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Ample data show dogs and other animals remember the past and plan for the future
A few days ago a colleague asked me if I'd seen an essay called "Dogs Don't Remember," published by Dr. Ira Hyman. I hadn't, and then, as I was doing an interview, a similar question about mental time travel by animals came up so I decided to pen a few comments about Dr. Hyman's claims that "Dogs don't remember what happened yesterday and don't plan for tomorrow" and "Even if they can't describe their memories,chimps may engage in mental time travel. My dogs, however, are stuck in an eternal present."
In his essay, Dr. Hyman also writes, "If I walk into the backyard, the dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me for days. If I stay in the backyard, they quickly become bored with me. If I go inside and return after 10-15 minutes, my dogs are overjoyed to see me and act like they haven't seen me in days. They don't remember that I was in the backyard just a few minutes ago."
I don't see that dogs or other nonhuman animals (animals) greeting a friend(s) after a short absence says much about whether or not they remember that an individual(s) had just been there. Many animals engage in repeated and effusive greeting ceremonies when first seeing a friend and shortly thereafter. So too do humans.
What about future planning?
Given his interests in mental time travel, Dr. Hyman also writes, "Dogs don't plan for particular future events although they have a general expectation of when dinner will appear." He may be correct here. I don't know of any studies that show that dogs "plan for particular future events" but, for example, I have seen dogs and wild coyotes very cautiously approach an area where unfriendly individuals live and often have felt they were planning for possible combat. Nonetheless, I'll grant for now that it is difficult to differentiate planning for a particular event and having a general expectation that something might occur. However, I wouldn't be so sure that dogs don't do both until the proper studies are conducted.
Studies on nonhuman primates, birds, and other animals show, in fact, that they do remember the past and plan for the future. In an essay I wrote called "What Makes Us Uniquely Human?" that was concerned with mental time travel, I noted that the prominent primatologists Christophe and Hedwige Boesch-Ackerman wrote in their book The Chimpanzees of the Tai Forest that "A hunting chimpanzee 'not only has to anticipate the direction in which the prey will flee (recorded as a half anticipation), but also the speed of the prey so as to synchronize his movements to reach the correct height in the tree before the prey enters it (recorded as a full anticipation) . ... We also recorded a double anticipation when a hunter not only anticipates the actions of the prey, but also the effect the action of other chimpanzees will have on the future movements of the colobus, that is he does not anticipate what he sees (the escaping colobus), but how a future chimpanzee tactic will further influence the escaping monkeys." And, even birds remember the past and plan for the future (see, for example, "Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?" and for numerous examples of more recent research on a wide variety of animals please see).
There's no evidence that dogs are stuck in "an eternal present"
So, all in all, unless others and I are missing something, dogs do remember yesterday. If Dr. Hyman literally means by "yesterday" the preceding day—24 hours ago—perhaps he's correct. To the best of my knowledge, no animals other than humans look at or wear watches or use calendars. However, it doesn't seem that Dr. Hyman literally means yesterday, but rather, more generally, "the past," given the example he uses about dogs greeting him repeatedly even if he's only been absent for a short while.
There are many examples of dogs and other animals "remembering yesterday." Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused and who suffer from severe fear or depression for years on end, and also, for example, think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned in various sorts of learning experiments, and dogs who remember where they're fed and where they've cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on.
From an evolutionary point of view it would be somewhat odd and exceptional if mammals such as dogs and many other animals didn't remember yesterday and plan accordingly. Mental time travel truly is a very exciting field of research and I look forward to more studies that speak to the questions of how past experiences inform future behavior. And, as I mentioned above, there already are many detailed studies that show that mental time travel back to the past and ahead toward the future is not uniquely human.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
Find the perfect car for you and your pup
We use our vehicles for many things, often looking to them as an extension of our lifestyle and sometimes even a member of the family. Some people buy vehicles because they’re sporty, others because they’re rugged, and still others because they are good family haulers or get great fuel economy. Some of us, though, have a certain four-legged friend in mind when we purchase a vehicle.
For a vehicle to be considered dog-friendly, it needs several things. First, it should be large enough to accommodate most common breeds, whether it’s the smallest Chihuahua or the largest Saint Bernard. The vehicle should also be able to carry our canine friend safely and with plenty of room so that tails and tongues aren’t shoved into the front seat to distract us. Most will have enough room in the cargo area for a kennel, some will have wide doors to let Rover in and out easily, and most will be low enough that no one’s paws will get hurt jumping in and out once we’ve arrived.
