The Watchful Chicken

Some days, you find odd things at Schiller Park.  This morning, I found this colorful rubber chicken — a dog’s toy, probably — positioned atop the dog poop bag dispenser, as if she were keeping an eye on the dog owners and their compliance with the admonition to clean up after their dogs.

I couldn’t help but read the stern, red-eyed expression on the chicken’s face as a look of disapproval.  And when I realized that all of the doggie bag dispensers were empty, after the dog I was walking had already required the use of three of my pocket supply of bags on the walk, leaving me sorely in need of replenishment, I couldn’t help but share the chicken’s reproachful countenance.

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UJ And Man’s Best Friends

Regular readers of this blog will remember my brother UJ, who has posted occasionally about his adventures and travels.

52812917_2017707298284358_42568911224307712_nLately UJ has been volunteering at the Franklin County Dog Shelter, where his principal activity is walking the dogs and, in the process, giving them a little bit of the human attention that dogs seem to instinctively crave.  Then, he posts about his exploits and the different dogs he has met on Facebook.

UJ had not previously indicated, from outward signs at least, that he was a big dog lover.  For example, I don’t think he’s ever had a dog of his own since he left our parents’ home, where we had a cantankerous “teacup dachshund” named George.  However, when one of his friends suggested the volunteer activity at the Shelter he gladly took it on, and it’s clear that UJ and the Franklin County shelter go together like hand and glove.  The Shelter has acknowledged UJ’s dedicated volunteer work with some posts of its own, like the photo to the right.

It’s interesting, too, that the focus of UJ’s Facebook posts has changed somewhat since he started his volunteer work.  After a few posts about what he was doing there, it really became all about the dogs he was walking and their desire to be adopted.  UJ will walk the dogs, take some pictures and video, and then post something about the dogs and how good-natured and easygoing they were.  And, UJ and his Facebook posts publicizing the dogs he’s walking have helped the dogs at the Shelter who are up for adoption find homes — including homes with some of UJ’s Facebook pals.

I’ve been a critic of social media, and I still think it has contributed mightily to our current polarized political situation.  But UJ’s efforts at the Franklin County Dog Shelter show how a little volunteer work and some social media attention can really have a positive impact.  I’m proud of UJ’s good work, and I think his use of Facebook to help orphan dogs find a human family illustrates what is the right role for social media in civic affairs — to let people know about what’s happening in their communities, and how they personally can make a difference.  Kudos to UJ!

Tentative Wagging

Russell’s dog Betty is a pretty smart dog, by dog standards.  She knows the basic commands, like “sit” and “hang on!” — the latter of which inevitably is used when she is trying to charge down the outside steps as we are heading out for a walk while I am trying to lock the front door.  And she clearly recognizes her name and words like “walk,” because the mere mention of the “w” word causes her to start leaping around with a pure, energetic ecstasy rarely seen in canine or human.

And Betty is a friendly, sensitive dog, too.  She’s a jumper who likes to greet her human friends with a set of front paws to the midsection, and she’s an inveterate tail-wagger, too.  Her full-fledged tail wag is impressive — the kind that can sweep glasses, magazines, and other bric-a-brac off the coffee table and send Betty’s hindquarters twitching back and forth like she’s being manipulated by some uncontrollable invisible force.

But sometimes the brainy part of Betty and the wagging part of Betty get mixed signals.  Typically this happens when a human being is directing some kind of communication to Betty that is of uncertain meaning.  The statement might be something along the lines of:  “Betty, the weather app on my phone says it’s very cold out today, so I’ll need to bundle up.”  Betty hears her name, and sees that the human is looking at her and apparently directing human speech at her, which I suspect she finds immensely flattering, but exactly what is being communicated is a bit of a mystery.  And, because Betty is by nature a polite dog, she wants to acknowledge the statement through some kind of response — but what is the right response?

Betty deals with this personal quandary by giving a quizzical look accompanied by what might be described as a tentative wag of her tail.  It’s not the all-out wag, to be sure.  It’s hedging, and usually consists of only one twitch, or perhaps two, of the tail.  The combination of look and wag says:  “I hear you, and know you are talking to me about something, but I’m not quite sure just yet so I’m reserving my full judgment and all-in reaction until more evidence is presented.”

I admit, I get a kick out of the tentative wag response.  In fact, sometimes I’ll talk to Betty just to get the uncertain wag.  It’s one of the things that makes it fun to have a dog around the house.

 

Going Off The Beaten Path

We’ve been watching Russell’s dog Betty recently.  She’s a very nice, well-trained dog — kudos to Russell on that! — who absolutely loves taking walks.  Every morning I leash her up and take her for a walk around Schiller Park so both she and I can get some fresh air and exercise first thing in the morning.

img_0028For the most part, Betty is an easy dog to walk.  She keeps her nose down, hunting for interesting smells, and stays on or in close proximity to the sidewalk, swiveling her head from side to side and remaining on absolute tactical alert for any random dog that might be seen off in the distance.

But the interesting thing is what happens when we depart from the sidewalk for even an instant — say, to drop a tied-off bag of doggie doo into one of the Schiller Park trash cans.  When that happens, Betty’s entire personality changes.  She goes from the dedicated, straight-ahead walker who diligently tracks down every stray scent to a young dog who clearly wants to frolic.  She does a kind of antic, bouncing dance, going down onto her paws then leaping into the air, makes a growling sound, veers suddenly from side to side with tremendous force, and then starts to nibble at my shoelaces while I’m trying to walk.  Frankly, it’s pretty annoying on a cold workday morning, but she’s just having a dog’s definition of fun.  After a few minutes of such play, I give her a tug on the leash and we head back home.

It’s instructive, isn’t it?  Betty likes her walks, to be sure, but what really charges her up is to go off the beaten path.  Betty’s little dance just demonstrates the value of departing from the straight line and going free form every once in a while.

Fat Dogs

Dogs often seem to be a lot like humans in the weight department — fighting a desperate, frequently unsuccessful battle against obesity, while at the same time unable to control their voracious appetite for food.  It’s not uncommon to see dogs that are so hefty they can barely waddle around.  It’s sad, because you know that the extra weight just isn’t good for their health.

4e1788791490fce3267aa450985bc897-im-fat-fat-animalsAnd now a study has confirmed the obvious:  fat dogs are less healthy and tend to die much earlier than thin, fit dogs.  The research looked at data collected over two decades that related to more than 50,000 dogs from 12 of the most popular dog breeds.  For every breed, the data showed that obesity reduced life span, and for some breeds the impact was truly breathtaking.  According to the study, for example, overweight Yorkshire Terriers tend to die two and a half years younger than Yorkies who maintain an ideal weight.  Fat dogs also are far more likely to develop joint issues and breathing problems, and are more susceptible to certain types of cancers.  As a result, obese canines have a less satisfying quality of life than dogs that stay in fighting trim.  How can a dog truly be a dog if it can’t take off after a squirrel or run to fetch a ball?

We’ve dealt with weight issues in our dogs and seen first-hand the impact that extra pounds can have.  Our first Lab, Dusty, had an immense appetite and would eat whatever was put in front of her and drool for more.  She put on weight, of course, and then we noticed her noticeably limping.  The connection was clear and confirmed by our vet.  We put Dusty on a diet and made sure she got lots of exercise, and when the extra pounds disappeared, so did the limping.  From then on, we just had to steel ourselves to not react to her plaintive, expectant eyes and drooling whenever she saw humans eating something.  It was clear that Dusty’s weight problem was our responsibility, not hers — she couldn’t help herself, and we needed to be the ones who exercised control.

It’s tough, because dog owners feel that giving food treats and table scraps to their dogs is a nice way to pay back their pets for their love and companionship.  But having discipline is crucial, because overfeeding a dog clearly is doing her no favors.  What’s more important:  the instant gratification of food that is wolfed down now, or making sure that your beloved pooch stays healthy, so that your special relationship endures for another year or two?

Smart Dogs, Dumb Dogs

Occasionally you’ll hear someone talk about how smart their dog is.  The Brown Bear, for example, will rave about the intellectual abilities of standard poodles.  The Soccer Goalie will brook no argument that border collies are the smartest breed around.  And Russell argues that his dog Betty, who is not a purebred, is as quick-witted as they come.

hvrzriwAs for us — well, our Lab Dusty was well trained and seemed reasonably bright, and Kasey, our poodle, was clever.  Our Lab Penny?  Well, she was generally amiable if sometimes stubborn, and always hungry.

Those of you who are convinced your dog is the next animal Einstein might be disappointed to learn the results of a study published recently in Learning and Behavior.  It determined that “[t]here is no current case for canine exceptionalism” and, in reality, dogs are pretty ordinary compared to other “carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters” like wolves, chimpanzees, and cats.  What’s more, dogs aren’t at the top of the charts when it comes to sensing human emotions.  The article linked above notes:

“Even more surprising, dogs do not appear to be exceptional in their ability to perceive and use communicative signals from humans. According to the domestication hypothesis, dogs have been bred to be especially sensitive to human cues such as hand signals. As Lea and Osthaus note, dogs can indeed use human cues. However, contrary to the domestication hypothesis, they are far from unique in this ability. For example, the reigning champions of the ability to follow human hand signals are the bottlenose dolphin and the grey seal.”

So why does everybody other than Lab owners think their dog is intellectually gifted?  It’s called the Lake Woebegon Effect.  Everybody thinks that they — and their pets, too — are above average.  The article notes:  “In a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers had 137 pet owners rate both their own pet and the average pet on a range of traits, including intelligence. The results revealed that the people rated their pets as above average on desirable traits and below average on undesirable traits.”

So, in all likelihood your dog isn’t a wunderkind.  So what?  They’re good company, they willingly will sport funny hats, and scientific studies also show that people who have dogs may enjoy health benefits from the companionship they provide.  Our canine pals may not be geniuses, but they’re good to have around.

The Ever-Present Audience

It’s been a while since we’ve had a dog in the house, so spending a few days with Russell and his pooch Betty means getting reacquainted with notions of, well, doggedness around the house. Like having the feeling that you’re being watched and turning around to find that, sure enough, two dogs eyes are gazing fixedly at you like what you’re doing is the most fascinating thing in the world. It’s unnerving until you get used to it.

I forgot about dogs being an ever-present audience. When I finished washing the dishes and saw that Betty was still there, staring, I felt like giving her the old soft shoe and a quick bow.