Monday, 3 October 2011

Moving House

We have a good excuse for not posting for the last few weeks – we’ve moved house! After a lot of packing and unpacking, some painting and decorating and a bit of carpentry we are finally installed in our new, fabulous garden office: the new What Dogs Do HQ (still in South East London, UK).

Eddie and Cassie have had a few unsettled weeks, but have coped very well. We bought the new house from friends, who we actually know thanks to our dogs. We met them because they also have a greyhound, Bertie, and over the past year and some we have walked together, and often taken care of each other’s dogs. Eddie and Cassie know the house well, therefore, which on the whole has probably been an advantage. They immediately settled in their beds in the old study, which will eventually be our library, where they usually slept when staying with our friends, and where they will continue to sleep at night. I am hoping to install a wood-burning stove in there before winter, which will keep them warm and snug.

Nevertheless, they have been a little stressed and confused over the past two weeks, starting from when we were packing all our things in boxes in the old house. Their beloved routine was broken, both by our general business, and by the disappearance of their usual “landmarks” in the house. I am not sure if reappearance of our things in the new house reassured them or confused them more. For a few days they seemed quite perplexed, almost waiting to go “home” (as they usually did after staying in this house). But then again, we were all there, which was both strange and familiar, at the same time.

Although the first week wasn’t quite back to normal, we did establish the basics of routine – feeding, walking and bedtime – which allowed them to start feeling at home. However, a new element has been added, with a little challenge for the dogs. We now have our TV room upstairs, which we want them to join us in of an evening. Neither of them is keen on stairs, and haven’t previously encouraged them otherwise, as in the old house dogs did not go upstairs.

To help them overcome their awkwardness on stairs, I have tried to establish a routine that gives them a good reason to want to walk up: when we go to watch TV they get a yummy treat in their comfy beds upstairs. This seems to be working fairly well, and they certainly expect the treat now. Cassie rushes up, even though she is clearly still a little uncomfortable. Eddie, however, is still hesitant, and needs extra encouragement before braving the stairs. I hope that with practice he will gain confidence.

There was a small snag in re-establishing old routines at feeding time. I have written previously about how I expect my dogs to lie down and wait for their dinner until they invited to eat. For the first few days, Eddie and Cassie, seemed to find this challenging, even though they were so used to doing it in the old house. Not only was it a strange experience to be fed by us in this other house, but, I expect more importantly, my friend never did require them to lie down. To their minds that routine was firmly associated with the old house. After a few battles of the wills, however, it is now established as a routine in the new house too.

This will be the first week back to normal working routine for me and M, and the doggies too. That will mean that they can properly settle down in our new house. Cassie is a very relaxed little dog, and although she has made sure to patrol and sniff all new spaces thoroughly, she has been happy just to find a comfortable spot to lie in. Eddie is harder to please, and has been pacing and following us around a lot more than usual. His stomach has also shown his stress, with looser stool, which is still ongoing. I am hoping now we go back to a proper routine that will settle.

So starting today is another new routine, or rather a variation of an old one: coming with me to my office, as I work. I have purchased yet another pair of dog beds, taking the total in the house up to a somewhat embarrassing six! They have their night beds in the library, a couple of comfy beds up in the TV room upstairs to encourage them to spend time with us there, and two in the office, where I will be spending a lot of time during the days. I drew the line at getting beds for the kitchen.

Well, for me the point of having dogs is companionship, so I want them to be with me most of the time at home (although I prefer to sleep in a different room from them at night, due to smells and noises!).  The least they can expect from me is a comfortable place, and I think they seem comfortable enough!

Saturday, 10 September 2011


Dinner: Fish and vegetable kibble,
tinned beef and salmon, grated carrot,
a little cod liver oil and dried seaweed.

I’ve been thinking about writing something about greyhounds and diet for a while now, but keep postponing it until I have learned more. Well, I’ve realized I am probably never going to stop learning, so I may just as well write something now, subject to updates and changes, of course.

All the below recommendations are my own, I am not sponsored by any brand. And in the end, all dogs are different, and what works for one won’t for another. The best test for how good a diet is for your dog is how healthy and happy they are - especially how good their poop is! Don’t ignore it: like with babies, a bit of poop-spotting goes a long way to ascertaining your dog’s wellbeing.

Quite a few greyhounds have sensitive stomachs and suffer from both diet and stress related digestive issues. Mine have two very different stomachs, indeed, and I have learnt to deal with their respective problems by trial and error. In fact, I would like to hear other owner’s (greyhounds and other dogs) experiences with diet and digestion. Please leave a comment or email

When Eddie came to live with us we reckoned it would be best to buy a bag of the food he had been fed on in the kennels. He had very loose, bright yellow stool, and pretty bad wind, and initially we thought it may be the stress. However, his bowel movements didn’t improve, and were clearly not normal. We fed him bland cooked chicken and rice for a few days on the vet’s advice, but the improvement was only slight, and the soft, yellow poo returned as soon as we went back to the kibble.

Around the same time I was advised by a behaviourist that high quality, low protein foods are supposed to improve all sorts of behaviour in non-working dogs. In addition, of course, it is generally advised that retired greyhounds eat a fairly low protein diet. Burns and Wellbeloved are the brands I have used. As I have been able to let my dogs off the lead more, I have found that Burns actually has too little protein for some seasons – they lose weight on it in the summer when they are very active. However, another reason why I prefer to base my dogs’ diet around a low-protein biscuit. I can then adjust their protein intake day by day by adding extra meat, depending on their level of activity.

Note: these premium completes are very expensive. It is possible to lower the protein of your dog’s diet by substituting cooked rice, potato or pasta for part of a higher protein kibble. However, I would still pay some attention to the ingredients of any dog food. Less additives and more clear sources of protein are always better. Bakers Complete, for example, has 23% protein but only 4% beef and 4% fresh meat. Chappie has 20% protein but only declares 4% chicken. In fact, the latter has more “derivatives of vegetable origin” than “meat and animal derivatives” – which to me, anyway, is just not enough information. I would like to know what source the protein my dog is eating is from!