All dogs are not created equal, of course, so we’ll split our choices into three groups according to canine lifestyle choices.
Some dogs love to swim, some enjoy hunting, some just like going outside and seeing the world. All outdoorsy dogs like to go places and do things, though, and many of those places might be beyond the pavement and out in nature. For the outdoorsy type, here are the best vehicles for their humans to own.
Subaru XV Crosstrek or Forester
(Subaru of America, Inc.)
Nothing says “lets go outside and play” like a Subaru. The relatively new XV Crosstrek is proving itself to be a popular choice, thanks to its right-sized nature and capable ruggedness. The XV Crosstrek has more ground clearance than the Impreza, but isn’t as big as the Subaru Outback. A hybrid option adds to the XV Crosstrek’s appeal.
The Subaru Forester is the long-lived and well-loved Subaru SUV, of course, with plenty of capability and a lot of interior space. It’s also very ergonomic both as a daily-use vehicle and a weekend getaway machine. Dogs will love the head room, big cargo area and roomy back seat.
Jeep Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, Wrangler
(Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
Any of the Jeep brand vehicles are probably a good fit for a dog. Popular choices are theCherokee, Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler. For those who love the outdoors and take their dogs along with them, it’s hard to see a Jeep as the wrong choice.
The Cherokee is a midsize crossover with good off-road capability and plenty of interior room for family, friends and canines. The Grand Cherokee is even larger and adds an air of refinement along with a little more ground clearance. The Wrangler, of course, is the iconic Jeep that can go anywhere, with or without a top, and is suitable for extreme explorers and their humans.
Nissan Frontier Pro-4X
(Nissan North America, Inc.)
As far as small pickup trucks go, there are no choices as off-road or adventure-ready as the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X. Coming standard with a large cab or crew cab (four-door) configuration, the Frontier has plenty of space for your furry friend. The rear bed and optional integrated tailgate extender are a wise choice, allowing you to bring plenty of supplies and an overnight crate for camping. The built-in roof rack just adds to this, of course, so maybe you can bring a tent for yourself as well.
Ram 1500 Outdoorsman
(Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
A full-size truck, the half-ton Ram 1500 is a great choice on its own, but the Outdoorsman model with the EcoDiesel engine, makes the 1500 fuel efficient and capable. With plenty of room in the cab and a big bed to fill with gear, the Ram 1500 Outdoorsman is a great “get there, do that” machine. The Ram Box storage system makes it even sweeter.
Refined, Upscale Bowsers
Blue ribbon holders, certificates of lineage and regular trips to the salon. These are things that appeal to more than just British royalty. Some canines prefer the good life and live it to the fullest. Exclusive dog parks, high-rent fire hydrants and food spooned into porcelain are the expectation. For dogs like this, the delivery chariot must be as refined and well-bred as they are.
Lexus RX 450h
(Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)
Here we’re talking luxury for luxury’s sake. The beautiful Lexus RX 450h is made to be refined, capable and efficient. The hybrid powertrain means fewer stops at the gas station and more time on the road. The plush, roomy interior has a large cargo area, an excellent back seat and more than enough room to stretch. Although capable on beach sand and dirt roads, the RX 450h doesn’t sit so high that mon chéri must look undignified getting in and out of the car.
(Porsche Cars North America, Inc.)
For the truly upscale canine, it’s hard to say no to a Porsche. TheMacan is a nicely sized crossover that has plenty of space and looks good. It also retains that signature Porsche driving experience. The understated beauty of this SUV will not eclipse the poodle exiting for the daily stop at the groomers either.
(Volvo Cars of North America)
The Volvo XC60 is a small, capable crossover with an upscale look, a beautiful interior and a back seat that has enough space to stretch out and be comfortable. There is a luxurious ride, a built-in kennel option for the rear cargo area and a panoramic sunroof option for cloud watching and stargazing.
Pack Cars for Family Dogs
Sometimes, it’s all about family. Dogs roam in packs and today, those pack mates might include other dogs, some humans, and perhaps the occasional cat. For the family-focused dog, a vehicle must have plenty of room and comfort to get everyone there safely. A third row is a must-have extra and a lot of cargo space is a given.
