Archive for October, 2009

Do Wolves Experience Mid-Life Crisis?

No, that kind of pointless angst is reserved for intellectually over-indulgent species like humans.  But, contrary to common myth, wild wolves don’t necessarily live hard and die young either. Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project leader at the Yellowstone Center for Resources was recently quoted in Minnesota Daily;  “Through mythology and fables, we want wolves to be a certain way and that is supremely good at killing,” he said. “It turns out they’re subject to the same problems we’re subject to. You get old quick.”

 Science Daily reports:

Although most wolves in Yellowstone National Park live to be nearly six years old, their ability to kill prey peaks when they are two to three, according to a study led by Dan MacNulty and recently published online by Ecology Letters.

As is the case with human beings, physiology appears to be an important factor.  Wolves need to have speed, strength and endurance to hunt successfully – and these qualities diminish with age.  This leads to some interesting economic parallels between our world and the world of the wolf:

When older wolves can no longer hunt successfully, younger wolves share their kill with them, in what MacNulty describes as a lupine version of Social Security. While a high ratio of old-to-young wolves may benefit elk, it could strain the wolf population because there aren’t enough workers to support retirees.

Montana legalized hunting wolves after they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Although hunting is prohibited in the park, packs wander beyond it boundaries and radio-marked wolves have been killed. MacNulty says hunting won’t put the species at risk, but it actually skews the population towards younger wolves, which could mean more deaths, not fewer, for the elk.

As quoted in BBC News MacNulty notes that aging in wild animals has (surprisingly) been a controversial subject:

“Although the effects of aging on physical performance in humans are well-known, the effects of aging in wild animal populations have been controversial,” says Dr Daniel MacNulty of the Michigan Technological University in Houghton, US.

“Many eminent biologists have argued that ageing rarely occurs in nature, because animals do not live long enough to exhibit its effects.”

“My study refutes this notion as well as demonstrates that aging may have important ecological consequences in terms of how a wild population uses its environment,” he says.

Wolves are brilliant cooperative hunters. Younger pack members supply speed and endurance to the chase – and older ones the wisdom they’ve acquired over years of experience.  I look forward to seeing more on how hunting affects the balance of old versus young members of wolf packs and how that, in turn, affects populations of their prey species.  If young wolves help feed older ones, and if wolves only kill what they need to eat, I’m not clear on exactly how a higher percentage of young pack members acts to decrease elk populations.  Intuitively it would just seem to mean that the young wolves don’t have to work as hard to feed themselves, and if hunting pressure continues to keep wolf numbers stable it isn’t obvious (at least to me) that elk numbers would be greatly affected. 

I’d also like to know more  about what kinds of wolves hunters look for. Tropy elk are pretty easy to identify from a distance, but it can’t be easy to get close enough to a wolf to tell its gender or, in many cases, its age.  Do hunters typically look for the biggest wolf, the one with the nicest pelt – or the easiest one to take down?   And how do ranchers who want to limit predation fit into the equation? 

It seems that today I’ve got more questions than answers.

October 29, 2009 at 4:11 pm 5 comments

In Other News

The  ‘wolf’  purchased by an Austin, Minnesota area man through craiglist has turned out (as I suspected) to just be a nice largish prick-eared, double-coated white dog.

  • What kind of idiot buys (or sells) a wolf through craigslist?
  • Is the guy happy that the ‘dog’ doesn’t have to die or disappointed that it’s not a wolf?
  • Am I missing out on the financial opportunity of a lifetime by not collecting all the largish, double-coated, prick-eared dogs I can find and selling them to mountain-man wannabees through the interwebs?

I am pleased that, at least for once, it appears that sanity has prevailed.  The dog won’t die and it (allegedly) has found a home on a local farm.



Eurekalert reports that annoying chemical smells make us behave more generously.  Okay, what they really said was that  ‘clean’  smells do this but they described the source of the  ‘clean’  smell as citrus-scented Windex.  Yuck.  If you spritzed me with Windex I’d only be nice long enough to make you go the f**k away.  The researcher’s have supposedly proposed that similar scents could be used in place of surveillance and other “heavy-handed” modern security measures.  Hmmmm, how do you suppose that would have worked on Flight 93?

On a brighter note, perhaps eau de windex will turn out to be an appropriate substitute for the music of Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Pearl Jam and yes, even Neil Diamond (Aaack! Endless hours of Neil Diamond’s music would make me confess to anything…)  and save the US from the wrath of  UN delegates and pissed off artistes.

After weeks of rain — I can’t help but wonder how the smell of wet dog affects us (it appears to have a stong tendency to make me really lackadaisical about house cleaning)?  And… why do researchers seem to always choose bizarre (to me anyway) chemical smells like windex to use in their work?  Wouldn’t it a be a lot more interesting (and helpful) to study how the smells of wet dog, fresh tomatoes, baby poop, onions, wood smoke and freshly cut grass affected our psyches?

Did you know that there is an online magazine for postal workers?  Postalworkersonline has an entire section on dog attack stories.  I only browsed through a few pages.   The ‘dog’ bite stories (a few cat bites and at least one human attack are also included) posted ranged from mildly amusing to deeply disturbing.  The home page includes “CDC” dog bite data that lists a range of large working and northern breeds as those  most likely to bite – all of which are very commonly mistakenly identified by the public at large.  [sigh]  The site also prominently features information on dog bite legislation and ads for personal liability attorneys, lobbyists and pet supply retailers (at least when *I* clicked on it).  Too bad they didn’t think to include some helpful information on preventing dog bites.

Speaking of postal workers…   Last, but not least, brings us a new informational pamphlet published by the USPS with both Audie (who has a shoe fetish) and Charlie (who prefers fresh meat) in mind. Click here for big.


October 24, 2009 at 3:20 am 3 comments


Hat tip to Southern Rockies Nature Blog for a link to the story of a very lucky unlucky gawd, I don’t know what to call it coyote who rode across California in the grill of a car.  According to KRCA:

Daniel East and his sister, Tevyn, were travelling at about 75 mph along Interstate 80 when they saw some coyotes running nearby. One of the coyotes ran in front of the car.

 “Right off the bat, we knew it was bad,” Daniel East said.

 They said they kept driving because they thought they had killed the animal, so there was no point in stopping.

Well yeah, ’cause of course the best thing to do after you hit a defenseless animal on the road is just keep on truckin’.  After all, who’d want to stop and have to deal with all that suffering and blood and stuff.

And of course it makes perfect sense to wait eight or ten hours until you reach your destination to even check for damage to your car.  I wonder, did they have a full tank when they hit the coyote or did they just studiously avoid looking at the grill of their car on pit stops?

Imagine the surprise chagrin clueless confusion when they arrived at the art colony they were headed for and found a live coyote trapped in the engine compartment of the car.  To their credit, East and his sister called Wildlife Rehabilitation and Release after they found the coyote. 

The coyote was taken to the rehabilitation facility. It remained there until Thursday, when it managed to push up the steel at the bottom of a kennel to free itself, Crowell said.

 It hasn’t been seen since.

 “We named it Tricky for a reason,” Daniel East said.

Somebody’s tricky here, I’m just not convinced it’s the coyote.  I’ll bet he was convinced that those tricky humans had just wedged him into a slightly larger trap

East told reporters that the coyote only had a few scrapes on its paws.  I hope that information came to him from the folks at the wildlife center because SRSLY –  How can a man who can’t tell there’s a live coyote wedged in the engine compartment of his Honda possibly diagnose a lack of broken bones and internal injuries in a panicked wild animal just by looking at it?

Check out the slide show at this link

October 24, 2009 at 1:19 am Leave a comment

Sorting Things Out

My foster dog Charlie has seen astonishingly little in the year or so of he’s been on this earth.  Nearly every thing I introduce him to is, quite literally, startlingly novel to him.  So a big part of my job in rehabilitating Charlie involves exposing him to new things in ways that help him sort them out properly.

The concept of similarity is fundamental to all perception, learning, and judgment. Similarity increases when a group of things have a lot of features in common and it decreases when there are a lot of differences between them.  The ability to use the concept of same versus different to sort things into mental categories allows animals to store perceptual and conceptual information in a way that makes them more efficient at interpreting situations in an adaptive way.


