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.

Nights Without Snoring

The other night we were driving home when Kish turned to me and said, with a real note of sadness in her voice:  “I miss Kasey.”

img_6225I knew exactly what she meant.  It’s been a month since our little beagle mix has crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and it’s an ongoing adjustment.

We still regularly encounter little signs of our departed friend.  Take, for example, the nights without snoring.  Kasey was a big-time snorer who could saw logs with the best of them.  For a small dog, she produced considerable volume.  It took a while to get used to it when she first joined the family, but after we adjusted to Kasey’s sleep sounds they just became part of the expected background noise.  These days, the nights in our household seem awfully quiet.

There are other reminders, too.  We’ve kept one of Kasey’s dog bowls, so Russell’s dog Betty can use it when they visit.  Kasey’s winter coat still rests on one of the shelves of the pantry.  It’s too small for Betty, but it doesn’t feel quite right, yet, to throw it out or give it away.  When we go out into our tiny back yard, we still reflexively look before we step, even though we’ve long since removed every last one of Kasey’s tootsie rolls.  And, from time to time, we’ll still expect to hear that hoarse bark and thumping tail when we open the front door.

After Kasey’s passing, we’ve decided not to get a new dog for a lot of different reasons. I’m glad, though, that there are still these little, bittersweet reminders of our friend, which seem to be easing our transition into a pooch-free household.

A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement

Many health care facilities employ “therapy dogs” to help treat people with conditions ranging from cancer to mental illness to post traumatic stress disorder.  The proponents of therapy dogs swear that the presence of the pooches has measurable therapeutic benefits for the patients, and the sheer number of therapy dogs — by some estimates, there are more than 50,000 therapy dogs working in the United States alone — suggests that a lot of people agree with that conclusion.

dog_5_head_injuryBut, how do the dogs feel about their job?  Is working with sick people a stressor?  A recent study tried to find out.

The study looked at 26 therapy dogs that worked in five different pediatric cancer wards and interacted with more than 100 patients.  It focused on generation of cortisol, a hormone that is associated with stress in canines, which can be measured by taking swabs of canine saliva.  (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know they produce plenty of that.)  And, because cortisol occurs when dogs experience both good stress and bad stress, researchers matched the cortisol levels with canine behaviors associated with “bad” stress, such as shaking and whimpering, to determine whether therapy dogs found their work to be stressful.

I’m happy to report that the study concluded that therapy dogs are not stressed by their work, and instead seem to really like it.  Moreover, the study was able to rank the activities that are more enjoyable for the dogs.  Activities in which the patient and dog directly interact, such as a patient talking to the dog or playing with the dog and its toy, are more enjoyable for the pooch than activities in which the dog is more passive, such as when a patient brushes the dog’s coat or draws it.  The findings will allow facilities to shape their programs to make them more enjoyable for the hard-working dogs.

These results won’t come as a surprise to dog lovers, who know that their four-legged pals love to be around the friendly human members of the pack.  I’m confident that therapy dogs really like to interact with patients and that they sense, intuitively, that the patients reciprocate those feelings.  I’m also confident that therapy dogs provide real benefits to the patients, although there are skeptics out there.  The bond between dogs and human beings is real, and runs deep.  If you’re sick, being around a dog may not be a cure, but it is bound to make you feel better.