I’ve been mostly off-line for the last two weeks, because I’ve been dog-sitting my friend’s American Pit Bull Terrier, Bentley, which has been so much fun that I’ve just let it consume me. I’ve never had a chance to get to know a Pit Bull, so about all I’ve done is hang out with Bentley!
It’s a lot like when the grandparents (grandpa, in this case) sit the kids while the parents go on a long vacation. The two-edged sword is that, while the parents know the kids are safe and secure, they also know they’re gonna get spoiled all to hell and gone.
Or in this case, dog-gone spoiled by a loving grandpa who is a sucker for that ‘starving dog’ look. (Those hungry brown eyes; who could say no?)
Bentley’s mom was lucky enough to head for much warmer weather than we had here. First it was the nasty polar vortex bringing sub-zero temps. Then it was snow; lots and lots of snow. (We created a new February snowfall record!)
So poor Bentley didn’t have ideal weather for those necessary outside visits (let alone the prospect of taking a walk to explore her new environment).
If you’ve ever rough-camped in winter, or gone back in time, you know how much it sucks peeing outside in -10 degrees (Fahrenheit).
I never did teach her to walk (with me) all the way to the street for that first (or sometimes only) pee. She often let go at the top of the driveway.
Given the whole driveway had a thin layer of compact snow (from the plow), her pee-bombs burned big yellow-lined holes in the white cover. Which then froze pretty much immediately. Made the driveway look hysterical.
Full disclosure, I was fine with this on several levels.
In such cold weather, I can’t fault her for wanting to go the shortest distance possible if it’s just out to pee (and I have a neighbor who parks his big honkin’ truck a bit over the line, so I was okay with her peeing on my driveway next to his truck).
So I never really even tried to teach her to go all the way to the street.
In large part because, holy buckets, it’s been hell outside, and a big part of a dog’s life involves outside, so I was willing to cut her any slack she wanted on that.
After the coldest bits, and after the snowplows did their thing, we were finally able to do some better walking than just down the block and back.
I live in a great place for walks (weather allowing), lots of trees and wooded areas, several parks, and a fair bit of wildlife (I once walked touching distance past a small deer; I sang softly to it, and it just stood there).
We weren’t able to take as much advantage of it as I’d wished, but we did visit the closer park a few times. As did many other dog owners (or other dog sitters, for all I know).
Bentley quickly learned where dogs in the neighborhood lived — they left the same ‘dog lives here’ traces she did outside my place.
Sadly, some dog owners let their dogs out alone to do their business and don’t clean up after them. That leaves even more obvious signs.
We met a few of those unescorted dogs (on the same evening walk). Everyone was friendly, there wasn’t ever any tension, but I wasn’t thrilled about it being just me if things escalated. (Which can happen quickly with dogs.)
I have to say Bentley was, in fact, a perfect angel with every dog we met (even better than my Black Lab, Sam).
Dogs generally show signs of tension — hair standing up, tail stiff — that warn of potential escalation. Bentley was always wagging her tail and showing an eager, friendly posture.
She almost seemed to realize she was a guest or visitor. Or maybe it was just because it was all so new. Regardless, she did her mom proud — a very well-behaved good dog!
As always, what fascinates me about dogs, one reason I love them so much, is the question, “What is it like to be a dog?” What is their consciousness like?
In one view, they are a neural network evolved to specific and very effective interaction with humans. Dogs, in a sense, are symbiotes with humans. They depend on us for survival; they return protection, companionship, and what certainly feels like love.
But it’s hard to look into the eyes of a dog who knows you and is looking back and not see ‘someone’ there. It’s hard not to see a mind at work, one with opinions, goals, and feelings.
It does raise the question of the difference between a system that seems conscious from the outside and one that ‘actually is’ conscious (whatever that actually means).
Dogs lack language — almost certainly lack higher thinking — and cannot communicate to us what it is like to be a dog. We have only their behavior and interaction with us to indicate what might be going on internally.
