TheOtherEndoftheLeash Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals. Mon, 06 Jul 2015 19:30:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “It Depends” — The Answer, and the Next Question, to Everything Mon, 06 Jul 2015 19:30:30 +0000 If you know my work you know that “It Depends” is my answer to 95% of all questions asked about dog behavior.

Question: “Should I intervene if my dog growls at a puppy?” Answer: It depends.

Question: “What would you do if your well-trained dog looked at you when you called him back, and then takes off running in the other direction?” Answer: It depends.

I usually say “It depends” in partial jest, knowing how useless it must sound to the person hearing it. But “It Depends” has an important kernel of truth in it, because cookie cutter formulas don’t work with animals as complicated as dogs. How to handle a behavioral issue depends on so many things: the age of the dog, the level of training, the intensity of the distraction, etc.

I heard another version of this at the Derek Fisher sheepdog clinic I attended recently, hosted by the good folks at Cedar Stone Farm. The first day Derek had me encouraging Maggie to speed up, “be bad,” get in there and move the sheep, have fun, Eeee Ha! This is good advice for a dog like Maggie (and Willie), who are, paraphrasing Derek’s words, “inherently good dogs who need to learn to be a little bad.” (In other words, to be comfortable putting more pressure on the sheep, versus dogs who need to put less pressure on the sheep.) The next day, Maggie had taken her lesson to heart. She barreled the sheep toward me on the fetch, and, atypically, didn’t lie down when asked. I wasn’t concerned, since she was basically doing what we had asked the day before (“be bad”), but it did bring up a question from me to Derek that I knew was getting into tricky territory.

How long do I ignore an incorrect response while working on helping her learn to push? Part of the answer was simple: “If you ask her to stop, then she needs to stop. But you probably shouldn’t have asked her to stop at that point.” (Obvious now, of course… but then? Not so much.) The harder question was: “Given that I am trying to teach her to love to push, what should I do when I do ask her to stop, and she doesn’t?”

This is where I would say to a client, “It Depends.” Derek’s answer, not being me, was not “It Depends,” but what he said adds a lot of depth to it. He said “Imagine that every time you have a choice about how to respond to your dog there are four doors in front of you. You can go through Door 1, 2, 3 or 4. Once through, you’ll be faced with 4 more doors. Go through door #3, and you’ll find 4 more after that. In other words, there are always a number of ways that we can respond to our dog’s behavior. Only thing is, you can’t go backwards. Once you go through Door #1, you only have its doors in front of you. What’s most important is to avoid going through one that you’ll later wish you had avoided.

I loved this analogy, in part I suppose because it presents such a perfect visual image of all the choices one has to make when training. And it emphasizes the importance of not doing something you can’t take back. For example, if one gets angry at a dog when the dog is trying to learn something new… Well, that is a door you’ve walked through, and your next options are driven by having made that choice. You can’t go back through the door of “anger” and choose another door. The other doors may or may not be perfect responses, but at least you haven’t traveled down a road on which you wish you’d never started.

Of course, the question then becomes, how do you decide which other door to go through? Well, first, since you can’t go backwards, anger is a lousy choice in just about any training scenario. Second, which of the other doors to pick depends on many things, but I’d argue that the most important is based on WHY your dog did what it did. Why did Maggie ignore my lie down whistle? There are several possibilities: She was so charged up that she truly wasn’t listening, or she was afraid to stop, or she thought going fast was killer fun and didn’t want to stop, or my whistle signal was poorly blown and she didn’t understand it. Etc Etc Etc. In Maggie’s case, it makes sense that she wasn’t stopping because she had discovered the joys of “being bad,” which is just what we wanted. It was clear that the best plan was to ignore the lack of response, but then ask for a stop later, in another context when we weren’t asking her to throw caution to the wind.

Let’s take this out of the pasture, and into your yard. What if Chester takes one look at you, ignores your recall and chases a squirrel up a tree.  What to do? Well, first, try not to go through the wrong door. Getting mad probably isn’t going to help. Don’t go through a door that is going to limit your choices and destroy the relationship between you and your dog. Rather, ask yourself why you think your dog ignored you in the first place. Could the answer be because you haven’t proofed the cue at that level of distraction yet? If so, then time for a structured program of teaching a recall with gradually intensifying distractions. Did Chester ignore you because you’ve poisoned the cue, and used it to cut Chester’s nails and give him a bath, all of which he hates? Then it’s time to go back to using positive reinforcement for a recall (or to change the signal altogether?). Did Chester ignore you because you didn’t actually use your cue at all, and instead just said “Chester!,” instead of “Chester, Come?” Time, then, to practice how you use words to communicate with your dog. Did Chester ignore you because the reinforcement you have been offering is worth ignoring a dog down the street, but not a squirrel that just ran in front of him and scampered up a tree? Better get out the chicken, or better, yet, teach Chester that you’ll give him an even better chase game if he comes to you first. (If it’s safe, that might even include releasing him to go back to chasing the squirrel.)

You get the idea. Ask yourself WHY your dog did what he or she did, use that information to train in a similar context and while mindful of not going through the wrong door. (There are lots of ‘wrong doors’ beside the ‘anger door;’ I just used that because it is so common for us to go all “chimp-in-a-bad-mood” on our dogs…) I’d love to hear your examples of answering the question “It Depends” with WHAT it depends upon. How have you used that kind of reasoning to work through a training problem?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Busy weekend! Lots of yard and garden work, capped it off with homemade fried chicken and a sour cherry pie from a neighbor’s tree (thank you Sandie!) while cheering on the USA team at the Women’s World Cup Finals. Yay!

The sheep got to forage in the “Play Pen,” (originally designed years ago, for Luke and his daughter to play in) while Maggie and Willie watched. It’s about a quarter of an acre, and gives me a place to put them sheep when I’m too lazy or busy to herd them up the hill.

2 M & W watch sheep in Play pen 7-15

Polly and Nellie came over to watch too. They love the new stone wall, they spend lots of time up on it, while we get to enjoy watching them amongst the flowers. Here’s Polly enjoying the sun while I enjoyed her among the flowers.

Polly on wall 7-15



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Research on Resource Guarding Tue, 30 Jun 2015 18:22:11 +0000 Citizen science–be there or be square. Researchers from the University of Guelph are conducting a survey about resource guarding in dogs. You can participate by going to this link and filling out the questionnaire. I hope you do–you’ll see why as you read more…

True confessions: I originally tried to take the survey in April, but didn’t finish it. If you’re on Facebook, you can see my post on April 24th about it. In that post I wrote: I took the survey myself and loved the videos that asked the viewer how they categorized what they saw, but got a bit frustrated at the end when the questions began to seem endless, and worse, impossible to answer correctly. (Ex: “How many people did you expose your new pup to at these four different ages: 4-8 weeks, 8 to 12 weeks?”). As if I could remember accurately!

