TheOtherEndoftheLeash Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals. Mon, 27 Jul 2015 22:45:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What is a “Hard Eye” in a Dog? (And What Should You Do When You See One?) Mon, 27 Jul 2015 19:18:21 +0000 Little Nell, a fox-faced Border Collie, came to visit the farm over twenty-five years ago, when I was just getting started as a behaviorist. A sweetheart of a dog, she melted when petted and came when I called, eyes shining, radiating joy and exuberance. However, one day she didn’t respond when I called her. Her face was buried in the tall grass by the driveway and I could hear her snuffling at something under her nose. As I got closer, she turned her head toward me, and… I froze. I didn’t even know why at the time, it seemed to happen automatically, and too fast to consciously evaluate. And then I realized  that Nell’s eyes had gone “hard,” a look that people had been telling me about, but I had never seen.

“Watch out for it,” trainers and behaviorists with more experience than I had at the time had told me. “But what does a ‘hard eye’ look like?” I’d ask. “How will I know it when I see it?” When Nell came to visit I had just finished my degree in Zoology, and had been well trained in the importance of detailed and accurate observations. “What changes when an eye “goes hard” I’d ask? “What should I look for? Does the color change? The pupils constrict?”

“No, it’s not about the color or the pupil dilation or constriction,” they all said (although pupils changes can be important).  Everyone could tell me what is wasn’t, but not what it was. All anyone could say was “Their eyes go cold” or “You’ll know it when you see it.”

And I did, when Nell’s eyes turned icy and my body told me to stop reaching toward her. Since then, decades later, I’ve seen it far too many times, from dogs as large as ponies and as small as squirrels. I know now, too, why it’s so hard to describe. I’ve thought about this for years, and the only thing I can compare it to is one of those hyper-edited photographs, the kind you see in some magazines in which the”color saturation” and “resolution” was set on high, so that what you see doesn’t look quite real anymore. To me, those kind of photographs don’t look appealing, they look flat and strange, like some alien whose semi-human form looks chilling precisely because he is human-like, but then, isn’t.

The look is as hard to capture in a photograph as it is to describe. The dog below, a lovely little girl named Fly, is staring intently at Willie at the moment, the better to play “you move and I’ll smash into you! Won’t that be fun!” Her eyes have something of the quality of a “hard eye,” but not because she is challenging anyone, but because her stare is so intense.

fly stare

I’ve looked at other photographs in books under the “hard eye” description (Handelman’s excellent Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, for example), and none quite captures what you actually see in person. Handelman states that hard eyes are “squinty,” but I haven’t found that always to be true. Nor do I think the pupils always constrict. Actually, I think the only accurate description is that the eyes “go cold.” But how do eyes “go cold?” My major professor, Jeff Baylis, speculated that eyes go “hard” when the sympathetic nervous system engages and the eyes momentarily stop their usual “nystagmus.” Not the large, lateral movements associated with vestibular disease, but the microscopically small side-to-side movements that the eyes of all mammals do to help locate objects in front of them. This seems to be the best explanation I’ve heard so far.

Whatever causes them, “hard eyes” can be signs of trouble.  Big trouble. (And not just in dogs. Ever see it in a person? Scary.) Most trainers and behaviorists associate the look with the potential of aggression. I see it as a clear threat: “Continue doing what you are doing and there will be consequences.” In a few rare cases,  I suspect the message is “Make my day.”