The weather permitted Bentley and I one chance for a really long walk (75 minutes). Along that path, about 50 yards off, someone had a full-body life-size profile silhouette of Sasquatch (ala Harry and the Hendersons) in mid-stride.
Bentley locked onto that and stood motionless for a good while. Then kept an eye on it as we walked. Then stood some more and stared. More walking, more standing and staring.
It was hysterical. She was waiting for it to make a move.
An interesting insight to how they process what they see. She was clearly reacting to a large humanoid figure. She was definitely aware (as dogs usually are) of any human or dog in sight. In this case, there was no scent in the air, so it was purely visual.
One of the things that’s long fascinated me about dogs is the question of how well they map an area as they come to know it. How good is their geography?
A lot of it seems scent-based. Dogs know an area by how it smells. But do they have a map in their head (like I do) that tells them the physical layout of an area?
They seem to, from what I can tell, but without language, who can really know.
There’s the Gary Larson cartoon where the inventor’s dog interpreter helmet that translates all the dogs’ barking as (merely), “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”
Regardless of all that, Bentley and I spent a delightful two weeks. There’s nothing like curling up with a warm dog. Petting a dog is a good time for both! It comes close to being a pure experience untainted by life’s anxieties.
The trust and love of a dog is a pretty great gift.
All in all, I will say that, as much as I adored having Bentley and spoiling the crap out of her, I confirmed I’m at a point in life (despite the urging of friends) where I’m just not willing to make that commitment full-time.
There’s an old saying about “a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” that captures it. It was a great vacation for me as much as for her mom or for Bentley. One I’d take again happily!
Stay dogged, my friends!
February 21st, 2019 at 6:13 pm
She’s even trying to be a YouTube star…
February 21st, 2019 at 8:54 pm
I was wondering why you were MIA. Good to see you back!
I’m in the same boat. I love dogs but have no interest in owning one right now, or being responsible for a pet of any kind.
I don’t think there’s any question that dogs have sentience and primary consciousness. What’s questionable is whether they have any metacognitive abilities, or if they do, to what extent. And, of course, they lack symbolic thought. And their emotions tend to be simpler than ours.
On mapping geography, it’s coming more and more into focus that we do that with our hippocampus. Dogs, of course, have one, as does any mammal, so I tend to think they do geography pretty well. (Non-mammalian vertebrates reportedly have precursor version.)
Boy, I’m glad I live in the south. I don’t think I could handle the winters up there.
February 21st, 2019 at 9:56 pm
Winter can be a pain, but the change of seasons is kinda nice. There’s that old thing about the guy hitting himself on the head with a hammer. “Why are you doing that?” he’s asked. “Because it feels so nice when I stop!” he replies.
Spring feels nice that way… 😀
“What’s questionable is whether they have any metacognitive abilities, or if they do, to what extent. And, of course, they lack symbolic thought. And their emotions tend to be simpler than ours.”
That’s been my experience on all counts. If they do have any metacognition, and I think they are a little, it’s pretty basic. They seem to dream when they sleep, showing clear signs of running, lunging, and barking.
They seem capable of response to queries, like “Wanna go out?” — they’ll get excited or bow stretch — but they’re limited in how they communicate their desires. If we’re both kicking back and Bentley gets up and approaches me, I don’t know if she wants: petting, a treat, a quick pee, a nice walk, or something else entirely.
I tend to equate higher consciousness with the ability to communicate one’s desires (as I mentioned on your post about when consciousness begins), and that’s a crude ability, at best, in dogs and pretty much all animals. A phrase you sometimes hear is, “the mute appeal of dogs.”
I’ve always liked the W.G. Sebald quote, “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” I wonder a lot of what Bentley thinks of me, too! I have the power of food, water, doors, lights… does she see me as a god? 😀
“I tend to think they do geography pretty well.”
