Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's not to like about Marley and Me?

Chuck, EunJee and I went to see "Marley and Me" on the Friday after Christmas. I didn't anticipate how packed the theater would be- we ended up sitting in the first row, basically watching the movie rise above us while lying on our backs. (It would have been a cool way to watch the opening scene of Star Wars.) Chuck and I laughed, and we cried, (although to be honest, we cry at the vacuum commercials that have all those cute yellow lab puppies. We're big sentimental sissies when it comes to puppies and babies and sunsets.) The rest of the audience- with the exception of EunJee, who never cries at movies- laughed and wept right along with us.

When I did an Internet search for clips and comments for this entry, I found more bad reviews than good. Washington Post staff writer Phillip Kennicott says "Even dog lovers may want to take "Marley & Me" to the pound. Based on the best-selling book by John Grogan, which chronicled his life with a large, lovable and deeply neurotic dog, "Marley & Me" proves the obvious: Not every book has a movie lurking in it. " (Read More) Rotten Tomatoes gave Marley and Me only 55% on the Tomatometer

I was surprised find how many people didn't like the book Marley and Me, and were planning not to see the movie. Most of the Anti-Marley crowd are animal experts like Gina Spadafori. Writing on Pet Connection, Spadafori says "Of course, I’m not the only person with a negative reaction to the whole Marley thing. Most everyone I know who has any kind of expertise in training or behavior also found the book hard to stomach." (Read More) Spadafori feels, and I am sure she is correct "There was nothing wrong with Marley that some consistent, well-informed environmental changes, training and exercise couldn’t have fixed. “Bad” dogs just aren’t funny to me."

I read the book some years ago, in what was to be the last year of my yellow lab, Ender's, life. Ender was a challenging dog, although his behavior was not as flamboyant as Marley's. As I read, I laughed and I cried, and I saw my own dog reflected on the pages, good and bad.

Even while reading, I recognized that Grogan was describing Bad Owner problems more than Bad Dog problems. But here's the thing- The man is a story teller. In story telling, emphasis is everything. To entertain the audience, story tellers pick and choose from the minutia of the day. When reading about Marley's antics, I assumed that, behind and beyond the entertaining story, the Grogans were doing the best they could to control Marley's behaviors, just as my family had done the best we could to manage Ender's behaviors. The stories I tell about Ender don't include the boring bits, the repetitive sit-stay's and downs, or the ways we altered our behaviors to accommodate what we could not change in him. And they certainly don't include the things I learned too late, the things I didn't know and so couldn't use to help Ender be a better dog and me a better owner.

But beyond that, what I connected with in Marley and Me, both the book and the movie, was the commitment to the dog- the fact that he was a member of the family and not disposable. Yeah, we alter the unsocial behavior of children by teaching them how to behave rather than sending them to the pound. (Some of us do, and some of us strive to do so with varying degrees of success.) Perhaps in those entertaining stories, Grogan should have pointed out that it is the responsibility of an owner to do the same for family animals. But that would have been a different book. Not a better book, nor a worse one, just a different one.

You can read some of the Pro-Marley crowd's comments on John Grogan's blog- the latest entry is about the Grogan family's new puppy Woodson, who portrayed one of the Marley puppies in the movie. (Read More),

Here you will see a short clip of John Grogan talking about Marley and Me

And finally, here's a clip of Director David Frankel, Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston talking about the movie:

By the way, according to this article in the LA Times, the American Humane Association has a campaign in place to help ensure that movie-goers don't purchase lab puppies on impulse, as happened after the 101 Dalmatians and Beethoven movies came out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dogs and babies

My 6 month-old granddaughter has come to visit, and Chuck and I are really enjoying being silly grandparents. We talk in silly voices, and dance silly dances to get her to stop fussing. One place we are not being silly, though, is in the interaction between our dogs and our granddaughter.

When we brought our first son home from the hospital in 1980, we had 3 dogs- 2 elderly Cairn Terriers that had come to me as strays a few years before, and a young adult mixed breed we had raised from a pup. We thought about how we would introduce the baby, but we didn't do anything elaborate. We were lucky. Sam, one of the Cairns, was very unhappy that we had brought this new person into our pack, and literally turned his face to the wall. For about 3 days he would not look at the baby, or at us. Fortunately there were no other problems, and Tanqueray, the mixed breed, was extremely good, not only with our first son but also with our second 4 years later.

Our current dogs are terrific. They bring joy to our lives. However, they are also large, alien predators who operate on motivation that we don't share and I would never make the mistake of leaving the baby with the dogs unsupervised. This is not the world of Good Dog Carl, much as I would like it to be.