Indeed, I do think that the less additives and vaguely described "derivative" ingredients the better. Here are two of my favourites:

Eddie seems to do best on the Wellbeloved Ocean White Fish & Rice Kibble, but also on the Lamb flavour, as well as on the Fish and Vegetable variety. The Fish & Rice has 21% protein and 10% fat, and has a simple list of ingredients: fish (26%), rice (26%), barley (14%), linseed (3%), fish stock (3%), alfalfa (1%), seaweed (0.5%), yucca extract (0.02%), chicory extract (0.1%).

Burns is even lower in protein and fat, - 18.5% and 7.5% - respectively for the Lamb & Rice variety, and similarly simply composed: brown rice (54%), lamb (21%), oats, peas, sunflower oil, seaweed, vitamins and mineral. They also do fish and a range of other flavours.

I also discussed Eddie’s stomach problems with my parents, who have a great knowledge of dogs, and experience of feeding an ageing dachshund post-liver tumour. My father told me that Bilbo, my old childhood dachsie, was intolerant to chicken, and suggested trying Eddie on chicken-free food. As chicken is often seen as a very harmless source of protein, and is the main ingredient in the majority of commercial dog food products, I was a little dubious.

It turned out my old man was right, however. While even on the high quality, low protein kibble Eddie had loose stool if it contained chicken, but as soon as I gave him the non-chicken flavours his digestion improved. I also learned that it is only the high-quality kibbles that don’t use chicken, if they’re billed as another flavour. Many brands do – so I have learned to check the ingredients carefully. In addition, it seemed the less fat the kibble contained the better. Indeed, it is common that greyhounds’ bowels are loosened by fatty foods.

It is difficult to entirely exclude chicken products from Eddie’s diet, since a majority of processed dog foods contain them. The effect is marked, though. If I allow Eddie to have a treat such as a Jumbone, or Schmackos, even though they are nominally “beef” flavour, his poo is looser and he lets off some violently stinky farts. Indeed, the farts are like a barometer of the content of chicken in the food he’s had. We can live with the effects of a Jumbone, but feed him a tin of chicken flavoured dog food and we have to open windows and doors! Interestingly, tinned tuna, which Eddie loves, has a similar effect. I suppose there is some fat or protein in chicken and tuna meat that simply doesn’t agree with him.

You have to be careful with what you buy when you have a chicken-intolerant dog. Jumbone with beef, for example, lists the following ingredients: Cereals,Various Sugars, Meat and Animal Derivatives (including 4% Beef), Derivatives of Vegetable Origin, Minerals, Seeds, Oils and Fats, Herbs. And usually the "meat and meat derivatives" means chicken. Anyway, I plan to write more about treats in another post.

Even high-end foods can be deceptive. For example you'd think the Arden Grange Tripe, Rice and Vegetables hypoallergenic tinned food would be just that: tripe, rice and vegetables. Having fed it to Eddie and smelled the results I had a closer look, and lo and behold: Tripe (40%), Chicken (30%), Rice (5%), Peas(0.5%), Carrots (0.5%), Pumpkin Meal, Beet Pulp, Fish Oil, Minerals, Vitamins, Seaweed Extract, Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Cranberry Extract, Yucca Extract and Nucleotides. (The last one is a bit of a mystery, considering nucleotides are the building blocks of DNA, they are in pretty much all biological material, what good they do outside of DNA I don't know).

In my quest to firm up Eddie’s stool, I also followed my mother’s advice. She is a firm believer in dogs’ need for raw meat and bones, at least occasionally. Although I don’t feed my dogs raw meat every day – mainly for practical reasons: I don’t have enough freezer space – I ensure they have it several times a week. Raw tripe or beef mince, and the occasional bone, or meat chunks seem to work very well for Eddie’s stomach.

In fact, in my experience, and from hearsay, it seems greyhounds do better on a less processed diet. I can see that they would do well on a raw or so called BARF diet (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones And Raw Food – there is quite some discussion about the pros and cons of this, which I am not going to go into here), which I am always considering. However, with limited freezer space, and the greater inconvenience of preparing a BARF diet, I have stuck with the frequent feeds of raw meat, combined with high quality dry kibble and high quality tinned meats. More on which below.

We jokingly call Cassie “Guts Of Steel” as she almost always produces perfectly formed, firm poops. When she has an upset stomach it is clearly because something inappropriate has entered her system, and she quickly gets rid of it and returns to normal. However, little Cassie has a completely different issue with her stomach, and she is quite a fussy madam with her food. While Eddie pretty much always finishes his food with relish, Cassie often leaves some behind, and sometimes a whole meal goes untouched. Generally, this is not a problem. Most dogs can happily skip meals, even days of food. Not Cassie, however.

A few weeks after we adopted her, one morning she refused her food. I then noticed that her stomach was rumbling. Loudly. In fact, Cassie’s stomach was making so much noise it was disconcerting. She didn’t seem entirely comfortable either, unable to properly settle. She even whines a little as she was lying down. She refused food for a couple of hours and her stomach continued rumbling. In the end, however, she conceded to eating some specially made scrambled eggs, and lo and behold, her stomach was silenced, and she seemed altogether happier.

This happened occasionally, and she was always refusing food for quite some time, until she finally gave in and ate something (usually a very tasty morsel). Then her stomach seemed to settle and she’d eat a whole meal. I asked my veterinarian for advice and he called it “excessive borborygmus” (excessive stomach noises) and suggested it may be caused by bile entering her stomach when her stomach is empty for a long time, such as over night.

He suggested I give Cassie a small portion of wet food later in the evening. I have been doing this, and although it doesn’t always work, it does seem that she is more likely to have a morning bout if she hasn’t had anything to eat since early evening.