Certainly seems the case observationally. My dog, Sam, for one example, seemed to have a pretty clear map of the neighborhood. She seemed capable of remembering a single meeting a dog and looking for that dog the next time.
I’ve also observed that they tend to explore their accessible territory. When Bentley first came over (as with any new dog), she ran around the place exploring. They pretty much only do that once. Over time they’ll explore nooks and crannies they ignored at first.
Some of my questions are: How much is sight-based versus scent-based? How accurate is the map compared to physical geography? Can they guess about a shortcut based on what they know? Even bees have navigation skills; where are dogs on that spectrum?
February 22nd, 2019 at 12:42 pm
““Because it feels so nice when I stop!” he replies.”
Someone once told me that when they were growing up, they wanted to be addicted to something, such as coffee or cigarettes, because when addicts get their fix, they seem so happy. I am addicted to coffee and do feel the relief when I have mine, but I wouldn’t acquire that addiction again with what I now know.
“I wonder a lot of what Bentley thinks of me, too! I have the power of food, water, doors, lights… does she see me as a god? 😀”
I suspect she sees you as a big alpha dog, the leader of the pact.
“Some of my questions are: How much is sight-based versus scent-based?”
From what I’ve read, dogs have detailed olfactory maps of the environment. People often describe this as maps we can’t comprehend. But I’m not sure about that. Our perception of the environment may be informed by sight, but possibly isn’t determined by it. Blind people can use sensory substitution to build maps of their environment, maps that sound visual when they describe them, but that may just be because my maps like that are built visually rather than with another sense.
“Can they guess about a shortcut based on what they know? Even bees have navigation skills; where are dogs on that spectrum?”
Good questions. Don’t know, but I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t studied that yet. I do know dogs can get lost, and they seem more prone to it than cats, at least for the dogs and cats I’ve been around.
February 22nd, 2019 at 4:38 pm
“I am addicted to coffee and do feel the relief when I have mine, but I wouldn’t acquire that addiction again with what I now know.”
I’m really glad I never got sucked in by tobacco or alcohol. I enjoy a good cigar, but never got into cigarettes. I also enjoy alcohol (quite thoroughly!) but can take it or leave it. I would hate to give up craft beers, though. So delicious!
“I suspect she sees you as a big alpha dog,…”
Absolutely (as necessary for having a dog at all). I just wonder how she (or any dog) conceives of us. As I mentioned, we have all these powers that are beyond them. We control their lives far beyond what a dog pack leader could do. I wonder what they think (if anything) about it.
“From what I’ve read, dogs have detailed olfactory maps of the environment.”
Clearly they tag areas with scent identification. I used to take my dog, Sam, visiting at a friend’s, which was exciting for her, so she usually crashed in the back on the drive home.
But always, in that last mile or so, she’d wake up, apparently anticipating returning home. Since she was sleeping, it had to be scent and/or noise that woke her. Possibly both, but knowing how much dogs use scent, I’m betting our home area has a specific smell.
My friend tells me Bentley gets excited and starts whining when she gets close to my house, but her sight is involved in that case.
There is evidence dogs tell time by being aware of how much an owner’s scent decays throughout the day. At some point in that decay, they know the owner usually returns. (It’s all about patterns for dogs.)
Their sense of smell is so much more powerful than ours, I think it’s probably beyond imagination. Like trying to imagine what it’s like to sonar locate as your primary sense. All we can do is sort of translate it to a vision-based imagining.
“I do know dogs can get lost,…”
Heh, good point! I suspect their geography gets worse and worse as the territory expands. They know their home and neighborhood, and places they visit, but I doubt Bentley has any conception of where her mom’s house is relative to mine or any other place she’s visited.
February 25th, 2019 at 1:58 pm
Sounds like you had a great time with Bentley! I can tell you this, if you lived in my neighborhood, you’d have plenty of opportunities to dog-sit and everyone would be so grateful. Lots of cuties too.
I really really hate it when people let their dogs off leash, especially without supervision. But even with supervision things can go south in the blink of an eye, and with big dogs like Bentley, there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it. That’s why I don’t think I’d ever get a dog bigger than Geordie—I want to be able to pick him up in case another dog comes charging at him (or javelina, or coyote). Once he got attacked by two bigger dogs and I wasn’t able to grab him in time. Since then I’ve tried to train myself to pick him up faster in case anything should happen, and I’ve had to use it many times already.
On doggie minds, it’s so interesting to watch them and make guesses about what they know. I never get bored with it.
Based on my Geordie observations, I think they have a pretty good map of their neighborhood, and I think they learn unfamiliar territory pretty fast. Geordie definitely knows where his friends live. I know this because my aunt walked him without me…or rather, he walked her. She started noticing that he would pull up certain driveways, so she started to take note of those houses. When she returned, she told me which houses they were, and sure enough. She even met one of his friends who happened to be outside. (Friends are either dogs or humans or both.)
Plus, Geordie seems to figure out pretty quickly where we “live” when we’re on vacation. One time he even steered me back to our temporary home when I got a little turned around.
But you know, I’m not sure about shortcuts. It would be hard to find out what they think about that, since there could be any number of reasons a dog might not want to take a shortcut.
You know, I think they do communicate with us more than we realize, but it can be incredibly subtle. They have facial expressions—I can’t prove it, but you’d have a hard time convincing me otherwise. And they make noises that might not at first seem like a form of communication. Various sighs, sneezes, snorts, barks. Shaking of the collar to get my attention. All of these are context dependent, but still.
Take a yawn, for instance. Sometimes it’s just a yawn. Other times I think it’s communication. Some examples:
High pitch yawn descending into a certain kind of growl = “Why were you gone so long?”
Yawn at a certain high pitch = “Hurry up! Let’s go!” (Yow!)
I can’t really explain what I mean by “certain kind” of growl or pitch. How do I describe these sounds and their different qualities? If only I could record them!
Just yesterday we had a friend over for dinner and Geordie made a particularly long, drawn out, yawn-growl noise that was unmistakably: “How dare you ignore me!” He had a serious scowl on his face. The message was clear: he was really pissed at the friend who came over for not giving him as much of a greeting as he expected. He’d been sitting by the door waiting for her, dying to see her, and he didn’t appreciate not being the center of attention.
Next time you dog sit, here’s something to try on a rainy (or terrifyingly cold) day:
February 26th, 2019 at 12:07 pm
“Sounds like you had a great time with Bentley!”
I really did!
“…with big dogs like Bentley…”
I smiled at that. My experience is with Labs, Danes, and Retrievers, so Bentley was a medium-sized dog to me. (I did have a Keeshond when I was in high school; they’re small-to-medium.)
It never occurred to me that I could have picked Bentley up if things had gotten really dicey. She’s a lot to lift, about 70 pounds, but it’s doable. (I lifted her into the car after a park visit when she was too tired to jump in.)
“On doggie minds, it’s so interesting to watch them and make guesses about what they know. I never get bored with it.”
My walks with Sam convinced me they have a pretty good map of the paths, but, yeah, I’m dubious whether she had a physical map like we humans do. Although who knows. Sebald’s “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” As you suggest, even if they have a good physical map, they may think differently about it than we do.
“You know, I think they do communicate with us more than we realize, but it can be incredibly subtle.”
It certainly seems that way, sometimes. Most dogs I’ve known have a “bowing” behavior, stretching their front paws out, looks like a yoga position. It seems a way of answering, “Yes, I want to go for a walk!”
It’s so hard to separate out my perceptions from what they truly might be communicating. You’d think if they really wanted to communicate something, they’d be more overt about it. I’ve heard about dogs bringing the leash or standing by the door and barking, but no dog I’ve personally known was that overt.
Certainly vocalizations have to mean something! (Again, most of my dogs haven’t been very vocal.)
“I can’t really explain what I mean by “certain kind” of growl or pitch.”
I do know what you mean, though. They have their moods, expressions, postures!
“Next time you dog sit, here’s something to try on a rainy (or terrifyingly cold) day:”
LOL! That’s hysterical. Reading! 😀
February 28th, 2019 at 8:38 pm
You know, I’ve always wondered what people with big dogs do when they have to put them in the car or lift them for whatever reason.
“It never occurred to me that I could have picked Bentley up if things had gotten really dicey.”
That’s exactly what I mean! I didn’t occur to me until it was too late. And you gotta be so fast. But 70 lbs would be impossible for me. I’ve wonder if it might be better to drop the leash in that case? I guess it depends on the dog, but I certainly wouldn’t like to be tied down while someone attacked me.
“You’d think if they really wanted to communicate something, they’d be more overt about it.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the same thought! Geordie isn’t actually all that vocal, especially considering he’s a terrier, a notoriously vocal breed. (I’m beginning to wonder if he’s got some Glen of Imaal in him…apparently they’re not yappy.)
But I do think there are subtle communications going on that take us humans a while to figure out, if we do. To give you an example, one time I had my legs up on the ottoman and Geordie came over and seemed to want something. I thought he wanted to get off the couch, so I pointed out the stairs and encouraged him to use them, but he wouldn’t. He just stood there looking at me, then looking in the direction of the other side of the couch. I finally moved my legs out of his way so he could get past me, and indeed, that was what he wanted. It sounds obvious now, but it took me way too long to get it.
March 1st, 2019 at 9:58 am
“You know, I’ve always wondered what people with big dogs do when they have to put them in the car or lift them for whatever reason.”
Depends on the relative sizes of the dog and person, but I’ve seen portable ramps and steps. I could lift Sam into the car, but it was hard on both of us. I considered finding a wide plank I could use as a ramp if we were both exhausted (or my back was out).
It would have been a real challenge lifting her and carrying her away.
“I’ve wonder if it might be better to drop the leash in that case?”
Might depend on how one feels about a trailing leash catching on something versus the potential tangle with the dog. I sort of feel like I’d hang on to the leash. My wrist is usually through the loop, so releasing actually takes more effort.
(With bigger dogs, wrist through the loop makes it impossible for them to pull the leash from your hand, and even keeps them with you should you fall unconscious for some reason. (I’m aware that it’s not utterly out of the question I could have a heart attack any old time, let alone exercising.))
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the same thought!”
It seems significant, doesn’t it? It’s one of my big bullet points when considering the supposed “hidden” (and often implicitly superior) intelligence of animals “if only we could understand them.”
I’m sorry, but if elephants and whales were really that smart, they’d find a way to tell us to stop fucking up their lives. They’d certainly be highly motivated to do so, and being intelligent, even superior, should be able to find a way.
“But I do think there are subtle communications going on that take us humans a while to figure out, if we do.”
Yeah, I think they do express their desires. For my money, gaze is a huge one. When they look at something, or away from you, that definitely means something.
Sam, Rosie, and Bentley, if I knew they wanted something, one possibility is always going outside. So I’d ask. A bow: definite yes. Wagging or excitement could sometimes be in response to just being asked a question. Going to the door, if they followed, still excited: definite yes.
But not following, and especially looking away, that’s a no. (And unfortunately, being a sucker for hungry eyes, it was often a treat beg. They just wanted a snack.)
March 1st, 2019 at 12:28 pm
I agree, gaze is a huge one. Sometimes it’s a glance, other times it’s a long, overt stare…and in Geordie’s case, big ears standing erect, quivering in anticipation. Or if he’s incredibly bored while I’m taking a nap, sometimes he’ll stand inches away from my face and stare at me until I sense it and open my eyes. He cracks me up.
