we get from our sister as we enter the party (I hope she didn’t notice that I’m wearing her bracelet!); the feeling that someone tried to get a look at your shoes without you noticing (of course you noticed). This is what we do. We check each other out.
What about dogs? Come holiday season, any dog who’s a fan of people will most certainly put on his greeting hat. And when dogs are greeting people or checking people out, they tend to go for the crotch. Or do they?
The sniffing investigation
The researchers created a study with two parts. In part one, they observed pet dogs sniffing their owners. In part two, pet dogs sniffed an unknown person. The researchers then studied which human body parts received the most attention from the dogs and their sniffers.
The first thing you are probably wondering: How exactly were people sniffed? (Not something you ask every day.) For the sniffing simulation, the human subjects entered a test room where they lay motionless on the floor with their eyes closed. Once on the floor, the dog entered the room and was observed for five minutes.
To collect the sniffing data, the human body was divided into 10 regions (see below). Researchers could then easily observe where dogs were directing their sniffing. I might add, this mock human has abnormally small feet and nice underwear.
The sniffing report
But there’s more!
Dogs differed in how they sniffed. When it came to sniffing their owners, dogs showed particular interest in the thorax and arms. On the other hand, in the presence of a stranger, dogs focused more on the ano-genital area and thighs. Whether you are more familiar with the terms “privates,” “bits and pieces,” “caboose,” “backdoor,” “flower pot” or “Rocky Mountain Freeway,” no matter how you slice it, dogs were more into sniffing the crotch and thighs of strangers compared to the crotch and thighs of their owners.
For you visual learners, below is a picture detailing the movement of the dog’s muzzle over the body. Top image: sniffing a known person; bottom image: sniffing a stranger. Check out that crotch attention!
So why might your dog get all up in Aunt Bessie’s crotch during the holidays? Simply put, he hasn’t seen her in a year! Maybe if you invited her over for tea more often …
Tune in next time for Part 2: Why is a stranger’s crotch so much more interesting than mine?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A scientist’s observations
We’ve all heard that dogs and 2-year-old children are roughly equivalent in intelligence, but comparing across species is truly an apples and oranges sort of proposition.
I always want to ask about the age of the dog. Why does the human age matter while “dogs” seems to be an ageless concept? And I’m also curious about which dog and which person. Are we talking about a dog who knows 1,000 words or a more typical canine? Albert Einstein or someone less amazing? Whether you consider the basic premise behind the comparison problematic or not, it’s worth checking out, “Is Your Dog Smarter Than a 2-Year-Old?,” a recent opinion piece in The New York Times.
It’s written by Alexandra Horowitz (author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), who researches canine cognition and has a 2-year-old child. Horowitz starts by expressing her overall view of the assertion, with which I thoroughly agree, “From my perspective as a researcher of canine cognition, it at once overstates and understates dogs’ abilities to claim that they are equal in some unifying, cross-species 'intelligence' to 2-year-olds.”
She then writes that observations of her own 2-year-old child and dog remind her that people make this comparison because of some obvious behavioral similarities. The article takes a look at the behavior of both these individuals over a period of a week with some relevant science added to the mix.
It’s a fun read and is, as Horowitz puts it, “fully quasi-scientific.” She acknowledges that there are issues with making the comparison at all. More entertaining than enlightening, she compares many things that are not actually indicators of intelligence, such as the tendency to use one’s mouth to explore the world and being patient.
Still, I think the value of turning this question on its head as Horowitz has done is to encourage careful observation and to remind us, “There is no ruler that measures both dogs and little boys and girls. Just as a child is more than a young adult, a dog is more than—and much different from—a simple human. You are no more doing your dog a kindness by treating him as a child than you would be in treating your child as a dog.”
News: Guest Posts
How does it change the dynamics?
I spent this morning at my veterinarian’s office with my dog Renzo, as the result of an early morning counter-surf operation. Returning home from meeting a friend for coffee, I found in his bed: one coffee mug (the broken handle and the dregs of the coffee were on the kitchen floor), a decimated spatula, a tattered New York Times, a torn-up milk jug (which had been drying out before going into the recycling bin) and a Raisin Bran box and pristine plastic liner. After a call to the vet, we headed straight in to deal with potential raisin toxicity. Although the chances are good that the amount of raisins Renzo ate won’t cause serious problems, renal failure is not something I want to risk.
I’ll be bringing him home in a few hours, but that’s not the end of our challenges. This counter surfing is a new thing. It started a couple months ago, a week or two after our 13-year-old Husky-mix Lulu died. Since her departure, Renzo has been clingier when we’re home, anxious when we make moves to leave and, in more and more frequent cases, he’s gone on these little blitzkriegs when left alone. We might go a couple days with no problems, but then it will happen again.
He’s getting plenty of exercise and we’ve been working on new skills, so I don’t think that’s the problem. I work at home, so he’s not alone and/or inactive for long periods, so I don’t think he’s acting out of boredom.
I think it’s a reaction to Lulu being gone. He was bigger, stronger and younger, but he deferred to her in most everything—from hopping on the bed to waiting for his dinner or treats. I often noticed him following her lead when we were out walking. She discovered the cool thing to sniff, and he always had to check it out as well. In the few instances she would go somewhere without him, he was always upset until she returned. Of course, now she’ll never return.
I don’t have any answers just yet. That’s why I’m writing this. I’m wondering if any of you readers have experienced shifts like this in your pack when one of two or more dogs dies. If so, did the surviving dog or dogs adjust to the new role? How did you help the process along? I’d appreciate any observations or advice.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Perhaps they engage in “make-believe”
Snoopy loved to pretend. He pictured himself most commonly as a great hockey player, Joe Cool or as the World War I Flying Ace. It’s easy for readers of the Peanuts comic strip to accept the fantasy world of its canine star.
It’s much more challenging to know whether dogs in the real world can pretend. In Jason G. Goldman’s blog Animal Imagination: The Dog That Pretended to Feed a Frog (And Other Tales), he discusses some evidence that animals, including dogs, are able to pretend. He tells the story of a dog who placed a stuffed frog at his water bowl as though it was taking a drink. The dog arranged other toys nearby. This reminded the guardian of the way children play games of make-believe with their stuffed animals. It’s possible the dog was pretending, and also possible that she wasn’t. Without knowing what was going on in the dog’s mind, it’s tough to know whether the dog was pretending or not.
Goldman also discusses the possibility that dogs may be pretending when they play using behavior patterns borrowed from courtship, fighting or predation, though the evidence is not overly compelling. Observations of gorillas and chimpanzees using objects for other purposes, such as a log being treating as a baby, or miming the use of imaginary objects are more convincing demonstrations of pretending.
I remain undecided and eager for more evidence on the question of whether dogs other than Snoopy can pretend. Have you seen your dog behave in a way that seemed like pretending?
News: Guest Posts
On Friday, we were sad to hear about the death of Bella, a sweet cream-colored stray who was the unlikely best friend of an Asian elephant named Tarra (see The Bark in Nov./Dec. 2008).
Bella first came to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., in 2004, and over time, Tarra and Bella forged a deep bond, sometimes wandering the grounds all day together.
Last Tuesday, sanctuary staff realized the pup was missing and launched a search. “Late Wednesday morning, Bella’s body was discovered close to the barn Tarra shares with Bella and five other elephants,” Steve Smith, director of Elephant Husbandry, said.
“Bella’s injuries show she was attacked by animals, probably coyotes,” said Dr. Scott, long-time veterinarian for Bella and all the sanctuary’s animals. Samples have been sent for analysis to check whether other causes may have contributed to her death.
Every effort was made to provide Tarra with the opportunity to allow her to come to terms with Bella’s death. “We expected Tarra to visit Bella, as elephants in their grief pay great attention to the bodies of their dead, but to our surprise Tarra stayed away,” Smith said.