Chrysler Town & Country
(Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)
The best-selling minivan on the market, the Chrysler Town & Country offers comfort, style and aplomb. This “Cadillac of minivans” can accommodate even large packs of humans and families of dogs.
(The Ford Motor Company)
For those who want the size and space a minivan offers, but need the ability to traverse snow, dirt roads, and other obstacles where all-wheel drive and a little ground clearance are a good thing, there’s the big Ford Flex. This crossover has a huge third row, plenty of cargo room and a big, wide interior that allows both dogs and humans to really stretch out and get comfy.
(Mazda North American Operations)
If a minivan with its capabilities is a necessity, but fuel economy and price tag are a concern, theMazda5 delivers. This “right-sized” minivan has a small third row, plenty of cargo room and that signature Mazda “Zoom-Zoom.” Sliding doors and a sleek look add to the appeal, and the Mazda5 has plenty of space for a dog and his friends.
There you have it, friends. The best choices for dogs on the move. Any car can, of course, become the ultimate canine driving machine, but the vehicles we’ve listed are inherently good at it as-is. Enjoy the ride and remember, sticking your head out the window is addictive, so do it in moderation.
This story was originally published by carfax.com. Reprinted with permission.
How The World's Worst Dog Became Our Shelter's Best Teacher
Eddie was not a particularly magnanimous little dog. While he was sweet and loving with people he knew, he was a snarling, snapping nightmare with children and other dogs. As he weighed less than ten pounds, it was a manageable situation but who would want to manage it? Making matters worse, he was a tan Chihuahua in an area up to its ears in tan Chihuahuas. If shelters in other states suffer from an overabundance of wonderful large black dogs, California has a Chihuahua overpopulation issue reminiscent of the “Tribble” episode of Star Trek.
After having Eddie in our care for two years we were at a total loss for how to find him a home. Facebook posts, adoption ads, offering free training - nothing worked. Stymied, our Adoptions, Behavior and Marketing teams sat down to a situation room conference and came up with a drastic idea: complete honesty. We wrote a no holds bar blog about why you probably didn’t want to adopt Eddie, crafted a satirical press release noting the same, produced a couple jarring videos, and made some memes to distribute through various marketing channels.
It went completely viral. Our phone lines jammed and the media turned out in force to talk about little Eddie. America embraced Eddie. To say this was a huge learning experience for us at Humane Society Silicon Valley would be an understatement. After two weeks of near bedlam, Eddie was comfortably ensconced in a new home and our staff was older - and much wiser - than we used to be. Three big lessons stuck out from our crash course in unconventional marketing.
1) Everyone owns an Eddie. As the Eddie blog scampered it’s way around the internet on fleet little paws, we heard a resounding chorus of one sentence: “He’s just like my dog!”. While we may strive for perfection in ourselves, people are unfailingly willing to embrace imperfection in their companion animals. As a society, our love of the dogs we share our lives with far outweighs our need for control and order. While statistics have always borne out the fact that the reason dogs wind up in shelters has more to do with changes in the owners lifestyle, Eddie’s raging popularity - and the surfeit of people that stepped up to meet him - showed us anecdotally that we accept our dogs, warts and all.
2) Inform, don’t restrict. In deciding to go the route of radical honesty, we also decided to trust as well. Too often shelters deal with difficult animals by restricting the adopters - no kids, adult only, experienced homes. By doing that, we drastically cut down the number of options for animals already at a disadvantage for finding homes. We also forget a vital fact: most of us didn’t come to dog ownership as experts. None of us were born conversant in the lingo of behavior theory and versed in positive reinforcement training. It was a relationship with a dog that encouraged us to seek out information - to learn and grow. Even the most expert pet professionals usually came to their career through the very simple act of loving an animal. By frankly presenting Eddie’s problems and removing his restrictions, we allowed for the possibility of that transformative relationship, allowed his potential adopters to make an informed decision about what they were capable of. And they did.
3) You don’t need to write a horror story to make people care. Noticeably absent from all of the media we did about Eddie was one simple thing: his rather unremarkable history. Eddie wasn’t a victim of abuse or neglect - he was simply an under socialized dog who got loose and was a bit too much for his owners to handle. Too often in shelter marketing, we make the mistake of thinking that we need to return to the same narrative of good versus evil. If there’s one thing we learned from Eddie the Terrible, it’s that people are more complex - and their hearts are larger than we anticipated.
