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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's Not A Pack; it's a Family

The human-dog bond is universal. This is my dad, about 80 years ago, with his best friend Ruby, an Airedale.
Tucker sleeps all night in a crate at the foot of our bed. When I open the crate door in the morning, it would seem obvious that he would come charging out, ready to face the day. Yet he lingers, stretches, and falls back to sleep, quite content to stay in the crate, even though Jasper and Lilah are standing in front, wagging their doggy butts off, so they can give him a morning greeting. And often, during the day, Tucker will climb into his crate in the dining room, curl up and go to sleep. Yet when he first came to live with us, it was a completely different story; when I invited him to sleep in the crate, closed it and left the house, he went nuts and dug like crazy to get out.

Every day when I walk the dogs, I work with both Jasper and Tucker to be calm when they see another dog. We've made progress, but apparently Jasper remembers every house where he's encountered another pup, and begins to whine as we walk by--even if there's no dog there at the moment. On a walk the other day, Jasper saw Two Rabbits in a yard. He was not allowed to chase those bunnies, but he Really Really Wanted to. I gave him the Leave It command, along with lots of treats, but he still wanted to go after those long-eared varmints. Of course I didn't let him. On our next walk two days later, he whined as we walked past The Bunny Yard. There are no dogs in that yard. And we only saw rabbits that one time.

On a recent weekend, we went to dinner in the city for a birthday celebration. My son Aaron brought home a couple of helium balloons. Lilah took one look at these strange items that floated and backed away, looking very concerned. I brought a balloon down to dog nose level, and encouraged her to Touch It With Your Nose, which she did, accompanied by a long slow wary wag. She got treats for Being Brave. But later, as she walked down the hallway past the balloons, she gave them a wide berth. 

What were they thinking? What is going on in those doggy brains? I can't tell you how many times I've wondered that. In search of a few answers, I found Dog Sense, a book by John Bradshaw, that gave me an entirely new perspective on the wonderful creatures with whom I share my home and life. Bradshaw summarizes tons of in-depth research about canis familiaris in a way that even the non-scientist can appreciate.  He explores the evolution of our beloved pets, and writes about dozens of studies that give us non-canines a few glimpses into the minds of these fascinating animals.
Here is some of what I learned:

I’m the Mommy
It turns out that the thinking about domestic dogs in terms of a pack structure was based on faulty research into the way American wolves behave in captivity or stressed circumstances. Our current dogs probably didn’t evolve from these wolves, but instead from early ancestors of the Timber Wolf in Europe. In studying these animals, who are more closely aligned to the domestic dog, researchers have found that the groups they form aren't really all about the alpha male and alpha female. Most groups are formed around a central pair: the parents of the rest of the animals in the group. Thus, those of us who refer to ourselves as our pets’ Mom or Dad are probably a little more on target than calling ourselves pack leaders.  I’ve always thought I was Lilah, Jasper and Tucker’s mommy (and Kelsey, Pasha and Rosie’s mom, too); now I’ve given myself permission to say so in public. 
Rosie and Mommy
It’s all about time
Dogs have a very different sense of time. Very. Different. Think about it; if you have dogs, you know this already. When I leave the house, and then realize I forgot something (please don’t ask my family how often that happens), I'll come back inside seconds after I left and the dogs will greet me like I’ve been gone for days. Perhaps weeks. That’s one of the reasons so many dogs have separation anxiety; they don’t know that you’ll ever, ever come back.  
You're leaving us?
This was Tucker's issue; at first, when we left him home in his crate, he was so anxious that he’d dig up his blankets and make a terrible stinky mess (I’ll spare you the details.) We’ve been practicing leaving and coming right back and giving him treats—and he’s gotten much, much better: no more messes. He can stay in his crate comfortably for a good 3 hours while we're gone. 
Tucker, quite comfortable, in his crate.
Jasper, who isn't crated while I'm gone (because he doesn't chew everything in sight like his brother), still misses his Mommy (that’s me), and pines while I'm away, but doesn't act out. He has a special Waiting for Mommy spot where he lays, sighing every now and again. According to Bradshaw, studies show that even if dogs are left with other dogs for company, they still experience separation anxiety when their humans have left then alone. The strength of the human-dog bond can be more intense than that between dogs.
Jasper in his Waiting for Mommy Spot by the back door.
Tune In and Turn On
Bradshaw believes that dogs and people have co-evolved, and one of the results is that dogs are uniquely tuned in to humans. They are the only species whose members routinely look into our eyes. They understand when we point to something to look away toward it, or to look at what we are looking at. They learn our vocabulary. If you have dogs, you will sometimes think they can read your mind. 
Lilah looks like she's about to say something profound. I'm sure she'd have so much to say, if I could only understand her.
Most often, it is because dogs watch everything, and are alert to all kinds of nonverbal cues that tell them what is going on—not just your activities (I’m picking up a leash so it must be time to Go For a Walk), but also the smells and subtle changes and movements that speak loudly to dogs. If I do anything out of the ordinary, the dogs will notice--and react. Just the other day, I started a new exercise routine that required me to lie on my back on the floor and lift some weights. All three dogs came running to investigate this unusual behavior. I thought the dogs were going to lick me down to the bone. “Mommy isn’t acting right! She’s on the floor! She’s doing something funny with her arms.” Tucker laid down right on top of me. “There will be no more of that!” So much for my goal of Michelle Obama arms.

Tucker keeps an eye out for unusual activities.
We Don’t Know Nothin’
We’ve only begun to understand these awesome creatures. We really don’t know how they think or exactly how they feel. But after reading Bradshaw’s book, I feel honored—and I use that word on purpose—that these animals have chosen to share their lives with us. All of my dogs—and those that came before them—have given me a gift by allowing me to get to know them and love them. I look at them differently now, wishing I could tell them in their language how I feel. I guess some belly rubs, a good game of Ball, a Nice Long Walk and a Cookie or two will be the best I can do for now.
Jasper, Tucker and Lilah on duty; Mommy has left the building.

If you’d like to know more…
The book is called Dog Sense. The author, John Bradshaw, appeared on The Colbert Report and was interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air. He was also mentioned in a great story by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker magazine, where Gopnik writes about a Havanese that joined a non-dog-loving family and made true believers out of them.

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