A few Facebook readers commented that they too got a bit frustrated and didn’t finish the survey. Those comments led to a lovely talk with Jacquelyn Jacobs, one of the researchers. Here is what she had to say about the intention and goals of the research:

This particular survey is exploratory and we intend to use the results to inform future, more specific studies on resource guarding risk factors. Our ultimate aim is to help owners identify the behaviour early and give them the tools they need to either manage the behaviour and/or prevent harmful behaviours from occurring.

One of my PhD projects has been the detailed video observation of dogs around resources to describe the different strategies dogs have to control access to a resource/item/object. We’ve identified at least three through this work: 1) avoidance (for example, grabbing an item and barking poodlesrunning away with it), 2) rapid ingestion (this involves a rapid speed of eating an item, usually a food item but it can be anything the dog chooses to ingest), and 3) aggression (biting and snapping)/threatening behaviour (e.g. growling, freezing, hard stare, teeth baring). One of the things we hope will come across in the results of the large risk factor survey is the relationship between some of these different resource control strategies. In the future we hope to determine if some dogs are more or less predisposed to showing one form over another, and if so, can we do something to encourage the expression of the non-aggressive forms instead of the aggressive forms (since it is a natural behaviour, generally speaking) and help owners to recognize them and respond appropriately?

These are great goals, and I hope that you seriously consider taking the survey yourself. (I took it again recently, and finished this time.  Good Trisha, Good Trisha. More on that below.) Before you do, here are some things to know:

The length of the survey: You are warned that the survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. Mea culpa; I didn’t believe it. I usually breeze through surveys in half the time that is allotted, and started mine under the dryer at the hair salon. Twenty minutes in, my hair dresser was standing over me, waiting for me to finish. I could have simply gone back to the survey and finished it later, an option anyone has, but for reasons not known to womankind, I didn’t take it. Actually, I think I do know why–see next issue.)

Being asked questions you can’t answer: That, in truth, is probably why I got out of the survey the first time. I knew there was no way I could accurately say how many people that Willie had met almost nine years ago when he was eight weeks old.  But Jacquelyn reminded me that one can always choose an option that says Unsure, which is what I should have done. I do worry, however, and I expressed this concern to Ms. Jacobs, that some people would guess, but not with any accuracy. We all know that memories aren’t always accurate. I would predict that people would guess that their dog met more new people than they actually did, just like people claim to eat more fruits and vegetables than they actually do. But Jacquelyn is aware of this problem, and it is only a small section of the survey. Now that I’ve had time to think about it (and am no longer under the hair dryer at the beauty salon), I wouldn’t let it be a reason to give up on the survey.

The videos: Bear in mind that the videos illustrate a dog responding to an Assessa-Hand. You first watch the videos that categorize different types of resource guarding behavior. Then you watch other videos of the same situation, and are asked to categorize what you saw. This is a way for the researchers to get an idea of how effective watching videos are at educating people about canine behavior around resources. (This is, of course, analyzed with the respondent’s level of experience around dogs as another factor.) I love this section of the survey, both because it’s great fun and because it should provide some great data. However, do NOT get caught up on the issue of whether Assessa-Hands are appropriate ways to evaluate dogs in shelters. This study has nothing to do with that: They are simply using the videos as a way to categorize the different ways dogs respond around a resource. There is even a disclaimer (good for them), that says ***Please do not ever attempt the types of manipulations seen in the videos with your own dog.*** So, please don’t get off track about the use of Assessa-Hands; the issue is resource guarding and how dogs do it.

After talking with Ms. Jacobs, I took the test, this time for Maggie. (You can do it for only one, or all of your dogs.)  It took me 25 minutes, far more enjoyably than the first time, because I started when I could focus on it for the time allotted. However, it didn’t take 30 minutes, because I got Maggie when she was over a year old, and so was not asked any questions about her early socialization. The only questions I still found troublesome include one question that asked me choose one of three options regarding my relationship with my dogs. There was no “None of the Above” choice, and I found it difficult to choose. But you can always skip it and move on. The other minor issue was the set of questions about training methodologies. Since, in Maggie’s case, they related to our work with another (sheepdog) trainer, I again had questions I couldn’t answer–like the one that asked if I and the trainer used “treats” (versus punishment), but there was no category for “positive reinforcement.”

So, is it a perfect survey? No. Is it worth taking? Absolutely! There will be a lot of great data that they can take out of it. I hope you jump in and take it yourself. Right now they have about 2,700 completed surveys, but want 4,000 in total. They need them all by August 1st, so jump on board and add your experience to the data set. For now, I’d love to hear about your own experience with resource guarding dogs, especially in relation to the categories mentioned above (avoidance, gulping food, or aggressive/threatening behavior). Right now I’m a lucky woman, and have no issues between any of my three dogs. If you do, or want to learn more about resource guarding in general, I wrote an extensive blog about the issue in May of 2013. Don’t hesitate to refer to that if you haven’t seen it and would like to learn more.)

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The BCs and I spent two heavenly days at a Scott Glen sheepdog clinic. If only a person could clone a mini version of Scott and keep it on one’s shoulder for the next 6 months. We all learned tons. including that my whistle signals are, uh, weak. The irony of this will not escape you if you know that my master’s thesis was on the whistle signals of sheepdog handlers. Sigh.

Here’s a photo I took on Sunday. Apologies to FB readers, I already posted it there, but I do love it…

W and M Glen clinic 2015

Sunday I spent most of the day digging up chest high-poison ivy (poor Jim got a big dose of it a few days ago), clearing thorny raspberry bushes (ouch) and pulling up Virginia stick seed, the worst burr ever known to fur. All in sauna-like conditions. Ah, the fun of living in the country. It’s astounding how much grows that you really, really don’t want around. And that you have to get rid of when it’s especially hot and humid.

But here is one of the joys of living in the country: Check out this butterfly, looking toward the right in the photograph.

heads-tails butterfly

But, no, it’s not. The eye spot and wing extensions are there to confuse predators. Look carefully at the left and you’ll see the real head, along with the insect’s black and white antenna. I never would have seen this wonderful creature if I hadn’t been chest deep in raspberry bushes and pulling vines out of my wild plum trees. Check out this article on faking out predators, which includes a video of a somewhat similar-looking (Lycaenid) butterfly that also moves its wings back and forth to attract attention away from its head. Anyone know the species ID of the one in my yard? I’m in Wisconsin, so don’t go guessing a species that’s common in Thailand! I look forward to learning more about this lovely creature.

