Thanksgiving recap: First trip to in-laws

Pyrrha had a wonderful first Thanksgiving with us and a very successful first visit to her other set of “grandparents,” my husband’s parents. I was very proud of her.

She thinks she owns the place

General recap:

Pyrrha handled the revolving door of new people with grace and aplomb. We had tons of relatives and new people in and out of the house all week, and Pyrrha was marvelous with everyone. She still hung back in the beginning, when people showed up, but she did not seem disturbed at all by the constant flow of strangers in this new house. I felt like that was a big victory. Everyone also kept marveling at how calm she was. I think this is because a) she is fundamentally lazy, and b) flopping down in a corner is less scary than having to go up and engage with new humans. However, she wanted to be wherever people were, and she was always planting herself down in the middle of the kitchen or living room, keeping an eye on the action.

She also met children without (too) much fear. Guion’s young cousins, aged 12 and 7, attended the Thanksgiving meal and they were both very interested in Pyrrha. (Their family had recently acquired a young, energetic German short-haired pointer.) I always monitor her interactions with young children VERY closely, because I can tell that she is still pretty unsure of children. Guion’s cousins, however, were really great with her. They are calm, quiet children and they seemed to make her feel a little less anxious about their presence.

After the photo below was taken, I took Pyrrha out in the backyard on her leash and the kids followed. In the yard, she sniffed and circled the kids and even kissed their faces and hands. It helped a lot that both kids had been eating sausage biscuits right before! Now if I can just get all young children to cover themselves in sausage before interacting with Pyrrha, I think we could have her fear of children mostly solved…

Rollie IV meets Pyrrha

We took lots of long, brisk walks around the neighborhood. They have a lovely, mostly flat neighborhood that’s great for walking and Pyrrha got at least two miles of walks in every day we were there. (This also surely contributed to her general behavior of calmness and placidity in the house.)

Following birds

Pyrrha also showed interest in retrieving for the first time! My in-laws have a great, spacious, fenced-in backyard and Pyrrha just loved it. Their yard is chock-full of squirrels and there’s lot to explore. Plus, the yard backs up to a golf course, so she spent many hours quietly observing the golfers.

But retrieving! That was great. She’s never really retrieved before, except for chasing the thrown item, picking it up for a moment, and then getting distracted by something else. But this long weekend, she was retrieving actively — running after balls and actually bringing them back to us multiple times. She seemed to really enjoy this a lot.

Fetch with Guion

I was delighted, of course. Retrieving is the best way to exhaust a dog without having to expend any of your own energy. I hope she’ll keep up an interest in this game.

Retrieving at last!

And a semi-dog-related event we attended: The Blessing of the Hunt. My in-laws live in a big equestrian town, and every Thanksgiving morning, there is a “fox” hunt and a blessing of the horses, hounds, and riders by their Episcopal priest. Hundreds of people turn out for this event and I was delighted to attend — particularly as there was no actual fox being chased. They drag around a fox scent before the dogs are released.

We heard, however, that the hounds aren’t fooled by this faux fox scent. They don’t really seem to follow it, according to the riders, and really just like to run around in a pack with the horses. I find this kind of adorable.

Release the hounds!

Hounds setting off

Riding off after the "fox"

Hope you all had nice weekends! Whew! I am looking forward to a few weeks of respite before the holiday traveling circuit starts up again…

Thoughts on “Dogs Decoded”

Dogs Decoded, PBS Nova documentary

The other night, Guion was out for a poetry gathering and I didn’t really feel like reading Muriel Spark, so I decided to watch the PBS Nova documentary, “Dogs Decoded,” which is conveniently on Netflix instant view.

Because I’ve done so much reading about recent dog research, I’d already heard about many of the studies and stories included in this 53-minute documentary (like Betsy the border collie, the fox breeding program in Siberia, and the research of Duke University professor Brian Hare). But it was really exciting to get to see some of these dogs in action, meet the Siberian foxes, and watch Hare and other researchers demonstrate how dogs followed humans’ visual cues–in a way that chimpanzees couldn’t.

In short, I LOVED this documentary. I want to watch it again right now and I especially want Guion to watch it with me. There were four stories in particular that grabbed my interest.

First, the discovery that dogs look to the left side of our faces. This seems like an uninteresting detail. Yet, scientists have found this to be incredibly significant. By studying the facial expressions of humans, researchers concluded that we do not show our feelings symmetrically on our faces. Rather, the left side of our face tends to show a more accurate depiction of our emotion. (Sounds really odd, but the film shows composite photographs that demonstrates how this is true.) The connection that is fascinating is that when dogs look at a human’s face, they almost always tend to look at our left side first. What’s so unusual about this is that dogs don’t do this with other dogs, other animals, or objects: it’s just with people. This indicates that dogs have developed a unique ability to read the emotions of humans–an ability that surely advanced the dog’s ascent as one of the oldest and most trusted domesticated animals.

Second, Betsy, OMG, Betsy. Betsy the unbelievable Austrian border collie. Betsy got worldwide attention before Chaser, the South Carolina border collie who was trained to recognize an astounding 1,000 words. Betsy’s verbal repetoire is perhaps not as advanced as Chaser’s, but we found her first. “Dogs Decoded” visits Betsy’s home in Austria where her owner, a woman who prefers to remain anonymous, shows us Betsy’s ability. Like Chaser, Betsy can correctly identify objects by name–much like a 2-year-old human child–without any verbal or physical cues from her handler. I’ve seen dogs do this before and it still blows my mind every time–but what absolutely knocked my socks off was what the visiting researcher asked Betsy to do. The researcher wanted to know if, like a toddler, Betsy had the ability to understand that a photograph of an object was a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. Betsy’s owner said she’d never tried this before with Betsy and didn’t think it would work. The researcher holds up a picture of a black-and-white chew toy to Betsy and the dog looks at it intently. She gives her a command to find it and off Betsy goes–and brings back the object from the picture. That’s amazing. I think I cursed out loud when I saw it; that’s how impressed I was.

Third, I was fascinated by the study done by eastern European (Hungarian?) researchers who raised puppies and wolves from infancy. Drawing from the premise that dogs and wolves are 99.98% genetically similar, the scientists wanted to know if you raised a baby wolf as a dog if it would then become like a dog, i.e., domestic. First, the scientists hand-raised puppies. The puppies lived in their homes, slept in their beds, etc. After they raised a litter of puppies this way, the researchers raised a litter of wolf cubs in the same way. At first, the wolves didn’t seem much different from the puppies. The wolves snuggled up to them when they took them outside, their play seemed to resemble the play of puppies, and so forth. But by the time they hit seven or eight weeks, it became clear that these wolves were not going to magically become dogs.

One of the most striking examples of this difference was a test with puppies and wolf cubs of the same age in a controlled environment. In separate rooms, the puppy and the wolf cub are both introduced to a foreign object (a robotic toy dog that barks). The puppy is curious and goes up to sniff it; the wolf cubs shrink back in fear and try to claw their way out of the room. Next, the researchers test to see if the puppy and wolf cub will respond to a human’s physical cues. The puppies make eye contact with the humans and seem to easily follow the human’s hand signal to a cup on the floor. The wolves, however, never make eye contact with the humans and try to run away. Later, the film jumps to one of the researchers with an adolescent wolf in her home. This animal is a total menace–leaping on counters, trying to knock her over, totally unresponsive to her correction–and can hardly be trusted indoors, even though he was raised in the home with this woman. Wolves are not dogs and dogs are not wolves; don’t try to treat one like the other (ahem, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas!).

Fourth, I’ve read many times about the decades-old silver fox breeding program in Siberia. I loved being able to actually see these foxes and the dramatic changes in their appearance over time. I think this is one of the most fascinating studies ever. When the program started, researchers decided to selectively breed foxes for friendliness toward humans. In the first few litters, only 1% of the fox cubs didn’t react aggressively or fearfully toward humans. This 1% became the foundation of the “tame” breeding program. Tame foxes were bred to other tame foxes and so on.

By the eighth generation of tame foxes, some very interesting changes started to occur. Coat colors began to change dramatically. The originally black and dark gray foxes started developing white patches, spots, and stripes. Some cub’s ears never perked up but stayed floppy. Limbs were shortened. The foxes were physically adapting to domestication; they were evolving to be cuter, more appealing to humans–just like the domesticated dog. This totally blows my mind. If you’re interested, you can now apparently order your own tame fox from this Russian breeding program for a mere $6,950.

I loved this film and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a basic interest in dogs. It will make you look at your dog in a totally different and appreciative way. If you don’t have Netflix and you want to watch this film, mark your calendar for November 15, 2011, when it’s airing on PBS.

Breed Love: Shiba inu

Shiba inu
Shiba in the grass. Source: Flickr

I have been studying Japanese since I was about 10 years old and so, naturally, I developed an interest in Japanese dogs. There are two Japanese breeds who have become quite popular in America lately, the akita and the shiba (the “inu” suffix that you see is the Japanese word for “dog”). Akitas burgeoned in popularity in the 1980s, along with rottweilers, dobermans, and other “masculine” dogs to complete your tough-guy image. Shibas, however, are adorable, foxy little dogs who have been making their own rapid rise in popularity (no thanks in part to the live Shiba puppy cam).

Shiba Inu 柴犬 Daitan 大胆 ("Hiroshi" 浩)
Oh, baby shiba. Your little fox face is irresistible. Source: Flickr, user pjen

In 2008, I had the opportunity to live and study in Tokyo for the summer. Naturally, one of my favorite facets of living there was observing the life of the Japanese dog. The Japanese are very serious about their dogs. Per their national industry of kawaii (cute), the dogs there are always very cute. The shiba is no exception, as you can see. Shibas were extremely popular in Tokyo. For a comparison, the shiba is to Japan what the lab is to the United States: they’re extremely ubiquitous. (The Japanese also appeared very partial to dachshunds and Shetland sheepdogs.)

on the path
This is a (not great) photo from my time in Tokyo. Shibas were everywhere! Source: Me

I’ve seen a handful of shibas in Charlottesville, actually, but have not spent a ton of time with them. From what I know about the breed, shibas–like other northern dogs–tend to be independent and standoffish. For this reason, they can be rather difficult to train. Shibas are often quiet and clean and therefore often get the moniker of being “cat-like.” Their precious faces and portability ensure their ascension to popularity in America. I’m not sure if I’d ever get a shiba myself, but I think I ought to spend more quality time with one before I make a solid decision. Thankfully, there are a lot of great shiba blogs around to fill the void for now.

Shiba links: