Tag Archives: dogs

Canine Cooperation

In an earlier blog piece, I wrote of wolves having been reported as smarter than dogs in a teamwork task. While wolves were superior at performing the pull test, I wondered if this degree of cooperation was true for other dog-dog cooperation tasks as well.

The standard pull task required animal teams of two wolves and two dogs (as well as pairs of other animals) to cooperate in order to earn a tasty reward. The experiment was reported in the New York Times. Viewing this video report made me wonder if my dogs ever meaningfully cooperated with each other or did they merely excel in cooperating with their humans.

Many examples of Border collie cooperation during herding tasks exist, some of which have been detailed here previously but these might well be viewed as examples of human/dog cooperation.

Buddy on left and Bella on right. Photo by Ramsey

Since writing an earlier piece about my dogs and how they cooperate with each other, I’ve found another good example. Bella, our female Border collie, has for some time worked as our nighttime door monitor.

What I mean by this is that Buddy will often go to the door at night but fail to bark to signal his desire to go out. Standing quietly at the backdoor, he often goes unnoticed by his sleeping humans. This is especially true as he goes to the room adjacent to our bedroom when Trudy and I are deeply asleep.

“My humans are so slow in sensing Buddy’s plight.”
Photo by Ramsey

On sensing Buddy’s need Bella’s response is to head for our bed and place her very cold, wet nose on the selected, sleeping face of one of her humans. Believe me, this proves quite alerting and motivating, waking one of us up from even stage IV sleep. Trudy or I will then find Buddy standing at the backdoor and let both Buddy and Bella out for Buddy to do his business. Bella will later bark when both are ready to come back inside.

In my opinion Bella’s door monitoring routine exemplifies dog-dog cooperation. She looks out for the best interests of an uncomfortable, bladder-distended Buddy, but also Bella benefits her human companions by helping avoid a large yellow puddle inside the house.

“And I really appreciate Bella’s help too.”
Photo by Ramsey

Have you too seen examples where dogs cooperate with each other? I would love to hear your stories. Let’s hear it for canine cooperation and doggy solidarity!

Cooperation says it all

Wolves Beat Dogs in Teamwork Test

A video in the NY Times from Wednesday, November 8, 2017 got me thinking. The video produced by James Gorman made the provocative statement that wolves may be smarter than dogs. Could this be true?  More precisely the video claims wolves are smarter than dogs at learning the rope pull test. This task is where two animals of the same species have to work cooperatively to achieve success.

The rope pull test is commonly used test to determine cooperativeness among two animals and to compare among various species. The test consists of a tray around six feet long or so that has two tasty treats in plain sight but unavailable behind a screen. The two animals must simultaneously pull on a rope, at the ends of the slide, thus pulling out the sliding tray amd making the two treats available for consumption. As it turns out wolves learn this task quickly and work cooperatively. Dogs not so much. Other species able to perform the task include elephants, parrots, monkeys, and rooks (black birds). Dogs truly struggle with this task but can eventually learn it.

The explanation provided for dogs’ slowness to learn is that they are not used to working cooperatively with other dogs. Yes, dogs work with humans exceptionally well, such as with bomb sniffing, herding sheep, riding surfboards and skateboards, protecting homes, and sniffing out corpses in forensic investigations. But these are activities dogs do with humans, not in cooperation with other dogs.

Bella on the left and Little Jack on the right

 

Wolves, on the other hand, don’t work with humans but work with members of their pack for survival. If you think about it, this all makes pretty good sense, . Adaptability is after all important for survival. Dogs must adapt to their human companions and make them happy while wolves must adapt to their  pack and become successful hunters.

But this video in the NY Times got me wondering. Are my dogs capable of working together? If so, what can they do cooperatively with each other? I have shared over the years in this blog many examples of my dogs working with me to herd cattle. But this is a task they do in combination with me who is directing them to some extent (at least that is my illusion as de facto leader).

It didn’t take me long to find an example of my dogs cooperating with another dog. Not long after viewing the video I saw Bella, my female Border collie, and Little Jack, our “Texas brown dog” take off on a spontaneous hunting mission. You see, Jack is determined to save the world from what he must see as the scourge of armadillos and squirrels. Just moments before he had spotted an armadillo. After quite a chase, the dogs caught the armadillo. Jack tried to kill it on his own but the armadillo was too strong and pulled out of his bite. Jack held onto the tail of the armadillo and proceeded to ski behind the powerful animal, dragging Jack toward its burrow.

Bella then swooped in went after its head, trying to kill it. Together they managed a successful hunt that neither one of them alone could have pulled off. This hunting duo has killed at least four or five armadillos recently, making them highly effective hunters so long as they work cooperatively. Incidentally they act incredibly proud of themselves, showing extreme excitement and rapid panting after returning from a prolonged absence in which it becomes obvious had been a hunt.

This strikes me quite clearly as cooperation in my dogs. But is it not the only example. I’ve taken to going for a walk for my health most afternoons around 4:00. Not too surprisingly at around this time when usually working at my computer, two dogs will show up at my desk. It can be any two of them.  In tandem they will nose, scratch, whine, and otherwise manipulate me out of my chair. I am then herded unceremoniously toward the door and made available for their afternoon walk.

I have a theory as to why two come at me at a time.  When previously just one dog took on this task, I assumed he/she just needed to go outside to pee and I would promptly put the dog outdoors. They quickly learned a single dog strategy was ineffective.

Well there are two examples of my dogs working cooperatively with one another. There are others I will share in a later blog piece. Please dear readers share your examples. I plan a follow up piece and may be able to share your experiences with other blog readers. Let me hear from you!

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.

 

At The End Of The Road

 

You might recall the stray dog that wandered onto our ranch several years ago that we named Little Jack Kerouac. We named him after the author of the same name who wrote On The Road and who was the forerunner of a beatnik. Our Little Jack had been wandering the county roads of Gillespie County for months and had traveled many miles when the skinny pup was finally herded into a corner of our yard by our Border collies. The small brown dog was half-starved and intensely fearful. His fear, nevertheless, relented before a succulent piece of fried chicken, prompting the little brown dog to climb into my arms.

Despite his bad condition from his long tenure as a road dog, it became apparent that he had been neutered and house broken. These aspects suggested at one time Jack had enjoyed a close relationship with a human friend.

Yours truly ready to work on the ranch with assistants Jack and Bella.

We still don’t know what all he encountered as a road dog and Jack isn’t talking. We suspect he must have scrounged whatever he could find to eat including roadkill. We know Jack is a canny survivor.

His breeding has proved an ongoing mystery. When asked what breed he is, we finally gave up guessing and simply began replying, “He’s a Texas Brown Dog.”

Since Jack’s arrival, let’s just say… he’s matured and settled in well. He has adapted to his new home on a hill at the end of his very long road.

Sometime ago I wrote several blog pieces on Jack stealthily loading himself into various vehicles and stowing away for rides. We do not think he was trying to escape his adopted home but that he merely wanted to go for rides. Fortunately, after a few bad moments of being unable to locate Little Jack, we were able to place phone calls and have him returned.

Jack is no longer the skinny road dog he once was. He has, in fact, chunked up. He still loves to go on ranch walks, run errands and ride in the pickup. Whereas the Borders ride in the bed of the pickup, Little Jack proudly expects to sit on the console in the cab where, if hot, the AC is on and, if cold, the heater warms him. He likes his creature comforts.

When our Borders are let out of the pickup to exercise by running up the hill to the house, Jack preemptively jumps off the console and hides in the back seat. No silly running up the hill for Little Jack. Why get out of a perfectly good pickup and wear out my foot pads?

At night Jack has inched his way closer and closer to the head of the bed. Initially when he came into our lives he slept under the bed or on a nearby dog bed. He later transferred to the foot of the bed. Now Trudy and I find the little rascal snuggled between us, his head lying on a soft pillow. Imagine going from the hard life of a road dog to a pillow top mattress!

Jack likely thinks, “Heck with Pearl Buck’s ideas of a place in the sun, I have a soft mattress in an air conditioned home.” When asleep, he becomes an almost immovable lump. If Trudy or I get up in the middle of the night, he migrates to the vacated warm spot, claims it, and is difficult to dislodge.

It’s said every dog has its purpose. The purpose of our Border collies is clear, herding our cattle. Jack’s purpose has been harder to determine. Surprisingly, he sometimes has helped the Border collies with herding. But mainly Jack is a varmint dog and represents an absolute terror for squirrels and armadillos. This job of protecting the world from squirrels and armadillos, though, is not full time for our Little Jack.

Several years ago my mother came to live with us and it was then that we learned what Jack’s real job was–companionship. My elderly mother would sit on the couch for hours with Jack snuggled up against her, stroking his furry head. He returned her affection with gentle licks and made his belly available for endless scratching. Mom and Jack became thick as thieves, although we worried my Mom might rub Jack’s head bald.

“I think I can still feel the pea!”

My mother possessed a huge capacity to love, and in her final years she so enjoyed Jack’s companionship. Jack became a willing recipient for her love, and in turn he reciprocated his love for her. I’m convinced Jack made her final days much happier.

I suppose companionship is the major role for many dogs. Dogs have such an amazing ability to relate to humans, to sense their emotions, and to offer their unconditional love. It takes all kinds of dogs, but Jack has stolen our hearts and in their places left behind his paw prints.

The Lovely Couple Plus One

Katie, Kevin, and Olive in their Engagement Photo

Our daughter’s upcoming wedding is the really BIG news in our family. Katie and Kevin O’Neal will wed next month. We couldn’t be happier for the lovely couple.

It should be no surprise that with Katie growing up in our animal-loving family, she became an avid animal lover herself.

About five years ago while volunteering at the Dallas dog shelter, Katie fell in love with a mongrel dog and adopted her. They have been extremely close ever since. Olive has supported Katie through the emotional turmoil of a major job change, watched her dispatch several boyfriends, and survived several scary thunderstorms that deposited huge limbs in their front yard and mere feet from their house and car.

Olive is long, low slung, with the head and bark of a German Shepherd. While she looks like a dog put together by a committee, she has an incredibly sweet disposition.

Kevin has told me that he knew if he were to win over Katie, he would first need to win over Olive. While Kevin has a terrific sense of humor, there is some truth to his statement. Kevin takes care of Olive when Katie is out of town. He takes Olive on walks and has over time completely won her over.

Of course Olive goes on walks with Katie and Kevin

When Kevin proposed to Katie, she accepted his proposal of marriage. Posted below is Olive’s response as well to Kevin’s proposal. You see Olive asked me to post her answer. for all to see May the three of them have a wonderful marriage with best wishes and congratulations to the lovely couple plus one.

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

 

Thoughts On Love

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about love. And when I say this, I mean with its many facets. Strangely this began when our daughter Katie and her dog Olive visited last weekend. Olive does not appear as your typical dog. Olive looks like a dog put together by a committee. As best we can determine, she has German shepherd and either Corgi or Basset hound in her background. Olive is a very sweet and a good natured dog but one that elicits gasps and startled comments, such as “Oh my gosh, what is it?”

Olive has the face and head of a German shepherd but possesses a low slung body with front paws that angle outward at nearly 45 degrees. Now how exactly a German shepherd and a short-statured hound got together, I don’t know. My guess is the German shepherd mother got drunk one Saturday night and fell into a ditch- then along came Daddy.

Katie and Olive

Katie and Olive

Another reason for my recent fixation on love is that I have been reviewing chapters from my unpublished nonfiction book (tentatively entitled The Man Who Played Pinochle With Dogs). One chapter describes an elderly lady with a massive stroke who EMS brought to our emergency room. Initially we didn’t even know her name but determined from the CT-scan that the brain hemorrhage  gave her a very low chance of survival. The  woman physically was in very poor shape and not much to look at. Her hair was stringy and yellowish, finger nails grimy, skin fissured and aged, and she looked malnourished. I must admit at that point, we looked at her more as an old lady with failing physiology and decrepit body than as an individual with particular wants and loves. In our defense we had nothing else to go on.

The next day Ned, her octogenarian husband, with mincing steps walked into our medical intensive care unit and filled us in on her background. Ned not only gave us factual information about her health, but also absolutely changed the way we thought about this woman. We learned that both husband and wife had spent their lives as migrant workers. The had met as children at the end of a long cotton row and later started a common law marriage. Neither could have been described as anything but common in appearance. They had little in the way of worldly possessions and possessed little education. They had no children that might have cemented their relationship. Despite this  rocky foundation on which to build a relationship, their love had thrived.

It soon became clear to us just how much in love they had been. They never had been apart in all their years together. They worked hard, looked out for one another, and moved about together following the crops. The husband was absolutely devoted to his wife, a woman in the story whom I refer to as Maggie.

Whether it was Olive’s speculated upon parents or this pair of octogenarians, love always seems to play a central role for all of us in our lives. Whether it was simple lust as I suspect with Olive’s parents or a deeper, longer, and more meaningful love as with my memorable couple that love provides tremendous importance for our lives.

As I review my medical stories, how often I find an underlying theme about some aspect of love. It enters in the form of caregiver sacrifice, spousal love, love of a parent for a child, or love among unlikely and inherently unlovable people. Love often becomes the engine of transformation in my creative nonfiction stories. The stories also underscore the affection doctors and nurses develop for the people they care for.

Medicine is a calling like no other. I am fortunate to have experienced not only an education in medicine but having medicine provide for me a greater understanding of human nature, human strivings, and human fallibilities. Thank you Maggie, thank you Ned for helping me to understand a bit more about love.