Animals in our lives: A philosophical investigation of the science of companion animals

I am terribly pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives, a new course offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This class is a philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific research on companion animal (mostly canine) cognition, emotion, and training.

The students and I will explore:

  • how this scientific research is embedded in contemporary culture,
  • the practical influences on, and impacts of, this research, and
  • the role of values and ethics in the creation and use of this new scientific knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted as I develop and implement this course. I am So. Excited.

Phil 271 Animals in our lives

Learning how to play fetch with Milo: We only play games we both want to play!

Generally, a game of fetch involves a person throwing a ball, and a dog running after it and returning it to the person. Imagine my surprise when my Fitbit informed me that I walked a kilometer and a half during a short game of fetch. It seemed Milo and I were doing this wrong.

So, the next time we played fetch, I pretended to be an anthropologist observing this game while we were playing it. “What are these strange creatures doing with that round yellow thing on a string?”

I observed that Milo and I weren’t playing one game, we were playing two. The first game looked a lot like fetch. He’d go chasing after the ball and bring it back to my general vicinity. The second game included two things he loved: hanging onto the ball and being chased by me.

pls throw

The trouble is that while Milo loves both games, I only want to play the first one. That clever, clever dog had me playing a game I had no desire to play. Hmmm.

Here is what I did:

I made up some rules for our game.

  • I throw the ball. If he brings it back to me and stays close enough for me to grab his collar, I throw a little happy party for him and immediately toss the ball again.
  • If he doesn’t bring it back to me and stay close, I go get him. But when I go get him, I quietly snap on his leash and we walk off the field for a couple of minutes.
  • His choice: play fetch by the rules, or not play at all.

Within 40 minutes, he was choosing to play by the rules. I was shocked at how fast this happened.

I noticed a neat thing when he started playing by the rules. He’d bring the ball back to me, and then move his head, or move one front paw, like he was starting the Keep-Away Game, and then he would stop and settle back down right close to me as I grabbed his collar. His conflicting desires were revealed by those small movements. I would love to know what it was like for him inside his doggy mind as he stopped himself from making a choice that would not get him what he wanted.

Here are some things I am going to try to remember from learning how to play fetch with Milo:

  1. I need to stop, watch, and think about Milo and my interactions.
  2. It is good to take a bit of time to make a plan.
  3. Milo and I will only play games that we both want to play.

handsome Milo

 

Gift ideas for people who love dogs (and science)!

Books! Books! Books! I went from being a shy nerd in high school to being a proud nerd in university. I loved university so much that, except for one mercifully short semester waiting tables, I never left. Proud nerds like to give and receive books. I haven’t read all the books that about dogs and science, but I’ve read lots of them. Here are some that would make good gifts:

My top pick:

what the dog knowsWhat the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, by Cat Warren

What the Dog Knows is one of those books that you sit down to read for half an hour, and suddenly three hours have gone by, you’re starving, and it’s dinner time. It’s a page-turner about working dogs who use their sense of smell for a living. Cat Warren, a journalist turned university professor, guides us on a tour of the science of the canine sense of smell, the history of scent detection and tracking, and the practice of training and working with dogs by telling the story of searching for dead people with her cadaver dog, a German Shepherd named Solo.

Runner-up:

the two in oneThe Two in One: Walking with Smokie, Waking with Blindness, by Rod Michalko

This memoir documents sociologist Rod Mechalko’s changing understanding of his own blindness through his relationship with his service dog, Smokie. Although there are places where this book can be a very dense read, it is also touching, and at times funny.

Stranger: Is that one of those blind dogs?

Mechalko: “I hope not!”

The story of the developing trust and respect between this scientist and his dog changed how I think about working guide dogs. And, Michalko’s changing relationship with his blindness made me think about disability not as a lack or absence, but as a different way of being in the world.

Third place:

animals make us humanAnimals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

As usual, Grandin encourages us to pay close attention to the creatures around us. With clear and concrete prose the authors explore the emotional architecture of different kinds of animals to figure out how to maximize their emotional welfare. There are three things that I especially love about this book. First, the authors respect both scientific and practical experts in animal behavior and combine insights from both groups of people. Second, this book highlights the work of field scientists, and the importance of keeping science open to researchers with a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and skills.  Finally, this book is premised on the notion that humans are animals too. The authors use their emotional framework to advocate for creating environments that encourage humans to treat animals in ways that maximize animals emotional well being. That is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of integrity.

Tied for fourth place:

How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, By Gregory Berns

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than you Think, by Brian Hare
how dogs love usThese books offer the reader a glimpse of what scientists actually do. Gregory Berns offers a fascinating discussion of the research ethics involved in training pet dogs to participate in fMRI experiments. He treats his canine research subjects with the same ethical consideration that is mandated for research with human children. Cool.

the genius of dogsWhat grabs me most about Brian Hare’s book is that he doesn’t just explain his experiments, he explains how he developed those experiments and why he ran the experiments the way he did. Reading this book can help a person understand how to think like a scientist. These two books aren’t written with the same grace as my top three picks, but they are both good picks for people who want to think about science and ethics as well as learn something about canine cognition and emotion.

What books would you add to this list?

 

This blog is about RV travel, dogs, and science.  Here is my RV travel-themed gift list, and here is my German Shepherd Dog-themed gift list. Happy holidays!

Gift ideas for German Shepherd lovers

Are you having trouble coming up with gift ideas for the German Shepherd lover in your life? Here are some possibilities:

Gifts for the dog.

Love me, love my dog. When people by my dog Milo presents, I find it adorable. What to get though?

Dog treats and chews! Just remember that GSD’s can have finicky stomachs so it’s a good idea to snoop around and see what your friend usually gives her dog. Or, you can ask for her advice on good treats and chews, and she’ll likely tell you all you need to know.

  • Bully Sticks are great chews but can be pricey, so they make a great gift.

Toys! My dog is a pretty typical GSD in that he goes through toys like a wood chipper and so new toys are always appreciated. If you like the person, avoid squeakers!

Consumables. 

Admittedly these gifts are utilitarian instead of romantic. But a dog lover can always  use things like:

Coupon book for dog chores.

To have a German Shepherd is to love a German Shepherd, but these dogs are a lot of work. One gift idea is to make a coupon book for dog chores that you’re willing to help out with. Warning, this only works if you have zero responsibility for the dog. It’s not a gift if it is something that, in all fairness, you should be doing already. Here are some ideas for the coupons:

  • Walk dog on a cold day
  • Walk dog on a rainy day
  • Clean up poop in yard
  • Bathe dog
  • Dremel dog’s nails
  • Vacuum furniture
  • Vacuum house
  • Vacuum the car

German Shepherd themed stuff.

German Shepherds are the second most common dog breed in North America and our make-a-lot-of-junk industrial complex has capitalized on this fact. You can buy German Shepherd themed everything–seriously you can find pictures of German Shepherds on everything from pot holders, salt shakers, and coffee mugs, to leggings, hats, and hoodies, to keychains, mousepads, and Christmas tree ornaments. Type “German Shepherd” into the search fields on etsy.com or amazon.com and you’ll have more ideas than you can throw a stick at.

Why not get a cute German Shepherd tote bag, and fill it up with all sorts of fun doggy things?

Walking in a winter wonderland.

German Shepherds take their people on long walks in all sorts of weather. Anything that takes the sting out of cold winter walks will be appreciated: gloves, hats, scarves, socks, insulated coffee mugs, you get the picture.

Jewelry.

It is easy to find all sorts of GSD themed jewelry. Most of it is cute, but much of it is of questionable quality. Remember that you get what you pay for.

What about a locket with a picture of your friend’s dog in it? Ebay always has a nice selection of lockets that won’t break the bank. And if you have money to burn, you can’t go wrong with Tiffany’s!

Photos from the heart.

Do you have a great shot of your friend and their dog? If you do, put it in a frame and wrap it up! You could also find a high-quality pet photographer in your area and treat your friend to a professional photo shoot.

Worst Present EVER.

Are you a risk taker? Some people call German Shepherds “German Shedders.” These dogs leave clouds of fur, all over the house, all year long. If you’re brave and have zero romantic hopes about the dog lover in your life, you might consider giving them a vacuum.

What items would you add to this gift list?

This blog is about RV travel, dogs, and science. Click here for my RV travel-themed gift list and stay tuned for my science-themed gift ideas 😉

Shaking dogs: It’s Physics!

There are lots of neat slow-motion videos of dogs shaking. But this one is probably the best. Why? Because it features David Hu, a mechanical engineer from Georgia Tech, who explains his research on shaking dogs AND how that research can be applied to all sorts of things ranging from solar panels, to cameras, to planetary rovers (OMG, this pun just made itself 😀 ).

The video is 2 minutes long. Don’t let the mouse in the first frame deceive you, it’s about dogs. It really is full of adorable shaking dogs.


This is a great example of scientific research with applications that wouldn’t, at least immediately, come to mind for most of us.

To some people, research on dogs seems wasteful.

But, research on canine health has resulted in huge improvements human health and human medicine. And David Hu’s research on shaking dogs, a topic that at first glance seems whimsical and even silly, could someday help us humans explore other planets.

Shaking dog

Thanks buddy!

Who’s got four paws and a CKC Novice Rally Obedience Title?

THIS GUY!

12

 

We arrived early and got a good spot in the corner. This is where we hung out between runs, and where Milo rested while I walked the courses and chatted with the other hoomins.

boy's home

Milo, chilling out between runs.

 

Can you believe that he earned all this bling? I might have to make a quilt or something.bling c

 

And here is my angel from heaven barely resisting tearing off this his ribbons.

bling a

I am very proud of my boy! ❤

 

White Lake Provincial Park, Ontario: Home away from home

White Lake Provincial Park felt so much like home, or at least how I’d like my home to be, that I extended my stay.

First of all, it smelled good. You have no idea how important this is when you’ve spent three months sharing 144 square feet of living space with a 90-pound dog. The campground, like the rest of the park, was full of pine trees, and smelled nice and piney—not Pine-Sol piney, it just had the sort of fresh crispness that invites a person to take a big stretch and a deep breath.

view from the beach

Here is the view from the beach.

Second, although the campsites were all very private, the campground felt like a little community. There’s a big gold mine near the park and a lot of people who work in the mine set up a seasonal campsite at White Lake—it gives them a shorter commute and they can go fishing every night if they like.

I enjoyed the fact that folks knew each other and chatted on the paths and in the laundry room. And because they had to get up in the morning to go to work, the place was quiet and calm at night. These are my kind of neighbours. I got a lot of writing done at White Lake.

white lake beach

That is some good sand!

Third, the lake is sandy, clean and clear, and is an outstanding place to take your dog swimming. Dogs are allowed off-leash at the boat launch. When I let Milo the AwesomeDog out of the truck, and he saw that in addition to the lake, there was a dock, he spun in circles and jumped for joy. Let’s just say that he is fond of dock diving.

And finally, Milo wasn’t the only mischievous critter in the park. There were signs on all the bulletin boards warning of a meddlesome fox, who was sneaking around stealing shoes. I was a bit was sorry not to get a chance to see Ms Fox and wish I had some old shoes along that I could’ve given her for keeps.

meddlesome fox sign

I am NOT the rogue copy editor.

I was sad to leave this park. It felt like home.