With more evidence, the staff has come to believe that Tarra was aware of Bella’s death many hours before her body was discovered and dealt with it in her own way. In fact, they believe Tarra found Bella during or after the attack and carried her body back to the barn. There was no indication of a struggle anywhere near where Bella was found, and based on the extent of her injuries, it was clear Bella could not have reached the spot herself. Furthermore, examination of the underside of Tarra’s trunk revealed blood.
“I am convinced Tarra experienced the death of her friend that fateful night, brought her home and said her goodbyes,” sanctuary CEO Rob Atkinson said. “Tarra was a true friend to the end, and Tarra’s sisters and caregivers will continue to take care of her, as she and Bella did each other.”
The Elephant Sanctuary, founded in 1995 as the nation’s largest natural habitat for Asian and African elephants, has set up a Tribute page on its website to memorialize Bella with links to Tarra and Bella’s story and recent photos of the two. Information on the creation of a Memorial Fund established in Bella’s honor and the scheduling of a memorial service will be posted to the website in the coming days. For more information, visit www.elephants.com.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is your dog peppier now?
There’s a wondrous time between the sweltering heat of summer and the deep cold of winter. It’s the season of vibrantly colored leaves, cool mornings, favorite sweaters and apple cider.
If you have a dog, it might also be the season of insane amounts of energy expressed in the form of running in circles, racing back and forth or with a bit of a lapse in attention and responsiveness. These bouts of boundless energy have been called by many names. My favorite is “puppy zoomies” though the condition can affect a dog of any age.
So many dogs seem to come alive when the weather cools off. If you live with one of them, each autumn is a reminder that in summertime, your dog’s calmness is the canine equivalent of sitting on a porch with a glass of lemonade wishing for a cool breeze.
Is your dog enthusiastic about the fall weather?
News: Guest Posts
Test your dogspeak skills with this fun game
You'd think dog owners would ace this test: can you correctly identify all six dog barks? According to the study, even people who don't have dogs could interpret dogspeak for stranger alert and on the attack. But many dog owners (myself included) had a tougher time differentiating between barks for "let's go for a walk" and "give me that ball." How did you fare? Does your dog's communication correlate with the barks demonstrated here?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Q. My six-month-old whippet mix is driving me crazy. From the sweet, quiet pup I adopted, he has turned into a hellion. He now barks at me — probably for attention — and at other dogs (especially at the dog park), and even nips me during play. Is he trying to dominate me?
A. Pushy puppies, or dogs who display behavior such as nipping at people or barking at other dogs, are often thought to be displaying dominance, a frequently misunderstood concept. While dominance does exist in a dog’s world, it is not as prevalent as people have been led to believe. Dogs who have not been taught manners or how to play appropriately will often adopt their own behavioral “style” to get attention, and this style is frequently rude and pushy.
At six months of age, your puppy has entered adolescence, a phase where boundaries are tested and the “crazy” brain takes over. Rather than responding confrontationally, as is easy to do when we don’t understand a behavior, find ways to help your pup make good choices instead of bad ones. At this stage, his puppy brain is like a sponge, absorbing situations and experiences. This makes it the perfect time for positive learning to take place.
One of the best ways to teach a pup how to greet and play is by taking him to a puppy socialization and manners class. Manners training will help you understand and communicate with your pup, while socialization with other dogs will teach him how to play appropriately. A good class will show you how to teach your puppy a reliable recall, which gives you the opportunity to redirect negative behavior onto a toy or treat. This tells him that leaving play and coming to you are good things. If he ignores you, quietly remove him from the room for a time out until he is calm enough to return to playtime. If he resumes his pushy behavior once he is back in the room, repeat the sequence until he learns that making the right choice means he gets to stay where the fun is.
The same method can be used to curb his nipping behavior. If he nips during play with you, either get up and leave the room for a minute or two or have someone else hold his leash while you play and remove him from the room if he nips you. Play and your attention are rewards for keeping his mouth to himself.
While some dogs thrive on being at the dog park, others find it overwhelming. Observe your pup’s body language to see if he is barking at other dogs because he is overexcited and wants their attention, or because he wants them to stay away from him. Stop taking him to the dog park until you understand and address this behavior in class. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal of negative behavior makes that behavior harder to change.
Choose a puppy class that utilizes positive-reinforcement methods only. Dogs who are trained this way are not only more tolerant and self-controlled, they behave much more predictably.
Positive training techniques center on working the dog’s brain in a nonconfrontational way, rewarding positive behavior, establishing rituals and predictability, training incompatible behaviors that negate the bad behavior, and lessening a dog’s anger and frustration. Because behavior is influenced without force, the dog’s trust in his person is not violated the way it can be when harsher methods are used (which they unfortunately still are by trainers who espouse outdated dominance and pack-leader theory).
Positive, however, does not mean permissive, and discipline in the form of vocal interrupters, time outs or ignoring bad behavior is used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than suppressing negative behavior through fear or force.
News: Guest Posts
How to intervene when a dog needs an advocate?
It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in the park. My husband and I were having a lovely time at our friends’ impromptu baby shower, a picnic with lots of snacks, sangria and lawn games. Everyone was basking in the sun and celebrating the happy occasion.
Everyone except Sparky.
Sparky the Lab mix was tied to a nearby tree. He had a long lead and plenty of water, but he was clearly agitated. He seemed concerned about his “territory” from the get-go, barking warnings at newcomers to the party and pacing almost constantly. At one point, I refilled his water dish and when I bent down to put it on the ground, Sparky jumped at my face, snapping his jaws and headbutting me. It hurt.
Nobody seemed to see it. Sparky’s owners were the couple being feted, and I didn’t want to spoil the fun. I didn’t say anything.
As the park began to fill with weekend revelers—and their dogs and toddling children—Sparky’s protectiveness increased. He was on guard full-time now. More than once, passersby smiled and came closer to Sparky, attracted by his classic Labrador handsomeness. As soon as they crossed the invisible border of Sparky’s kingdom, he charged, barking ferociously. Hands that reached out to pet were swiftly retracted, and smiles turned into scowls.
“Sparky!” one of his owners would shout distractedly. Then, “Oh, Sparky,” with a sigh.
It happened over and over again. I started to worry that Sparky would go after a kid. But I never said anything.
I felt conflicted. What would I have said? This was a special day for Sparky’s parents. Should I have pointed out their dog’s anxiousness, basically forcing them to cut the party short to take Sparky home? But what if the dog actually hurt someone? I’d feel far worse about that.
It’s a tricky situation. Much like parents and their children, pointing out a dog’s behavioral issues can offend the owner. When it’s a good friend or a family member who’s got “The Bad Dog,” the touchiness factor is far higher. You don’t want to come off as critical of your friend, or ruin a precious moment, but you also don’t want anyone to get hurt. And in Sparky’s case, he was uncomfortable, too.
I’m not always a shrinking violet when it comes to misbehaving pooches. My husband and I essentially got a woman kicked out of our apartment building for refusing to leash her dog. The dog was dog-aggressive, and the owner either didn’t know or care to control her animal. It even tried to push its way into our apartment once to get at our dog.
After woman-to-woman pleas, gentle reminders and, eventually, confrontations, we finally had the guts to file formal complaints. She was evicted—just because she couldn’t find the wherewithal to consistently leash her dog. Despite verbal reports from other neighbors, we were the only ones who approached the management with the problem in writing.
But I barely knew that woman beyond her first name. It’s far different when a person you care about has a dog that’s potentially harmful.
It’s not like I think I’m a behavior expert. I know that my dog is sometimes The Bad Dog. She’s aggressive toward other dogs and not great on the leash. We’re working on it, though, and we try to be realistic about her bad behavior and our limitations. I just don’t know what to do when it’s someone else’s dog who’s lashing out.
Have you ever had to confront a friend or family member about their dog’s behavior? How did you do it, and how did it go over?
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