Wednesday, 27 February 2008

robot dogs and real ones in nursing homes

Life in our household has never been the same since Penny came to live with us. I'm sure we laugh out loud more often and we certainly behave like silly kids on a regular basis - that's why the corridor wall is dotted with muddy imprints from tennis balls and the floor is often littered with tug toys. She makes us feel good.

Perhaps we needn't have gone to all the expense of buying a real dog. I've just come across an interesting report on a study in which a robot dog was compared with a real dog in easing loneliness in nursing home residents. People were questioned about their level of loneliness before the study and were visited for thirty minutes each week by either the robot, Aibo, or a gentle dog, Sparky. The conclusion was that there was no difference.

I must say, to me this seems quite an absurd result. I'd want to know how the study ruled out any effect of the experimenter visiting each week to bring the dog or robot. And maybe the residents liked feeling that they were part of this study. I think it's a comment on the practice of expecting people to live out the last part of their lives in such an unstimulating environment that even a machine makes them feel a bit better.

On the other hand, I have happy memories of that stuffed toy dog I had when I was a child. And I sure thought R2D2 was a lovable character in Star Wars - he seemed really alive. Who knows? Maybe in the future when we've killed off all the other species on earth we can all have loving relationships with a pile of animated metal.

I found the reference to the report by following a link from The News Buckit.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

the stress of unemployment in dogs

If Penny is getting tired of all the 'bright ideas' that I'm finding on the Internet, she hasn't told me about it yet. But maybe I've gone too far with a tip I picked up yesterday. I read a piece about the stress that dogs suffer when they have no job to do - the writer pointed out that dogs were domesticated in order to work with humans, yet many of our modern pets have nothing to do all day.

The article suggested making dogs work for their dinner. It sounded like fun. So, to Penny's surprise, instead of having to merely 'sit' for her lovely meal of kangaroo meat today, she had to wait in the house while I hid the bowl in a far corner of the yard. She bounded down the stairs and quartered the backyard, nose to the ground until she discovered her meal. By the frantic waving of her tail I think she enjoyed it.

I think she comes from a mix of breeds, one of which used to guard monasteries in Tibet and warn the monks when outsiders were approaching. So, when she leaps to her feet and lets out a startlingly loud bark at the front door, we're resolved to regard this as an example of her doing the work she was bred to do. We usually get up from what we're doing and thank her for the warning, after which she usually stops barking...usually...

Now, as to those pesky possums that hiss at her in the backyard at midnight or even later, when we go out so she can relieve herself, if only we could communicate to her that it isn't her job to bark loudly and fiercely at them!

Monday, 25 February 2008

washing a dog's dirty feet

We started out three years ago resolved to get Penny used to the idea that she would get her feet washed every time she re-entered the house. How optimistic...

Well, maybe we should give it a go again. I've seen a novel device on Spluch. It's a a jug that washes dog's paws. It reminds me of a gadget with vertical and horizontal brushes that I've got outside my back door for cleaning my shoes before I go inside.

There's a cute video designed to convince you that it's just what you need. But I reckon the white dog needs a nose-plunger as well - he's certainly been having fun getting muddy enough to show the paw-plunger in action.

a great video of dog agility training

Penny and I are inspired to try to learn more about agility after watching a video of Johann the Dog training with Silvia Trkman who was visiting the US. It's a great clip because you get to see three runs and to hear the comments that Silvia made to Johanns' mum.

After reading Johann's report I enjoyed browsing Silvia's site. There's lots to see!

Friday, 22 February 2008

dogs, dementia and daytime radio

When Penny and I were in the car going to Gardiner’s Creek to meet Jabari and her mum, I caught a bit of a radio programme about memory and the aging brain. Given that I’m well into middle life I found it engrossing. So I’ve listened to the downloadable version of the show tonight while Penny snoozes nearby.

The programme was hosted by Richard Aedy and the panel consisted of Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author and journalist; Associate Professor Kaarin Anstey, Director of The Ageing Research Unit at ANU; and Dr Bill Brooks, Senior Researcher at the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute.

It occurred to me that the discussion not only has value for myself, but it also relates to how I stimulate and train Penny.

