Category Archives: Dogs Model Human Behavior

The Importance Of Place

Have you ever noticed how comfortable you feel at home?  Each of us has a certain comfort zone and a sense of place. I’ve often wondered about this?

Buddy as a puppy. “Say this lap feels pretty natural”

This feeling of belonging, belonging to a certain geographical place affects us all- a place that feels right, looks right, smells right and provides comfort and mitigates the travails of the world. Whether it’s early imprinting, as occurs with baby chicks, or some combination of the sounds, smells, sights, and memories (an overall gestalt for an area), I am not entirely sure. Nevertheless, for many who have lived away from their special places know the strength and durability of the homeward draw. It’s like a magnetic force and can be almost overpowering.

Buddy:Being in this pickup truck just feels right

Trudy and I lived for ten years in Minnesota while I trained in Neurology. Our two children were born there and we have wonderful memories of Minnesota. We met some lovely, lifelong friends, enjoyed the incredible 10,000 pristine lakes, and delighted in many novel experiences (have you ever tried lefsa or lutefisk?).

Nevertheless, both Trudy and I felt a nascent longing to return to Texas, our native home. When offered the opportunity to join the faculty of the new Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas, we quickly determined to leave our adopted State of Minnesota and head homeward.

What is it that makes a place comfortable for us? I’d lived in Texas during my formative years. Trudy had always lived in Texas. We both missed the gratuitous friendliness and expansiveness of spirit that is Texas.

Minnesotans were in no way unfriendly but seemed not as overtly warm and forthcoming as we’d come to expect from growing up in Texas. Plus we admittedly missed the Mexican food and Bar-B-Que along with the independent mindedness and largeness of spirit in Texas.

A friend of mine in Fredericksburg, Texas recently told me of having his grandchildren visit from New York City. Wishing to introduce his grandchildren to the wide, open spaces of Texas, he drove his grandchildren to The Big Bend Area. There with their recently purchased packs, canteens, and hiking boots, they set off on a well marked park trail to explore the grandeur of the Big Bend National Park.

After some time had passed, one grandchild developed a quizzical look on his face, looked around with an expression of perplexity, and said in a panicky voice, “Grandfather, we are lost!”

The grandfather asked in a calm voice, “what makes you think we are lost?”

The grandson replied, “Well, there are no people here, we must be lost!”

“I feel right at home in my pack.”
Buddy stands tall above Mollie and Bandit

 

The lack of people, the lack of built environments, and absent din of traffic noise was not “home” for the grandson. It was clearly different from New York City. No doubt the solitude struck the boy as unnerving and frightening. The grandfather shared that he strove to introduce an alternative sense of place to his grandchildren, one closer to nature than is New York City.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve learned a lot about animal and human behavior by simply watching our furry, four-footed friends. This includes the importance of a sense of place.

Buddy, our now senior Border collie, was born in my bedroom closet.

Daughter-in-law Alissa holding Buddy shortly after his birth

With rare exception Buddy has never ventured much beyond the outer fence of our ranch. Oh he frequently rides along on trips to the feed store and has on occasion gone on a wild bull chase throughout neighboring, overgrown ranches (see an earlier post, Slacker), but he is most definitely a home dog.

Buddy crouched and ready to herd

Once and only once, Trudy and I drove him to our daughter’s home in central Dallas. Buddy absolutely hated it. The loud sounds and strange smells were, I suppose, not what he was used to. He let his displeasure known by wetting on the floor, whining, pacing, scratching at the door, and at the end of the visit most eager to jump into the car and return to the ranch. We’ll never make that mistake again. Buddy is not and never will be a city dog.

Once when our ranch house was undergoing remodeling, we had to move about an eighth of a mile and live for several days in our guest house. Buddy, despite the short distance from our home, absolutely hated it.

We had packed a few things and loaded up the dogs for our stay at the guest house (The Yellow Rose). When the sun began to set, Buddy began scratching at the door of the Yellow Rose to go out. When later I went to call him in, I couldn’t find him. Buddy had gone home. I had to return to our main house, gather him from the back porch, and haul him back to the guest house.

Buddy: “Just thought I’d wait for you here on the porch at home while you dawdled  at that other place”

This sequence  of futility repeated several times before I wised up and closed the yard gate to the guest house so that Buddy could not leave. Needless to say, our dog spent a few restless nights at the guest house while the remodeling proceeded.

I learned from Buddy’s escapes that a sense of place proved more important than for him than did human companionship. His preference for place over person proved a little humbling but informative as to what was most important in Buddy’s canine world.

Like Buddy we all share a feeling of comfort when at home and mild discomfort when away from home.  A sense of place may go a long way to explaining homesickness, an emotion we have all felt.

While we may not understand why others feel comfortable in radically different places than our own and with different looks, smells, and accents than what we are used to, we can perhaps understand the comfort that comes to others with residing in their own familiar places.

“Why look elsewhere when I am already home”

A final thought regarding a sense of place deals with the impact of age. As Buddy gets older, he’s developing an even stronger love of home and dislike of travel. He is the first  to return to the pickup when we work on the ranch. Buddy is the first dog to want to go inside when spending time on the patio or in the yard. He is the least likely of the dogs now to participate in a deer chase or challenge a cow.

Perhaps as an older dog, Buddy feels more vulnerable. Home is comforting for him. Are there parallels in humans? As humans age, it strikes me we also develop an increased awareness of our frailties and have an increased love of home place. Don’t many older people, like Buddy, appear less willing to travel, explore, and seek out new adventures?

Our sense of place seems as important for humans, as it is for our canine companions. Perhaps our sense of place which is lifelong may even strengthen with age as it does for my four-footed friend.

Bullying- In humans and Dogs

Bullying has become an important topic in our schools and society. This unfortunate behavior occurs usually when an older or stronger person seeks to intimidate or reduce the significance of another. By doing so the bully tries to achieve an increase in status or sense of worth. Bullying can be quite harmful for the person being bullied and may lead to depression, anxiety and acting out.

Unfortunately I’ve witnessed similar behaviors in my beloved dogs. The shame of it all!

Bella on left and Buddy on the right

 

Little Jack, “Who me bully?”

I’ll describe a few dog behaviors and compare to human bullying as strong similarities exist. Perhaps we may even learn from our canine friends.

I’ve noticed when one of my dogs crosses a cattle-guard that he will stop immediately on the other side, turn, and menace other dogs trying to cross. The dog attempting to cross must gingerly place paws on the metal pipe and concentrate on not falling through. The task requires rapt attention and during the crossing, the crossing dog is vulnerable to such menacing (bullying).

“You just try coming across this cattleguard”

Similarly when one of my dogs goes through a door, he (Bella doesn’t do this) tends to crouch just outside in order to intimidate the following dog. Again the second dog is vulnerable. Why do this at all?

Whereas human bullying arises when the bully needs to establish dominance or elevate his/her often diminished self-esteem, I wonder if dogs are trying to improve their sense of worth or rank in the pack. In the picture below, Jack is trying to bite Buddy in the butt while Buddy is jumping into the pickup. This smacks of bullying if not outright sadism!

I’ve been pondering my observations. My first thought was that almost always a male dog bullies another male dog, and a female dog usually bullies another female dog. Gender plays a role here. Isn’t this gender specificity also true among humans?

When Little Jack or Buddy first cross the cattle-guard or first makes it through the door, the dog on the far side invariably will nip at the dog attempting to exit the house or cross the cattle-guard. By so doing the bully dog establishes primacy,  elevating its status. While this may be viewed as dominance, is it not also a form of bullying?

Likewise, I’ve witnessed Bella engage in bullying toward visiting, female dogs. In these instances the visitors are off their usual turf and appear initially tentative. Bella greets them on arrival by standing aggressively over them and growling at them. She’s not the welcoming hostess at all. The visiting female dog becomes submissive and even may demonstrate submissive peeing. Perhaps this submissiveness provides Bella reassurance that she will not be displaced by the visiting female dog.

Once dominance has been established, Bella appears friendly enough and ceases her earlier bullying behaviors. At this stage the two dogs usually play nicely together. The dogs Bella bullies are typically smaller than she. Here size makes a difference.

Early on in their interactions, I suppose Bella is trying to put them in their subservient places. If on the other hand, a visiting dog is substantially larger and more powerful than Bella, then bullying by Bella never becomes an issue. Makes sense to me and is also what we observe with humans. Certainly relative size of the animal being bullied is another relevant characteristic.

A third observation relates to the age of the dog doing the bullying. While Buddy was a bully early in his life, now in his advanced years he usually acts as if he couldn’t be bothered (except for Little Jack who is trying to displace Buddy). When visiting male dogs come to the ranch, Buddy now pays them little mind. Earlier in his life he would growl at the visiting dogs and do his best to intimidate them. It has been my experience that older dogs, for whatever reason, seem not to bully other dogs to the degree that do younger dogs.

“Okay, I’m not as young as I once was.”

This age factor may coincide with unwillingness to expend energy. It simply may not worth the expenditure of effort. In humans and with advanced age, self-worth has long before become established and secured and may explain the drop off in bullying. Might something like this also be at work with dogs? So perhaps age, size, and within gender bullying are characteristics of my dogs. It seems to me these are also characteristics that usually apply to human bullying as well.

I suppose this means young males and females, be they dogs or humans, must learn to become comfortable with themselves regarding status and rank. Lacking this, the chances for bullying remain. As humans we might wish to elevate the self-worth of a bully in the hope this will reduce the risk for a vulnerable, smaller person. Likewise if a younger person is under great stress, say family problems or personal trauma, an older person might help by counseling him/her or providing other assistance to mitigate the ego-deflating nature of the trauma.

As it relates to dogs, their human friends might be left with expressions of support for and acknowledgement of the worth of the bully dog. A big juicy bone might do the trick but also might precipitate a scuffle! I typically resort to lots of compliments and stroking my dogs in an attempt to signal each is a valued pet.

Do others have ideas in this regard. Are we left with only anti-bullying policies in humans? How can we reduce bullying in both dogs and humans? Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share.

Jealousy and Dogs

Jealousy affects animals as well as humans

 

My dogs display clear-cut signs of jealousy  I observe this when I scratch or pay extra attention to one of them. My other dogs will attempt to put their heads between my hand and the dog being scratched or try to run the scratched dog off by licking on its face or pushing it away.

I also observe this in their eating behaviors. When I put the same dry food in their three bowls, one dog will inevitably, after finishing his meal, check out the other two dogs’ bowls. This seems to indicate that the other bowls might have something better in them than did that particular dog’s bowl.

At times their jealousy seems more focused on keeping the affection away from the other dog than gaining attention for the jealous dog. What gives?

And I thought jealousy was a human emotion! This “green-eyed monster” as Shakespeare referred to it clearly extends to dogs as well as people. I bet others have noticed these behaviors in their dogs as well.

Jealousy must be a very basic and primitive emotion in animals. It likely benefits in achieving attention that may lead to increased survival. As such it may be beneficial in an evolutionary way.

I’ve noticed that older dogs do not show jealousy as much as young dogs. This seems consistent in what I’ve witnessed in people. Who among us as youth did not suffer the pangs of jealousy and likely thoroughly embarrass themselves as a result. While older age isn’t a complete guard against jealousy, it doesn’t appear to be as compelling an emotion in older humans nor does it appear to be so in dogs. My older dogs have largely avoided the whole jealous bit.

Jealousy affects both genders in both dogs and humans. It’s aroused by a perceived threat to a valued relationship from a third party. Jealousy is also a painful emotion as most can attest. I presume this is also true in dogs as well. No doubt jealousy has bad effects on dogs just as it causes suspicion, doubt, and fatigue in humans.

So how best to deal with jealousy with dogs? I usually try petting both dogs simultaneously. This works to until a third dog shows up wanting petting. I quickly run out of hands and begin to feel like a one armed paperhanger. I’ve not found adding a extra attention to a dog insures that dog from becoming jealous. Would love to learn the opinions of other human dog companions.

To share the emotion of jealousy with dogs is just one more example of how people and dogs are alike. But come to think of it, I’ve never witnessed a jealous dog do something really stupid like I have with some humans, especially men.

 

Dog Lessons On Living- Part 2

In my previous post I dealt with how two dogs modeled how to deal with serious illness and impending death. The two examples were from our current Border collie, Buddy, and our long deceased Shetland sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy. Their love of life and passion for their favorite activities persisted despite their physical challenges.

If we abandon the arrogant notion that humans are somehow completely different from other animals and instead recognize our common genetics, anatomy, physiology, needs, and behaviors, then animal behavior can become a potential assist for our lives.

I am reminded of a story from my recent book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales about Mary from Minnesota. This story, like many others in the concluding chapter of my book, took place aboard a fictitious cruise ship and demonstrated great perseverance of some physically handicapped folks in the face of adversity. The very real members of a group that Trudy and I accompanied had been organized by a national Parkinson’s Disease organization. Despite Mary’s advanced disease requiring  her to have a feeding tube, tracheostomy, urinary catheter, wheelchair, and and full-time attendant, she had demanded to go on the cruise.

Unfortunately Mary didn’t make it and passed away during the cruise. When speaking that evening by phone to her daughter in far away Minnesota, I learned to my surprise that the family had  expected Mary to die on the cruise. After recovering from my shock, I further learned that Mary had a lifelong habit of taking on great challenges. Despite her failing health Mary in recent years had undertaken skydiving, ridden a burro down into the Grand Canyon, and been strapped to a dogsled in Alaska. Mary refused to give in to her illness nor would she be prevented from trying new, exciting, and life changing thrills.

From Sailaway Chapter of Carrying The Black Bag

While Mary was only one of our passengers with Parkinson’s disease, all of them despite their balance issues dealt with the swaying of the deck and with the many challenges of shore excursions and beach activities. They also managed the dietary differences that at times limited the effectiveness of their medicines. None of these brave people shied away from the challenging experience, showing their zest for life and denying their illnesses control over their lives.

Now I know not all people with PD would make such a challenging journey. Indeed life is like a marathon and all of us hit the wall at times. Some persist and break through the wall while others are unable to do so.

Health and vibrant aging can be such a gift but persistence is also demanded

Both Buddy our Border collie, Taffy our Sheltie, and Mary refused to give in. All lived their lives to the greatest extent possible. I don’t know where Mary derived her zest for life, but she might have witnessed it in her pet. For whatever reason, Mary had learned to live her life as fully as she possibly could, believing that the quality of her life was more important than the number of days she lived.

Therein may lie a lesson for us all. Our challenge may be to garner as rich and full a life as possible. We all will likely be faced with challenges. Some of us will continue to strive and others will find an easier but less fulfilling way to live. Nothing is wrong with either approach, but our pets may have at least modeled the more courageous approach to life. Without it would we have even considered such a course of action?

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED