Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Beware the Bucket

Recent Research has shown that dogs won't ask you for treats if you have a bucket on your head.

Image result for bucket on head
Why would anyone have a bucket on her head?.

I've never put a bucket on my head, before, but in the interests of scientific inquiry, I found a not-too-dirty bucket in the garage, dumped the spiders out, put it on my head, and went to find Caitlin.

My research immediately showed that it's difficult to navigate with a bucket on your head. It's also difficult to find anything--let alone your dog--when you can't see, 
Caitlin in Bed
I was pretty sure she was in the bedroom, so I felt my way along the walls until I got there. Caitlin gave a surprised "Woof!" and jumped backward off the bed.

I peeked out from under the bucket, just enough that she could see it was me. She leaped backwards again with another little "Woof!" 

I took the bucket off my head. She stared at me--"Woof! Are you out of your mind?! Woof!"

When I put the bucket back on, she woofed and jumped backward again. 
I was thinking about wearing the bucket to the dog park, but
     1. I'd look silly..
     2. Other people might think I looked silly.
     3. The dogs might think I looked silly.
Besides, treats aren't allowed in the dog park, so I wouldn't be able to test the research anyway.

To be fair to the scientists, their research was not really about buckets. They were trying to answer the question: "Will a dog solicit treats from someone who can't see him?"
dog dogs pet pets mind read communication social cues theory of mind Udell
Where are the buckets mentioned in the study?
Their answer was "no." The dogs did not go to people who had their backs turned. They didn't go to people who were reading or talking on their phones.

And they didn't go to people who had buckets on their heads.

Not even if those were the people who had the treats.

They didn't have Caitlin among their test subjects, or I think their conclusions might have been different.

Caitlin doesn't solicit treats (which aren't allowed in the dog park, anyway) but she does solicit people to kick her soccer ball for her. If she sees someone who has been co-operative in the past, she tries that person first. But if that doesn't work, she makes the rounds of the park, dropping the ball near each prospect.

If they look her way, she locks onto their eyes with hers--the border collie's classic sheep-intimidation tactic. Often, that's enough to command their obedience. If it isn't, she gives them a sharp, shrill bark and glares at them.

If she can't get the person to co-operate after several tries, she moves on to someone else, and then someone else until she finds one to do her bidding.

She goes up to people who have their backs turned, who are busy playing with their own dogs, who are reading or talking on the phone or changing their baby's diapers. She is relentless, persistent, and almost impossible to ignore. 

I once saw a man actually leave his own dog in the small dog section and come to kick balls for Caitlin in the big dog section. One of my friends kept count for a while of the people she had "trained," but quit counting after 150 people.

Caitlin has never approached anyone with a bucket on his head. But, then, as far as I know, there has never been anyone with a bucket on his head in the park.

None of the dogs in the study approached anyone that they thought couldn't see them, 
However, there were some wolves in the study, and they did.

Now there's a scary thought.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Does Your Dog Really Understand You?

Yesterday, Caitlin and I were in the family room. Rob was in the kitchen making coffee, when he suddenly bellowed, "SHIT!"

I didn't investigate because  Rob's kitchen disasters are usually deemed to be my fault. I left something teetering where it was certain to come crashing down, or where it was obvious that he would hit it with his elbow--and I didn't want to initiate a discussion about it.

Caitlin was clearly thinking along the same lines. She sat so hard and fast, it must have hurt her bottom, and looked up at me with a confused expression, as if to ask, "What did I do wrong?"

I didn't notice which way Caitlin was looking when she obeyed Rob's "command," but according to a recent study at Sussex University, she should have been looking to the left, indicating that the right hemisphere of her brain had responded to the tone of Rob's voice.. Both dogs and humans, apparently process the emotional content of speech with the right hemisphere.

Do you want to go to the park? Mango Doucleff, of San Francisco, responds to her favorite command by perking up her ears and tilting her head.
He listens for emotion with his left ear and meaning with his right ear.
Caitlin and I spent quite a bit of time on potty training when she was a puppy. Once, when she was about 4 months old, she followed me into the bathroom. I chattily informed her, "This is where I go potty."

She promptly squatted, and peed on the carpet. This time, if the study is right, she would have been looking to the right, showing that her left hemisphere had responded to the meaning of my words. I didn't notice which way she was looking. I was too busy silently bellowing "SHIT!

Careful what you say. Your dog is listening/
Neurobiologist Attila Andics doesn't think there's much evidence that dogs actually understand our meaning.

Dogs were good therapists even before we knew this
Every dog owner could tell him that there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that they get more than we expect.

About 20 years ago, the bane of my life was a tomcat named McGee. He belonged to a neighbor, but he'd been born at out house and claimed our property as part of his territory. Almost daily, he'd sneak into the house and spray the walls and furniture, and I'd have to crawl around sniffing the walls trying to find the pee. I was complaining about him one day to a friend. When I said his name, our Staffordshire terrier, Ben, started barking and charging around the room, apparently hunting for the cat. I was amazed. I had no recollection of talking about McGee in front of him, and had no idea that he knew the cat's name. But a little further investigation proved conclusively that he did.

Ben would have had personal reasons to remember McGee. A month or so earlier, Ben had poked his nose into a laundry basket where McGee, unbeknownst to any of us, was sleeping, and had his nose slashed. Ever since then, he approached laundry baskets with great caution, always jerking his head back as soon as his nose got within striking distance. Also, McGee liked to taunt Ben from the back yard, meowing loudly, then sauntering across the garden as Ben hurtled through the dog flap, springing lightly to the top of the fence at the very last second.

Of course, once our boys realized that Ben knew McGee's name, they made his life a misery, shouting out, "McGee, Ben! McGee!" whenever the mood struck them, and laughing uproariously as Ben raced into the back yard.

In a study that I'll write about tomorrow, it was found that dogs quickly learn to quit taking cues from people who have proved untrustworthy. But Ben never did. 
Image result for charlie brown football
Charlie Brown never learned, either.
Dogs can attain an impressively large vocabulary. Chaser, a border collie is famous for knowing over 1000 words. She understands both nouns and verbs and has a fair understanding of syntax. Her owner has spent over five hours a day training her. But Dr.Brian Hare, founder of the Dognition Project at Duke University, thinks most dogs could do as well. He has developed a series of games to play with your dog that are designed to help you discover your own dog's unique genius as well as his personal learning style.

Dogs love us They pay close attention to us, and we now know that they have specialized brain cells that allow them to empathize with people and to learn from them by watching what they do. According to  Dr. Gregory Burns they also have a "theory of mind," something that until recently only humans and (possibly) the great apes were thought to possess.

In other words, they know we can think, and they think they know what we're thinking.

We'd better watch out.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Robot Funerals Are Going to the Dogs

Aibo, the robotic dog, is terminated.
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"Aibo" is a homonym of a Japanese word for "pal."
He was launched with great fanfare in 1999, selling for about $1000. He could see, hear, respond to commands in Japanese, English, and Spanish. He was able to learn, able to express his "emotions" and even to lift his leg while making what one owner described as "an indescribably beautiful tinkling sound," something which, as far as I know, has never been said about the sound of a flesh-and-blood dog's peeing.

Image result for robocup osaka 2005
Aibos competing in the 2005 Robocup held in Osaka
About 150,000 Aibos have been sold. But in 2006, Sony stopped making them  In 2014 the company stopped repairing them, and now, as spare parts become unavailable, many of them are "dying."
Image result for robot dog funeral
This Aibo is still alive & feeling playful
In Japan, many Aibos who can no longer be repaired are being given funerals, with a priest presiding over the same ceremony that would be held for a dead pet, a prayer being said for the release of its spirit.
Image result for robot dog funeral
A Buddhist priest conducts a funeral for 19 robotic dogs in January
After the funeral, the robotic dog may become an "organ donor" for other Aibos in need of repair.
A-Fun supervisor Hiroshi Funabashi (L) puts the Sony's pet robot AIBOs on the altar, prior to the robots' funeral at the Kofuku-ji temple in Isumi, Japan's Chiba prefecture ©Toshifumi Kitamura (AFP)
A "dead" Aibo is placed on the altar prior to its funeral
My husband thinks this is something that would only happen in Japan.
Not so.
Americans (and maybe others) serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, mourned and often held funerals for their robots who were "killed" in action. In 2013, a MARCbot named Boomer was given a send-off with full military honors, including a 21-gun-salute. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his "heroism."
The Sad Story of a Real Life R2-D2 Who Saved Countless Human Lives and Died
This pak-bot was named Scooby Doo
Human beings are not the only animals that can grieve. Koko, the gorilla who became famous for learning to express herself with sign language, grieved over her first loss, a kitten that she had selected and named. More recently, she grieved over the death of Robin Williams, one of the many humans for whom she felt friendship.
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Koko and her kitten, All Ball (She named him herself)
As dog owners, we know that dogs can feel grief, both for the loss of their owners and for the loss of dog companions. Sometimes, they grieve for years.
Bailey refused to leave his owner's grave for 10 years.
Personally, I think that any animal capable of feeling love can also feel grief.

But we may be the only animal that could mourn for a robot. I agree with Andrew Brown, who wrote in The Guardian a few days ago that "to mourn a robotic dog is to be truly human."

We are probably the only animals who can identify ourselves with almost anything: It doesn't matter whether it's a person, an animal, a robot, a fictional character, or even a concept. We can make it a part of ourselves; we can feel its pain; and we can grieve for its loss.

We can cry for our own lost pets and for pets we never knew (My husband and I both cried when reading One Dog At A Time about dogs in Afghanistan) We can cry for fictional pets like Old Yeller. And we can cry for any one or any thing that matters to us.

We grieve because we love. What we love--what we identify as part of ourselves--we will care for and protect to the best of our ability. That's a good and hopeful sign for the future.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Smiley, The Blind Therapy Dog

Smiley is in the news a lot right now. I've found dozens of articles about him without even looking.

The beginning of his story is a sad one. As the product of a puppy mill, he was practically guaranteed to have health problems, And he did. Not only was he born without eyes, but his physical proportions were wrong. His chances of survival were pretty slim.
He, along with 10 other puppies, was rescued in 2004 by Joanne George, who was a veterinary technician at the time, and is now a professional dog trainer near Toronto.
Joanne George and Friends
This is what she has to say about him on her website:
 "Smiley came to me in 2004 - he was about  1 or 2 years of age and had been born without eyes.   He had lived his life in the puppy mill where he had been born.   He was extremely destructive and had zero housetraining.  He was nervous and had many anxieties about coming into a home.  He cowered at the sound of another dog eating - the scars on his face and ears told me the stories of what it was like living with so many dogs in such deplorable conditions.  
Smiley was the one who changed my way of training.  He did not know one verbal command - I communicated only through my energy to him.  He did not see my body language - he used his nose and his keen sense of hearing to get around.  His best teacher was Tyler - a young, boisterous partially deaf Great Dane.  Life was grand to Tyler - and soon enough that rubbed onto Smiley.  Whatever energy you give off ... your dog picks up on it.  
Smiley now accompanies me to clients homes to assist in certain cases.   He is certainly inspirational to everyone he meets including Cesar Millan - Smiley joined Cesar onstage at 3 of his live performances.  He continues to tell Smiley's story at all of his shows across the world - and the message is "it doesn't matter where,  or how a dog starts off his life - he is able to overcome and become a stable, happy dog" ... for dogs do not dwell on the past - they only live in this moment.  

Smiley is now a certified therapy dog. He works mainly with children, especially those who have disabilities of their own
Image result for therapy dog smiley and children
Helping a child to read
I feel inspired just by reading about her, Smiley, and the many children she has helped with her volunteer work.