In relation to humans, Dr Brooks said that to protect the brain against the possible effects of dementia in later life, the crucial time is actually early in life - the education that you have before you are about sixteen. This is the time when you are building up the connections in your brain, the synapses. These connections last throughout your life.

I guess this makes me think that it’s important to give our young dogs a wide range of experiences in which they need to solve problems.

He also places emphasis on the “use it or lose it” advice for middle or later life. He says it’s always worthwhile doing cognitively stimulating activities.

I think that for middle aged or senior dogs we should ignore the idea that you ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ I’ve certainly seen plenty of proof that this saying is not accurate.

Cathryn Ramin has recently published a book called ‘That Memory Book’ – I couldn’t find it on the Internet, but I’ll be looking to get a copy as soon as I can. However, I did come across a blog post by her called “I Never Forget a Furry Face”. It’s about the common experience of forgetting people’s names. It’s a great read, and I enjoyed her doggy example of using aspects of people’s appearance or background to remember their names. She says:
Although I do not know the name of a single human being in our local dog park, I can reliably greet most of the canine regulars. So many are endowed with names that mirror their physical traits or provenance. There’s Fidel, the Havanese, whose handle reflects his Cuban roots. There’s Einstein, a charmingly disheveled Schnauzer, and Bounce, a Jack Russell mix who came from the pound equipped with heavy-duty rocket thrusters. There’s Speed Bump, a Bassett-Beagle cross, and of course my dog Radar, who never leaves my side. My other pet, Rosie, a shepherd mutt, is more obscurely named, but I rescued her from the Santa Rosa Animal Shelter, a fact that allows people who make the connection to recall her name with ease.
I’ve got an unreliable, massively embarrassing bad memory and that piece by Cathryn Ramin reminds me of a time last year when I met a guy in our local park. He had a mixed-breed dog and I commented to him that I’d met quite a few people lately with that same breed. He replied, “No you haven’t. You’ve met me three times and asked me about my dog each time.”

My face has gone red again as I recall that moment!

So if I visit your blogs and contribute some weirdly dumb comments, please be kind to me…

Thursday, 21 February 2008

dog how-to site

I've been wondering how to clip Penny's nails. Now that she is being washed at home instead of going to a groomer I'm beginning to realise that I need to know lots of other things besides the actual washing.

At A Dog Blog there is a short piece about trimming nails but I feel that I need to know more.

I think I'll watch the short video at WonderHowTo. It's a demo by Dr. Candy Olson from Greenbriar Animal Hospital in which she demonstrates some techniques for trimming a dog's nails. WonderHowTo looks like a mine of information - some of the videos are about how to clean a dog's teeth, how to check for fleas, how to clean the ears, how to give an at-home exam.

However, I think before I followed any of the instructions in these clips I would need to ask around my more experienced dog-owner friends to see what they think of the tips and techniques, but it certainly seems like a useful resource. There were 369 clips about dogs when I looked tonight.

I found the link at Bark Blog.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

vet recommended home remedies

Recently Penny chased a ball into a blackberry bush and ripped small chunks out of the skin on her belly. We washed the wounds clean and hoped for the best and it seems as if all is well now. However, at the time we wondered what human medicines we could use on her, and made a resolution to keep a canine first-aid kit on had in future.
Therefore, I read with interest a post by Dolittler, one of my favorite bloggers, about six things she, as a vet, recommends dog-owners have on hand.

dog bowl that talks to the dog

Penny had a canine visitor today - her elderly friend Bonnie. I rang Bonnie's owner while Bonnie was at our place and got a recorded message. I looked down and realised Bonnie had come from the other end of our house to listen to the recorded message, I think because she recognised her human's voice.

Penny, on the other hand, has never taken any notice if someone in the family rings from somewhere else and we put the phone near Penny's ear so she can listen to the absent family member. (Okay, I know it's silly, but who says we have to be sensible.)

So I guess Bonnie might enjoy a talking food bowl but Penny would only be interested in the food in it.I found the mention of this unlikely pet gadget at Spluch, a general-interest blog.

Monday, 18 February 2008

dogs practising agility on human equipment


Penny I were walking along the river at Warburton recently and she led us onto the swinging bridge that spans the river Yarra. She was stepping it out enthusiastically, tail high, until the bridge responded to our footsteps by vibrating and the wires in the handrails began to jangle and clank.





When her tail went between her legs I thought she would freeze but she carefully made her way across to the other side.
I was going to leave it at that until I remembered reading a post on Amber-Mae's blog about the value of practising general agility on any available equipment.

So I encouraged her back and forth across the bridge a dozen times, providing lots of delicious treats (venison liver from New Zealand), in the hope that next time we go across she will make a pleasant association with weirdly swaying planks underfoot and mysterious metallic noises above her head.

Once we were on solid ground again her tail returned to its usual jaunty position as she enjoyed playing with her two rubber balls in the shadow of the young (but already gigantic) redwoods along the river.

Friday, 15 February 2008

dogs in early Van Diemen's Land

As I was driving back today from lovely Gardiner's Creek, where Penny had a great walk with Jabari and her mum, I caught a radio interview with James Boyce, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania's Centre for Environmental Studies. The interview was on Late Night Live, conducted by Phillip Adams.

They were discussing a book that James Boyce has written, presenting a new view of the settlement of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) by British convicts. This new history sounds fascinating and I'll be looking for a copy, but one aspect of the discussion that grabbed my attention as a dog owner was the role hunting dogs played in the history of this area.

If I understood correctly, Boyce said that this settlement made rapid progress because it was established near native grasslands, in contrast to other attempts to live along the east coast of the mainland, in forested areas. The British, being a pastoral people, used dogs to help them hunt. Convicts were sent out to act as providers of meat (kangaroo and emu) and these men basically 'went bush' and lived a free life. Because they had dogs they could hunt successfully, even though they did not have guns.

He said that Van Diemen's Land did not have any dingoes, so the earliest convicts traded dogs to the indigenous hunters.

Apparently the 'officer class' (the jailers) didn't like the convicts having dogs but it was hard to keep track of them, and they needed the hunters to be successful in bringing in meat.

Dog were also brought from Britain for the settlers on the mainland but were not so useful because it was forest.

Unfortunately, when Free Settlers (non convicts) moved in, they wanted complete ownership over tracts of land for their sheep farming, and that's when the convicts were brought harshly under control and the murder of the indigenous inhabitants began.

The book sounds fascinating and there are informative reviews of it in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

a tail-wagging great day for Australia

Penny and I had an unusual start to the day. As soon as we were out of bed we sat down in front of the television. Penny has never before started her morning with tv viewing, but this was such a historic day that we were glued to the set. (Well, Penny's eyes were actually shut, but I'm sure she was taking in the historic speeches in Federal Parliament.)

Today, finally... finally... our government presented a formal apology to the indigenous families whose lives have been disrupted by seven decades of forced removal of children from their parents. Having taught indigenous children for many years I have seen first-hand the suffering this policy has brought to communities and I am thrilled that at last their pain has been acknowledged.

If I were a dog my tail would still be wagging. I've cried at the stories aired today but my general feeling is joy that at last our country has come of age and can admit that a great wrong needs to be acknowledged. In my opinion it's a sign of maturity to be able to say 'Sorry'.

And talking of wagging my imaginary tail - Jabari's mum has sent me an interesting piece of info about canine tail-waggers. She says:
The direction of your dog's tail wags may tell you what's going on at the other end, in his brain. Researchers found that dogs consistently wag their tails to the right at the sight of something pleasing and familiar -- their owners, for example. A dog's left brain, like a human one, deals with positive emotions. And because the left brain controls the right side of the body, happy excitement will send a pup's tail wagging to the right. Tails take a left turn when dogs greet someone less familiar or when they encounter intimidating behavior in other dogs. Wagging to the left reflects feelings like fear and anxiety.
I was most interested in her email so I looked around on the Net and there are heaps of sites reporting this research. I thought the one at Land of PureGold Foundation has a clear discussion and, by the way, it's a great site, well worth a look. At Science Buddies there's info for anyone wanting to investigate this behaviour. It's aimed at students wanting to do a science project.

Then again, another report at Discovery Channel, which I found by following a link from Karen Pryor's clickertraining.com says that the tail wagging direction is so subtle that the average person couldn't measure it without analysing a video clip.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

dingoes, wolves and domestic dogs

I've been taking more notice of Penny's behaviours since I've been reading Vilmos Csanyi's book If Dogs Could Talk, which I wrote about on 5th February this year.
One behaviour that I hadn't consciously noticed until I read about it is the habit of waving her tail from side to side to let us know that she's attending to us - either listening to what we're saying or just greeting us after an absence.

In light of Csanyi's theory that dogs have evolved to live alongside humans I was interested to find an article about the dingo in the Australian dog magazine Dogs Life

The article quotes Barry Oakman, president of the Australian Dingo Conservation Association:
"Being a wild animal, the Dingo has got traits quite unlike a dog that has been domesticated," says Barry. "The Dingo went through a certain form of domestication many years ago, before it reached Australia. The Aborigines were quite nomadic and so was the Dingo, but finally, when the Europeans turned up, we persecuted the animal and it went wild again.
Csanyi's book notes that wolves or wolf-dog crosses can not be trusted to live with humans because they are genetically wired to be alert for chances to move up the status ladder and will seize any chance to attack a higher-status human who is seen to have a weakness, such as a sprained ankle, for instance.

It would be interesting to discover how the dingo fits into this theory, given what Oakman says about its having been domesticated to some degree by indigenous Australians before white settlement. I notice that the dingo is in the canis familiaris group, not canis lupus, as the wolves are.

There is an ironically sad comment on the site of Dr Ellen Rudolph regarding the fact that the dingo is regarded as possibly the ancestor of the modern dog:
"So what does the future hold for the Dingo? In its travels throughout the world the Dingo has faced many battles for survival against man and nature, from fullscale eradication campaigns and enormous fences to unjustified victimization and subversive genetic manipulations. Although Dingoes have won most of the battles, the cruel irony is that they are steadily losing the war, thanks to their evolutionary progeny, domestic dogs. In the end, their chances of continued survival in the wild will rest solely on the efforts of an informed public to stop contact between Dingoes and domestic dogs, and to take pride in Dingoes as native species whether they be Thai or Australian."
I was surprised to learn that Australis is not the only place where dingoes are found. Dr Rudolph says they are also found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand and southern China.

On Dr Rudolph's site there is a photo of part of the famous dingo fence, and there is some information about its 2,500 km length at a Queensland government site.

Monday, 11 February 2008

more about dogs eating tripe

It looks as if Penny isn't going to get any nice (uggghhh) tripe. I've questioned three butchers now and all say the same thing. It is not permitted to sell green (unwashed) tripe in butcher shops. It isn't allowed to leave the abattoir, my own local butcher says. I'll have to try to discover whether pet-meat shops sell it.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

dogs at the cinema

Penny waits at home when I go out to see a film. However, if we were in Austria I could perhaps take her with me. I read about this on Spluch, a general-interest blog.

Friday, 8 February 2008

dogs and humans scratching an itch

Penny has a look of great concentration as she deals with an itch. She'll stop the middle of what she's doing and immerse herself in the 'scratching experience'. She also loves it if we humans scratch around her ears or under her chin. Or her belly. Or almost anywhere, actually.

I also find it wonderfully satisfying to get my nails into an itchy patch on my skin.

I've often thought scratching an itch seems a strange thing to do. How can scraping at your skin with sharp nails (the sharper the better, if the itch is really annoying) stop the discomfort? Wouldn't it just make things worse?

An article at Newsweek has some answers, courtesy of dermatologist and researcher Dr. Gil Yosipovitch, of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in the US. He says:
What we do know is that the itch doesn't stand alone. Rather the itch involves not only the skin, but also the spinal cord and the brain. We used to think that the itch shared the same neurological pathway as pain. But now we know that the itch has its own neural road, if you will. There are actually some nerves in the spinal cord that are itch specific.

He points out what we all know, that scratching an itch takes our minds off the annoyance of the itch and replaces it with a positive, pleasant sensation. Brain imaging has revealed the truth of this common experience.

It's nice to read an article that focuses on the fact that a certain amount of scratching is normal, in contrast to a Google search on 'dogs + itch + scratch', which returns hundreds of hits dealing with problem scratching. Dr Yosipovitch noticed that the areas of the brain that deal with compulsive behaviours are stimulated when we scratch an itch, so if dogs' brains react in the same way, this may explain why they, like humans, can develop obsessive scratching.

I know that when I am overtired I can start scratching at my scalp, so much so that sometimes it alerts me to the fact that I should stop what I'm doing and have a sleep. I wonder if dogs do the same? (On the other hand, they're too sensible to keep slogging away at something when they're overtired. Maybe there's a lesson for the human race there.)

The BBC also has an article about Dr. Yosipovitch's work, and there is a clear, simple explanation of the scratch reflex at Howstuffworks. This one, though, doesn't refer to the pleasure response. It says:
Even if you don't remove the irritant, scratching will at least cause pain and divert your attention away from the itching. The irritant that caused the itching is very small, maybe only a few microns in length, so it disturbs only a few nerve endings. When you use your fingernail to scratch the spot where the irritant is, you not only remove the irritant but you irritate a lot more nerve endings than the irritant

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

dogs eating tripe

Penny gets a varied diet, and one thing we sometimes feed is Ziwi brand canned meat with tripe. I am thinking, after reading The Canine Bark's post about the value of feeding tripe, that I might ask my friendly local butcher about it. It would probably be cheaper and healthier to buy it fresh. However, it's years since I've seen it in our local shop. Maybe he has some out the back.
I just checked back to the article by Dr Bruce from Vet's All Natural that I wrote about on December 8 last year. He says::
Tripe is the common term for the stomach lining of cattle and sheep.
Most tripe sold for HC has been washed in boiling water and bleached. Green tripe is the term used for un-processed tripe and is highly nutritious as a meat source. It is very low in fat (2%), highly glandular (contains enzymes), and is loaded with probiotic micro-organisms. Tripe is also a ‘white” meat (meaning it has a low amount of myoglobin, the protein that makes red meat red), and has historically been used for dogs with sensitive digestive tracts, or food allergies. I have utilised tripe for some time now as an alternate to kangaroo meat for treating difficult cases of allergic dermatitis in dogs (and occasionally cats) with great results.

SUMMARY – TRIPE
Tripe is very affordable, but can be difficult to source, and this is one of its main limitations. An excellent source of nutrition and, if available, should be very highly regarded as a fresh meat for pets.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

the love between dogs and humans

Penny has been resting near me as I read a book called "If Dogs Could Talk". It's by Vilmos Csanyi, a professor and chair of the department of ethology at a university in Budapest. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethology as:
1 : a branch of knowledge dealing with human character and with its formation and evolution
2 : the scientific and objective study of animal behavior especially under natural conditions
Csanyi says that the natural environment of the domestic dog is the human household, because dogs are quite different from other animals in that they have been bred to need to live with humans. He says (page 54):
With well-designed experiments we can even show that puppies are attracted more powerfully to humans than to their own species. Puppies long for humans even if they experience pain or other unpleasantness in their presence; in other words, they are unable to learn that in such experimental situations they should avoid humans.
To me this seems to be powerful stuff. It suggests that we have a great responsibility to those dogs who live with us. (By the way, I shudder to think of the experiments that proved those puppies would endure pain to be with humans. He gives footnotes to refer to these.)
There is a time in a puppy's life, between four and twelve weeks, when it learns to recognise which animals belong to its own species and begins the process of personal bonding. At this stage, the puppy that sees or touches humans, even for just a few minutes, will accept them as members of its own species.
He argues that puppies that get to know several humans during these few weeks, called 'the period of socialization', will be able subsequently to bond with anyone - in effect, if they are separated from their first master, they can bond with a new human.
I guess this answers a question that has bothered me about how rescue dogs generally manage to settle in so happily with a new family (unless bad experiences in their previous life have damaged them, of course).

He says that dogs that bond with their human families experience great stress if they are separated. He criticises people who abandon dogs. He says:
Anyone who rids himself of his erstwhile pet in such a fashion deludes himself by thinking that it is only an animal. Such a person does not realize that dogs are as capable of suffering as humans and are the exception among animals in that they experience rejection similarly to humans and human children."
When I first brought Penny home I read other authors' books about dogs and I was influenced by one who said that it is an act of enslavement to keep dogs as pets. Occasionally I feel a sense of guilt that Penny had no choice but to be taken from her litter and brought to live with us. However, Csanyi's writing rings true to me, reflecting the centuries of stories of the love between humans and dogs. It makes me relax about the fact that I get comfort from her companionship - because it is likely that the pleasure is reciprocal.

Monday, 4 February 2008

dog world record holder for water balancing

Penny and I are going to work on jumping a rope one of these days... Well, it's rather warm in Oz these days and we can't be bothered with energetic tricks at the moment. However, Sweet Pea's act would be hard to beat. She holds the canine record for jumping rope the most times in one minute.

However, her other trick is fantastic. She can climb a set of stairs whilst balancing a glass of water on her nose. I came across the link at Spluch, a general-interest blog. Here's Sweet Pea doing her tricks. The water-balancing trick begins at 1:56 minutes.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

fun new problem-solving toy for dogs

I brought home a new toy for Penny today. I noticed it as I was browsing the pet shop that (unfortunately for my finances) is right opposite the place where I work. The toy is called tug-a-jug and is made by busy buddy. On the site there is a movie clip of dogs playing with it.

Penny spent ages playing with it and we made a video that includes just a little of her work on the task.
At first she used a variety of techniques that had worked for other toys and did get all the treats out. However, the walls of the kitchen might be showing a little wear and tear already - I think there might be a few chips in the plaster on the corners. The packaging does warn that it's a heavy toy and needs supervision, especially if the dog throws it around. Penny hasn't progressed to that technique yet, but I think it will come.

Later in the evening I showed her that if she tugged on the rope the treats would spill out.



When Penny first started to gnaw on it I was concerned about her teeth, as the material is very hard.( (It says on the packaging that it is made with non-toxic materials similar to those used in bullet-proof glass.) However, she quickly moved from chewing on it to moving it around with her paws, so I relaxed about that, though I think it is a toy that should be supervised at all times, rather than one for solitary play.

I like the fact that it deals with the five senses, as is advertised also on the packaging: There are holes for the scent to come out - Penny was sniffing these; the treats make a rattling noise - Penny stopped playing with it when she could no longer hear treats in it; the food is visible through the transparent material; she was pawing at it and rolling on it and generally getting stimulation from her sense of touch; and, of course, the treats tasted good!


Friday, 1 February 2008

dogs' ability to interact successfully with humans

Sometimes when we're out walking Penny trots off with the wrong set of human legs and then does a double-take when she realises her mistake. She comes racing back to her own pack of humans and it seems that she looks up at our faces to make sure she's got it right this time. This goes against the suggestion I've heard that our dogs know us by our scent only.

Today at Springer link I read the abstract of an article from the Animal Cognition journal. It basically says that dogs can recognise their owners' faces.
The experimenters showed dogs a photo of a human just after playing someone's voice. When the owner's voice was followed by the same person's face, the dogs didn't look for as long as they did if the voice and face didn't match. The abstract says:
This suggests that dogs actively generate their internal representation of the owner's face when they hear the owner calling them. This is the first demonstration that nonhuman animals do not merely associate auditory and visual stimuli but also actively generate a visual image from auditory information.

Also, when a stranger's voice was followed by the owner's face, the dogs looked for a longer time. The researchers say:
Generating a particular visual image in response to an unfamiliar voice should be difficult, and any expected images from the voice ought to be more obscure or less well defined than that of the owners. However, our subjects looked longer at the owner's face in Incongruent condition than in Congruent condition. This may indicate that dogs may have predicted that it should not be the owner when they heard the unfamiliar person's voice.


Many discussions about dogs work on the supposition that they are generally wolf-like. I tend towards the belief that they have had such a long association with humans that they can't be fed or trained as if they were just tame wolves. Therefore I was interested to read, in a magazine called Science, another study that suggests that dogs are better than wolves (and better even than the Great Apes, those close relatives of mankind) at reading the communication signals of humans. In the experiment the dogs did better than wolves raised by humans or than chimps on a task where they used human body language to find where food had been hidden.

Probably no surprises there for anyone who lives with a dog, but interesting to see it proven scientifically.