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Tag: social

Getting to (sniff, sniff) know you

Humans need a play stance.

I came to this conclusion yesterday — adding yet another item to the list of things dogs do better than us – as Ace and I arrived for the first time at the only dog park in Winston-Salem proper (and Winston-Salem is pretty proper).

Being new and mostly friendless in the town in which we’ve decided to temporarily base ourselves, we left our quarters in the basement of a mansion and, for a little socialization, headed a couple miles down the road to Washington Park, where dogs can run and play in a fenced-in area.

Of course, Ace hardly romped at all. It being a new scene for him, his first priority was to give all things a good sniffing  – other dogs included. But, on this day, he was more the sniffee than the sniffer.

The second I closed the gate behind us, five other dogs — realizing there was a new face — bounded over for a whiff, following so close behind his rear end that, when he stopped abruptly … well you know the rest.

Butts aside, it’s an intriguing thing to watch, this seeming welcome, and one I noticed often back at Ace’s old park in Baltimore. When a first-timer arrives, all the other dogs come over to give the new guy a sniff. To view that as an act of kindness is, of course, anthropomorphic. But still it’s kind of sweet.

This weekend, Ace — though he was used to being the dean of his old park — was the new kid on the block.

He courteously sniffed those who sniffed him, but was more interested in checking out the space, the water bowl and the humans than in playing with the other dogs. We’d been there a full hour before he even chased another dog — all of whom were playing energetically with each other.

Dee Dee, a beagle, and Bailey, a whippet mix, (both pictured atop this post) had great play stances and used them often: Butts pointed skyward, front legs stretched all the way out, heads lowered. It, in the canine world, is a universal signal, a way of saying “You don’t need to be afraid of me, this is all in good fun, it’s playtime, let’s go.”

I can think of no counterpart when it comes to human body language — no gesture or stance we have that is as easily noticeable and understood. The handshake? No, that’s just standard procedure, basic manners. Perhaps the one that came closest was the peace sign.

Rather than having a universal play stance, we resort to words, which often only make things more confusing. We try to make sense of subtle body language and interpret what we think are queues, neither of which we’re that good at, either.

All that could be resolved if we only had a human play stance — a position we could place our bodies in that signifies we’re open to getting to know a fellow human.

We’ve got the war stance down. We all know the fighting stance, or at least enough to put our dukes up. But there’s no simple gesture or motion we humans can make — at least not without possibility of criminal charges or restraining orders – that sends a signal that peace, harmony and fun are ahead.

We can’t, without repercussions, do the butt-sniffing thing. We can’t, of course, go around peeing on each other’s pee. 

But why can’t we come up with a play stance — one that says I’m open to getting to know you better, and perhaps even frolicking a bit?

Because that would be too easy for a species as complex as ours? Too honest? Too direct?

It was easier when we were children. A simple ”Wanna play?” sufficed. Somehow, on the way to becoming adults, we started opting instead for far less direct, far stupider comments, like “Do you come here often?” and “What’s your sign?”

Adopting a play stance for the human race, at this point – with all that we have evolved, with how sophisticated and suspicious and manipulative we as a society have become — would be difficult. It might be too late.

Two thumbs up and a grin? Standing with arms outstretched, knees bent, while waving people toward you? Most anything I can come up to signal you are accepting new people into your life would have the exact opposite effect, and send them running.

In the final analysis, being human, maybe we’re stuck with words, and small talk, and being less straightforward, sincere and, quite likely, pure of heart and motive than dogs.

Ace will make friends his way, and I will make friends mine (which is most often with his help). But between him and my conversational skills, I’ll be fine. And by the way, do you come here often?

Couchsurfing in Albuquerque

At 56, it’s not every day I spend the night with a 25-year-old woman, and if it ever did happen, you’d normally be the last person I’d tell.

But, on Thursday night, that’s exactly what I did.

A “complete stranger” invited Ace and me into her home in Albuquerque, went out to dinner with us at a dog-friendly restaurant (Kelly’s Brew Pub) and, though still a kid (relative to me, anyway) taught me a few things about trust and keeping the doors to one’s life open enough that new people can get in.

And she saved me a few bucks, as well.

For this, I can thank couchsurfing.org, a website that, realizing not all of us have money to spare for mint-on-the pillow accommodations, unites people looking for a place to stay with local people kind enough to offer one — on a global scale.

I first heard about it through a comment left on ohmidog! — offering me, a penny pinching traveler with a dog at my side, some advice on finding dog-friendly, cheap, even free, lodgings.

I went to the website, created a bare bones profile, paid a $25 verification fee (though they — see comment below — prefer to call it a donation), and explored the options, especially those members who lived along my somewhat fuzzy route who were open to opening their homes not just to travelers, but their dogs as well.

Jen Walker in Albuquerque was the first one I found. Through the website, I sent her a message, told her a bit about myself, and what Ace and I are up to, and inquired as to whether I might crash — a word I haven’t used in 25 years or so — on her couch.

Sure, she wrote back. She was cool with that.

She’s got a charming little dog of her own, an Italian greyound-Chihuahua mix named Cali who likes to hang out on the roof of the apartment that joins hers, and a cat named Autumn, who likes to crawl into suitcases and more than once has almost been accidentally abducted by a departing couchsurfer.

Ace, once spotting Autumn behind a pillow, immediately hopped in Jen’s bed to better stare at her. Jen was cool with that.

Jen, as she has been with the 67 previous couchsurfers she has taken in, was the consumate host — and even supplied an air mattress for me to sleep on instead of the couch. She’s working, and going to school at the University of New Mexico, and is a delightful young woman — God, how old do I sound? — with a laid back aura, a kind heart, and a curious and open mind.

Taking new acquaintances into her home, she says “allows me to meet people I probably otherwise would never meet.”

It occurs to me that, by hosting couchsurfers, she’s doing what I’m doing — both by taking this trip, and when I made the career choice to be a journalist: ensuring I would see new things, meet new people, keep learning, and not live the insulated life.

She’s made some lasting friends, and — one of the big side benefits –  accumulated a long list of places to stay around the globe. As with those who stay with her, she knows those she stays with will offer her much more than any hotel, or even hostel, ever could. Staying with a local person or family provides much better insight into local culture, far more tips on where to go and what to see and allows one to make a more intimate connection with the place they are visiting.

The concept is based on a slightly hippyesque, pay-it-forward kind of philosophy — taking in others leads others to take in others, and so forth. And it gives credence to the belief that in this world there are no complete strangers, only partial ones … friends we haven’t met yet, as I like to think — at least when the cynical journalist, untrusting, worst-case-scenario side  of me doesn’t get in the way.

Jen, in her two years as a member, has only couchsurfed once, in Durango, Colorado, but she’s hosted close to 70 times, many of those being visitors from other countries. They might stay a day, or even a week. (Jen is cool with that.) For her, it has led to many long term friendships and not a single negative experience.

In college, and even afterwards, she notes, she had a core group of friends — all with similar backgrounds and interests. Through couchsurfing, she has expanded her friend horizons, and met lots of different types of people.

Jen grew up in Hastings, Nebraska and at first was hesitant to tell her parents about her involvement in couchsurfing. When she finally did, “they thought it was great,” she said. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but I’ve met a lot of cool people.”

She’s now averaging two to six visitors a week, and I — who am sitting, not surfing, on her couch right now, Cali on one side of me, Ace on the other (Jen is cool with that) — am number 68.

As couchsurfing.org explains on its website mission statement: “For one reason or another, some of us may not have the opportunity to explore. There could be any number of obstacles that keep us from venturing as freely as we might otherwise, whether it’s economic limitations, cultural constraints, or simply fear of the unknown … If we could address and overcome those barriers, more of us would naturally tap into our own curious nature and actively explore the world.”

That philosophy, too, is sort of similar to the one behind my current journey — having no money is no reason not to travel; maybe, even, it can be a reason to travel. (Bear and his famiy notwithstanding.)

Couchsurfing.org got its start when founder Casey Fenton bought a cheap ticket to Iceland for a long weekend. Rather than stay at a hotel or hostel, he came up with idea of e-mailing over 1500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik and asking them if he could crash on one of their couches.

That led to numerous offers from Icelanders offering to show “their’ Reykjavik.” After his week in Iceland, he vowed to never again get trapped in a hotel and tourist marathon while traveling.

Originally, I planned to stay two nights, but after one I’m heading to Santa Fe to see an old friend who — assuming her three dogs get along with mine — might let me house/pet sit when she and her veterinarian husband are out of town for a week in July.

I’ll send Jen an email, and leave her a note — in case she’s not back from work by the time I have to leave. I’m sure she’ll be cool with that.

(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” click here.)

Dogs aren’t cure-all for loneliness, study says

DSC09243Someday I am going to do a study that shows 62 percent of all studies do little more than confirm what people with a modicum of common sense already know.

Until then, I will dutifully report on them — dog-related ones, anyway.

A new Canadian study, for instance, concludes that dog owners who live alone and have limited human social support are actually just as lonely as their petless peers.

The Carleton University study’s authors, both of whom own dogs, say that pets aren’t people and can’t compensate for a lack of human relationships, the Vancouver Sun reported.

“Pet ownership isn’t the panacea we think it is,” said co-author Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at the Ottawa-based university.  “… The research indicates that pets don’t fill as much of a hole as we might believe they do. If you don’t have human social support already on your side, you’re still going to fall short.”

However, the study acknowledges, dog owners who do have a social life, with human friends, are indeed less lonely than non-dog owners.

Interestingly, that finding didn’t hold true for people with cats.

The part of the study that does seem worthy of study is that dealing with how, among people who live alone and have ”insufficient” social ties, high attachment to a dog or cat can serve to only increase the pet-owner’s likelihood of loneliness and depression.

People with limited community connections, the study shows, were more likely to humanize their dog — and to nurture their relationship with their dog at the expense of their personal lives.  Typically, those people were more depressed, visited the doctor more often and took more medications.

“We all know that pets can be there for us. But if that’s all you have, you run into trouble,” Pychyl said. The study’s authors also acknowledged that, often, dogs can serve as a catalyst for more social interaction.

In other words, dogs aren’t the sole cure for loneliness, but they sure can help — which most of us pretty much already knew.

The Carleton study was published in the journal Anthrozoos.

Doggie Tweets? There’s a yap for that

bowlingualYour dog may soon be tweeting.

Japan’s Index Corp., a mobile content provider, plans to launch an iPhone adaptation of the “Bowlingual” dog emotion translator that it says will translate dog barks into English and tweet them out to the world.

The original Bowlingual device, first offered in 2002 by Takara Tomy, consists of a microphone that goes around the dog’s neck and a handheld receiver with LCD screen that gives a written readout of the emotion a dog’s bark is expressing: sad, frustrated, needy, happy, on guard and “self-expressive.” 

(That last one puzzles me. I wouldn’t consider it an emotion, and it seems any bark would be self expressive. Then again, maybe something is getting lost in translation.)

The Japanese company plans to launch the new iPhone app this summer, PCWorld reports.

Index is planning to charge $4.99 for the app, said Sonoko Tatsuno, a spokeswoman for the company in Tokyo — considerably cheaper than the $229 stand-alone version. A Japanese version of the new app will come out first, followed by an English version.

In addition to translating a dog’s bark, the software can capture a picture of the dog, using the iPhone’s built-in camera. The resulting picture can then be combined with the “translation” and sent directly from the iPhone to Twitter.

The original product proved to be a hit in Japan selling around 300,000 units, It was also put on sale in the U.S. and South Korea.

Study looks at health benefits of dog walking

dogwalk1

 
I’m not going to make fun of this study. I’m not going to make fun of this study. I’m not going to make fun of this …

Ah, I can’t resist.

A study at Cornell University is trying to determine whether walking the dog helps owners shed and keep off unwanted pounds, according to USA Today’s Paw Print Post.

If that sounds like a no-brainer — one of those things that perhaps man could figure out without an expensive study –  consider this: “An early look at the data shows that the dogs who walk the most steps have a better body condition score.”

In all fairness, there’s more to the study than determining whether exercise is good for us and our dogs; and dog walking habits could, if properly approached, make for some pretty interesting reading.

Basically, I see three types of dogwalkers: Those who jog with their dogs, clearly getting exercise; those who hike or walk laps with their dogs, also getting exercise; and those who take their dogs to the park and let the dogs get all the exercise while they sit on the bench, yap with fellow dog walkers, smoke, or talk on cell phones.

In defense of the latter group, it should be pointed out that we they, are still getting exercise by virtue of walking to the park, and that, rather than being total slouches, they may prefer to let their dogs playfully romp and socialize off leash with other dogs — thereby getting even more exercise (the dogs, anyway) than they would by being walked in boring circles on a rope.

It should also be pointed out that members of the more sedentary latter group — while violating leash laws — are also allowing their dogs to gain social skills, and, perhaps, honing their own in the process.

But back to the study. Cornell researcher Barbour Warren says they are analyzing everything from how much dogs and humans actually walk together to human attitudes, and the decisions to walk the dog or not walk the dog.

“We’re trying to get people to make small changes in the amount of food they take and the amount of physical activity they take,” says Warren, “and finding out how dog walking might be involved and how typical veterinary practices might be involved in helping more.”

Warren says the study stems from the rise of obesity in the USA and obesity-related illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and arthritis. More than two-thirds of the people across the nation are overweight and one third are considered obese. Dogs are increasingly falling into those categories as well.

“We became interested in trying to prevent weight gain,” he says. “Dog walking offers two of the key elements for regular physical activity, purpose and companionship. Dogs can provide both of these in spades.”

The goal of the study is to develop the necessary data and tools to build a program to combat obesity by increasing dog walking as a form of family exercise.

Wasting away again in Barkaritaville

The Maryland SPCA invites you to waste away in “Barkaritaville,” with a doggie happy hour that lasts two hours — from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 14.

Guests are invited to dress in tropical attire, in keeping with the Barkaritaville theme.

Tickets are $10 per person in advance and $15 at the gate of the Maryland SPCA, 3300 Falls Road. Dogs are admitted free, but only one per person.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the SPCA’s Wine & Wag page (advance tickets are encouraged).

Complimentary hors d’oeuvres, courtesy of Lebanese Taverna and Cabot Cheese, will be served. There is a suggested donation of $5 for margaritas, $3 for beer and wine and $1 for beer and wine provided by The Wine Source .

Activities include a treasure hunt for great doggie prizes, bobbing for hot dogs, musical chairs, paw painting, a canine pool party and off-leash play in the fun runs.

In India, online doggie dating thrives

Wealthy dog owners in India are turning to online canine dating services to find dogs for their dogs to romp with.

And we’re using “romp” in all meanings of the word.

“A lot of dog owners want their dogs to have doggy friends with whom they can play and have their own fun time,” says Geetika Nigam, who launched the 6,500-user-strong Puppy Love  community two years ago.

Just like human dating sites, dog owners can upload photos, blog, search for the perfect match and set up dates, according to a Reuters article.

Many of the dogs are pedigreed — and some owners are looking for a dog to breed their dog with — but others are simply trying to set up play dates.

“People are very happy that finally someone has taken up this cause,” says Mumbai-based Mekhala Lobo, who spotted a business opportunity in her newly launched Date Your Pet  website.

“Believe me, in the dog world, finding a mate is next to impossible,” the MBA student said. And harder yet for the males. “Families generally prefer keeping male dogs so females are always in demand,” Nigam, who also owns a dog-grooming business, said.

Ishita Sukhadwala set up DogMateOnline in 2008 to help her cousin’s 6-year-old Doberman Rocky find a mate. “It was more out of necessity than anything else,” she said.

Rocky had a profile set up on the website, but he died before a potential match was found.

Pet ownership has boomed in India, thanks to its growing ranks of wealthy, middle and upper class professionals who are also driving sales of luxury goods. But for the vast majority of the country, which lives on between $1 and $2 a day, pets are not an option. Stray dogs are also often beaten, herded into trucks, poisoned and dumped into pits by government workers.

Study: Dogs closer to humans than chimps

Chimps may share more of our genes, but dogs have lived with us for so long – in our houses, on our beds (and, of course, sneaking out for late night poker games) – they may evolved into a better model for understanding human social behavior, according to a new study.

In terms of cooperation, attachment to people, their ability to imitate and their understanding of human communication (verbally and non-verbally) dogs have become not just man’s best friend, but, socially, his closest counterpart in the animal kingdom, according to a paper accepted for publication in the journal Advances in the Study of Behavior.

They might even be thinking more like us, too. the Discovery Channel’s Jennifer Viegas reports.

Researchers believe adapting to the same living conditions may have resulted in the similarities. “That shared environment has led to the emergence of functionally shared behavioral features in dogs and humans and, in some cases, functionally analogous underlying cognitive skills” lead author Jozsef Topal explained to Discovery News.

(Digression: While I couldn’t agree more with that — to the extent I understand it — I don’t agree with what Topal says it should lead to:  dogs serving as the “new chimpanzees” in psychological studies. In fact, I’m not much on the chimps being used, either, or poor college students, at least when such experimentation gets into using drugs, scalpels and electrical implements. )

The study by Topal and his team at the Institute for Psychology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences found that dogs kept as pets can be regarded in many respects as “infants in canine clothing,” and that many dog-owner relationships mirror human parental bonds with children.

In one of many recent studies conducted by the team, Topal and his colleagues taught both a 16-month-old human child and mature dogs to repeat multiple demonstrated actions on verbal command — “Do it!,” shouted in Hungarian.

The actions included turning around in circles, vocalizing, jumping up, jumping over a horizontal rod, putting an object into a container, carrying an object to the owner or parent, according to the study.

While I don’t find that all that amazing, it is fascinating to think about how dogs, the longer they live with humans and the closer our relationships become, might continue to evolve in the household. I’m guessing there are already some homes that tune into TV shows they think the dog will like. How much longer until the dog controls the remote?

Yappy Hour at Camp Bow Wow

Camp Bow Wow — at 7165 Oakland Mills Road in Columbia, Md. — invites dogs and their people to a Yappy Hour Wednesday night, from 5 to 7.

“Bring your dog, meet new friends and enjoy a glass of wine at camp,” camp leaders said. For more information visit the Camp Bow Wow website.

The SNIF Tag: Big master is watching

Cool or creepy? You decide.

SNIF Tag is a device you attach to your dog’s collar, allowing you to go online and monitor his activity. It doesn’t tell you where your dog is — only what he’s doing, within the boundaries of sleeping, eating and playing anyway.

The website explains it this way: “You’d like to be home with your dog all day long but sometimes the little things like work and travel get in the way. With the SNIF Tag, you never have to wonder what your dog is doing while you’re gone. Using motion-sensing and wireless technology, the SNIF Tag records all of your pet’s activity indoors and out and displays the information through a simple, clear, online interface.”

On top of that, the device records all encounters with other dogs wearing SNIF Tags, meaning, when you get back home, you can go online and read about the other dog’s owner.

You may, for example, be afraid to talk to the babe with the boxer, but with SNIF Tag, assuming the boxer is wearing one as well, you can look up her profile back home and send her a message.

“By recording encounters with other SNIF dogs, your SNIF Tag becomes more than a pet monitoring device– it’s a tool for social networking that expands your circle of friends every time you take your pup for a walk.” As the video points out, it can lead to new “friends … or maybe more.”

I can see how the device could provide useful information, such as making sure your dog walker is really walking the dog and for exactly how long, but all in all it strikes me as a little covert — and as a tool that will make life easier and more guilt-free for absentee pet owners, who shouldn’t have a pet in the first place.

Here, though, is the most disturbing part of all, it’s regularly $299! (A special $199 introductory rate is now in effect.)

Founded in 2005 by four MIT Media Lab graduates, SNIF Labs designed the SNIF Tag and touts it as an opportunity to network and learn more about your dog’s behavior in real-time.

“We loved the idea of using real-world social networking to let your dog do the relationship-building work and act as a kind of social catalyst,” said Noah Paessel, CEO and co-founder of SNIF Labs. “SNIF Tag not only gives dog owners peace of mind, it also offers a non-threatening way to meet new friends and companions via their dogs’ encounters.”

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather see my now dog run and wrestle in person, than as a blip on the computer screen. That’s just not how I like my interface — be it canine or human.

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