Eddie forced us to reevaluate how we approach more challenging animals that enter our doors and how we interact with potential adopters.
And perhaps these are lessons that can save more lives.
Enjoying the snow with our pets can be fun, but dangerous.
As an avid snowboarder, there's nothing that I would love more than to share my favorite winter hobby with my dogs. I'm captivated by ski patrol canines that help rescue people trapped in avalanches and dogs that run alongside people cruising down in the backcountry. But the sharp edges on skis and snowboards that let us carve into icy slopes also make it potentially dangerous for our four legged companions.
Avid backcountry skiers Don and Polly Triplat regularly take their dogs Scarlet and Brodie with them in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Normally they're careful to separate the dogs from the ski party as each person tears down the mountain, but accidents can happen in a split second.
Earlier this month the couple was skiing with friends, when Scarlet darted in front of a friend just as he was starting his descent. Scarlet managed to get caught in his ski causing a tumble that left the skier unharmed but left the poor pup with a deep gash in her front leg. The wound was so serious that it sliced through her skin, muscle, and artery to the bone, resulting in an injury that could result in fatal blood loss.
Fortunately the Triplats are trained in wilderness first aid and were able to calmly assess the situation and make a plan of action. Don quickly clamped Scarlet's artery to the bone and created a tourniquet with gauze and duct tape to stop the bleeding. Then Don carried Scarlet on his shoulders as he descended the mountain, while friends helped. One skied ahead to break trail, creating an easier path, and another raced ahead to reposition their car to the nearest place they could reach the road.
Since the accident, the Triplats have stopped taking their dogs on backcountry downhill trips and have opted for including them on tamer cross country skiing excursions. They were fortunate to have the training necessary for a successful outcome, but the couple wants to warn other skiers to be aware that taking a dog skiing is a big responsibility.
This story makes me think of the rescue of Missy in Colorado. It shows how important it is to be prepared for an emergency when taking your dog into the backcountry, whether it's skiing, hiking, or boating. Always bring first aid supplies (and know how to use them!) and have a plan for how to carry your dog to safety (when hiking, I always bring a backpack large enough to carry my dog if necessary).
Do you ski or snowboard with your pups?
Researchers look at how our personality affects pet care.
There's a lot of joking today about “helicopter parents” who are too overbearing with their kids. It may not be the best way to raise children, but what about pets? Two researchers at UC Berkeley and California State University are collaborating on a study that will look at personality and attachment style, how we relate to others, and whether it can predict better pet care.
In the first part of their research, Mikel Delgado and Gretchen Reevy surveyed more than 1,000 pet lovers across the country. They found that those who expressed the greatest affection for their pets were also rated among the most conscientious and neurotic. While these may be bad characteristics for human parents, it may work better for pets, who will never be independent. Cat lovers tended to score high on anxious attachment, meaning they tend to need more reassurance from their pets. Both dog and cat lovers scored low on avoidant attachment, suggesting that they enjoy close relationships with their pets.
This was the first study to combine principles of human attachment theory to pet people's personality types. Next Mikel and Gretchen plan to do further the research by investigating whether greater affection and anxious attachment is associated with better care and understanding of their pet's needs.
Rescued after 5 months during snowstorm
There is a great “silver lining” story from New York today about a lost dog reunion made possible, in a way, by the giant blizzard that never was. As we all know by now, the winter storm of the decade had little effect in that region (moving further up along the coast instead), but in preparing for it, a dog loving fire department lieutenant was able to trap the lost dog, a young Whippet named Burt, who had been lost for 5 months. Lieutenant David Kelly, 50, works 24-hour shifts out at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island, and had been leaving food out for the skinny, shy dog for more than three weeks. He had also been urging other fire department workers to leave food for the lost pup. Kelly has two rescue dogs at home so he is no stranger to the power of dog love, so he had decided that what with the huge storm coming, that it was time to step up his effort to catch the dog. You just gotta love it that he also thought to check for missing dogs of Burt’s type (Whippet or Greyhound) in the NYC area and found that the owner, Lauren Piccolo, had dedicated a Facebook page to her lost pup. On Monday night Kelly brought a crate from home, baited it with dog food, attached a lanyard to it, and waited. Shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Burt approached, grabbed for the food and Kelly was able to quickly close the crate door. Burt and Piccolo were soon reunited, and their story has become an instant sensation! Hats off to Lieutenant David Kelly—the hero of the hour—and welcome home Burt.
I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year when the short days and dreary weather begin get a little old, so this video couldn’t have hit my e-mail inbox at a better time—it is the perfect wintertime attitude adjustment. Leave it to the dogs to remind us that life is always fun, even with a bite in the air and snow on the ground!
Seattle pup is a public transportation regular.
My dogs are always ready to go, running in circles while I put on my shoes, grab my jacket, and throw poop bags into my backpack. I imagine they wonder why it takes so long to leave the house. But not all dogs are so patient. One pup in Seattle became tired of waiting and took matters into her own paws.
Jeff Young and his Black Labrador mix, Eclipse, live next to the bus stop that takes them to the local dog park. Sometimes Jeff isn't finished smoking his cigarette when the bus arrives, so Eclipse started boarding the bus by herself and exiting a few stops later. Jeff then gets on the next one and meets her at the dog park.
The two year old pup soon became a regular on the bus, with riders looking out for her each day. Eclipse remained a local legend until Seattle radio host Miles Montgomery launched her into web infamy. He was riding the bus when suddenly Eclipse jumped into the seat next to him, then got off at her stop. Miles was so surprised that he took a selfie and posted it on Twitter. Soon the picture went viral and Eclipse's bus rides were famous.
In pet friendly Seattle, dogs are allowed to ride buses on leash, at the discretion of the driver. But no one seems to mind the well behaved Eclipse. I'm a little concerned that she's wandering off on her own, but perhaps Jeff should ditch the cigarettes and accompany Eclipse to the park on the first bus!
I’ve got the ‘dog play’ bug, arguably one of the better winter bugs to have. I recently covered which toys dogs prefer (the answer: new ones, although old ones can be reinvigorated), as well as the unfortunate finding that when a dog’s not “playing right,” it could be you, not them. But toys and people are only part of play. I haven’t said anything yet about the huge topic of dog-dog play!
Fear not! Enter a new study on dog-dog play published just this month inBehavioural Processes as part of an open access Special Canine Behavior Issue. The study focuses on a particular behavior that you’ve probably seen countless times — rolling onto the back during play. The scientists came to a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion, and if you’re like the people I hear chatting at the dog park, you might not be spot on about what it means.
Before we get to the new study, investigating what behaviors mean during dog-dog play is not new. For example, you’ve probably heard of play signals that help clarify play from not play. Play signals help say something like, “Hey, when I just bit you in the face, I didn’t mean it like I’M BITING YOU IN THE FACE. It was just for fun. See! Here’s a play bow for additional clarity. All fun here!” Play signals — like exaggerated, bouncy movements, or presenting a “play face” — start or maintain play, and they occur around potentially ambiguous behaviors — like a bite, tackle, or mount — or anything that might be misconstrued as ‘not playing.’ Play signals reinforce, “Woohoo! We’re not fighting! We’re playing!”
But not all behaviors that appear during dog-dog play are as well studied. Here to demonstrate today’s play behavior of interest is Theodore, or Teo for short. Prior to bringing his play skills to an international audience (he has his own Facebook page,Pibbling with Theodore), Teo was one of 367 dogs rescued from the second largest, multi-state dog fighting bust back in 2013. He currently lives a very different life alongside his four-legged siblings and Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Loehr Animal Behavior in Weaverville, North Carolina. Teo enjoys playing, making art with household items, and recycling.
Without further ado, Theodore in a video of slow-motion play with his “sister,” Lili (and Lili is making the slow-mo dinosaur noises).
Theodore shows many excellent play behaviors, but it’s ‘rolling onto the back’ that’s the focus of a new study by Kerri Norman and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge and University of South Africa. Their question is something you may have wondered yourself: when a dog rolls onto his or her back during play, what does it mean? Is it an indication of submission akin to a person tapping out or screaming “Uncle,” or is it instead “a combat maneuver adopted as part of an ongoing play sequence”?
Rolling onto one’s back is classically seen as a submissive gesture that “curtails active aggression.” Passive submission describes an individual voluntarily or “spontaneously [rolling] onto its back.” In a classic 1967 paper in American Zoologist, Rudolf Schenkel describes passive submission as “[expressing] some kind of timidity and helplessness.” Like coming out with your hands up or waving a white flag, passive submission is thought to prevent aggression.
Some have suggested that the rollover is still about ‘preventing aggression’ even when performed during dog-dog play. Owners observing playing dogs from the sidelines often take this a step further — the dog spending more time on its back is labeled ‘submissive’ or ‘subordinate’ while the dog on the top is ‘dominant.’ These labels often fit with a person’s worldview about dogs and asymmetries in relationships.
What if rolling over means something different when it’s during play? Norman and colleagues set out to investigate the meaning and function of rollovers during play. They wanted to know whether “rolling over onto the back and adopting a supine position” is an “act of submission” and serves to hinder subsequent aggression, or is instead, “executed tactically, for combat purposes” to solicit play, avoid a play bite (defensive maneuver), or deliver a play bite (offensive maneuver).
The researchers collected data on dog-dog play in two different contexts: staged play sessions where a medium-sized female dog was paired with 33 new play partners of various breeds and sizes, and 20 YouTube videos where two dogs played together — with half the videos including similarly sized dogs and the other half including dogs of different relative sizes.
Why the roll?
For dogs who did roll over, what did it mean? The researchers examined all instances of rolling over to see whether they were associated with submission — decreasing play, remaining passive, or being performed by the “smaller or weaker” partner — or were instead associated with the interactive, combative nature of play, where roll overs preceded “launching an attack (offensive), evading a nape bite (defensive), rolling in front of a potential partner (solicitation) or rolling over in a non-social context (other).”
The findings are stark: the smaller of the two play partners was not more likely to rollover than the larger dog. Additionally, “most rollovers were defensive and none of the 248 rollovers was submissive.” Here is a figure for you visualizers out there:
But once on their backs, maybe this is where submission kicks in? For example, a dog could go on his back to avoid a neck bite and then lay motionless, suggestive of passive submission. But that’s not what the dogs did. The researchers report, “no dog rolled over in response to an approach or aggressive action by the partner and did not remain passive in its back.” Instead, like you saw in the video of Theodore, the Playing Wonderdog, once on their backs, dogs in the supine position both blocked and launched bites at their partner.
What does this mean?
1.13.2015, 9:00 PM Updates
I am happy that so many people are discussing this study! Here are a few more important points about rolling over and dog play:
1) When two dogs are playing, rollovers most often facilitate play. For example, a dog on its back often engages in playful sparring with another dog, delivering or avoiding neck bites, or engaging in open-mouth lunges. The researchers in the above study found that the majority of in-play rollovers were part of play fighting (meaning the ‘fighting’ was itself playful, not real fighting). The important takeaway is that rolling over during play is about play, it is NOT about ‘aggression’ as this Daily Mail headline incorrectly states.
2) Another way to think about rolling over in play is as a self-handicapping behavior because it helps dogs of different sizes or sociabilities play together. Self-handicapping is instrumental to play, and it implies that a dog is tempering his or her behavior in some way. For example, during play, dogs do not deliver bites at full force, and a larger dog might roll over to allow a smaller dog to jump on or mouth him. In Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz describes the behavior: “Some of the largest dogs regularly flop themselves on the ground, revealing their bellies for their smaller playmates to maul for a while—what I called a self-takedown.” The researchers in the above study note that “some of the present data indicate that the bigger dog is more likely to [rollover].” Self-takedowns can be a type of self-handicapping behavior that promote play.
This post is reprinted with permission and originally appeared on Scientific American.
One of the most shared recent articles in the New York Times was one about a “wrong dog” and how the op-ed blogger felt she was wronged by agreeing to adopt a young dog from a rescue group. I was going to write about this but then our good friend, and former Bark science editor, Mark Derr, wrote a great post for Psychology Today that brought up all the points, and then some, that I had wanted to make. He kindly allowed us to cross post his article:
The New York Times ran a opinion piece on Saturday, December 13, by Erica-Lynn Huberty on the trauma caused when a well-meaning young couple bring a sweet young rescue dog into their home who turns into a cat-killing maniac. The essay, “The Wrong Dog,” serves as a sobering reminder that not all found dogs fit as seamlessly into their new homes as Arthur, the Ecuadoran stray who joined a team of Swedish adventure racers and traveled several hundred arduous kilometers with them last month. The team captain then sought and won permission to take him home to Sweden, and their story went viral.