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Well, Stuff Happens. Tue, 23 Jun 2015 01:42:26 +0000 That could actually be a great title for a content-rich blog, but I’m afraid the blog I was working on got trumped by 1) the blog site crashing for several hours, 2) Tootsie’s recurrent and unexplained UTI and need for an X-ray, and 3) Nellie the kitty showing up limping and clearly very, very unwell.

Thus, instead of a blog about the questions to ask when someone (like me) says “It Depends,” I’m just going to go right to a report on the farm and the sheepdogs. But keep your eyes out for a blog on “It Depends,” and one on a survey on resource guarding in the near future.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Everyone but the sheep and the cats piled into the car yesterday to go to the Laughing Frog Sheepdog Trial in Kansasville, WI. Put on by hosts Tresa and Don Laferty, the trial is designed to be a small, supportive trial that welcomed people and dogs who may not be the “big hats,” but want to learn more about good work with sheepdogs. It was a great opportunity to take Maggie to a first trial, and fun for Willie too.

Who would have guessed that Tootsie would turn out to be the winner of the first competition run? I suggested to Tresa that she radio the judge (the helpful and benevolent Lori Perry) that there was a last minute entry, so Tootsie and I trotted out to take our place at the post. Imagine our surprise when she turned out to be the winner of the run due to some creative scoring! Ha!

Here we are getting “High in Trial” for our efforts. (Tootsie was awarded the only perfect score of the day. Amazing what you can get when you’re cute.

Tootsie wins the trial


Maggie had three runs. Her first was best described as “Eeeee Hah!” I was hesitant to stop her because she can get sticky, but after being encouraged to push the sheep at Derek Fisher’s clinic last weekend, Maggie came on full bore, and pretty much ran the sheep down the field to me. We slammed our way around the course, but managed to complete some of the exercises with some dignity. We placed second. When I showed Jim the ribbon he said “You’re kidding.” Yeah, it wasn’t exactly smooth.

She kicked butt on her second run. This time the sheep (a different group) began to run down the field like race horses before Maggie was halfway done with her outrun. This time I didn’t hesitate to lie her down. Needless to say, these sheep were fast and flighty, and reactive to a dog even 50 yards away. Perfect for Maggie’s personality, which explains in part why she did so well this time. (I deleted “she was brilliant,” because it sounded too much like bragging. But hey, just between us, she was brilliant.). She stayed far, far back to keep control, listening to my every cue, and was on the perfect balance point for the entire course. Judge Lori generously gave us 97/100 points. (You could get an extra 5 if you pointed out the lead sheep at one point, but my brain is too small to do all that at once.)

Here she is doing the drive. You can see how far away from the sheep she needed to be, any closer and they would have taken off at a dead run. She’s not yet always 100% on her flanks (meaning, “go clockwise” or “go counterclockwise) and she’s not confident yet driving very far, but she did perfectly on this one.  Okay, yeah, I was really proud!

Maggie drives

My small brain got the best of us on her third run. The sheep were busy eating grain and instead of letting Maggie do her outrun and get them moving right away, I stopped her at the back (thinking no doubt about the race horse sheep on our previous runs). She got stuck, a common problem for dogs who are “strong eyed, or who make eye contact with the sheep, get them settled and balanced between them and the handler, and stop. Job done. What else would there be to do? This is Maggie’s biggest challenge, and the type of situation in which she needs experience and more help from me over the next months. In this case I walked out to help her and we got things going again, but I knocked myself on my head for stopping her when I shouldn’t have. Hopefully I learned my lesson, and that’s what this trial was about, a good place to practice and learn away from the pressure of the big trials.

Willie got a chance to run also in the ‘non-compete’ class (non-compete because he’s run in bigger trials at a higher level) and had a great time. He’s almost nine now, and I can tell that he isn’t loving the pressure of precision flanking on long drives. But he was in his element, and did beautifully. This time I managed to squeak out who I thought might be the lead ewe, and Lori gave me the extra five points just for remembering, so Willie ended up with 103/105 points. I should be clear that Lori was more than generous, and I can guarantee you that those points would never have been posted at one of the bigger trials, but still. It’s such fun when it all goes so well!

Here’s Willie helping to pen the sheep. The sheep were not pleased about going into a strange, small wooden structure, and it took some work to pen them, but both Maggie (on her good run) and Willie got them penned.

Willie and I pen

Thanks to Jim for taking the photos, and to Tresa, Don & Lori, along with helpers Nancy and Diane, for putting on such a great trial. And thanks to everyone who attended; it was great fun spending the day together.

And here’s a photo I rather like that I took not too far from our farm. The light green field is an alfalfa field that had been cut a few days before. The hay was left to dry, then gathered up for the dairy cows down the road.

hay up at neighbor's

May all your own hay be cut in sunshine… By the way–Tootsie’s X-ray was clear (no stones, but still no answer to the mystery), and the vet found that Nellie had a bad bite on her shoulder. It got cleaned out, she got an injection of a slow release antibiotic, and I am considering tossing out the dog crate pad that she peed all over on the way to the vet clinic. A small price to pay if she heals up well.

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Take Your Dog to Work (or Not?) Revisited Tue, 16 Jun 2015 00:21:48 +0000

I first posted this article in 2011, but it seems wise to put it out in the universe again. Taking a dog to work can be wonderful, or, not so much…

Friday June 26th has been designated “Take Your Dog to Work Day” by Pet Sitters International. Begun in 1999 with a goal of encouraging adoptions, Pet Sitters Int’l suggests that we all take our dogs to work to emphasize the human/animal bond, and indirectly encourage people to adopt homeless dogs.

This could be a great thing to do; many of us take our dogs to work regularly.  If you work in the dog world, it’s almost a gimmee, and one of the perks that I love about my job is that I can take Willie to work whenever I want. However, there’s nothing like being an Applied Animal Behaviorist to stimulate the waving of red flags when we read about something that, in some cases, could also be described as “take your dog into a completely novel and highly distracting environment and where you have no time to work with her if it flips her out.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of taking some dogs to work, but it’s truly not appropriate for some dogs.

Curious about how Pet Sitter’s Intl handled the potential of trouble, I went to their website and read their articles on “Preparing Your Dog for the Office” and “Introducing Your Dog to New People and Pets.” There was some very good information in them, including being sure your dog has basic manners and being sure your dog has had “practice calming down in a public place.” Yeah for them for making it clear that dogs need experience to be comfortable in new, stimulating places, and that their training needs to be “proofed” in highly distracting environments. They also advise teaching your dog to sit before greeting people or other dogs, and wisely advocate for loose leashes when dogs are greeting one another. All good, especially the statement “practice taking your dog out into the world.”

This is a key comment, but I do worry a bit that they buried the lead. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who owned “bold,  slap-happy” dogs who cowered and shivered and refused food when taken to a new environment.