How should we respond to a dog whose eyes have gone hard? Don’t faint, but I am not going to say “It Depends.” At one level, the answer is simple: “Change what you are doing.” If you are reaching toward an object that the dog is guarding, stop reaching. If you are trying to enter the house of friend who is on vacation and whose dog needs to be taken outside to potty, throw treats behind the dog before entering the house. Of course, exactly what you do next depends on many things–is it your dog, or someone else’s? When did it happen, and do you know why? After little Nell’s eye went hard over a treasure in the grass, I began conditioning her to enjoy it when I reached for something she wanted by associating it with food more wonderful than what she was guarding. (See here for information on treating resource guarding.) Willie’s eyes went hard on me once, just once, when I was toweling off his back legs. He was an adolescent, still fearful of other dogs, and highly reactive to noises, but a sweetheart to me. But when he was about 10 months old, I began toweling his butt and he turned his head to look at me as his eyes went a little hard and he growled, ever so quietly, under his breath. Because I knew him so well, my reaction was to laugh at him. “Oh Willie, don’t be silly, Willie-silly-billie-boy.” I did pause for a moment, then I teased him, and went right back to rubbing him down. That was the end of it. But I did change my behavior, even if briefly, and if there’s one thing that I think is important to do if a dog flashes you “the look,” it’s that. Change what you are doing.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of dog’s eyes go hard over the years. I’ve had the dogs of some clients turn to face me and knew instantly–or, at least, believed,  that they were clearly communicating that I had a choice: Continue doing what I was doing and get bitten, or change my behavior and avoid stitches. BUT, and this is an important qualifier, it is essential not to ignore the behavior. Any time a dog’s eyes go hard, it is important to note the context, and speculate about why the dog was threatening you.  Was it over a treasure? Then begin treatment for resource guarding. Was it about  a reach toward the head by a stranger? Then immediately implement both a safety-based management plan and treatment with classical and operant conditioning.

That’s been my strategy. 1) Change behavior in the moment. 2) Reflect on context, see if you can find a pattern and then a) manage to avoid it while b) using good conditioning exercises to take away the motivation. What about you?  Have you ever seen a dog’s eyes go hard? (I think this doesn’t happen at all in most pet dogs. I guarantee you that some dog’s eyes simply never go hard. I wish we had some research on how often it really happens, in what context, and by what kind of dog.) If you have, how did you react? I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm. It’s been so hot that I’m not working the dogs much on the sheep, just enough to move them from the barn to thei120px-Jbadultr pasture each day, then back down again in the late evening. I have been doing lots of gardening, which includes about an hour a day of picking Japanese beetles off of my plants and dropping them into soapy water. As much as I dislike the creatures, I have to admit I’ve enjoyed learning about them.

During the afternoon hours they seem to break into committee meetings, and I’ll find 10 or 20 on the same leaf, all the better to push them off into my awaiting bowl of soapy water. Willie and Maggie follow me around for a few minutes, and then decide whatever I’m doing is boring, and go off to entertain themselves. Often they’ll lie down in the shade and watch me. I do wonder what they are thinking!

Here are some of the plants I’m trying to protect. They make me happy every day, beetles or not.

Wall garden 7-26-15

]]> 99 Upcoming Talks. Wheeeee! Tue, 21 Jul 2015 02:04:14 +0000 Many of you know I’ve been holed up working on my memoir every morning for the last millennium, and thus haven’t done a lot of speaking. (Okay, maybe it’s not been that long.) The good news is that I am making progress on the book (actually, a “mutual memoir” about me and Willie). I finished a manuscript last December, and sent it out for review. Lots of insightful comments by some great writers and editors led to re-write that now keeps me busy from 8 am to noon. I’m about half done with that, having started again in June after finishing teaching at the university in late May. Cross your paws that this new version, once done sometime in late fall or early winter, will only need some tweaks. I’ll keeping working throughout 2015, but by the end of the year, I think I will have run out of stamina. I’m sending whatever I have to publishers by early 2016 at the latest, and hoping someone wants it!

The other good news is that I’ve got three enticing speaking engagements coming up. Here’s the list:

SEPT 9, 2015, ROCKFORD, IL   I’ll be speaking at the Swedish-American Hospital on the topic: The Power of Pets.  Here a description:

Join Trisha as she talks about the power of pets in our lives. Learn the biology behind why we love our dogs and cats so much, hear about recent studies that underscore the therapeutic value of our interactions with animals. Come help celebrate the love we have for our four-legged and feathered friends!

This topic is of special interest to me for so many reasons: Because I have Tootsie, a Pet Pals ‘therapy’ dog. And because there has been so much good research done recently on the effect of animals on wellness and psychology. And because, well, you’ll see when the memoir comes out.

SEPT 19TH & 20th, MADRID, SPAIN Yup! I’m coming to Spain, and I can’t express how excited I am about visiting this wonderful country. (Note to Spanish Chamber of Commerce: Does everyone who goes to Spain come back raving about it? That’s been my experience so far.) Jim and I will enjoy Spain as tourists for a few days, and then travel to Madrid for the following two talks:

Book launch! Spanish version of Love Has No Age Limit-Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home
6 PM Saturday, September 19th, Madrid, Spain
Barceló Castellana Norte, Avenida de Manoteras, 20 | 28050 Madrid
Sponsored by Dogalia

Hola! Come meet Patricia and join her in a discussion of the joys and challenges of bringing an adolescent or older dog into your home. Puppies are delightful, but older dogs, those who have lived in other homes, come already having learned a lot—sometimes good, sometimes not so good! Love Has No Age Limit is designed to help “the new dog” become the “best dog ever!” We’ll also talk about training methods, and the importance of using (and understanding) positive reinforcement as the best way to have a the relationship we most want with a happy and responsive dog.

A Casual Chat about Dogs and Dog Training with Patricia McConnell
10:30 AM Sunday, September 20th, Madrid, Spain
Barceló Castellana Norte, Avenida de Manoteras, 20 | 28050 Madrid
Sponsored by Dogalia

Come visit for an informal chat with Patricia McConnell, the subjects are up to you! She’ll be happy to take questions as broad ranging as “What have you seen is different regarding training here in Spain than in the U.S.?” to “Why Does My Dog Roll in Stinky Stuff?” This is a great chance for everyone who loves dogs, and who works with them professionally, to brain storm about canine behavior (not to mention the more difficult species—homo sapiens!). Bring along photos of your dog, Patricia would love to see them!

NOVEMBER 6th, WAUKESHA, WI  Trisha will be participating in The Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books in a panel discussion on pets and our relationship to them. Stay tuned for a specific time and place once the schedule is set. Hope to see you there, supporting animals in literature and great writing on any topic!

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Whew. Hot. Here’s what hot sheep looks like: Poor Cupcake was too hot to eat. Willie and I moved them back into the barn soon after, where there’s a fan and 2 sides are underground, so it is much cooler.

cupcake hot

A question for the village! Who knows what flower this is? The flowers are about the size of a dime, or a bit smaller. The plant has spread in one of my gardens, which is truly lovely, I’m happy to have it. But I never planted it, and have no idea what it is. Any guesses, oh botanical whizzes out there?

flower id last

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The Movie Max & Concerns about Breed Popularity Tue, 14 Jul 2015 18:07:32 +0000 As you may know, a movie about a military dog, Max, is getting a lot of attention. I just read a summary of the plot, which convinced me that I’ll be better off watching bad TV at home while rubbing my dogs’ bellies than going to see it. It might be a great movie, who knows, (although the reviews are not stellar), but in it Max the Malinois is brought back from Afghanistan after watching his handler be max_650-1shot and killed by another American soldier, later is chained and abandoned alone in a backyard, then severely injured fighting off two “bad guy” dogs. Next, he is accused of seriously biting a person, taken away by animal control to a pound, from which he escapes, and then… Enough. Sorry, I had a hard enough time watching the Border Collie in the movie Babe be wrongly accused of killing sheep. And that lasted about ten minutes. This is an entire movie.

But whether you find a dog in distress entertaining or not, movies do a lot more than provide a distracting, air conditioned environment on a hot day. Movies with dogs can have a significant effect on what kind of dog becomes popular with the public for as much as the next ten years. Research by Ghirlanda, Acerbi and Herzog found it was indeed true that that the breed of a dog in a popular movie movies affects breed choice. The authors went beyond looking for a correlation between a movie’s release and the breed’s popularity, given that a breed could be chosen for movie stardom because it is becoming more popular–a chicken and egg kind of problem. Rather, the researchers looked for a change in trends in breed popularity, a better marker of whether a movie influenced the public’s selection of what dog to get next, or not.

The authors found strong evidence that the breed of a dog in a popular movie had an effect on breed popularity. For example, registrations for Labrador retrievers increased at an average rate of 452/dogs/year in the 10 years before The Incredible Journey was released in 1963. But it increased at a rate of 2,223 dog/year in the ten years after.

It’s one thing to see a marked rise in the popularity of a retriever or a rough-coated collie, as happened after The Incredible Journey and Lassie Come Home. I think everyone in the field agrees, especially Malinois breeders, that the worst thing for this particular breed could be a surge in novice dog owners bringing home a Malinois puppy. The American Belgian Malinois Breed Club has a paragraph on their home page that doesn’t mince words. It includes: “This is NOT your Typical Pet Dog… If you are looking for a beautiful animal to just sit at home with you, or to be left to its own designs, do NOT choose a Malinois. These dogs are bred to be taught and assigned tasks, and then to perform them at the highest levels of their mental and physical capabilities. And underutilized dog is a frustrated dog. And a frustrated dog is not a good housemate.”

All good, but I remember the multitude of Border collies that ended up in the wrong home after the movie Babe came out. And this happened in spite of relentless warnings from breeders and experts that Border collies make lousy pets for most people. After Babe came out I saw a lot of clients who had bored, semi-crazy Border collies, and to a person, they said that they’d heard the warnings, and thought something like “It’ll be okay. I’ll be different.” The fact is, repeating a dog’s finest qualities (BC – smart, beautiful, responsive; Malinois – “highly intelligent, elegant, athletic & muscular”), and then saying “this dog is only for select people” is a great way to make someone want one. Just ask advertisers, who are well aware that “only for a select few” is inherently attractive to people and sells more of whatever they are offering.

Is there a way around this? I don’t know, but here, at least, is one idea taken from another context. For years I’d run into people who, when asked to stay a few feet away from a fearful and potentially aggressive dog would say “Oh, it’s okay! Dogs love me! I have a gift” (women) or “It’s okay, I’m not afraid of him,” (men). For years I’d swallow the impulse to say “But it’s not about you!”, and then position myself between them and the dog, mostly to protect the dog. But eventually I learned to do the following:

“Oh, thank you SO much,” I’d say before the person approaching could get too close to the dog. “I’m so grateful that you are clearly someone who understands dogs, and knows that getting too close would just set back our treatment plan. You know, I run into people all the time who just blunder up and scare the dog, rather than staying back and tossing the treats. I’m so glad that you are so knowledgeable about dog behavior!” No way is this person going to leave the select group of “dog experts” into which they’ve been elected, and become like “those other people” who don’t know enough to stay outside of a dog’s comfort zone during treatment.

Totally honest? No? Manipulative? Yes. But it helped a lot of dogs, and didn’t hurt anyone. Perhaps this is a useful tact to take when talking to a family with novice dog training skills who is considering getting a Malinois? “Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned the movie Max! Thank heaven’s you’re dog savy, and would never be one of those people who get a Malinois just because they saw one in a movie!”

That’s just one way to address the “dog breed in the movie” issue if it comes up in a conversation you are having. But surely there are lots of other alternatives that you’ve used over the years. I’d love to hear what you have to say if this this issue has come up? Or did you once get a breed of dog that, in hind sight, was perhaps not the wisest choice? (Can you spell “Saint Bernard puppy” and newly married 19 year old Trisha, about to move to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona?) Would anything have influenced you back then to change your mind?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, just back to the farm. The BCs, Jim and I spent a lovely weekend at some good friends’ cabin in the woods. Long walks on beautiful trails through the woods, watching damsel flies mating on the pond sedges, being scolded by a pair of yellowthroats for getting too close to their nest. We took two relaxing boat rides on Lake Michigan, during which everyone else did all the work because Jim and I, farmers of the soil and not mateys of the water, are pretty much worthless in a marine environment. We soon discovered it was best for everyone if we just stayed out of the way. But when one of the fishing lines dipped, our hosts graciously turned to Jim’s to haul it in.  We drove home with a 10 lb King Salmon in the cooler and had some of it for dinner Sunday night. Yummmm. A huge thanks to Barb and Don for being such wonderful hosts; we needed a break from farm work, and the weekend was exactly what the doctor ordered. Here is the cabin’s charming woodshed, built with the same materials as the cabin.

Woodshed at Beechwood

We returned home to Tootsie and some very hot sheep. They had actually dug holes in the ground (deep ones, seriously) so that they could lie in cooler earth. Maggie and I got them herded back to the cool of barn, which is half underground and has a fan. It’s cooled off a bit, thank heavens, but supposed to heat up again later in the week. Poor babies, no air conditioning for them.

Once home, the day lilies said hello. Lots and lots of them.

daylily 2 7-15

daylily 1 7-15

Very July 4th-y colors, if you ask me. They lilies will bloom for weeks, so our garden is going to be great fun for quite a while. Now, if it would just cool off a little bit…

]]> 60 “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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