Arthur’s story raised several questions in my mind: How frequently can dogs be said to choose their human companions, what criteria do they use, and what is their success rate? I have several friends who literally rescued dogs off the street, in one case the Brooklyn Bridge, and took them home to discover they had a friend for life.
Is it merely random chance that a dog and man or woman should meet and become instant friends? I think that both are choosing—the human to save a fellow creature in distress; the dog to find a loyal companion. Any dog dumped in the road would want that but be suspicious, too, I should think.
People I know with multiple dogs often have dogs dumped near them by neighbors who assume they will take the dog in. They do and if it doesn’t fit into their existing “pack,” they will find the dog a home. The private placements I know of have worked well—on occasion spectacularly. But dogs who go that route are the lucky exception among the abandoned millions.
The apparent ease with which human and dog share affection and respect casts light on why wolves and humans teamed up initially. Though the reasons remain mysterious, they clearly, I have long suspected, have to do with the ability of individuals from both species to form lasting bonds of friendship with someone other than their own kind and to do so voluntarily, as adults, as well as children and puppies.
Whatever mutations governing sociability occurred to make dogs, at least one must have involved fixing them as dominate in the dog genome—or so it appears.
But there are times human and dog don’t match up well, and unless something is done, the results can be tragic. Many of the failures in that relationship seem to arise from a lack of forethought on the part of the human, a fundamental failure to think through and find ways to meet the animal’s need for exercise, social contacts with people and dogs, consistent treatment and mental stimulation.
The central problem with Huberty’s essay lies in her argument that nothing short of ditching the dog when she first started acting oddly would have prevented the catastrophe that occurred. They would have done that had they known that some dogs are unfit for adoption, and no amount of training, discipline, or coddling will change that.
“We let ourselves believe that beneath our rescued puppy’s strange, erratic behavior was a good, loving pet,” Huberty writes. The truth was the opposite.
The back story is common enough. Having become smitten with a five-month old Lab mix, Huberty and her husband, decide to have her share their home with their three cats, a female dog, and two children.
From her arrival, the new dog, Nina, showed a defensive/possessive aggression that led Huberty to seek more information from the group who rescued her.
Huberty says that she and her husband followed the advice of Cesar Millan, “the Dog Whisperer” to create a “loving but disciplined environment.” Nina responded by attacking a cat and biting Huberty when she intervened.
In response, Huberty called the woman who gave them Nina. She agreed to pay for a trainer, who proved to be the anti-Millan. She advocated a rewards-based approach rather than “discipline.” The essay takes an odd turn here as Huberty calls the rewards-based method ‘coddling” while appearing to indicate that it was working up to a point.
Nina would go along being a normal, playful puppy. But at times, out of nowhere it seemed, she would snap at me or Alex and, once, at our son,” Huberty says, “She would suddenly cower and growl. It was like a switch flipped, yet we couldn’t figure out what had done it.”
Nor do they try to find out. Dogs do not usually change their behavior that rapidly and dramatically without reason. That could very well be an underlying pathology that a thorough examination by a veterinarian might reveal. Indeed, Huberty gives no indication that she ever took the dog to a veterinarian—the first stop a new dog or cat companion should make.
If no physical reason for the behavior can be found, the next stop is to consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. There are not many in the country but your veterinarian should help arrange a consultation.
Huberty blames the dog, the woman who gave her the dog, the trainer—everyone but herself and her husband—and Nina herself for her failure to fit seamlessly into Huberty’s home. From this experience, she draws the conclusion that some dogs are just unsuitable for living with humans. That might be the case but there is no proof of it here.
Maybe we should seek ways to allow more dogs to choose their human companions. I have a notion they would do a better job of it. “And when they don’t fit in they may be saying ‘wrong family,’” said my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff after reading “The Wrong Dog.” “Living with a dog is a two-way street and assigning unilateral blame gets us nowhere and once again leaves the dog out in the cold. This sort of ‘musical dogs’ is bad for the dog, as much research and common sense tell us.”
Nina might pay with her life for human miscalculations and failure to seek professional help.
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