The problem is that she will refuse food, and since she is clearly uncomfortable and I know that if she eats it will immediately get better, I pander to her and offer her ever-tastier morsels. She has cottoned on to this and is obviously milking the situation, and also trying to refuse food when her stomach is perfectly all-right, to see if she can get me to get the ham or bacon out! Eddie has observed her and is now also sometime begging for treats at mealtime. It is a tricky situation.

In any case Cassie is not a big eater – she seems to have a small stomach that does better on several smaller meals than a couple of big ones. So we’ve had to change meal-time routines a bit in the house. Breakfast is a smaller meal, as they both seem less interested in food at this time of day. Usually they get some dog biscuit in goat’s milk or a little wet food. Then they have a bigger early lunch, consisting of half dog biscuit and half wet food. In the evening they have their second big meal, biscuit topped with meat, often raw mince, and some grated or cooked vegetables. If they don’t finish it they get a second chance later, but I don’t leave the bowls down, once they have walked away from them. If they finish, Cassie still gets a few spoonfuls of wet food later in the evening.

I also give them a spoonful of cod-liver oil and some dried sea-weed in their evening meal – for coat, joints and digestive system.

I have mentioned what biscuit I prefer above, here are some wet food products I have found very good. It is actually hard to get raw or natural, additive free and non-chicken-based products in the UK, but I have discovered that the company Zooplus, based in Germany, sell a wide range of excellent products, at reasonable prices and deliver for free in the UK (over a certain minimum order amount). They have affiliated websites in a range of European countries.

Rocco Classic is an inexpensive, additive free range of beef-based tinned meats. Apart from pure beef it comes in a range of flavours, all with 70% beef + 30% other pure meats, innards or fish. A godsend for chicken-intolerant dogs. I have recently discovered Animonda GranCarno a range of tins with interesting flavour combinations (Rabbit and herbs! Eel and potato! Salmon and spinach!) that my dogs are very keen on. Again good quality meat, no additives and not all bulked out with cheap chicken meat!

Naturediet is a British complete natural dog food and is available in UK pet shops, but is fairly expensive. Additive free and easy on the digestive system, the lamb and fish flavours do not contain chicken.

Prize Choice are the most widely available frozen raw meat products on the UK market. They do minces in various sizes and meat chunks, all at a good price. Tripe and beef free-flow minces are the standard around here, with the occasional beef chunks thrown in. Just good, natural and pure meat!

The same people are behind Natures:menu, which I haven’t tried extensively but want to experiment with. Keep tuned for results! Also keep an eye out for a post on treats: bones, healthy chews and making your own…

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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Companions in Killing – Diana and Actaeon

In my academic work I have been thinking about violence and what it means – I am interested in trying to figure out why violence happens by looking at it as a form of expression. “There is no such thing as meaningless violence”, is my tag-line for this project. People that commit violent acts do it to communicate, often when other forms of communication have broken down; they express their superiority, strength and perceived right, but also their fear, desperation and hopelessness.

At the same time I have been thinking about animals and humans, and how our relationship to our companion species illuminates our differences and similarities. In particular, of course, I have been thinking about dogs, and how humans and dogs appear to have co-evolved as species, neither of which would be the same without its long history of living with the other.

The ancient myth of Diana (or Artemis in the Greek version) and Actaeon is situated smack bang in the middle of these two trains of thought: violence and expression, human and animal.

Diana (Greek: Artemis)

Around the birth of Christ, Roman poet Ovid set down in his collection of myths, Metamorphoses, the by then already old story. It begins on a beautiful evening, when both Actaeon, a nobleman from Thebes, and Diana, goddess of the hunt, the moon and wild animals, have been out hunting with their separate parties. It is late and hot and both decide to call it a day.
In a fair chace a shady mountain stood,
Well stor'd with game, and mark'd with trails of blood;
Here did the huntsmen, 'till the heat of day,
Pursue the stag, and load themselves with rey:
When thus Actaeon calling to the rest:
"My friends," said he, "our sport is at the best,
The sun is high advanc'd, and downward sheds
His burning beams directly on our heads;
Then by consent abstain from further spoils,
Call off the dogs, and gather up the toils,
And ere to-morrow's sun begins his race,
Take the cool morning to renew the chace."
They all consent, and in a chearful train
The jolly huntsmen, loaden with the slain,
Return in triumph from the sultry plain.
Down in a vale with pine and cypress clad,
Refresh'd with gentle winds, and brown with shade,
The chaste Diana's private haunt, there stood
Full in the centre of the darksome wood
A spacious grotto, all around o'er-grown
With hoary moss, and arch'd with pumice-stone.
From out its rocky clefts the waters flow,
And trickling swell into a lake below.
Nature had ev'ry where so plaid her part,
That ev'ry where she seem'd to vie with art.
Here the bright Goddess, toil'd and chaf'd with heat,
Was wont to bathe her in the cool retreat.
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book the Third, trans. by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al, 1717)
As it happens, Actaeon stumbles on Diana as she is bathing naked. Having left her trusted bow on the bank, the incensed goddess throws a handful of water on Actaeon, proclaiming: "Now tell you saw me here naked without my clothes, if you can tell at all!".  

This said, the man begun to disappear
By slow degrees, and ended in a deer. 

Diana’s revenge lies not so much in turning Actaeon into a stag, however, as in making him mute. The bold hunter becomes the voiceless prey. Stunned, Actaeon doesn’t know where to turn, his castle or the woods, and as he hesitates his hounds catch sight of him:
First ‘Black-foot’, Melampus, and keen-scented Ichnobates, ‘Tracker’, signal him with baying, Ichnobates out of Crete, Melampus, Sparta. Then others rush at him swift as the wind, ‘Greedy’, Pamphagus, Dorceus, ‘Gazelle’, Oribasos, ‘Mountaineer’, all out of Arcady: powerful ‘Deerslayer’, Nebrophonos, savage Theron, ‘Whirlwind’, and Laelape, ‘Hunter’. Then swift-footed Pterelas, ‘Wings’, and trail-scenting Agre, ‘Chaser’, fierce Hylaeus, ‘Woody’, lately gored by a boar, the wolf-born Nape, ‘Valley’, Poemenis, the trusty ‘Shepherd’, and Harpyia, ‘Snatcher’, with her two pups. There is thin-flanked Sicyonian Ladon, ‘Catcher’, Dromas, ‘Runner’, ‘Grinder’, Canache, Sticte ‘Spot’, Tigris ‘Tigress’, Alce, ‘Strong’, and white-haired Leucon, ‘Whitey’, and black-haired Asbolus, ‘Soot’.  
Lacon, ‘Spartan’, follows them, a dog well known for his strength, and strong-running Aëllo, ‘Storm’. Then Thoos, ‘Swift’, and speedy Lycisce, ‘Wolf’, with her brother Cyprius ‘Cyprian’. Next ‘Grasper’, Harpalos, with a distinguishing mark of white, in the centre of his black forehead, ‘Black’, Melaneus, and Lachne, ‘Shaggy’, with hairy pelt, Labros, ‘Fury’, and Argiodus, ‘White-tooth’, born of a Cretan sire and Spartan dam, keen-voiced Hylactor, ‘Barker’…  
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III:206-231, trans. by A.D. Kline, 2000)
The fact that Ovid spends quite some time naming and describing Actaeon’s dogs, reminds us of the close bond between us and our companion species. It also reminds us that this bond is forged in language, in the names we choose to give the animals we share our lives with. Terrified Actaeon flees over the mountain, pursued by his own pack. He tries to shout: "Actaeon ego sum: dominum cognoscite vestrum!" - ‘I am Actaeon! Know your own master!’, but nothing but noises are heard. Actaeon has lost his voice and his name. The dogs soon catch up and pounce on him.

"Actaeon ego sum!"
First ‘Black-hair’, Melanchaetes, wounds his back, then ‘Killer’, Theridamas, and Oresitrophos, the ‘Climber’, clings to his shoulder. They had set out late but outflanked the route by a shortcut over the mountains. While they hold their master the whole pack gathers and they sink their teeth in his body till there is no place left to wound him. He groans and makes a noise, not human, but still not one a deer could make, and fills familiar heights with mournful cries. And on his knees, like a suppliant begging, he turns his wordless head from side to side, as if he were stretching arms out towards them… 
They surround him on every side, sinking their jaws into his flesh, tearing their master to pieces in the deceptive shape of the deer. They say Diana the Quiver-bearer’s anger was not appeased, until his life had ended in innumerable wounds.  
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III: 232-252, trans. by A.D. Kline, 2000)
As Actaeon dies wordless, the violence inflicted upon him speaks volumes of Diana’s rage, and about our relationship with dogs. In the presence of cuddly puppies and cute toy dogs, it is easy to forget that at the centre of our cross-species evolutionary connection with dogs lies violence. Dogs and humans have thrown their lot in with each other for two mutually beneficial reasons: hunting and protection. Both activities imply violent acts, as is illustrated by the myth of Diana and Actaeon. It is by killing, that the hounds aid Actaeon in is hunt, and Diana in the protection of her honour. We are companions in killing.

Actaeon torn asunder by his own dogs

From a behavioural perspective we need to keep this in mind. All dogs are instinctive hunters and protectors, to some degree, whether they are of a “dangerous” breed or not. A number of problem behaviours stem from a domestic dog’s lack of an outlet for these instincts.

However, what also unites us as species, apart from violence, is the ability to communicate, by verbal and non-verbal means. Yet, violence and language also separate us: if dogs bring us prey and protection, we bring them our capacity for naming. Linked with our capacity for verbal language, which dogs lack, is the ability to categorise and organize the world around us. As I have mentioned before, research indicates that over the time that dogs and humans have spent together, the brains of both have shrunk. Humans have ended up with less acute senses, in particular smell, and dogs with less capacity to organize and plan – instead we are sharing these tasks between our species.

It falls to us then, to figure out when hunting and protecting is necessary and when it is not, and exactly what is to be hunted and who is to be protected from whom. In naming our dogs, we take on the responsibility to name the world for them, too. Games, training and activities can satisfy our dogs’ instincts to hunt and protect, but it is up to us to tell them how. The key, of course, is communication. As always I come back to this, even in reading an ancient myth: its good, nay necessary, to talk (albeit not always using words) to your dogs. If we don’t have a voice, our dogs, like those of Actaeon, will not recognize us.

Saturday, 27 August 2011


Dogs love routine. In addition, ex-racing greyhounds have known little but a strict kennel routine. It is quite amazing how quiet the kennel goes after the morning feed and after the evening turn-out. The dogs know that this a time where nothing interesting will happen, and there is no point in expending energy on whining, barking and jumping about.

Breakfast time!

These activities are liberally indulged in before breakfast and particularly vigorously when strangers appear, for they may take the dogs for a walk! Indeed, staff can walk up and down the row of kennels with little more than sporadic outbreaks of noise after breakfast, but introduce a stranger and the calm is instantly broken. It is pretty clear that these dogs, contrary to what it appear as to the casual visitor, don’t bark and jump about aimlessly. They do it according to schedule, when something nice is coming such as food or a run in the field, or at an interruption in the routine.

Time for a post-breakfast nap.

These two triggers of noisy behaviour in kennel dogs are useful to note. They indicate how canine behaviour can be steered by routines and the break of routines. Knowing this means we can use routine to encourage desired behaviour and discourage disruptive or destructive behaviour.

Although important to all dogs, establishing a routine is going to be very helpful for an adopted greyhound settling into a new home. Keeping walking and feeding time, as well as quiet resting time, regular will help the dog relax, by allowing him or her to understand when it is ok to let their guard down, as nothing interesting is likely to happen.

Getting these timings right can also help with separation anxiety. Dogs are naturally inclined to rest after a walk and food (given after a suitable interval depending on prior exertion). If you have to leave your dog at home alone, plan your daily routine so that they are walked and fed before you go. Quite obviously a dog that doesn’t need to go to the toilet or isn’t hungry will be more likely to stay calm when alone. But it also means your dog can allow him or herself to be less alert, safe in the knowledge that this is now quiet time.

It doesn’t take long for an adopted dog to get used to a routine as long as it is consistent, and interruptions avoided for the first few weeks. However, always expect that any break in your dog’s routine, even after it is settled, is likely to lead to excitement at best and anxiety at worst. Being prepared and planning ahead is the best way of dealing with this.

Our lives don’t always lend themselves to rigid routine, and there will always be occasions when we for some reason have to break them. This does not have to be a big problem, because dogs don’t see daily routines as a whole. Rather they react to events that foretell the next step in their schedule. You may have noticed how your dogs will jump up ready for a walk even before you have got up off your chair. They are reading tiny little cues such as that “I’m finishing off this email”-sigh, or the way you say “Right!” to yourself when you’re about to see to the dogs. Eddie always jumps up when I close my laptop lid – this usually means he will get to go for a walk or get fed.

These cues incite our dogs to pester us for food and walkies, but we can also use them to encourage calm. It is about keeping the routine, but in bite-size, mobile chunks. If I have to leave Eddie and Cassie alone for any period of time I always walk and feed them first – even if it may only be a short walk and snack – whatever the time of day. This signals to them that it is time to rest; like the dogs in the kennels, they know that nothing particularly exciting is likely to happen now, and they can rest without remaining alert. I have also noticed how they react to cues in a similar way on car journeys. If the car reaches a certain speed and steady pace, they lie down quietly – nothing is happening, we’re on our way. As soon as I slow down, and start turning, however, their heads pop up – are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

With a bit of thinking and creativity we can reproduce cues from our dog’s daily routines to modify behaviour effectively at other times. For example, having a bed-time routine can be very useful when staying away with your dogs. Ours is the dogs being let out for a pee, and then going to their bed, and getting a final good-night cuddle. Repeating this makes them feel safe and calm for the night wherever we are.

Settling down in a new hotel room.

We can also make commands such cues – “go back to bed” means “there is nothing to see here, calm yourselves down and stay quiet” in our household. Indeed, all commands work best if the become routine for the dog – I have talked elsewhere about having found that conditioning with positive reinforcement being the most effective way to train recall. Making commands routine means, of course, using them regularly, indeed, every day. Again I find an argument for the fact that training dogs is not something you ever finish, but an ongoing way of being with your dog.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Talking to Dogs II: They Know When You're Lying

In the previous Talking to Dogs post, my argument was that it is never wrong to talk to your dog, quite the opposite. We humans have to verbalize our intentions to make them clear, so explaining to your dog that everything is all right and you’ll be back soon, will, although they won’t understand the words, probably soothe and reassure them. As you are saying the words, you make the feeling clear to yourself, and dogs feel that. As long as you are telling the truth.

By the same token, if you tell your dogs something you don’t fully mean, they will pick up on it. They’re not listening to your words, but to your feelings. Oliver Sacks in his famous The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat points out the similarity between dogs and people with aphasia. Aphasiacs have, usually through brain damage, lost their ability to recognize language. That is, the pure, verbal system of words. Many aphasiacs nevertheless understand most of what is being said to them, because they are still able to read the non-verbal parts of human speech. And these parts are considerable. Sacks writes:

Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily...

We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose - to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we - so susceptible to words - cannot trust our own instincts.

Indeed, as I argued before, us humans are so susceptible to words that they are necessary to our process of thinking and understanding. We swallow lies because we are seduced by words, unless we deliberately pay attention to non-verbal cues, which is very hard to do. Sometimes we can even make ourselves believe lies, our’s and other’s, by repeating them enough. If you say something enough times it becomes the truth, just have a look at politics and media.

However, if you say something to our dogs that we don’t believe, they won’t believe you either. Dogs are not listening to your words, but reading your intentions. This is something that is worth remembering when training dogs or trying to modify their behaviour.

I am having real difficulties stopping Eddie from barking at, and trying to chase cats. I tell him off, sharply, every time he does it. My admonitions have limited effect, though, both in the heat of the moment, and long term. He won’t let those cats alone. Yes, he is a greyhound and his chasing instinct is strong, so it is a difficult task, but there is, I think something more going on here. I have had to admit to myself, that I actually quite like his behaviour towards cats.

There is something in my view of dogs that naturally includes the idea that they chase cats. This, to my mind, is what dogs do. I expect it has something to do with all those Tom & Jerry cartoons I watched as a child, my parents attitude to cats, and so on and so forth. Wherever it comes form, it is clearly some kind of deep-seated belief. I know rationally that it isn’t a good idea for Eddie to chase cats, but somehow I cannot make myself feel it, and I think that Eddie, however much I tell him off for barking at cats, can sense it. He simply knows that I don’t fully mean it.

I think this issue is evident in a lot of dog-owners who appear to be telling their dogs off for some anti-social behaviour, such as barking at visitors or showing aggression to other dogs, but with little effect. Deep inside, and I expect this goes back to our evolutionary history with dogs, we like our dogs defending our property and persons. Whether we think we are “that kind” of dog owner or not, a strong dog exhibiting good guarding or hunting instincts appears beneficial to our survival instinct. As Sacks says, we use our dogs to pick up falsehood or malice.

Equally, owners scalding their dogs for minor misdemeanors or mishaps often don’t really really mean it. We are often so deeply emotionally attached to our canine companions that a little chewing or peeing on the carpet is by the by. And they know it. Our dogs need us, but we, maybe even more, also need them, and this makes correcting undesired behaviour difficult. How can you persuade a creature which can read your feelings like an open book, that you are really quite cross, when you – and they – know this will all be forgotten and forgiven in five minutes time.

Sometimes the problem lies not just in the fact that we don’t mean what we say. I find my dogs are a lot less attentive to my commands when I am distracted, tired or feeling low or insecure. They sense when the intention behind my words is less determined than usual and quickly take advantage of it. Communicating with and training dogs takes a lot of energy, precisely because it is not simply about saying the words. One also needs to project the intentions behind the words clearly and strongly. If you’d rather be a at home with a cup of tea than in a field with your dog, they'll know it.

There are two potential solutions to this problem. We can work on convincing ourselves – and I do think that changing our attitudes often plays a great part in successful modification of problem behaviour in dogs. The old platitude that it is the humans that have to be trained, rather than the dog, means precisely this: we have to change our feelings and beliefs in order for the dog to change a behaviour that responds to these feelings and beliefs. I want to talk a bit more about this elsewhere, but needless to say it is often easier said than done to change ingrained attitudes in ourselves.

Another way is to use appropriate training tools and techniques, which allow you to strengthen the message you want to give your dog. Treats as well as corrections external to your voice and body language work this way. For example, you are unlikely to make your dog feel fully rewarded by your voice only – pats and morsels of food are also needed. A bit of sausage never lies, even when you’re ready to give up and go home.

With Eddie and his cats, as I have said elsewhere, I have started using a spray collar. This type of corrective training tools should be used with caution, as they are not suitable for all dogs. However, with Eddie it allows me to support my “lie” that I want him to stop chasing that cat, in a very immediate and effective way.

Ultimately we have to do a bit of both: work on ourselves and the use the right tools and methods. Importantly, however, I think we need to be aware of our own lies. There is no use in pretending that I am terribly upset when Eddie barks at yet another cat. However, rationally I know I can’t allow him to do this at his leisure, so I know that I need to use other means than telling him no, half-heartedly. Dogs know when you’re lying, and they tell you when you are, sometimes when you don’t even know it yourself.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Wanted: Your Dog Rescue Story

  • "His heart was racing and he was panting so fast I was worried he was going to have a heart attack. It was a hot June day and I was sitting at the back of the car trying to reassure Eddie, the ex-racing greyhound boy we had just picked up from the re-homing kennels. I had chosen him partly because when we took him for a walk he had made eye contact with me. Then, he seemed to be more communicative than most other greyhounds at the kennels. Now he seemed a million miles away.

When we got home he wouldn’t lie down for hours. He’d pace the garden and the house, or just stand there panting. When he finally settled down, and I leaned down to stroke him, he immediately shot up again. The first night he spent hours pacing and whining before giving in to exhaustion. The things that we thought that Eddie, finally out of the kennel life, should rejoice in – space and attention – seemed to unsettle him most.

On the other hand, he was so easy when it came to many of the things I had anticipated problems with. He walked on the leash like an angel, and he learned not to toilet in the house after only three accidents. He didn’t bark, chew, jump, lick or run about indoors. For someone used to having dogs from pup, Eddie seemed like a strange, distant creature. I thought I knew how to communicate with dogs, but this one was speaking a different language.

Although it mystified me then, I now realize that Eddie’s behavior was typical of rescue greyhounds. They are often extremely easy to handle, yet frustratingly aloof. Eddie would let me touch him and groom him without problems from day one, but seemed unsure and uncomfortable when I gave him pure pats and cuddles. He followed me around the house, but it took him over six months to be comfortable with someone sitting down next to his bed. If it is true that greyhounds make great pets, as the re-homing movement is keen to tell us, it is also true that adopting a greyhound comes with its own set of problems and frustrations."

This is how my dog rescue story begins. Do you want to tell yours?

Bocci's Beefs Blog is looking for stories to include in a book on dog rescues. I have submitted my tale about the frustrations and joys of adopting retired racing greyhounds Eddie and Cassie.

Now, Bocci and Joan would love to hear from you. Click here to link to further details on how to submit your story:

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Talking to Dogs

Quite rightly, people who “know” about animal behaviour warn against the danger of anthropomorphizing. If you treat your dog as a human being with human feelings and thoughts you will encounter problems sooner or later. However, this drive towards letting dogs be dogs, and avoiding communication with them in “human” ways forgets, I think, the important fact that dogs have evolved, or more rightly, co-evolved, as a companion species to us humans (something both Temple Grandin and Donna Haraway consider in their books). It is commonly said that the domestic dog barks more than wolves ever do, precisely because it has evolved to communicate with humans in a way that is closer to our own primary way of communicating: language.

Of course dogs are essentially non-verbal; they don’t have language the same way we have. They do, however, have the ability to learn to associate certain sounds, words, with things and actions. We can easily teach them to “sit” and they quickly learn what “walkies” means. Studies have also shown that dog owners can often recognize differences in their dog’s bark: if it means danger, play or aggression. As I have considered before, dogs also use other sounds, such as whining, to communicate their needs to us. So dogs do avail themselves of sounds to communicate, but they don’t connect and combine these sounds into the complex system we call language. While we primarily use language to communicate to our dogs, it is doubtful whether dogs consider sounds as either their or indeed our primary means of communication between our two species.
To a certain extent the warning against anthropomorphizing when trying to communicate with your dog is an important one. You often hear people in the “know” about canine behaviour berating dog owners for talking to their dogs. We have all heard a story about this or that silly dog owner who, wagging their finger, tells their dog “Naughty boy, Fido. I have told you once, and I will tell you again, that you are not allowed to pee on the carpet. If you do it again you will have no dinner”, or some such. Indeed, Fido most probably does not understand that his owner is disappointed at repeating his prohibition, what this prohibition is about and the future threat regarding it. Yet, and surely all dog owners are guilty to some extent here, we persist in talking to our dogs as if they understood language as well as children, at least.
Indeed, language comes so naturally to us that we find pretty much impossible not to talk to our dogs, even when we doubt how much they understand. And you know what, I don’t thing talking to your dog is wrong at all. In fact, I would say, talking to your dog is essential to communicating with them. The reason is precisely because language is so natural and important to us humans. If dogs are non-verbal, most humans are hyper-verbal. Indeed, for most of us it is virtually impossible to formulate any thoughts without language. (Grandin’s thesis in her book is that autistic people think far less in language, and more in pictures than the “normal” human, and therefore think more like animals that most of us do.) What I am getting at is that we have to talk to communicate, because we cannot think without language. We have to verbalise our intentions to make them clear, even to ourselves.
Poor Fido in the example above, while he does not understand specific prohibitions or threats, most probably has a “guilty” look on his face, “because he knows he’s been naughty”, according to the anthropomorphizing owner. Actually, of course, Fido is looking glum because he understands some of the intention behind his owner’s words, if not the particular details. He gets the disappointment, the anger and the threat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is looking extra worried because he cannot work out what and why and when. That is what we need to remember to clarify to our dogs in ways other than language when we talk to them.
Nevertheless, dogs do read our intentions very well. They know when we are angry or pleased, and other more complex things too, like when we want them to stay or come. Cesar Millan calls it “energy”, others explain it through body language. Whatever it is, us humans usually channel it through words. When I tell my dogs to stay, I consciously and unconsciously project my intention through my body and some sort of “vibes”. I raise my palm to them, and I am sure my body also assumes a certain posture. I expect that my dogs read my body and my mood as much as the word “stay” that I have just uttered. However, and this is the key for me, I need to say the word in order for my body to project that intention. I can probably replicate the stance, but to really feel that I want them to stay, I need to say or at least think the word. This is why I think that talking to our dogs is important. We rely on language to form our thoughts and intentions.
So I talk to my dogs all the time, and I am sure that our canine-human relationship benefits from it. I tell them when they are doing something right and when they are doing something wrong, of course. But I also tell them why they need to wait just a little bit longer for that walk they are really keen to go on. I am sure they don’t understand that I just need to finish paragraph I am writing, and it will be ten minutes, and then we’ll go, but I am pretty sure that they understand that they need to wait some time because my attention is needed elsewhere, as they go back to their beds with a sigh. They may have not understood the words and the specifics, but they have sure got my intention. And I needed to verbalise that intention in order to communicate it to them successfully. Whatever you may think dogs are not mind-readers. They are very good readers of emotions and thoughts as they appear in our body language, and so much of our body language is mitigated through our – verbal – thoughts.
While we have to avoid excessive anthropomorphizing, we shouldn’t forget the human in the human-dog relationship, because, surely, if we forget our own nature we are likely to run into just as many problems as if we forget our dog’s nature. When living with and communicating with dog we have to heed their needs, of course. If Fido is to understand exactly what his owner wants from him, his owner needs to take care to supplement his verbal communication with practical, well-timed non-verbal pointers. However, we also need to understand ourselves and the way our own minds work, if we are successfully to communicate with anyone else at all, let alone our dogs. We need to talk to think, and our canine companions benefit from the kind clarity of intention that only verbalizing our thoughts can give us humans. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how could we expect our dogs to know?

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Reading List - Animals in Translation

“The Aboriginies have a saying: ‘Dogs make us human.’”
This quote may sound like a romantic cliché, but it is meant in all scientific seriousness. This book by Temple Grandin, who has been called “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”, isn’t merely a collection of amusing anecdotes from Grandin’s fascinating life with autism and with animals. Each story convincingly illustrates her theory that people with autism think more like animals, than “normal” people do. Together these stories and ideas form a handbook of how to understand and deal with animal behaviour, that is not only convincing, but also very entertaining to read. When you get to the “Behaviour and Training Troubleshooting Guide” at the very end of the book, a remarkably thorough yet concise summary of the basics of ethology, you realize what a wealth of knowledge Grandin possesses and has just imparted in the most delightful way.

Some of my favourite bits:
“Unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with animals, all normal human beings are too abstractified, even the people who are hands-on. That’s because people aren’t just abstract in their thinking, they’re abstract in their seeing and hearing.  
Normal humans hold an abstract idea of the world, which results in inattentional blindness - they see the world as the expect to see it, filtering out unimportant or unexpected detail.
When an animal or an autistic person is seeing the real world instead of his idea of the real world it means he’s seeing detail. This is the single most important thing to know about the way animals perceive the world: animals see details people don’t see.”
So much failure to understand and thus to modify animal behaviour comes from the fact that we just don’t see (or hear, or smell, or feel) what they are seeing. Consequently we have no, or even the wrong, idea of the motivation for the behaviour. Grandin’s argument that animals, like autistic people, are far more sensitive to details, such as changes in the environment, bright lights and stange noises, makes sense. Even just looking at the world from the same angle as my dogs, and keeping in mind that their sense of colour, contrast and perspective is different, makes it clear why, for example, those stairs in our house seem so scary to them – they don’t look like steps, that is, things that would support one’s feet, but as some strange slope, and as a precipice from above!
The Scary Stairs

Grandin allows that animals do have feelings, which, although not the same, are connected to basic core emotions that humans also experience, such as rage, fear, social attachment and play. One of these core animal and human emotions, according to Grandin, is not easily described in only one word: curiosity/interest/anticipation. Recent research indicates that this emotion is seated in a part of the brain separate from the reward and pleasure centre:
“This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might me nearby, but stops firing when the animal sees the actual food itself. The SEEKING [capitalised term coined by Jaak Panksepp] circuit fires during the search for food, not during the final locating or eating of the food. It’s the search that feels so good.
Very compelling stuff when you have two greyhounds that never catch anything but nevertheless throw themselves into the chase with abandon. Grandin draws parallels with human addictive behaviours, and I think one needs to bear this idea in mind when trying to deal with certain behaviours – removing the apparent “reward”, or even offering an alternative reward, will have little effect – it is the chase that is the point here. And we can all identify with that. Indeed, curiosity and exploration bring much pleasure to us human as well as our animals. Expecting your dogs not to be curious or not engage in some form of exploratory and predatory behaviour is at best going to lead to disappointment and at worst to behavioural disasters. Providing a safe space for them to explore is imperative.

There are also some interesting passages relating to the much discussed idea of dominance in Grandin’s book. Grandin clearly has no interest in joining either camp regarding canine behaviour and training, and she makes some very interesting points. On the one hand, she clearly states that dominance and hierarchy plays a central role in predator animals: 
All animals who live in groups – and this is most animals – form dominance hierarchies. Animals are not democratic and there is always an alpha animal, and often a beta animal, too. […] Dog owners must establish themselves as the alpha, period. This is the one rule you must not ignore.” 
However, establishing yourself as the alpha to your dog does not mean breaking it into submission for Grandin. She discourages the alpha roll, but encourages owners to make their dogs assume the sumbmissive roll voluntarily through play and training.

Indeed, playing with your dog does not mean giving up alpha status, argues Grandin. Higher ranking dogs play with lower ranking ones frequently, and themselves assume the submissive position at times. Play strengthens social bonds, and teaches correct social behaviour. A good example is the game of tug-of-war, often discouraged by trainers, on the basis that it inspires dominance in dogs. Grandin recounts a study into how the game affects behaviour:
“The researchers had people either win or lose a series of tug-of-war games with retrievers, and then watched how the dogs behaved. The losers were more obedient after playing the game – but so where the winners. All the dogs were more obedient after playing tug-of-war with humans! And none of the dogs suddenly got more dominant […] One study doesn’t prove anything, but I think it is probably both safe and fun to play tug-of-war with your dog, and it might even be good for him. Just remember one thing: the study also found that the dogs who lost every time were a lot less interested in playing any more tug-of-war. Apparently a dog doesn’t like losing all the time any more than a person does.”
In my experience dogs whose owners engage positively with them, whether by walkies or games or cuddles, are more likely to attentive and thus obedient. I have said it before: you have to give your dog a reason to want to be your friend, let alone to listen to your command. Not only are dogs social animals and need interaction, but humans and dogs have a special relationship as companion species. In fact, it appears that part of our evolutionary make-up is shaped by our interaction as species.
“Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn’t. Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships; humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today. (The main relationship for chimpanzees is parent-child). Wolves were highly territorial; humans probably weren’t – again judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.
By the time these early people became truly modern, they had learned to do all these wolfie things. When you think about how different we are form other primates, we see how doglike we are.”
This may sound like another romanticization of the dog-human relationship, but Grandin points to biological evidence of brain evolution. All domesticated animal species brains shrunk compared to their wild ancestors, most likely because many functions such as alertness for predators and searching for food were no longer necessary. Dog brains shrank too, compared to wolf ones. However, so did human brains, just at the time when evidence of burial with dogs is seen, around 10,000 years ago. As Grandin says, what is interesting is which part of the brain shrank in dogs and people:
“In all of the domestic animals the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, which got smaller […] Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people coevolved and became even better partners, allies and friends.”
Mesolithic Natufian (in present Israel)
burial with puppy, ca. 10,000 BC.

To my mind our companionship with dogs is crucial to remember.  They are not toys, ornaments or status symbols, not there just for your company, for your entertainment, or for the kids. Like Donna Haraway suggests in her The Companion Species Manifesto, which also puts forward the theory of canine-human co-evolution, we are in a relationship of “reciprocal possession” with dogs, and this relationship demands two-way respect. For a happy and harmonious relationship with our dogs we need not just to understand their behaviour but to interact with them, as we both evolved to work and play – indeed live – together. If you’re not prepared to give them that, don’t get a dog. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sniffing Bits

I am always surprised and a little saddened when I meet yet another dog-owner who tells their dogs off for sniffing other dogs' bits. “That’s disgusting, Fido. Stop it!”, seems to be a common reaction to one of the most important rituals of canine greeting. Not only is it entirely unnecessary to tell your dog to stop smelling other dogs' bottoms, but it’s also detrimental to their wellbeing and potentially to their behaviour.

Jean Donaldson in her excellent book The Culture Clash sets up a scenario to make us imagine how life might be like for a pet dog in a human world: imagine humans were living with a superior species, whose language they did not understand and who set rules for human behaviour, often running counter to what humans felt was natural. One such rule forbids humans to smile at strangers, or shake hands with their friends. In fact, they are told off and even punished if they do so.

Although Donaldson over-eggs the pudding when it comes to the incomprehension between humans and dogs, I think she makes a valid an important point with this analogy about greetings. Both humans and dogs are highly social species, and greetings are central to social behaviour. Restricting the ability to greet both your own and other species (the problem of how to greet a dog correctly - as a human - is going to have to be the subject of a whole different post), is likely to make any human or dog miserable.

Even more crucially, it is also likely to restrict and even deteriorate an individual’s ability to interact socially. I am convinced that the apparently silly, but surprisingly widespread, interdiction against sniffing bottoms and bits is part of the problem with anti-social dogs. Of course, a lot of other factors are also responsible, and there is to a certain extent an evil cycle at work, where people are wary of letting their dogs meet other dogs, let alone come close enough to sniff each other, due to the prevalence of badly socialized dogs. However, I feel that keeping dogs apart from one another, and preventing them from interacting in a natural way, is not going to improve things, quite the contrary.

Is it a wonder that dogs struggle with getting on if we are not allowing them to greet each other politely. A human smile and handshake signals good intentions and a willingness for peaceful interaction, and so do doggy greeting rituals, and sniffing and allowing oneself to be sniffed is a big part of those rituals. If smiles and handshakes were discouraged, even forbidden, how would you know who was friend or foe? Would you not be more likely to take a defensive, even an aggressive stance to all strangers?

While I would always advise caution, although I wish I did not have to, when meeting and approaching strange dogs with your own, I would call for people not only to allow their canine companions to interact more, but also encourage them to engage in the full glory of canine greeting rituals, bits and all.