Friday, December 26, 2014

When it comes to fun, Fido's a real wag

WHEN MY dog Harper was a puppy, she wanted up in my lap one day. The problem was, my lap was already occupied by Twyla, our black-and-tan Cavalier. Harper knew that Twyla would "give her what for" if she dared to jump up there, too.

Harper paced back and forth, watching us. You could practically see the wheels spinning in her head. Suddenly, Harper sprinted for the stairs, barking loudly. Twyla immediately jumped out of my lap and ran down the stairs to lead the charge against whatever danger threatened us. Harper, still at the top of the stairs, stopped barking, trotted back to my chair and hopped in my lap.

Problem solved.

I never cease to be entertained and impressed by dogs' thought processes. In her book, Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz writes that "dogs are quite capable of concealing behavior, acting to deflect attention from their true motives." In other words, they practice deception. In a 2009 address to the American Psychological Association, canine researcher Stanley Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, said, "During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards."

My husband has experienced this in nose-work class with Gemma, our Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix. Inside her tiny head is a brain worthy of Machiavelli - or, at least, Machiavelli's dog. Gemma knows that she is rewarded with treats when she finds a particular odor, and at first she wasn't above giving a false alert in the hope that she might get rewarded anyway. She has learned, though, that it doesn't work, and last time she rocked all her searches, including sweeping by the boxes containing tasty distractors such as pasta, popcorn and Cheetos.

Anna McDole, a veterinarian in San Jose, Calif., says that her dog pretends to walk away from the cat food. When McDole thinks it's safe to drop her guard, he sneaks behind her to get back to it.

Dogs don't always trick other dogs (or people) with the intent of getting something out of it. Sometimes they do it just for fun. Kim Schive, of Carlisle, Mass., still laughs when she remembers this story about two of her Shetland sheepdogs. Kia lived to keep the yard free of squirrels. Whenever she saw one, she ran at the fence, jumped at it, hitting it with all four feet, did a quick half-turn in the air and another quick half-turn on landing. Then she stamped her feet five times, all the while barking furiously with hackles raised. Penny could mimic Kia's routine perfectly, right down to the number of foot stamps and barks. During the dead of winter, while all the squirrels were hibernating, Penny would periodically launch into Kia's squirrel dance. "I think she did it just to get a rise out of Kia, because when she saw it, Kia would dash around the yard madly for 15 or 20 minutes, looking for the nonexistent rodent while Penny watched her with clear amusement," Schive says.

In Native American folklore, coyote has the reputation of a trickster, but clearly he is not the only canid who plays tricks on his friends.


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker.

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