The fact is, it’s hard to predict how your dog will behave if he or she has never been in a public place. That’s why I love that the website suggests “practice taking your dog out…”. But, their emphasis is on manners, and not on the dog’s comfort level. I’d love it if they added some lines like: “Not all dogs would enjoy leaving the comfort of home into a new and potentially frightening situation, so don’t bring your dog to work unless you have already determined that he or she likes going out and about with you.”  The point being it’s not just about manners, but also about your dog’s comfort level.

On a related note, I’m reminded of the time I took Cool Hand Luke to the radio station and was doing a live show with Larry Meiller on Wisconsin Public Radio. Luke was lying quietly under the table while I answered questions from callers about training and behavior. Luke had been the perfect dog up to that point (you know what’s coming here now, don’t you?) but mid-way through the show a workman stopped to look through the large glass window that separated the studio from the reception area. I hadn’t noticed him because I was facing the  other way. What I did notice was an eruption of high-pitched barking from Luke as he lept to his feet, slammed into me and the table and sent the show’s producer in a panicked attempt to modulate the amplitude.

For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why Luke had responded as he did (remember, we’re live on radio now), until I observed that the workman had on knee pads–large, black circles that looked exactly like the fixed, hard eyes of a dog about to attack. And right at eye level too. Luke calmed down right away, and we all had a great laugh about it. Not long afterward I was told that the station had created a “no pet in the studio” policy. Go figure.

What about you? Do you take your dog to work? Is it harder for you to get work done when and if  you do? (It is for me, but I also love it. Willie hasn’t come to work since his injury in February and probably won’t be able to until August or September. Ouch. Miss it.) Do other people bring their dogs and you’re glad? Wish they didn’t? I’d love to hear any stories you have. . .

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: For me, today and tomorrow are “Take Your Work to Your Dog Day.” Or something like that. Willie, Maggie and I are at a sheepdog clinic, taught by trainer and handler Derek Fisher. I had hoped to enter the dogs in the trial right before the clinic, but I didn’t think either dog was ready. Willie needs practice working at long distances away from my tiny pasture at home. Maggie needs to learn to be happier pushing and dealing with “heavy” sheep (or sheep who didn’t read the books and are happy to push back on a dog), and hasn’t been taught her flank whistles yet. She also needs experience working at more of a distance, so I thought I’d be wise to skip the trials and get the dogs into the good clinics offered within a day’s drive.

Derek was great. I loved how well he reads dogs. He had Maggie and Willie pegged instantly (both very soft, try almost too hard to be good, need to learn it’s okay to push the sheep.) Very kind, lots of reinforcement for the dogs (and the humans too), and good, clear explanations. We’ll be back tomorrow, can’t wait.

I was too engaged to get a photo of Willie or Maggie while working, but here’s Jess, a young dog of a friend working in a small pen with Derek. Lovely little dog.

jess faces sheep 2

The ewe in the front turned and challenged Jess, and she turned and gave it right back. The ewe took one look at her and turned away. Very brave for a young dog. Good girl!

jess faces sheep

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What Do “Dog Walkers” Need to Know? Tue, 09 Jun 2015 01:37:57 +0000 Dog walkers do not show up on my radar very often, living as I do on a farm in the country. Jim and I are the dog walkers, and we like it that way. However, I am also aware how very lucky we are to have the time and the logistics to be able to take our dogs on long walks. Certainly I’ve worked long hours–I’ve seen many a twelve-hour day in my time–but I always had the luxury of working close enough to run home to let out dogs or to bring them to my office. There have been some days, especially when I taught at UW-Madison, that I had to ask a friend to take my dogs out (thank you Harriet!), but those days were relatively rare.

Nor have I seen a lot of clients as an animal behaviorist who came to me because they wanted to be a dog walker and wanted to know how to get started. But when a friend mentioned the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy, I started wondering: What does a dog dog@tecwalker need to know? And what would I need to know if I had to hire one?

Before answering those questions, it is worth thinking about whether hiring a dog walker is a good idea. I talked to Aimee Moore at Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, WI, whose business now includes a dog walking service. (Full disclosure: This is the training and consulting business I began in 1988, and sold 7 years ago to Aimee, then the Training Director.). She told me that many of their dog walking clients began with their pups in puppy class, and then realized that their work schedules didn’t allow them to give their young dogs enough exercise and stimulation to keep them healthy and happy. Other clients have dogs who aren’t suited to day care, and do much better with individual attention. Day care can be a great solution for some dogs and their owners, but they are not for every dog (or every pocketbook) by any means. (Here’s an article I wrote about whether Doggy Day Care is right for your dog.)

There is no question that dog walkers give people who are gone much of the day the ability to own dogs, and can provide dogs with the exercise stimulation they need before their owners get home from work. But who are these dog walkers, anyway? What are their qualifications?

Before I did some interviews, I spent some time looking at websites for dog walking businesses around the country, checking out the qualifications of their walkers. So far, the qualifications I’ve found in the “About Us” sections have been limited to some version of “Our dog walkers love dogs! They really, really do!” Well, that’s a great start. However, I love medicine and am fascinated by surgery, but I would advise you not to hand me your dog and ask me to spay her.  The experience listed often seems to be circular: “All of our dog walkers have experience walking dogs!” Some don’t even say that. One site stated that all dog walkers had prior experience around dogs, sometimes limited to having owned one. Apologies to the general world of dog owners, but I would no more hand my dogs to someone just because they owned a dog once in their life than I would let them do a spay surgery because they’d seen one done once.

What then, do dog walkers need to know, and what do you need to know about a dog walking business before hiring them? First and foremost, said Aimee Moore reasonably enough, they need to be reliable and trustworthy. A hundred percent reliable. Dog walkers work independently–who is to know if they don’t “come to work” one day? Who is to know if they rummage around in your private papers while you are busy at work? Argh, what a thought. So yes, reliable and trustworthy surely is criteria number one.

Aimee next mentioned that the people she hires must be able to make good decisions. Quickly. No question about that. What if three loose dogs come sprinting out of a yard toward the dog you are walking? There’s not a lot of time to make a decision about what to do, right? Matt and Kelly Elvin, good friends and owners of TipTopTails Dog Training in Grand Junction, MI, agreed. But they pointed out that making good decisions is based on knowledge, the knowledge of how best to handle the multitude of potential crisis that can come up when out in public with a dog.  You can’t make good, quick decisions if you don’t already have a plan in mind. For example, if three loose dogs come running at yours, would you 1) Drop the leashes and run like a frightened bunny? 2) Throw a handful of treats hard and fast at the dog’s faces and carefully walk away while the dogs are busy snarfing up the treats? or 3) Yell as loudly as you can at the owner, demanding that they stop their dogs? Obviously option 2) is the best one, (click here for a video illustrating this method) but how many “dog lovers” have trained themselves to do that when they don’t have a second to think about it?

Everyone I talked to also agreed that yes, of course the dog walkers need to love dogs, but far less obvious is the importance of dogs loving them. We are talking about people who will walk into a dog’s home, owner absent, snap a leash on a dog they may have met only once, and expect the dog to follow into the great outdoors. This means that the walker simply has to have the kind of personality that attracts dogs like bears to honey. What could be more important than having a dog walker who makes dogs all gooey and melty? We all know people like that; they may or may not be the best trainers, but dogs go out of their way to stand beside them. You can’t test for this on an exam on the internet, but I’d never release my dog to someone unless I knew there was a blatant love affair going on.

However, you can’t ignore the importance of training. Surely dog walkers have to be able to read dogs. How else would they know that their charge isn’t comfortable when a young child asks to pet the dog? (Which a dog walker should never allow in the first place, right?) How else would they know that Chester’s tongue flicks are telling the walker to wait a few minutes before attaching the leash?

What about the walker’s knowledge of dog behavior and how dogs learn? Is your dog walker going to jerk the leash when your pup barks excitedly at another dog? If so, your pup just might be learning that the sight of other dogs leads to pain, and the barks may turn to aggressive ones rather than ones born of excitement. As Matt Elvin mentioned, in some cases dog walkers have as much or even more influence on a young dog than the owners. Do you want your dog to be trained by someone who believe that dogs need to be dominated to be polite?

What about the business itself? What are their policies? Do they required a minimum number of walks per week? Are they going to walk your dog by herself, or in a group?  What kind of first aid training have they had? If they have to transport your dog, how do they do that? Will the dog be loose in the car? (I am told quite a few are… ). Are they insured? (Who gets sued if your dog bites someone when she’s being walked by someone else?)

This brings up another interesting issue related to dog walkers: the business itself as an expanding field. On the one hand, it’s a great field for people to get into: it requires little capital to get started and can be a perfect job for dog lovers who want to work part or full time. On the other hand, it appears that the internet is full of Uber-like businesses, in which you can hire a dog walker off of a website, sight unseen. With no knowledge of their experience, whether they are insured or bonded, etc. Did you get unexpectedly busy at work? No problem! Hop on line and find someone close to your home who could pop over and let out your dog. Eeeps. Don’t do it.

The business of Dog Walking obviously fills a growing market, just like Dog Training has in the last few decades. This is all well and good, but I would argue that it needs to be seen as a profession–with trained, knowledgeable people who know as much about your dog and her behavior as a plumber knows about your pipes.

What about you? Have you ever been a dog walker? Hired one for your dogs? I’d love to hear your experiences. I also would like to thank Aimee Moore, and Kelly Elvin &  Matt Elvin for taking the time to talk. Their thoughts and suggestions were invaluable. Thanks too to dog@tec for letting me borrow the black and white photo taken by Rikke Jorgensen. It takes a pack.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Busy busy, but in wonderful ways. Jim is working for hours every day on the platform for the tent camp we are creating in the Upper Orchard Pasture. The tent we’ve ordered (from Colorado Yurt Company) is expected in early August. I’m working the sheepdogs, moving the flocks (“lamb flock” versus “no lamb flock”) to best utilize the pastures, and working on my perennial gardens. Meanwhile, the cats watch us go about our business with apparent amusement. Here’s Nellie, captured on the wall by friend and kick butt photographer, Rob Streiffer.

Nellie on Wall Sm Rob

Below is the small perennial garden by the side of the house. Later in the year it will contain blooming New England Aster, Bee Balm and Joe Pye Weed, a native prairie plant that butterflies adore. It’ll be nice then too, but I think it’s prettiest when the peonies are blooming. (Of course, I never show you the messy, dirty places with sloppy piles of pulled weeds, dirty shoes and overflowing bags of compost. Suffice it to say that I would like to live in a place like Buchart Gardens, where all the guts of the operation are hidden. But I don’t. Maybe on one blog I’ll show photos of the messy garage and the disorganized “gardening center” (also known as a carport). Think of it as my version of a reality show. But until then, here are some pretty flowers.

Side Per Garden 6-15

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Why Do Dogs Roll in Disgusting Stuff? Mon, 01 Jun 2015 23:17:58 +0000 Why do dogs roll in disgusting stuff? Ah, but of course, it’s not disgusting to them, right? But oh, the things with which dogs anoint themselves are usually awful to us humans, even with our lousy sense of smell. Here’s what I wrote about it in The Other End of the Leash:

“If you haven’t smelled a dog who’s rolled in fox feces, then your life is slightly better than mine, because it’s a horrible smell, skunky and repulsive, and it clings to dog fur like a burr.”

But why DO dogs roll in strong smelling scents? And why choose the scents that they do? Why not roll in mint or lavender or, for that matter, old food cartons left on the sidewalk? First, let’s look together at the guesses about why dogs roll in the first place.

One suggestion is that they aren’t trying to get the scent on themselves, they are trying to get their scent onto the smelly stuff on the ground. This idea makes little sense to me, since dogs usestinky zeke aperature  urine and feces to scent mark just about everything and anything. Why bother with the milder scent of a shoulder or the ruff around one’s neck when you’ve got urine to use? (Tulip, the sheep guarding Great Pyrenees, used to urinate AS she was eating her dinner, most likely because the sheep tried to eat her food.)

Another hypothesis is that that dogs roll to camouflage their own scent, all the better to sneak up to prey. Stanley Coren, author of many books on dog behavior, suggested that this idea has merit, in that it would be adaptive if canids could fool their prey by pretending to smell like them. I’m skeptical here too. First off, most prey animals are highly visual, and use sight and sound to be on the alert for predators. It’s not that they can’t use their noses, but their noses are dependent on wind direction and so sight and sound are often more important. (That’s why hoofed animals have eyes on the side of their head, the better to see you with Mr. Wolf, if you are sneaking up from behind. It’s also why deer and other prey animals have huge ears that swivel around like mobile satellite dishes.) In addition, if a prey animal’s sensory ability is good enough to use scent as a primary sense for predator detection, surely they could still smell the scent of dog through the coating of yuck. Neither does this explain the intense desire of dogs to roll in fox poop.

It has also been suggested that, like bees bringing back information about food sources to the hive, canids covered in stinky stuff are informing their pack members of something important, or at least interesting. Pat Goodman of Wolf Park once experimented by placing different scents in the wolf enclosure, and found that the wolves rolled in the usual stinky poopy stuff, as well as perfume, a fish sandwich with tartar sauce, and the dog repellent Halt!. Pat noted that several times other wolves followed the scent back to its origin, after smelling it on the fur of the roller himself. Given the highly social nature of wolves, the idea that scent rolling might be a way of returning information to the pack  has merit. As I mentioned earlier, even bees learn about food sources by smelling it on the bodies of their sisters, so it seems reasonable that this could be a way of conveying interesting information in a mammalian species.

Another theory, as I describe in the chapter “Planet Smell” in The Other End of the Leash, is the “guy-with-a-gold-chain” hypothesis. Perhaps dogs roll in stinky stuff because it makes them more attractive to other dogs. “Look at me! I have dead fish in my territory! Am I not cool?!” Behavioral ecology reminds us that much of animal IMG_0894behavior is related to coping with limited resources–from food to mates to good nesting sites. If a dog can advertise to other dogs that they live in an area with lots of dead things, then to a dog, what could be better?

But maybe dogs are like us, and use strong smells  for two reasons, the same way in which we use perfume. Perfume or aftershave is used not just to make us more attractive to others, but also because we like the smell too. It seems to make us feel good. Perhaps dogs are using strong smells both to attract others and to self-perfume themselves. It’s not like they can go to the counter at the department store, or order on line after all. Stanley Coren likes this idea too, and penned my favorite line of all time about the issue in Psychology Today: “Therefore, I believe that the real reason that canines roll in obnoxious smelling organic manner is simply an expression of the same misbegotten sense of aesthetics that causes human beings to wear overly loud and colorful Hawaiian shirts.”  Ta Da Boom.

But another related question: Why roll in what they roll in? What’s the attraction? The range of items seems to be large (I’d love to hear your examples), but the underlying theme seems to be things that have very strong smells. Dead fish. Fox poop. Lots of animals do what is called self-annointing, like this hedgehog, often involves feces and urine. Some animals seem use the scent as a repellent, others use it as an attraction, or even a pheromone to change the behavior of others. Male goats urinate on their own chins during mating season; an advertisement that even we humans can’t miss if we are within half a mile. But in all cases, the scent is strong, strong, strong. “The better to make you notice me, my dear.”

Here’s what we do know: Dogs are programmed to roll in the strongest smelling stuff right before you have company. Or have to leave right away, and are all dressed up. Guaranteed. I have had dogs roll right before twenty-some people were coming for a $1,000 a couple fund raiser that Jim and I put on for Wisconsin Public Radio for years. Jim and I spent weeks preparing–we donated everything: tables outside with white table cloths, flowers, lamb BBQ and food I’d cooked for days on end–all to help raise money for public radio. We took the dogs outside for one last pee before the guests arrived, and you guessed it, within seconds, Border Collie Pip threw herself onto the grass in a microsecond and ground fox poop into her shoulder.

I expect many of you out there have your own story about the “worst possible time” for a dog to roll in something disgusting. Send them in. Best one wins a prize!

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Speaking of parties, we had a lovely party this weekend to celebrate my retirement from teaching “The Biology and Philosophy of Human-Animal Relationships” at UW-Madison. I’ve taught the class for twenty-five years, and although it I’ll miss the students and delving into the complicated and often contradictory aspects of the HA relationship, it felt like it was time. I have a lot of wonderful memories of teaching the class, and still hear from students who are scattered across the globe doing wonderful things. (Write in and say hi if you are one of them, no matter what you are doing right now!)

Here’s one of my favorite photographs from the party, of me and my major professor and now dear friend, Jeff Baylis, who is the one who first got me interested in sheep dogs to begin with. Needless to say, I owe him a lot, and loved being able to talk about the “early years” together. Thanks to Robert Streiffer (philosopher and photographer extraordinaire) who took the photo.

Jeff Baylis and me  Retirement party 5-2015

Also wonderful was having three remarkable young women who acted as Teaching Assistants for the course over the years: Vera Pfeiffer, Meghan Fitzgerald and Peggy Boone.  They made the course extra special and it was wonderful to see three “generations” of biologists all together.

I did a lot of cooking for the party–here’s a photo of my favorite appetizer. They are ridiculously easy to make (just google Apple Roses), although I varied the recipe and used herbed goat cheese to make them savory. While I was passing those around, Jim grilled the lamb burgers; Yum Yum to the chef.


Thanks to everyone who came, and made it a very special day.

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Can Your Dog “Smell” Your Emotions? Mon, 18 May 2015 22:43:47 +0000 As often happens, a study on human behavior got me wondering about how it might relate to our relationship with our dogs. The study in question asked if emotions could be conveyed through body odor. The researchers asked 12 men with pads in their arm pits to watch videos that designed to elicit fear, happiness or a neutral reaction. After confirming that the videos did indeed influence the men’s emotional states (the fearful videos induced “negative emotions” and happy ones elicited “positive emotions”), the pads taken from their arm pits were then presented to women. (Insert bad joke here about what emotion the smell of a man’s arm pits would elicit automatically.)

An analysis of the women’s facial expressions found that the “happy sweat” induced more activity in facial muscles related to happiness (the Duchenne smile). On the other hand, their medial frontalis muscles, associated with a fearful expression, were more active after “fearful sweat.” That’s an impressive finding that suggests a kind of “emotional contagion” based on the sense of smell alone. However, the women did not score as expected on a task that objectively measures internal emotions (rating Chinese symbols as happy or sad), which does not support the “emotional contagion” hypothesis. The authors speculate that there might be different responses based on whether language is involved or not (not for the facial expressions, yes for the symbol analysis).

Either way, we know that people are far better at responding to scents than we imagine. In the chapter “Planet Smell” in  The Other End of the Leash I explain that women can tell whether clothing had been worn by a man or a woman, identify the smell of their own infants, and discern whether something had been worn by a child, an adolescent or an adult. Impressive.

If we can do that, it seems reasonable that dogs could be able to detect changes in our emotional states relatively easily. You’d think we’d have at least some research that attempts to answer this question, but if it’s out there, neither I nor my colleagues can W scents handfind it. (If you know of any, please fill us in.) There are many people in the world who work scent detection dogs who know far, far more about this topic than I, so I turned to expert colleagues who work with scent detection dogs. Susannah Charleson (Scent of the Missing) and Cat Warren (What the Dog Knows) have a vast range of experience with working scent detection dogs, so I asked them what they thought.

Susannah answered that her Search and Rescue dog Puzzle behaves differently when approaching a person she has been searching, depending on the victim’s state at the time. Long before she makes visual contact, Puzzle approaches people who are in pain, fearful or despondent quietly, even “puppy belly-crawling” toward them. On the other hand, if she has found training volunteers who are calm or excited, Puzzle is all perky and prancy as she approaches. Once Susannah and Puzzle found a lost and very drunken gentlemen who was happily gazing up at the stars, and Puzzle approached as happily as the lost man seemed to be himself.

Cat Warren, who works cadaver dogs (usually called HR dogs for “human remains” I believe), knows a lot of Law Enforcement dog trainers, and tells me that many handlers believe that dogs can distinguish people who are in a high state of fear or arousal just based on their scent. (Which sometimes results in the dogs circling back and targeting a cop who is probably as aroused as the guy being chased!) Apparently there is even speculation that bomb sniffing dogs are not just searching for the scent of bomb-making materials, but for the nervous sweat deposited on the bombs by the people who made them. (We’re talking about home-made bombs here.)

To take things even further, apparently some handlers of dogs taught to search out human remains believe that their dogs can tell and indicate if the person died by natural causes or because of some kind of violent trauma. Cat and Susannah label this as “woo woo nonsense,” and I have to admit it seems equally far fetched to me.

These questions are important to those of us with companion dogs, because of the profound impact our own emotional state can have on dogs. Of course, there is no profit in us trying to pretend to be happy if we’re not, but it does raise some interesting issues related to how our own internal state effects that of our dogs. So many possible implications: If we’re afraid another dog will surprise our dog-dog reactive dog, how much does that influence our dog’s behavior? (Even if they can’t see or hear us.) What about therapy dogs? (I use that term loosely to include dogs who do all kinds of Animal Assisted Interventions.) My colleagues and I at Pet Pals talk about how tired our dogs are after just an hour interaction with patients, and their families, at American Family Children’s Hospital. Could it be in part that they are picking up on stress, not just through voice and movements, but through smell? Given the abilities of a dog’s nose, it seems likely that they are picking up on an entire world that we are often unaware of.

What do you think? Can you think of any event in which you felt confident that a dog was responded to the emotional state of a person only through smell? As usual, I will love reading what you have to say. I spend so much time thinking about visual and auditory clues that I have much to learn about scent discrimination, so send in your experiences and we’ll all learn from it.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Weed, plant new plants, work dogs, check on lambs. Weed, plant new plants, work dogs, check on lambs. Do not rinse, but repeat relentlessly. Besides the obvious interludes of work (how dare it interfere!), cooking and taking care of the rest of life, that’s pretty much what is going on at the farm. In other words, I’m in heaven, even though I am barely able to move at night.

Four of our five lambs are thriving, as you can see in this photo. That’s Lady Baa Baa in the front with her twins, (with her mouth open, yelling at me to give her grain), her mom Lady Godiva in the back with her huge single ewe lamb, and yearling Pepper with her little single male nursing away.

4 lambs 5-15

However, things are not so good with Cupcake, who finally had a single male lamb last week. All seemed to be going well, but a few days later Cupcake’s udder has hardened. There is little doubt that it is what’s called “hard bag, caused by a nasty, untreatable virus. She is giving some milk, but not much, so we have taught her little guy to drink out of a bottle. Cupcake gets regular sessions of warm, wet compresses and lots of massaging with mint udder cream (smells great!). It’s such a shame, because Cupcake is a wonderful, attentive mother, and her lamb sticks beside her as if they were leashed together.

Cupcake & Lamb 5-2015

We discovered the problem right after I took the photo above, and the poor things are stuck in the barn now, because we need to treat her at least three times a day. Hopefully they’ll be out on the spring grass again soon. Cross your hooves for her.

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I wish my dog knew. . . Tue, 12 May 2015 00:58:49 +0000 I recently happened upon a news story that grabbed my heart, about Denver teacher, Kyle Schwartz, who asked her students to complete the sentence: “I wish my teacher knew…”. Some of the answers are funny, and some will break your heart, like: “I wish my teacher knew sometimes my reading log isn’t signed because my mom is not around a lot.” The project was so compelling that it went viral on the Twitterverse, (#Iwishmyteacherknew).  Which led to an outpouring of answers from students all around the country. (“… that the reason I talk and laugh a lot in class is because school is really the only place I can be happy.”)

This project reminds me of the book PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, initiated by Frank Warren for a community art project. Frank received more than a million postcards from all over the world, full of heart rending confessions, desires and regrets. Seems we all have something inside that we are afraid to say out loud.

You know where I’m going here, don’t you? After thinking about these projects, I began to think about what I wish my dogs knew. If only I could tell them.

Here are a few of mine; I very much look forward to reading yours:

I wish Tootsie knew that I’d give her more food if it wasn’t important to keep her from getting fat.

I wish Maggie knew that she doesn’t need to worry about dogs she has never met, because once she’s met them she always loves them and they have so much fun playing together.

I wish Tootsie knew that sleeping on my head makes my lungs unhappy.

will by barn 2:10I wish Willie knew that I am sorry that I am not the perfect owner for him because sometimes I raise my voice when I am tired and frustrated and the computer isn’t working and I know that he hates it if I yell out nasty words even though they are not directed toward him and I know he wishes that I never spoke in anything but a benevolent quiet voice and I wish I could always be that perfect, quiet person for him because I love him so very, very much.

What do you wish your dog knew…?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We are in lamb heaven, with lambs leaping straight up like popped popcorn kernels. We even call it “popcorn play,” because they leap up vertically from a stand, then twist their bodies and run sideways. Adorable. Three ewes have lambed (one set of twins, two singles) and Cupcake is overdue. Waaaay over due. I’m considering calling the vet. Or just having a martini.

Along with a Mother’s Day visit with his mom, Jim and I spent a heavenly weekend on the farm. Of course, we could barely get out of bed this morning, because we both worked like field hands pretty much sun up to sun down. Jim on fencing, me on gardening, working the dogs and managing the lambs. I swear I did so much digging, pulling and hauling of heavy things that I did it in my sleep last night. But, ah, the rewards! Here are some of the tulips from the little garden over Tulip’s grave. Oh my I love spring flowers!

Tulip's tulips 2015

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Spring Photo Album Mon, 04 May 2015 14:47:41 +0000 It’s all from the farm today: Lambs! Finally! Lady Baa Baa had two healthy, little ewe lambs last week. Yearling Pepper had an all white, frisky male Saturday night. I thought of last week’s post about the healing powers of oxytocin while I watched them frolic this morning. I wish everyone could start their day watching lambs play; if they could I suspect the world would be a better place.

Here is Lady Baa Baa and her two adorsable lambs. (No, that’s not a typo. There’s something about the non-word “adors-able” that fits with baby lambs.) Was I not writing about the power of oxytocin just last week?

LBB & lambs 5-1-15

Willie and Maggie got in a lot of sheep work this weekend. Here Willie stalks up to the flock to get them moving toward me. I love seeing the sheep with the sky as the background.

W brings flock 5-1-15

USZ May 2015On Saturday the University of Wisconsin Undergraduate Society came out to meet the lambs and watch the dogs work.     I love spending time with these energetic young students. I am sure that Jim and I had more fun than they did.

Sunday morning was all about Puppy Up! Madison. Amazing! What an outpouring of love and support. Being there was something special for sure. A dedicated group of hard-working people (including the amazingmob scene at P Up 2015 Beth V) raised a miraculous $121,694! Thanks to friends, Facebook and people like you, I managed to go over my initial goal of $3,000 and contribute $4,380 toward the goal. Wow. Humbling.

Tootsie at P Up 2015

We brought Tootsie, shown here greeting some other Cavaliers at the beginning of the walk. We didn’t bring either of the BCs: A bit too much stimuli for Willie and definitely a no go for Maggie–she would have had a melt down.

Too bad though for Willie–one of his favorite humans in the entire world was there–Courtney Arnoldy, his miracle-producing physical therapist who helped us through over 12 months of rehab after courtney at Puppy UP! 2015his shoulder surgery. I am sure that he never could live the life he does if it hadn’t been for Courtney and his surgeon, Dr. Susan Schaefer. That’s Courtney on the left, with her dog Roscoe and her husband, whose name I can’t remember, because I can remember dog’s names but not people’s. Sigh.

And finally, what spring weekend wouldn’t be complete without some serious gardening? Lots of that, including transplanting Dutchman’s Breeches (a native ephemeral wildflower) from a friend’s woods. Most of the gardening included the unglamorous job of hacking away at raspberries and grape vines attempting to swallow my plum trees like a slow motion frog on a fly, but there was plenty of time to savor the beauty of our tulips. I do love tulips so… no wonder there were wars over them in times past.


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The Healing Look of Love? Tue, 28 Apr 2015 15:32:45 +0000 Years ago I did a personal growth workshop (The Hoffman Process: Amazing!) in which we were asked to look into another person’s eyes for minutes at a time. Our “partner” was someone we had just met. At first it felt downright awkward, as you can imagine, but after a bit (30 seconds?), each of us began to feel a sense of overwhelming warmth and empathy for someone who was essentially a stranger.

sunny“Mutual gazing,” as it is called, is a well-known social phenomenon which acts to bond mother to child, and partner to partner in romantic relationships. Indeed, one can evaluate the level of maternal bonding by measuring the length of mutual gazing, and predict the amount of gazing based on maternal oxytocin levels. Gazing and oxytocin levels appear to exist in a “positive loop,” in which gazing increases oxytocin, and oxytocin increases gazing.

You know where I’m going here… We already know that something similar applies to gazes between people and their dogs. In 2009 I wrote about some interesting research from Nagasawa’s lab which found that oxytocin increases as gaze length between a person and a dog increases. They’ve followed up on this work by looking at oxytocin levels after “long” or “short” gazes in both people, dogs and wolves, and administering oxytocin to dogs to see if it increased gaze length. You can read a summary of the work in the New York Times.

The primary findings were that 1) oxytocin increased in both people and dogs who engaged in “long gazes” with one another and showed high levels of touching, 2) that was not true of interactions between people and their hand-reared wolves, or even people and dogs in the “short gaze” category, and 3) spraying oxytocin into the noses of female dogs increased the amount of time they made prolonged eye contact with their owners, but that was not true for male dogs.

None of us are surprised about the results with wolves, given that we already know that wolves look to and at humans at much lower rates than domestic dogs.  However, it is especially interesting that although gazing and touch correlated with oxytocin levels, the duration of gazing appeared to be the factor that drove the increase in oxytocin, not touch. I would have guessed the opposite. It’s also interesting that only T W Smile smallfemale dogs increased gaze time after the application of nasal oxytocin, not males. The NYT article suggests that male “vigilance” might account for this result, but I wondered if it might have more to do with higher baseline levels of oxytocin in female mammals. A close read of the published article in Science suggests just that: That either females are more sensitive to exogenous oxytocin, or perhaps other physiological differences between males and females might apply.

The timing of the news article was serendipitous, because it came out just as I was leaving for a two-day workshop at the National Institute of Child Health and Development on Animal Assisted Interventions (often called Animal Assisted Therapy) but AAI includes both focused therapy and more casual interactions like hospital visits) and Special Populations, or people suffering from PTSD, Autism or ADHD). It was a fascinating two days, in which we focused on state-of-the-artresearch on AAI –what do we know now, and what’s needed in the future? Particularly relevant to this article was a talk by Dr. Andrea Beetz, about possible mechanisms which would explain the therapeutic effects of AAI. She reviewed the literature that has found that oxytocin, in the right dosage, can increase the sense of well-being, increase social interactions, elevate mood, decrease the perception of pain, etc. etc. No wonder it’s my favorite drug.

But she also discussed Attachment Theory, Biophilia (ie, Wilson’s hypothesis that humans have an innate love of animals and nature itself), that animals focus attention (and thus might help people w/ ADHD) and distract people from pain and the feelings of fear. There was lots more to her talk, and several other excellent talks summarizing positive effects of equine and canine AAI for children on the Austism spectrum and those with ADHD.

Here is perhaps the most important set of questions that emerged from the workshop: What is it about animals that creates these positive effects (and increase in oxytocin)? Could you replicate it without real animals? (I myself feel a generalized resistance to that, but think about it: What if you could get the same effect with stuffed Oxytocin3danimals and provide this help to far more patients?) What is the minimum “effective dose?” What conditions are most helped with AAI? Beetz suggested that conditions that involve “insecure attachment” (trust issues in people with PTSD for example) and those needing help concentrating, dealing with pain, social stress or fear. Lots of questions to be asked and answered; it’s inspiring that so many great people are working on it.

My question for you, based on the work published in Science: Do you engage in long “mutual gazing” sessions with your dog? I would guess that it varies greatly, from person to person, from dog to dog. I look into my dog’s eyes a lot, but I have to admit I doubt that it lasts 100 seconds at a time. My dogs often look at me for long periods, but I’ve always thought they were looking for information about what I’m about to do next or where the next dog treat is coming from. You? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

MEANWHILE back on the farm: Eeeps! Crazy busy. I was gone almost a week, first to Toronto and then to Washington D.C. for the NICHD workshop. Meanwhile, spring is busting out all over, tons of gardening to do, and lambs due any minute. Lady Baa Baa is driving me crazy, I was sure she’d have her lambs last night at the latest. Dogs need lots of work on sheep, house is a mess, company coming, 100 papers to grade… you get the idea.

But I’m making myself take time to smell the flowers. Or enjoy them, as I did these cherry blossoms outside of D.C. last week. I loved the contrast of the soft, frilly flowers and the hard, shiny lines of the building in the background.

Cherry Blossoms 2 DC 2015
We’re not so far along with spring here in Wisconsin, but Polly enjoyed the weather this weekend, perched on a post overlooking the orchard pasture.

Polly on Post 4-15

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