BTW, I came up with a new laser game for him. We used to go out at night and he’d chase it, but we can’t do that so much anymore because of his hip. So now I’ll turn on a laser Christmas light which shines a multitude of green and red points across the backyard, then I’ll take his laser pointer and shine it amongst the dots and make him find it. I’ll say, “Where is it?” and he’ll look for it. Since I can’t keep it perfectly still, he looks for the red dot that’s moving ever-so-slightly. When he finds it, he runs up to it and points his nose at it like he would if he were rooting out a rodent.
You wouldn’t believe all the little games you can play with a laser. Did your dogs like laser games, or is that more of a terrier thing? Got any ideas for games? Geordie gets so bored, and he’s no longer the athlete.
March 1st, 2019 at 1:34 pm
Sam never did that, but both dogs I’ve sat, I’ll wake up to find a dog staring me in the face from inches away. (And it was probably nose pokes that woke me in the first place.) Cracks me up every time! Just staring. Just waiting. 😀
The laser game sounds interesting. Sam ignored it completely. Would notice it at first, a bit of ear movement, but then she’d ignore it. (No smell, no sound, no reality? She noticed a mirror as a puppy, explored it, lost interest and never showed any again.) I never tried with Rosie or Bentley. I will try it with Bentley!
Sam and I played “catch” with her at the top of the stairs. She could return a ball by just dropping it. Geordie might be too small for catch, though?
I think I told you about the “Go hide!” game. She goes to the walk-in bedroom closet, I hide treats in the living room, call her back and tell her to “Find it!” Fun to watch them work their nose.
Maybe just general training of tricks or complex commands might be fun? I kind of had that problem with Bentley in that she wasn’t really a playful dog. No sense of fetch, whatsoever. Loved petting and attention, but I never really found much for us to do. I meant to get into training (which she could use), but during the two weeks just hanging out together seemed enough even if I though she was a little bored.
March 2nd, 2019 at 5:25 pm
I wonder if the dog has to be a hunter to enjoy laser games?
Geordie doesn’t catch or play fetch either, but he’ll run after the ball and then I’m expected to chase him to another room. Then he’ll “throw” the ball for me (as best as he can, which is usually about five feet) and then I have to run away with the ball so he can chase me. This might be another terrier thing. Our last dog, Skippy, used to do this exact same game, never fetch.
Basically I have to REALLY participate in whatever we play. I can’t just shine the laser on the ground and move it around while I sit on my butt and watch TV. He knows whether my heart’s in it.
Geordie likes this puzzle quite a bit:
March 3rd, 2019 at 8:42 am
“I wonder if the dog has to be a hunter to enjoy laser games?”
Wow, good question. Cats certainly seem to get off on them. Now I wish I’d tried it with Bentley (the American Pit Bull Terrier). I’ll take it with me next time I visit B-dog.
She did sort of like the keep-away game I’d play with her, treating a toy like an animal trying to escape. At the same time, she seems uncertain about it, giving up fairly quickly and just watching. If I let her catch the “critter” she just wants to chew it.
I think she just never really learned to play in her younger days.
“Our last dog, Skippy, used to do this exact same game, never fetch.”
Heh, yeah, I’ve met other dogs who just aren’t into the whole retriever thing. Almost like they disdain bringing you an object you’ll just toss away again.
Bentley was a little hard to read. I could never quite tell whether she wanted me to wrestle it away from her or not.
“He knows whether my heart’s in it.”
That’s for sure! 😀
I love the puzzle! That’s awesome!!
May 28th, 2021 at 7:28 am
[…] a page of notes written after “Dog Daze” (see: Dog Gone Delightful!) — the first time I hosted my pal Bentley for a ten day stretch while her mom was on vacation in […]
August 10th, 2021 at 2:48 pm
In fact, Bentley is probably an American Staffordshire Terrier with maybe some bulldog mixed in (she has the broad bulldog chest).