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Shut up and pet me: Study says dogs prefer petting over anything you might have to say

SONY DSCLess talk, more petting — that’s what your dog wants, according to a new study.

Based on tests with dozens of dogs — some from homes, some from shelters — researchers found that, when it comes to interacting with humans, dogs seems to prefer physical contact to anything you might have to say, praise included.

One possible exception — verbal pronouncements that dinner, or treats, are about to be served.

Two scientists from the University of Florida, who in a previous study determined dogs prefer eating food to being petted, have published the results of another research project, showing dogs prefer physical contact over verbal praise.

Neither conclusion seems that surprising to me, but one has to bear in mind that scientists prefer having their work published to having their bellies rubbed, dinner at a five-star restaurant or even verbal praise: “Good scientist. Yes! Yes! You’re a very good scientist.”

“I spend half my day talking to my dog,” study co-author Dr. Clive Wynne, who is now professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, told The Huffington Post. “She always looks like it’s valuable to her. It’s quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn’t seem to be rewarding to them after all.”

For one part of the study researchers observed 42 dogs as they interacted one at a time with two people in a room. One person petted the dog, while the other praised the dog verbally. The researchers measured how much time the dog chose to spend interacting with each person.

Next,  72 dogs were, one at a time, placed in a room with just one person and their behavior was observed as the person spent time petting or praising the dog, or not interacting at all.

Dogs showed the most interest in people who were petting them, while they seemed to show no more interest in spoken praise than in having no interaction with the human at all, according to the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

“I was surprised that when only one alternative was available, dogs still did not engage with the human for vocal praise,” said study co-author Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, now assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She conducted the research while earning her doctorate degree at the University of Florida.

The scientists say dogs never seem to tire of getting petted, and they note that previous studies have shown a dog being stroked, like the human who is stroking him, reaps some health benefits, including a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure.

We won’t go so far as to suggest dogs realize that petting is a more honest form of interaction; that words can be less sincere, or even deceptive; or that words can even be annoying — like when they go on too long, are ridiculously repetitious, or they’re uttered in that high-pitched baby talk tone some of us use when talking to our pets.

But we won’t rule it out, either.

For his part, researcher Wynne says that, even if his own dog doesn’t fully appreciate all he verbally passes on to her, he’ll probably keep talking to her anyway.  ”I just recognize better that I’m doing it more for my benefit than for hers,” he said.

(Photo: Ace seeking some physical contact in Kanab, Utah / by John Woestendiek) 

The poodle who pays for my Obama Care

lily 086

Oftentimes, when to pursue your own dreams and interests you stop working for “THE Man” — as I did six years ago — you end up, unfortunately, without “THE Salary” and without “THE Benefits.”

That — the no more health insurance part — is why I haven’t seen a doctor in six years.

That — the no more salary part — is why, in addition to being an author, freelance writer, photographer and blogger, I recently became a bartender and, even more recently, a dog walker.

lily 047And that brings us to Lily, the poodle who pays for my Obama Care.

I suppose I should be thanking our President for finally being able to get myself some health insurance. He’s the one who made it possible. But Lily, sweet Lily, made it doable.

If being paid to spend time with Lily makes me a gigolo, then call me a gigolo. True, I come calling on her twice a day, three times a week. I knock on her door, give her a hug when it opens, and then wrap her coat snugly around her, making sure her fluffy white ears don’t get caught inside.

We ride the elevator down to the first floor of the assisted living center in which she and her owner live and go outside for a 20-minute stroll — during most of which she walks daintily along the top of the curb, like a tightrope walker. She fastidiously poops in the same spot each time, in the woods on a vacant lot. She stops when I stop, goes when I go, and has never once caused the slightest tug on her retractable leash.

After the walk — and I’ve never met a dog who’s easier to walk — we go back inside. Then we sit in the lounge area and snuggle for maybe five minutes. That is my favorite part and, though it may be vain of me to think so, her’s too.

My other favorite part is seeing the reaction of residents when a dog comes into the room, the smiles that instantly appear and the hands that reach out. It’s amazing the change in atmosphere one dog’s presence can produce.

lily 094I’ve often thought it would be great to run some kind of program that not only brought dogs into facilities for the elderly, but found them homes there, and provided support and help to residents who wanted dogs of their own, but had concerns about whether they could manage it.

That would be fun, and noble, and help homeless dogs, and assist in bringing immeasurable joy to people.

But it wouldn’t pay my bills — much less provide health insurance for me.

I charge Lily $6.50 for  each session.

In  a month, that earns me enough to pay my $137.67 monthly health insurance premium, as determined by the Affordable Health Care Act, based on my income.

That income pales in comparison to what I made as a newspaper reporter, back when I worked for THE Man. I left my last newspaper job in 2008 to write a book, but also because, amid continued shrinkage and cutbacks, it had become nearly impossible to do a story justice and give it the attention it deserved. After that my dog and I traveled the country, and I tinkered with another book, while continuing to write this blog.

We ended up in North Carolina, and last year moved to the little town of Bethania.

A few months ago I started working the bar and grill at a golf course down the street from my rented house. Not to bore you with my finances, but that two-day-a-week job, coupled with my newspaper reporter pension, makes it possible to pay my rent, bills and other debts. I wasn’t bringing in enough for health insurance, though, and — after countless hours wandering around healthcare.gov — I had pretty much decided I would continue do without, pay the penalty fee, and treat any diseases or disorders that arose with chicken soup and ibuprofen.

One afternoon, at the golf course, the aunt of another employee visited and told me about her dog-walking business — business maybe not being the right word. It’s sort of more in between a business and volunteering. She helps residents of an assisted living center with chores, ranging from shopping trips to dog walking, charging a rate that does little more than pay for her gas.

lily 066She, like me, feels strongly that dogs can improve the lives of elderly people, especially those who live alone. I told her if she was ever in a pinch, and in need of a fill-in dog walker, I’d be glad to help out.

A few weeks later she called, and I began walking Miss Lily — at first temporarily, then regularly.

The insurance plan Lily has enabled me to get is not the kind that pays for everything.

It’s more, as I understand it, the type that, after I spend $3,000 or so I don’t have on doctors, will kick in and pay 60 percent or so of my qualifying medical expenses. Even with it, one good medical crisis will probably still send me into financial ruin. But at least it’s something, and I’m abiding by the law, and it might make me more likely to visit a doctor.

And even if I don’t, I’ll still be reaping some health benefits – between all the dog cuddling, which is good for the heart, and all the dog walking, which is good for the heart.

I’m sure there will be much confusion, red tape and arguing ahead when it comes to my health insurance. There always is. And with my income being of the fluctuating variety — depending on the stories I sell, the dogs I walk, the beers I serve — I don’t understand how we will determine the premium I should pay in the future. Is it  based on last year’s income? Or this year’s income, which I won’t know until the year is finished?

Just last month, two more dogs showed up at the assisted living facility.  First came a Boston terrier named Punkin. I take him for three walks a day, three days a week. Then came Gretel, a miniature schnauzer who is 13, and the fastest walker of the bunch.

lily 064That means more income, which means the amount I have to pay for my Obama Care will go up.

For the record, Republican leaders, that doesn’t sap me of any incentive. I still want to have as much money as you. I’d still like to have the kind of health insurance you have.

But at least I can take a rebellious sort of pride in the fact that I’m not working for THE Man.

No. Not me. I’m working for a kind and gentle, polite and refined, sweet and loving curbwalker. I’m working for THE Poodle.

(Story and photos by John Woestendiek)

Take two dogs and call me in the morning

Call it an “aha” moment for the AHA: The American Heart Association has finally, officially, recognized that dogs are good for the ticker.

Last week, the organization issued a statement saying enough evidence now exists to make that assertion, and it didn’t even recommend dogs be taken in moderation, or consulting your doctor first.

Heartening as the news release was, the statement was overdue, or at least a few beats behind the thinking of those of us who already knew, and didn’t need studies to tell us, that our dogs are good for the heart, by which I mean the organ and more.

Dog owners are more likely to get exercise. Stroking a dog lowers blood pressure. Stress is handled better by dog owners — even when their dog isn’t with them. Studies have proven all those things.

But the mysteries of what dogs do for the heart, and the soul, have only begun to be unraveled. And on top of all the benefits to humans that can be scientifically confirmed and quantified, there’s much more dogs do for us — much of it undetectable by microscopes and double-blind studies, and part of me hopes it always will be.

Being humans, we can sometimes get so wrapped in measuring something that it interferes with treasuring that something. We can get so intent on delving into something’s complexities that we fail to savor its simplicity.

Dogs, could they speak, would tell us that, and they’d likely advise to look for the simple answer first.

How important, heart-wise, is the simple fact that a dog can give us reason to live, and love? While I am not a medical professional, or even a medical amateur, I think a heart that’s engaged and occupied is more likely to keep running smoothly than one sitting empty in the garage, getting dusty.

“Perhaps when one owns a pet one tends to be happier,” said Dr. Glenn Levine of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who led the committee that wrote the statement. “Pet owners might be more likely to take their medications and eat healthier meals.”

Pharmaceuticals and spinach, important as they may be, don’t make you happy to be alive, though, and want to continue in that state.

Dogs do.

The AHA isn’t saying everyone should go out and adopt a dog to lower their risk of heart disease. The statement emphasizes there’s much more involved in keeping your heart healthy, according to an NBC Today report.

“We did not want people to see this article and just go out and adopt or rescue or buy a dog …while they continue to just sit on the couch and smoke cigarettes,” said Levine, himself a dog owner.

In one study cited by the committee, researchers signed up 30 people with borderline high blood pressure who were about to adopt dogs from a shelter.

Then they persuaded half of them to wait — in the best interest of the study, if not the dogs.

Those allowed to adopt dogs right away had lower blood pressure two and five months later than those who had not adopted.

And once all the study participants had adopted dogs, systolic blood pressure was found to be lowered in the deferred-adoption group as well.

The study didn’t say whether those that adopted had lower blood pressure than those who bought dogs. Nevertheless, and even though I’m not a doctor, that’s what I’d prescribe.

(Photo: ohmidog!)

In praise of the dogged American worker

Some of you might remember Darcy — the too cute to strangle Boston terrier for whom I’ve served as babysitter while her mom and dad were away.

Twice, I took Darcy into my home for multi-day stays, where she proceeded to test my patience half the time, and be adorable the other half.

That was back when I had a house. Now, upon my return to Baltimore — having given up my home for the purposes of our continuing road trip – the tables have turned, and Darcy and her humans have most graciously taken Ace and me into their’s.

Where, as you might guess,  I proceeded to test their patience half the time (going so far as to clog up their toilet yesterday morning … the house guest’s worst nightmare), and attempted to be adorable (once I had my coffee) the other half.

And all this just before the start of school, no less.

Here in the city of Baltimore, yesterday was the first day of school — so,  with both Darcy’s mom and dad being city schoolteachers, it’s all the more impressive that, with everything else that was on their minds and agendas, they agreed to house one road-weary man and his 130-pound dog over the weekend.

There, in addition to the hazards of using too much toilet paper, this is what I learned:

Teachers — or at least teachers like Dan and Marite – should be appreciated much more. I say this not because they gave us shelter, but because in the days I spent with them I’ve seen how much of themselves, their own time, their own money, their hearts and souls, they pour into what they do.

Yesterday, as Ace and I sat drinking coffee on their front stoop after they left, I watched as children headed down the sidewalk for the start of a new school year, many of them tightly holding the hands of their parents. And I thought how fortunate they were — even in a school system as troubled as Baltimore’s — to have teachers like Dan and Marite. And how much worse things would be if they didn’t.

Dan spent the bulk of the weekend on his computer, finalizing his lesson plans, sweating the details. Marite cooked up some do-it-yourself orange Play-doh out of flour, water and food coloring. When we walked with the dogs down to the shopping center for lunch, Dan and Marite hit the Goodwill store, and came out with a full bag of classroom supplies.

They spent most of the weekend copying, printing and working away on their laptops, sitting side by side and sharing the couch with Darcy and Ace, who generally makes for a pretty jam-packed couch.

But Dan and Marite take chaos in stride. They seem to have mastered patience, which I guess all teachers must. They are so easy going that she probably won’t mind that I — lacking the technical know-how — am writing her name without the accent thing over the “e”.

While their home has plenty of clutter — I would describe their decorating scheme as contemporary-tornado — Ace and I only added to it, what with our leashes and dog bowls and dog food and camera and laptop and dirty laundry. We just wedged ourselves and our stuff in, and felt right at home. (Virgo that I am, I will admit I feared putting anything on a counter for fear it would disappear immediately under a stack of paperwork, laptops and school supplies. By the way, have you seen my glasses?)

The clutter, though – I’d say it’s 85 percent school related — is just another sign of their commitment.

One of the things that has struck me in our travels across America — and maybe it’s because I don’t at the moment have a “real job” — is how commited American workers are.

Most people seem to truly cherish their work — though not always their jobs. And there’s a difference. One’s “work” is doing what they got into a career to do, whether it’s teaching kids, righting wrongs or driving trucks, whether it’s lawyering or newspapering. One’s “job” is what that work has evolved into — thanks to managers, supervisors, corporate chiefs and stockholders.

We the workers, in a way, are their Play-Doh, and they tend to mold, bend and stretch us, sometimes to the point of snapping.

They take your one job and squeeze two more jobs into it; then shovel layers of bureaucracy on top, burying you under piles of  seemingly meaningless paperwork, and doing away with anything that might serve as support. They tell us to do more with less, and, at times, seem to be doing everything in their power to prohibit us from doing our jobs right. Then they — those at the very top — reap the benefits of the more, while we scrape by on the less.

I don’t think that makes me a Communist, just a pissed off worker — or a pissed off former worker, to be precise. (I kind of like the boss I have now, who looks a lot like me.)

As a nation, we fail to show enough appreciation for those doing the heavy lifting. And yet the heavy lifters keep lifting — they, and teachers especially, manage to stay fired up about the work, if not the job, despite shrinking benefits, paltry salaries and all the forces that seem intent on extinguishing that fire.

So, a little early for Labor Day, I salute the American worker, who, like the American dog, keeps at it — leaping obstacles, heeding commands, summoning up energy even when exhausted, snapping at and shaking off all the annoying little bugs that come down from above, buzzing in our ears and getting on our backs.

(“Dog’s Country” is the continuing account of one man and one dog spending six months criss-crossing America.)

Why just 1 day to take dog to work?

Every day should be “Take Your Dog to Work Day.”

At least that’s my thinking — and it’s the view of the Humane Society of the United States, as well.

HSUS is encouraging dogs in the workplace programs, and this year it has teamed up with Petplan, which describes itself as America’s top-rated pet insurance provider, to ask busineses to consider adopting programs permitting employees to bring dogs to work.

Such policies, they say, can be beneficial to employees, dogs and the company bottom line. Studies have shown that employees who bring their dogs to work tend to be more efficient, happier and healthier.

“We share everything with our four-legged family members – our joys, our sorrows, sometimes even our lunch,” says Natasha Ashton, co-founder of Petplan. “It seems only natural that we also share our work lives with our pets.”

To assist employers in implementing a dogs at work program, Humane Society Press, the publishing division of HSUS, published “Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces,” a guide to creating a business environment where employees’ dogs are welcome.

Authors Liz Palika and Jennifer Fearing present the tangible benefits of dog-friendly policies and provide step-by-step advice on obtaining management buy-in, setting fair procedures and protocols and dealing with any concerns about dog-friendly policies in the workplace. Dogs at Work also includes detailed advice about how to prepare dogs for the office environment, provides sample policies and handouts and provides two comprehensive case studies describing successful dog-friendly workplaces.

“Our canine companions make excellent colleagues, even at big companies,” said Fearing, chief economist for The Humane Society of the United States. “In the midst of tough times, employers can improve morale and support the human-animal bond by relying on Dogs at Work to develop and implement a workable – and free – program that works for everyone.”

The HSUS implemented a dogs at work program in 2007, and about 50 dogs come to work at the organization’s three offices in the Washington, D.C. area.

(Photo: Soco, HSUS staffer Cary Smith’s dog, at work; by Cary Smith, courtesy of HSUS)

Dogs and the fine art of freeloading

It occurs to me – tooling down the highway tends to make things occur to me – that in my current journey, with my dog, across America, mooching off friends and family and, given the opportunity, complete strangers, I am, in ways, taking on the role of dog.

(When things occur to me, there are usually a lot of commas involved.)

Since Ace and I pulled out of Baltimore, two weeks ago, we’ve only spent two nights in motels – thanks to my mother putting me up two nights, and my ex-wife and her husband putting up with me for ten days, a most gracious gesture and an arrangement that barely felt weird at all.

More important, it allowed me to spend some time with my son in his last summer before college, get to know his family dogs, suck in plenty of air conditioning and take part in recreation real and virtual.

We played some Frisbee golf (Wii and real), tennis (real), ping pong (Wii), regular golf (real), made side trips to Memphis, Tupelo and Oxford, and over the weekend gave the dogs baths.

Ace has gotten along famously with both Molly, a two-year-old beagle mix, and Huey, a scruffy little terrier who’s 15, and, on walks, squirts his pee straight sideways, to amazing distances. One must always remember to walk behind Huey.

Ace immediately became part of the pack and adapted to our temporary quarters, but then that’s what dogs are best at, adjusting.  I’m not entirely sure he wants to leave. Nevertheless, the time has come to move on.

We’re thinking south, towards New Orleans, but we’re not sure.

In the days ahead we’ll probably be spending more nights in motels, and, once we get to cooler climes, camping – but we still plan to mooch when the offer is made, avoiding motels whenever possible.

(Two good things about friends: They don’t impose weight limits, or require non-refundable security deposits. At least none have yet.)

I’ve gotten a few lodging offers, even a couple from strangers. More often, they are from friends and family – some from people who want to see me so badly, they will tolerate my dog, more yet from people who want to see my dog so badly, they will tolerate me.

Traveling with dogs, though it can be restrictive and inconvenient, can also open doors. My ex and her husband, I’d guess, after 10 days of me sleeping in their den, won’t be too sad to see me go, but they’ll miss Ace. Although she informed me upon arrival that Ace is overweight (correctly, I realized), she then went on to treat him to, among other things, pancakes, bacon, cheesecake, hamburgers and hot dogs.

All of which, being a mooch himself — both when it comes to food and affection — he gobbled up.

I’m learning a thing or two from my dog about the fine art of freeloading — not surprising, given dogs are probably society’s ultimate freeloaders.

We feed them, shelter them, teach them, groom them, entertain them and sometimes go to far more ridiculous extremes. They get, pretty much, a free ride.

Unlike your average parasite, though, they give far more back in return — unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, companionship, affection, better health, smiles, laughs, serenity, comfort, exercise and, oh yeah, that sense of purpose and fulfillment that they add to our lives.

Since I’ve hit the road, I’ve been offered shelter, fed meals and found companionship (family variety) – everything a dog gets, except maybe a scratch behind the ears. I, in turn, try to be amusing, refrain from barking, not drool when dinner is served and avoid shedding on the couch.

In reality, I don’t uphold my side of the freeloading bargain as well as dogs do. I’m not quite as loyal and steadfast, as dependable or entertaining, as cute, soothing or stimulating. But I try.

Not wholeheartedly, like a dog – I won’t be licking any hands, for instance — but I try.

No food stamps for dog, appeals court rules

A Pennsylvania appeals court ruled Tuesday against a Bucks County man who had sought food stamps to help feed his dog.

James Douris, 55, a disabled and unemployed veteran who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown, said he relies on his dog to pull his wheelchair and fetch items for him. Because of the dog’s work on his behalf, it should be considered a dependent member of his household, he argued.

The appeals court didn’t buy it, upholding a decision by the state welfare agency denying him additional support, the Associated Press reported.

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