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Do we really want to read our dogs’ minds?

Devices claiming to translate what your dog is thinking into human words have been popping up on the Internet for a good five years now, and some of the more gullible among us have bought them — and even contributed to campaigns to bring them to market.

There’s No More Woof an electronic device — still in the testing stages, of course — that Swedish scientists say will be able to analyze dogs’ brain waves and translate their thoughts into rudimentary English.

There’s the slightly more real but far more rudimentary Bow-Lingual, which claims to be able to translate your dog’s barks into emotions, currently unavailable on Amazon.com

There are apps — real and prank ones — that offer dog-to-human translations, virtually all of which have disclaimers saying that they should be used primarily for entertainment purposes.

And there are legitimate research projects underway around the world, with real scientists and animal behaviorists seeking to determine and give voice to what is going on in the heads of dogs.

But wait a minute. Do we really want to know?

As this bit of satire shows, we might not like the result.

It was produced by Los Angeles-based Rogue Kite Productions, an independent film company created by writer/producer/director Michelle Boley and camera operator/editor Taylor Gill, who pursue projects of their liking when not doing their day jobs.

Their spoof depicts a speech articulating device much like one a group in Sweden claims to actually be working on.

No More Woof aims to “break the language barrier between animals and humans,” the Sweden-based Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery (NSID) says on its Indiegogo page.

NSID says the device records electroencephalogram (EEG) readings from a dog that are then analyzed by a Raspberry Pi microcomputer and translated, through a small speaker, into simple phrases like, “I’m hungry,” or “Who is that person?”

Popular Science declared the project almost certainly bogus — and yet money keeps pouring in from donors.

The No More Woof indiegogo page says more than $22,000 has been contributed to the project.

Not to cast aspersions on the Swedish group’s attempt to move technology ahead, but I think Rogue Kite Productions could put that money to better use.

Diabetic alert dog Taffy makes the yearbook

harryandtaffy

A diabetic alert dog named, of all things, Taffy is pictured in the new Northern Guilford High School yearbook, appearing right next to the human he serves.

Taffy and Harry Hulse, a sophomore, started the school year together — Harry’s first with a diabetic alert dog at his side.

The dog is able to detect spikes and drops in Harry’s blood sugar and notifies him by pawing him.

Before Taffy, the 15-year-old North Carolina boy had to check his blood sugar up to 15 times a day.

“My blood sugar is very unstable,” said Harry, who uses an insulin pump to help regulate his levels. “He’ll alert me when that happens by pawing me on my leg or scratching me.”

Harry was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2010 and has hypoglycemia unawareness. When his blood sugar is low he doesn’t receive the typical warning symptoms, such as sweatiness or shakiness. He received the dog last August through Diabetic Alert Dogs of America in Las Vegas.

While fellow students were surprised to see the dog following Harry at first, they’ve grown used to the sight.

taffy“People really don’t even know he’s there. He’s really quiet,” said Harry told Fox 8 News.

Taffy remains on duty while Harry sleeps at night.

“When I’m sleeping, I obviously don’t know what’s going on and my mom and dad aren’t aware either,” he explained the teenager. “My blood sugar is supposed to be between 110 and 150 and once it dropped to 43 while I was asleep.”

Taffy woke him up by pawing him.

yearbookGetting Taffy’s photo in the yearbook was his mother’s idea. He didn’t know about it until the photos were taken.

” … They said, ‘We’re taking a picture of your dog, too.’

“He looked really cool,” Harry said of the dog. “He looked better than me.”

Secret Life of the Human Pups

secret-life-human-pups

All we can learn from dogs, and how, in many ways, we should strive to be more like them, are recurring themes on this website.

But, for the record, this is not what we mean.

A new documentary by Channel 4 in the UK takes a look at the “secretive” world of men who like to dress up as, and play the role of, dogs.

Around 10,000 people follow the pet play craze in the UK, according to “Secret Life of the Human Pups” — in which several members of this “secret” society dress up and strut before the cameras.

Apparently, it’s another one of those secret societies that — judging from some of its related websites, and the public competition it holds every year — really craves attention.

The documentary — sensationalistic as it is, albeit in a properly restrained British kind of way — isn’t unearthing any new ground.

Furries — people who dress up and behave as animals — have been around for decades, and the only new twist we can see is a trend towards preferring latex over fur costumes.

Participants, as always, range from those who enjoy a playful escape from reality to those who truly wish to be another species, from those seeking to shock and grab attention to those who are probably in need of some mental health counseling.

Anonymous sex, as always, while not what it’s entirely about, remains a strong component — at least for some participants.

The director of the documentary, Guy Simmonds told Newsweek he began pursuing the project after he “stumbled across some pictures [of human dogs] on the Internet.”

“… The more we researched it, the more surprised I was to learn how large the community was in the U.K. They’ve got their own social networking sites, events and competitions.”

The documentary aired Wednesday night.

Simmonds says puppy players (generally men) come from all walks of life: “We’ve come across librarians, security guards, even CEOs of huge corporations who wanted to remain anonymous. There are gay, straight, transsexual, asexual pups.”

One 42-year-old man described the appeal of pretending to be a pup this way:

“Life is getting more hectic nowadays, so much pressure on work and life. Some people drink, there’s drugs… You’ve got to be civilized in our society. When you’re in puppy mode, all that goes away. We don’t care about money; we don’t care about what job you’ve got, or the bigger car.”

For other people, role-playing as a dog can be a way of dealing with social anxiety, deep-rooted childhood issues or chronic medical conditions.

London-based psychotherapist Wendy Bristow says it is not uncommon for those who have experienced childhood trauma to seek comfort in forms of escapism. She points to cases of paraphilic infantilism, in which adults seek comfort by putting on diapers and regressing back to being a baby.

By taking on the role of something in need of nurturing — be it puppy or baby — they may be attempting to make up for a lack of it in their pasts.

“The technical term is displacement,” she said. “They’re doing an activity that gets them comfort, but they’re not expected to relate back apart from being grateful.”

Whatever the case, it seems there is one thing that both dogs and men who dress up as dogs are probably seeking more than anything else — attention.

Study: Dogs trust us less when we’re angry

How quickly your dog responds to you has a lot to do with the look on your face and the tone of your voice, according to a study at Brigham Young University.

Your dog may not respond more quickly if you use a positive tone, but he’s likely to respond much more slowly if you’re using a negative one, according to the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Brigham Young psychology professor Ross Flom and his research team conducted two experiments examining how dogs reacted to both positive and negative emotions.

“We know that dogs are sensitive to our emotional cues,” Flom said, “but we wanted to know: do they use these emotional cues?” he said.

The experiments measured how quickly dogs responded to an adult’s pointing gesture.

Some of the adults exhibited positive behaviors while making the gestures, such as smiling and speaking in a pleasant tone; others exhibited negative behaviors, such as frowning, furrowing their brow or speaking harshly.

As most dog owners could have predicted, the negative behaviors made dogs a little less cooperative and slow to react — proving yet again (as we also already know) you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

(Has anyone actually done a study on that?)

While dogs who sensed the pointing adults were angry reacted more slowly, dogs whose pointing adults reflected a positive attitude didn’t react any more speedily than those in a control group.

We can only assume those in the control group were issued orders by adults whose faces were expressionless and who spoke like Ben Stein.

Flom concluded that dogs use our tone and emotion to determine how fast to follow an order — or, to put it more scientifically …

“Together these results suggest that the addition of affective information does not significantly increase or decrease dogs’ point-following behavior. Rather these results demonstrate that the presence or absence of affective expressions influences a dog’s exploratory behavior and the presence or absence of reward affects whether they will follow an unfamiliar adult’s attention-directing gesture.”

Apparently, random human strangers were doing the gesturing in the study, as opposed to the owners of the dogs involved.

That, we suspect, would have made a big difference in a dog’s level of trust and eagerness to respond.

That dogs will take off and explore a new area or object based on a stranger’s request shows that dogs generally trust humans.

That dogs — or any animals for that matter — are slow to react to one who appears angry is really no big surprise, either.

That’s generally true in the human arena as well, with the exception of those being yelled at by drill sergeants, prison guards or junior high gym coaches.

Program works with Amish in southern Indiana to improve breeding conditions

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While Amish breeders are notorious for running puppy mills, some of those in southern Indiana are working with Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science to improve their breeding practices and, in the process, their reputations.

“It was time that we as breeders recognize that there are professionals out there that can help us and we need to involve them in our businesses,” said Levi Graber, a member of Odon’s Amish community who helps several breeders in the area.

Though the Amish aren’t known for reaching out, or letting people in, Graber contacted the university a few years ago about improving Amish-run breeding operations in the region. That led to a pilot program in which the operations are reviewed, and suggestions are made on how to improve them.

Already, those behind the program say, they’ve found that improving conditions and practices at the kennels leads to happier, healthier, better behaved dogs.

Under the program, which is open to non-Amish breeders as well, a set of voluntary standards will be created for breeders to follow, according to the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

“Many folks hear about breeding and animal welfare and they don’t know what (breeders) actually do. They just want to put them out of business,” said Purdue’s Candace Croney, director of the animal welfare center.

Most dogs she and her team of researchers have observed have been in good physical health, Croney said, but some had room for improvement in their behavior. Some facilities’ dogs were loud and dogs became over-excited when they saw people, which Croney said indicated they weren’t used to seeing people often.

The research team advised those breeders to make sure something positive happens for the dogs, such as receiving a treat, every time someone comes into the kennel area. They also suggested letting the dogs out in the yard daily to exercise and socialize.

The changes made a big impact, Croney said. Over four months, the dogs in the kennel with the most behavioral issues became calmer when they saw people, and they physically looked better.

“We’ve seen a very positive impact on some of the things she recommends,” Graber said. “I’ve seen more contented, happy dogs.”

Once the trial program is complete, a third party will audit the breeders’ practices, Croney said.

Breeders who qualify will receive a certification that she said goes beyond the standards mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which cover areas such as housing, sanitation, food, water and protection against extreme weather and temperatures.

Graber said the community feels fortunate to work with Purdue and emphasized that the breeders don’t want to sell puppies that disappoint anyone.

Not all Amish-run breeding operations are like those that end up on the news, noted Dale Blier, who works for Blue Ribbon Vet & Supply in Odon and sells supplies to many breeders in town.

“The majority of dog breeders in Indiana treat their dogs the same way they treat making furniture: They want to be the best at it they can,” he said.

(Photo: A child sits with puppies at a breeding operation in Odon that’s working with Purdue’s Center for Animal Welfare Science program; by Levi Graber)

You remember Ace

aceandmikey

I promised myself long ago that, when Ace’s time came, I wouldn’t make too big a deal of the big dog’s death on these pages.

Unlike many dog websites, this one has always tried to avoid blatantly tugging on heartstrings — and to eschew all those mushy sounding and unnecessary words like “beloved” and “adorable” and “fur baby.”

We’ve always made it a point not to pander to your love for dogs with adjectives — just to cultivate it with truths.

For that reason, and others, we’re not going to be writing about Ace’s death a whole lot more.

Already, there have been more words written about him — between ohmidog! and Travels with Ace — than probably any other dog around. To keep going on and on about him (which in life I always viewed as “sharing”) would become something more like exploiting.

In other words, having made such a big deal out of his life, my plan was to refrain making a big deal out of his death.

But look what you went and did.

aceandjenYou’ve clogged my emailbox, you’ve kept my phone ringing, you’ve commented on my Facebook page and put up your own posts, often with your photos of Ace.

Since Ace’s death, I’ve heard from friends in Baltimore, Philadelphia and North Carolina, friends in — to name a few — Seattle, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Montana, California, Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey.

And those were just the ones who actually met him.

Hundreds more, from across the country and even overseas, who came to know Ace through our websites, left comments here and on Facebook — many of which made me cry all over again.

I guess that’s a good thing.

Thank you is what I’m trying to say, in a non-sniffly way, to those who touched Ace and were touched by him.

A sampling:

“Folks who don’t believe that dogs have souls have never met Ace,” a North Carolina friend wrote on her Facebook page. “I saw the effect he had on people everywhere he went. People were very drawn to Ace, it was amazing to watch. He was pure LOVE.”

“Ace was loved by so many all over the country … our hearts break for you,” wrote another, who put Ace and me up for days in Seattle during our year long “Travels with Ace” journey — and helped him overcome some stomach distress. (He arrived there with a bad case of diarrhea, probably the result of too much fast food.)

Ace and Bim at Idle Hour

Ace and Bim at Idle Hour

A Baltimore buddy wrote, “Today is one of those days where something comes across your newsfeed that you dread seeing. Many moons ago Bim and I met a big guy of a dog named Ace at Canton Dog Park. Unlike some other big dogs, where Bim felt intimidated, he and Ace were very content to just “be” together … Ace was one of, if not THE, most amazing, chill, coolest, sweetest dogs I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.” This from a woman who Ace once pulled out of her chair and dragged across a few feet of pavement after I asked her to hold Ace’s leash for a minute.

aceatidle“Ace, there isn’t a human or dog that didn’t love you!” wrote another, posting a photo of Ace at the Idle Hour, his favorite bar.

“You will be so very missed by so many! Thank you for teaching us how to love every minute of life! The original bar dog, park dog. I am so sorry HB (Honeybun) tried to eat you the first time she met you.”

Another friend, who spend some dog park and bar time with Ace here in Winston-Salem, wrote: “Lauren and I first met Ace five and a half years ago on an assignment for the Winston-Salem Journal, and when we arrived at our interview, we saw him, a giant black-and-tan dog, gliding through the trees. We joked that he probably weighed more than 5’2” me. (He did.)

“…I watched Ace break up dog-park scuffles with the kindness and wisdom of a compassionate cop, moving his massive body between the offending parties. I saw him snack on peanut shells at one of my favorite Winston dive bars. Once, Lauren and I shared some beers with him in a booth (still one of my all-time favorite photos). He was the most gentle dog I’ve ever met … I’ll be hugging Stringer extra-tight tonight, and I hope y’all do the same with your pets. Rest easy, Aceface. The world will miss you.”

Ace and Stringer at Recreation Billiards

Ace and Stringer at Recreation Billiards

A former neighbor here in Winston-Salem whose two dachshunds were close friends and dog-walking buddies, sent this email:

“I don’t know what to say. I was thinking of what to say and then of all the things I would not like to hear… I guess I just wanted you to know that while I cannot understand what you are feeling right now … I am constantly thinking of all the many, many great times I had with you and Ace. I don’t think I knew how many until I really thought about it.”

Then she brought up Ace’s most shameful day — when he (always exceedingly gentle with every creature from baby kittens to baby ducks) took off, along with the dachshunds, after a baby bunny in College Village.

SONY DSC

“The memory that stands out to me is the one involving the very unfortunate bunny in CV. Watching Ace actually grieve over the fact that he accidentally stepped on one, while the doxies went nuts for blood. I am grateful for having Ace in my life …”

Some of those who got in touch had only known Ace for minutes.

This from a woman we bumped into five and a half years ago at a rest area in Montana, and spent maybe five minutes with:


“John, my heart breaks for you. I remember meeting you and Ace at that rest stop in Montana during your Travels with Ace road trip. He was sweet and gentle and willingly accepted my St. Bernard Charlie’s clumsy attempts for attention. As I lost Charlie just over a year ago, rest assured Charlie is now helping Ace settle in wherever special dogs go after their time with us.”

Dozens more who passed along their condolences were people who never met him at all — knowing him only through the Internet.

“My deepest condolences to John Woestendiek, whose eloquent journey with his beloved Ace has come to an end. Thank you for opening our eyes to BARCS (Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care, the shelter Ace was adopted from) and for showing us what love looks like,” wrote Baltimore attorney and animal welfare activist Caroline Griffin.

It is greatly comforting to know he lives on.

Sure, I’m still doing all those things that people who have lost dogs do — steering clear of the dog food aisle at the grocery store, getting used to returning to an empty house, marveling at how less often I have to empty the vacuum bag, thinking about the next dog, in a while, and worrying how unfair it might be to put a dog in a position to be his follow-up act.

Like most readers of this website, I can’t imagine a dog-less life.

Like a lot of you, I probably have a more admiring view of dogs than I do of humans.

But your response to Ace’s passing — the eloquent words you shared with me at a time when it’s so hard to come up with the right thing to say — has moved me more than I can describe (without getting sappy).

Let’s just say humans can be pretty decent, too.

Saying goodbye to Ace

SONY DSC

He was a well-traveled dog who loved the road more than anything, except maybe you and me.

He was a survivor of Baltimore’s less tender side who was picked up as a stray, placed in a city shelter, found a home with some writer guy and went on to become a therapy dog and minor celebrity.

He was the subject of a five-part newspaper series examining his roots, a book (unpublished and unfinished), the inspiration for this website, and my reason for being.

SONY DSCHe was an ambassador for mutts, and, more particularly, for all those disrespected breeds his sweet, gentle self was made up of — Rottweiler, Akita, Chow and pit bull.

And now the hardest words I’ve ever written: Ace is dead.

Last week, he was frolicking in the woods. This week, he slowed down to a state near lethargy and showed little interest in eating, and in the past two days he began swelling up — mostly in the belly region.

Having recovered from his recent bladder surgery, he was the same dog he always was — until Monday night when he came inside showing no interest in his nightly treat.

The vet’s diagnosis was congestive heart failure and possible tumors — hemangiosarcoma.

Blood was not getting to his liver, and fluids were pooling up inside.

Based on Ace’s age (nearly 12, a good 90 in human years for a dog of his size), based on the poor outlook in either case, or the even worse outlook in the case of both, and based on his apparent discomfort, the vet recommended putting him down.

When I asked for some time to think about it, the vet said that wasn’t a good idea. When I asked to take Ace home and bring him back today, he said that wasn’t a good idea, either.

So we took an hour before the deed was to be done. We started walking. It started raining. It was taking all of his effort to keep up with me, and I (being a fellow member of the congestive heart failure club) walk pretty darn slow.

brendanfinnertyWe only walked a few hundred yards, yet in that time I was asked twice what kind of dog he was, and thanked four people who complimented him on his good looks.

We stopped at a Domino’s and sat on the pavement under an overhang. I bought him a small cheese pizza — his favorite food. He took two bites, but only because I insisted.

We stopped in the rain on the way back. I briefly debated whether I was doing the right thing. I held his head in my hands, rested my head on his and looked into his eyes. I could still see the love in them, but not the joy.

Back at the vet, on the floor with his head in my lap, the vet administered a sedative. Ace was soon snoring. Once the lethal injection was administered, his heartbeat slowed within minutes and then, around 6 p.m. Thursday, stopped.

I’ll get his ashes in a week or so, and I’ll spread them in Black Walnut Bottoms, the trail in Bethania he loved.

Having written a lot about dogs and death, I thought I’d be better prepared for this. But I’m a wreck.

In answer to one of the questions asked a lot over the years, no — a resounding NO! — he will not be cloned. Having written a book on dog cloning, people ask that of me. Clearly, they never read the book.

SONY DSCIn answer to another — whatever happened to that book you were writing about Ace? — well, 95 percent of it exists, but only on the Internet.

In 2011, Ace and I set off on a trip duplicating the route John Steinbeck took in “Travels with Charley.”

It ended up lasting a year, and covering 27,000 miles. I think I speak for both of us when I say it was the time of our lives.

Travels with Ace” didn’t interest any publishers, but it will hang around on the Internet — at least until my time comes.

I still need to finish the last chapter, but I can promise you this:

In the book, Ace won’t die.

(Photos: Top, Ace at Salvation Mountain in California; Ace at the Bandera County Courier in Texas; Ace and John (photo by Brendan Finnerty); Ace with a bust of John Steinbeck in Monterey, California)