What kinds of things does Charlie (or any dog, for that matter) need to be able to sort out?  Well here are just a few of the not-so-natural-to-dogs categories he needs to be able to understand:

  • Things that can be chewed and played with vs. things that absolutely must not be put into one’s mouth
  • Places it is acceptable to pee and poop vs. places it is not
  • Things that can be jumped up on vs. things that one should not jump on
  • Animals you can chase and kill vs. animals you can not
  • People you can bite  {^}  vs. those you must not  {i.e. the set comprising all of mankind}

This is not always a simple thing. Dogs don’t just perceive the world differently than we do, they also process perceptual information in different ways than we do.

Even though they share our homes and lives, our dogs live in a completely different world than we do. 

And in Charlie’s case, he’s experienced so little of the world that in many cases he appears to perceive of each new thing that you or I would tend to think of as part of a categorical set as a completely unique thing.  I suspect this is a big part of his current problem with strangers.  Charlie’s met so few people that he may see each new human he meets as a completely novel creature.  In other words, Charlie may not yet have generalized that all upright-walking, clothes-wearing, language-using, creepy-eye-contact-making, two-leggers are – generally speaking – the same kind of creature that I am.  Once I help him successfully makes this connection, I believe his snarkiness will (at least for the most part) go away.

How does a dog complete the mental gymnastics necessary to categorize his world?  It’s impossible to know but hints about what is going on inside those lovely, furry heads may be available from looking at pre-lingual human infants.  In Links Between Object Categorization and Naming  Sandra Waxman discusses how her research indicates human infants categorize.  Waxman states she believes that expectations play an important part in learning to categorize and that she believes it is best if a young creature’s expectations aren’t rigid.  Waxman says that in an ideal situation, expectations should start out being extremely fluid and that they should only become more fixed with time and experience.  

I found this point interesting as it I think i might help explain the basis of resilience  Rigid expectations have a way of disappointing you, especially when they’re not based on a broad set of experiences.  So, an animal (or human) that has a less fluid expectation system would tend to be more prone to being disappointed and shutting down and therefore be less resilient.  For example I suspect that my girl Zip is be a dog who was born with a more rigid than average expectation-generating mechanism.  Even after years of training and coaching she still shuts down more easily than any other dog I’ve lived with – including Charlie.  She’s also very stubborn and prefers rigid, predictable situations.  Zip has a vivid picture etched into her mind of  The Way Things Should Be and it is incredibly hard for her to change that picture.  And therein lies problem.  For them to function efficiently, our mental categories need to maintain some degree of fluidity and mutability.  They can’t be rigidly fixed.

Naturally resilient or not, how can you help your dog figure out which things he should sort together into one of the little boxes in his head (i.e. which are similar) versus those that go into different bins (i.e. which are not similar)? 

This is a great place to use contrast.

Contrast is a valuable, and IMO, too often under-utilized tool in dog training.  Using contrast involves giving your dog a way to compare one thing to another in a way that is simple for him to figure out.  One example of this would be using a large, elevated, textured, brightly colored target when beginning to teach a dog to go out to a target on command.  Providing a lot of contrast between the target and the floor or ground it sits on makes it easier for the dog to tell the difference between target and ‘not target’.  Another example would be encouraging a dog who is afraid of halls and dark doorways to go through wide gates and french doors.  The contrast between “scary dark hole into nowhere” versus an “easy to see through open space” that the dog may not initially categorize as a “door” can provide a valuable first step in teaching him that any opening you ask him to go through is safe.

The importance of using controlled training exercises that take advantage of contrast is explained (albeit rather obtusely) in Chapter 4, Studies of Similarity by Tversky and Gati in Cognition and Categorization:

The relative weight assigned to the common and the distinctive features may differ in the two judgments because of a change in focus. In the assessment of similarity between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their common features, whereas in the assessment of differences between stimuli, the subject may attend more to their distinctive features. Stated differently, the instruction to consider similarity may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the similarity of the stimuli, whereas the instruction to consider difference may lead the subject to focus primarily on the features that contribute to the differences between the stimuli . Consequently, the relative weight of the common features is expected to be greater in the assessment of similarity than in the assessment of difference.

So, when we when select the right parameters, contrast is an enormously valuable tool because it lets us tell the dog whether he should focus on sameness or difference.  It can also help show him which features to focus on and which he can safely ignore.  These are vital factors in most problem solving exercises.

Using contrast well requires a bit of creativity and an open mind.  A feature that you see as providing obvious contrast may be completely insignificant to your dog.  So if your dog doesn’t respond immediately in a positive way to the contrast you’ve created – end the exercise and start over contrasting a different element.  Your job is to find out what part(s) of the problem are relevant to your dog and help him to use them to sort things out properly.    

Contrast is an enormously valuable tool – but it can be difficult to use well.  As trainers we run into problems with these kinds of exercises because categorization is a cultural thing.  And while dogs are a part of our culture, they understand and participate in it in very different ways than we do.

One area where problems arise is in the realm of perception.  Smell is vastly more important  to dogs than it is to us – vision, which most of us humans rely very heavily on, is of far less importance to them.  Further complicating matters, dogs process perceptual information differently than we do.  Things that are imperceptible to you may be glaringly obvious to your dog and vice-versa.

Another problem area lies in the fact that we tend to forget how important context is to dogs.  An otherwise unremarkable feature of an object may take on strong predictive value, and therefore be more important, in a specific context.  In another context the same feature may be completely inconspicuous to the dog.

We humans also have a strong tendency to over-think and over-complicate things.  Dogs, for the most part, simply take things as they are.  Dogs aren’t by nature introspective creatures.  Reacting after minimal cognitive processing is their natural mode of operation.  So don’t obsess about why Sparky freaked out when a bird flew overhead — just help him use contrast to sort “bird overhead” into the “not something to worry about” bin inside his head.

October 23, 2009 at 4:46 am 5 comments

Time to Eat the Dog


New Zealand’s Dominion Post published an ‘interesting’ opinion piece today on the supposedly dire environmental impacts posed by pet keeping.

Victoria University professors Brenda and Robert Vale, architects who specialise in sustainable living, say pet owners should swap cats and dogs for creatures they can eat, such as chickens or rabbits, in their provocative new book Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living.

The couple have assessed the carbon emissions created by popular pets, taking into account the ingredients of pet food and the land needed to create them.

“If you have a German shepherd or similar-sized dog, for example, its impact every year is exactly the same as driving a large car around,” Brenda Vale said.

“A lot of people worry about having SUVs but they don’t worry about having Alsatians and what we are saying is, well, maybe you should be because the environmental impact … is comparable.”

Do you suppose that the Vales took into account the fact that most of the “meat” that goes into commercial dog food is byproducts that might otherwise go to waste?  Did they also take into account the fact that most pet owners (present company included) don’t buy a new set of dog beds, crates, bowls, leashes and kennels every time they get a new dog.

What next, a book on the merits of cannibalizing children?

It looks to me like these folks took a page from PeTA’s playbook, using shock tactics to promote themselves.  This is one dog-related book I won’t be buying.  In fact, I’m not even going to post a link to it.

October 23, 2009 at 3:10 am 8 comments

Blog Update FAIL

In the midst of the coldest, wettest October on record I was rewarded this week with four days where it didn’t rain all day.  Since October usually is the month where we not only have our best weather – warm sunny days and cold nights – but also gorgeous fall color;  we save a lot of outdoor work for October.  Normally, this is a good thing.  This year, not so much.

So I’m spending every spare minute harvesting, mowing, pruning, transplanting, deadheading, emptying and cleaning rain barrels, cleaning and bringing in hoses, finishing the sunporch on Fort Crowage, bringing summertime stuff in and taking winter stuff out – and doing as much distance work with the dogs as I can fit in.

In between there’s produce from the garden to process for the winter, massive amounts of cleaning (a pack of dogs combined with weeks of wet weather makes for a huge mess in the house and training center), house-training Charlie, visits to my orthopod to decide which piece we’ll fix next and more.

I have a few draft posts started but no time to whip them into postable shape.  The rain is supposed to hit again this weekend so look for updates then.

October 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm 1 comment

Too Heavy?

Behind the scenes on the awsome new Bud Lite ad:

I know that I could so totally get Audie to do this – all I’m saying is that I want to be the ‘guy’ who gets to dress up in a poodle suit and play Mad Max…

October 18, 2009 at 3:03 am 2 comments

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October 2009