Tag Archives: dogs

Sunny with a chance of squirrels


Bella sittingWhat is going on in that furry little head of yours? I was standing on the porch one day last fall watching Bella, our terrier-cross dog, and latest addition to the Chadwick pack. She was watching Diego, our ginger tom cat who was watching something in the trees. Bella stared, then turned to look where Diego was looking. Together they stared at something I couldn’t see, but which captivated them to the point of obsession.

Heads moved in unison as they stared, fixated. Tails twitched in syncopation.  I looked, unable to see what fascinated them. Suddenly they gave up, again in unison, and looked elsewhere.

Humans are often just befuddled observers of this stuff. Most of my thoughts about pets these days begin with the phrase “What the hell…?” I ask myself over and over what is in that furry head. Pick a furry head – we have four cats and two dogs (our max was once three dogs, seven cats and 23 ferrets, so this is a small pack… most of whom were abandoned or rescue animals, by the way, and they all had a good life within our walls).

Bella at fireplaceThought I understood dogs fairly well, I did. Thought I had had enough experience with all sorts of breeds and varieties. After all, I studied animal behaviour for years;read dozens of books on dogs and their inner selves. Spoke at length to breeders, animal behaviourists, dog trainers and owners.

But as much as you think you know, a lot of it is guesswork. Or just anecdotal experience that doesn’t apply to other dogs. There are days when I think dog behaviour is a pseudoscience like astrology or phrenology: just hot air and codswallop.

Bella reminds me daily that there are new horizons of dogdom I have yet to comprehend. She’s a delight, but sometimes as crazy as a bag full of bloggers.

It’s been nine months since we got her and we’re still learning her ways. When winter arrived, we learned much to our surprise that she likes snow. loves it, in fact, and will happily charge into drifts that almost swallow her.

She also likes to eat snow. A lot. Can hardly walk 10 metres without her snapping up some snow to crunch on. Crazy dog, for a dog that loves the heat so much she sits in front of the fireplace when it’s on. Not the roll-in-the-snow every few metres that Sophie likes, but loves to run and play in it anyway.

And she tries to climb trees when she sees a squirrel in one. I’d never seen a dog trying to climb up a tree before, but she just doesn’t get it that it isn’t happening.
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The Terrier Trials


Bella 1Dogs. I love dogs. I’d have a dozen of them, if I could. But dogs are as different in personality as we are. Not all dogs are a good fit with other dogs, or even with people. Or with cats. And I love cats as much, if not more, than dogs. Still, I tend to have more issues with dog owners than with their dogs.*

That little mutt curled up on my leg is Bella, our newest rescue dog. She’s a 2-year-old Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix, which apparently is a recognized mix according to this dog breed site. Given the range of shapes, colours and sizes in the photos there, I think “mutt” is still a more apt description.

Jack Russells are members of the terrier family. That’s short for terrorist, I’m sure. According to Wikipedia,

Jack Russells tend to be extremely intelligent, athletic, fearless, and vocal dogs. It is not uncommon for these dogs to become moody or destructive if not properly stimulated and exercised, as they have a tendency to bore easily and will often create their own fun when left alone to entertain themselves.
Their high energy and drive make these dogs ideally suited to a number of different dog sports such as flyball or agility. Obedience classes are also recommended to potential owners, as Jack Russells can be stubborn at times and aggressive towards other animals and humans if not properly socialized. Despite their small size, these dogs are not recommended for the condominium or apartment dweller unless the owner is ready to take on the daunting task of providing the dog with the necessary amount of exercise and stimulation. They have a tremendous amount of energy for their size, a fact which can sometimes lead to trouble involving larger animals. They may seem never to tire and will still be energetic after their owner has called it a day. While socialised members of the breed are friendly towards children, they will not tolerate abuse even if it is unintentional.

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Dogs and dog owners need places to socialize


Dog picHow many dogs live here in Collingwood? No one knows for sure, but we can make some good estimates, based on numerous surveys and national statistics. It’s a lot. Dog owners are a very large special interest group, perhaps larger than any other demographic group in town.

I’ve done some research and read many studies on pet populations done since 1996 (like this one from 2001 and this one from 2007). All of the major census figures of the older surveys are consistent with the most recent surveys.

Nationally, we have between 35 and 39 percent of homes with one or more dogs. On average there are 1.7 dogs per household.

I wrote about our pet populations last year when council was debating the cat tag bylaw. Back then, I noted,

A recent survey done by Colin Siren of Ipsos Reid estimated there are 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. The survey also shows that 35% of Canadian households have a dog, while 38% have a cat, which is consistent with other surveys conducted in the developed nations. Based on a figure of 9,500 households we should have around 3,040 households with dogs and 3,610 with cats.

We actually have more than the original 10,695 households here (based on stats from the last census, used in a report prepared by the planning dept. in Feb., 2012), so the pet ownership figures need to be updated. If we are consistent with national averages, using the lower 35% ownership, we should have roughly 3,750 households with dogs. That means, based on an average of 1.7 dogs per household, more than 6,300 dogs in town.

If we assume that 80% of the households with dogs are full time residents (that’s the percentage of households here used by full time residents as estimated by Stats Canada), we get about 5,100 dogs live here year-round.

Figure on adding another 200 new homes to the mix in 2012, and we get another 120 dogs (95 full time). If Collingwood’s pet ownership figures are higher than the lower end of the national average – and there are reasons to believe that: we have more seniors plus we’re semi-rural, both of which push the averages up – we may have closer to 6,000 dogs living here year-round. And that’s not counting any new arrivals between the census and 2012.

Put it another way: based on an average of 2.3 people per household (StatsCan figures), there are more than 6,900 people living year-round in Collingwood in a home with one or more dogs, and more than 8,600 if we include all of our part-time households in the mix. And that’s the low end of the estimate.

In comparison, 1,276 Collingwood kids were enrolled in ball and ice-related teams in 2011. Another 220 Collingwood adults were listed in ‘pick-up’ hockey (source: PRC Dept., May 2012). But even if the number of kids playing hockey was five times that number, it’s still fewer than the total number of people in Collingwood homes with dogs as part of their family.

It’s not about us-versus-them, however. It’s about accommodating all the user groups in the community, not just some of them. Dog owners are a substantial group of residents. Just because dog owners are not organized like hockey or soccer associations doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

We have made it illegal to walk your dog without it being on a leash, which forces owners to find a place where they can legally let their dogs run free. Allowing dogs to have exercise and socialize is as important to their behaviour and psychology as it is to children’s.

Happy dogKeeping a dog on a leash or penned in a back yard all the time will create a dog with the same sort of personality that it would if you treated a child that way: anti-social, aggressive, bored, destructive and overweight. Dogs, like people, are social animals: they need exercise, activity, companions and interaction with humans and other dogs.

To accommodate all of our dog owners, have one full-time off-leash dog park in an isolated area located at the most southerly edge of town, an area without neighbours.

It can only be reached by driving (even if a bus went there, dogs are not allowed on our buses). Anyone without a car can’t use it unless they walk a very long way to get to it: the location is very inconvenient, even inaccessible for many people who want to walk their dog to an off-leash area. This violates some of our basic beliefs in walkability, in active transportation, in creating community spaces and in creating neighbourhoods.

It’s a dark place with no lighting, and there are no nearby homes, so it is not considered safe by all dog owners.

“Pawplar” Park, as it was named, is beside an unfenced storm water management pond, too. Council has received complaints recently about dogs swimming in the pond and having to be treated for skin and eye ailments. The park currently has parking for only four cars, so drivers are parking on the grass wherever they can find space, and wet ground discourages parking there.

There is no source of safe, fresh, treated water for the dogs. Only the pond (which could be toxic) and the nearby river (which could mean any number of parasites) have water. Upgrades to make the park better and safer would be modestly expensive.

Dogs at playTwo baseball diamonds (at Central Park and Heritage Park) are designated as off-leash areas in the off-season (winter to early spring). These close to dog owners in mid-April. Once they close, where can dog owners go? If owners take their dogs to the water to swim, they still have to obey the leash law. Where can dog owners throw a stick or a ball for their pet without violating the bylaw?

Council is talking about expanding our ice surfaces to accommodate the demands from skating and hockey teams ($35 million for a total of 685 young players, according to those PRC figures). Yet a suggestion to spend a mere $5,000 on fencing to create a temporary off-leash park at High and Second – a well lit, safe, walkable part of town – was criticized by some at the table, last Monday. That is an odd alignment of priorities, as I see them.

We apply curiously different standards of service and facility to dog owners than we do to users of the arena, the curling club, the tennis courts, the skateboard park, the lawn bowling club, the pool. I don’t think we should. Dog owners deserve, I believe, more choices than one, out-of-the-way spot accessible only by car.

Dog owners, too, appreciate the neighbourhood off-leash parks because they can socialize with other owners; talk with neighbours, share stories, exchange ideas about pets and help strengthen community bonds. Off-leash parks are also safer areas for kids because they are protected from traffic.

Last night, six of nine members of council* voted to approve the recommendation to create a temporary off-leash area in an unused part of Heritage Park. It’s a small step towards a long-term, permanent solution. I would like council to also consider identifying some trails as off-leash, as well, if for no other reason than to recognize their use as such by contemporary dog owners.

* Voting for the motion: Mayor Cooper, Dep. Mayor Lloyd, Councillors Cunningham, Lloyd, West and myself.

What is your dog thinking?


Dog thoughtsA story on Science Daily News says scientists are using an MRI scanner to look into the thought processes of dogs. As the article notes, “The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?”

I don’t need an MRI scanner to figure this out: food. More food. When do we eat? Can I have some of that? What’s for dinner? Are you going to eat it ALL? Are those scraps for me? What else is for breakfast? Is that food I smell? Don’t mind my drool, I’m just starving. Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll eat it! Can you open the fridge again so I can sniff it? Say, is that bacon? Sure I’ll eat banana if you’ll just give me some. Hey, I’m hungry. Would it hurt you to give me a little? Just let me lick the plate after you’re done. I know there’s ice cream in your bowl. Can I have some? When do we eat? Is there any spare food around? When’s dinner?

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

There’s a good article with more detail about this research on Wired.com.

Dogs have terrific senses. They have the uncanny ability to hear the sound of a banana being peeled from 100 feet away. They know when a fridge door is opened, and can differentiate between the sound of the drawers which hold the flatware and which hold the can opener. They can smell toast a block away and bacon miles way.

Okay, yo be fair, my dog also has other thoughts: can we go out now? Why am I inside? Is it time for a walk? I’m bored. Let me out. I have squirrels to chase. I need to go sniff something. Get off your ass and talk me for a walk. Are you going out yet? Can I come? When are we leaving? Why are you just sitting there? Let’s get going. Walkies! Out! Go out and take me along.

But while doing a little research into dog intelligence and behaviour this morning, I came across this story on Science News titled, “Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains, Scientists Find.” This is a very bizarre but intriguing line of study:

For the first time, scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain.
“As a dog’s head or skull shape becomes flatter — more pug-like — the brain rotates forward and the smell centre of the brain drifts further down to the lowest position in the skull,” Dr Valenzuela said.
No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome.
“Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It’s amazing that a dog’s brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes — it’s something that hasn’t been documented in other species,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Co-author Associate Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney noted: “We think of dogs living in a world of smell — but this finding strongly suggests that one dog’s world of smell may be very different from another’s.”

Digging deeper into the effects of breeding on canine behaviour, this story noted,

“Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions,” Dr Bennett said.

Smart dogActually I’ve known about the inheritability of traits for decades, since I first started reading about canine breeds and behaviours. But anyone who has ever worked closely with dogs knows that breeds have general characteristics.

This is why I have serious reservations around dogs bred for violence – the pit bull and its ilk, cane corso, dogo de Argentina and others. Even intense socializing may not eliminate inherited behaviour. Perhaps if we started a program of breeding these dogs with less aggressive breeds, it might make a better, more sociable dog.

But maybe not – Sophie was attacked this winter by a very aggressive dog allegedly a cross between a cane corso and a Lab (but looked 100% pit pull). So interbreeding (if that was actually true) didn’t make it a calmer, less aggressive dog. Maybe aggression is a dominant gene and cannot be easily sublimated.

In this story, titled, “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says”, scientists found dogs can count, as well as understand words (any dog owner knows that). But they can also appear Machiavellian:

They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”

Fascinating stuff. I want to spend an evening or two reading more about dogs and how they learn and apply their intelligence, but I think it would be better spent playing with my own dog.