This is only the fourth time we have been able to spend time with our granddaughter, as she lives 1000 miles away. The first two times we went to visit, the dogs stayed home with a wonderful house sitter, and had a terrific time. By Thanksgiving, though, we thought the new family had enough time to acclimate, and we took the dogs with us to visit. We were able to fence off the bottom level of our son's house so that there was a "dog-free" zone and a "baby-free" zone. The dogs did pass through the upstairs on the way to and from the back yard, but they didn't spend a lot of time in close proximity with the baby.

This visit is on the dogs' territory, and I had a few more concerns. I didn't want them to be locked out of parts of the house they were accustomed to entering- mainly the kitchen and the TV room. The bedrooms are always off-limits, so that was no problem, but the kitchen and the TV room are the main places we spend time as a family.

As it happens, there hasn't been an issue- the baby is still non-mobile, and has never been alone except when in the closed bedroom, sleeping. The dogs have been curious, but have mostly stayed at a small distance. This is as close as they have gotten- and I am holding on to Boodle's collar.

I have been surprised- Juniper, who is the most dominant, comes alert when the baby cries, but for the most part hasn't shown any other interest. I was actually more worried about Boodles, the most submissive dog in the world. Despite her submission, she is very active, (we call her the ADD dog) and we haven't been able to reliably train her to greet people appropriately and less enthusiastically. Boodles thinks all people in the world love her and want to be kissed. She has big paws and I was afraid of scratches more than anything.

Because we see them so infrequently, we will have to reintroduce the baby each time. This year the baby has been mostly in some adult's arms, and has not invaded the dog's space. Next year will be different and we will have to be vigilant in other ways. For more information about introducing dogs to babies or small children, see below:

Here is a Cesar Milan video about working with dogs and small children.

Or look at these web sites:
Petpourri library article from St. Huberts Animal Welfare Center, NJ
Pawprints and Purrs Inc. Introducing an infant to a resident dog
WikiFido interview with Cesar Milan
Dog Meet Baby (Haven't tried this one, but it certainly is interesting.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Do dogs think?

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher most known for saying "I think, therefore I am," also had some things to say about animals. Descartes felt that animals were no more than soulless organic machines. All of the behaviors of non-human animals, Descartes felt, rose not from thought, but from interactions of the internal material of the "meat machine."

I think Descartes must not have had a pet. I have watched my dogs think, make choices, and even try to deflect behavior.

My last dog, Ender, had the bad habit of getting in the trash while we were out of the house. We could always tell when he had done this because of his behavior when we got home. This house is a split entry, and we come in on the bottom level. Ender would greet us on the landing, and, with his body, would attempt to block us from going up the stairs. All during the blocking process he would be wagging his tail, and smiling this ingratiating smile. You just knew if he could talk he would have been saying "Hey, guys, no need to go upstairs. Let's stay down here and watch TV."

Ender ringing in the New Year, 2006

Obviously, the decision to root around in the trash was not one of Ender's better choices. Perhaps wearing the New Year's Eve crown could also be counted as a poor decision, but Ender was always a good sport.

I have watched him make good choices, however. A study I read suggested that dogs could count in a rudimentary fashion. To test the premise, researchers would show the dog an array of treats, and then cover them. Researchers would then remove one or more of the treats, or would leave all of the treats there. They determined that dogs looked longer at the array during the trials where treats were removed than when the number was expected indicating that the dogs were surprised at the number of treats shown.

I decided to test this on Ender. Unfortunately I wasn't able to determine whether or not he could count. He was a food guarder, and became agitated when the treats were hidden. However, I got some interesting results when I changed the experimental design a little. I would lay out a variety of treats- some big, some small, some crunchy, some hard. I expected that he would go for his favorite treats first, but that wasn't the case. He would vary his selections based on what I put out there- he didn't always choose his favorites, and he didn't always go for the same thing first. He would investigate, smelling all of the treats first, before making his selection. He obviously had criteria upon which he was basing his decision. What that criteria was, well, that's still a mystery.

Researchers at the University of Vienna found that dogs have an emotional life, and react to unfair situations. They gave two dogs sitting next to each other unequal treats for doing the same behavior; in this case, "shaking" paws with the researcher. The dog given the smaller treat would quit performing the action sooner than the other dog. You may read more about the study here

Ender is gone now, and we share our house with Boodles and Juniper. You will be reading more about them over time. For now, please watch the short video below, and forgive me putting words in their mouths.

To read more about Ender, please click here: