Odie The Pekinese: Awaiting On Death Row

Pekinese

Odie, an ugly duckling of a Pekinese, was awaiting his turn on death row. A twist of fate meant Odie survived his death sentence and, one year later, he had turned into a beautiful wolf.

Odie came to me on an odd day, one of those rainy, grey days, when the only thing you want to do is stay at home, listen to good music, watch the fire roaring in the fireplace, hold a hot cup of punch in your hands and feel sorry for yourself. Odie, an ugly duckling of a Pekinese, was awaiting his turn on death row. A twist of fate meant Odie survived his death sentence and, one year later, he had turned into a beautiful wolf.

I was sitting in my office at my desk, gazing absent-mindedly at a blank piece of paper lodged in my typewriter, which, unfortunately had been stuck there for far too long. I was suddenly wrenched from my thoughts when our vet knocked at the door. “Have you got a minute? ” she asked. I debated saying “No,” but overcame the temptation. She came in, accompanied by Odie’s owners, and explained the situation. Odie’s owners wanted to euthanize him, because they were sick of a particularly annoying behavior of his. He urinated all over the house and, when one day they found him cocking his leg up the impeccable flower arrangement they had proudly positioned in the middle of their much cherished, antique mahogany dining table, that was the last straw.

“Right on top of the table?” I asked them and they nodded solemnly.

I glanced down at Odie with newfound respect for it was no mean feat for an eight inch (20 cm) tall Pekinese to climb on top of a dining table in order to accomplish a vital mission. So I asked them if I could keep the dog instead of them euthanizing him. I would try to solve his problem and find a good home for him. They were overjoyed at my proposal and I thus found myself being the improbable owner of a Pekinese for the first, and no doubt last, time in my life.

I was on a very tight deadline to write an article. After giving Odie a quick once over, I turned back to my typewriter and the embarrassingly blank sheet of paper. I remember thinking “Gee, you’re a really ugly little fellow, I understand why they wanted to get rid of you.” Odie grunted once in return. I think he could take a bit of humor. I would take care of Odie later. My first priority was to fill that all too white sheet of paper with some wise words.

Once deeply submerged in writing my article (or not writing it as the case may be), it was then I heard an almost imperceptible sound that took a couple of seconds to register and identify. I spun round to the source of the sound and, to my astonishment, my suspicion was confirmed. Odie was peeing on my books on my bookshelf.

I am a peaceful person and it takes a lot to upset me. Being a child of the sixties, I accept everyone and almost everything; all is good as long as it doesn’t restrict my freedom. However, one thing I must confess I can’t take is having someone peeing on my beloved books. I don’t discriminate: nobody urinates on my books, period! My reaction was therefore pure reflex. I reached for the first thing I had at hand, ironically enough it was my first book about dog training and behavior “Psychology Rather Than Power” and, before I knew it, I had thrown it at Odie.

The book, a good quality hardback, landed with a smack right behind Odie. Taken by surprise, he yelped, performed a beautiful pirouette in the air and stood there looking baffled and bewildered, staring at my book. For my part, I remained quiet as a mouse, holding my breath. After a few seconds, Odie managed to compose himself. He approached the book, sniffed at it in a noisy, Pekinese manner, then sniffed at the books on my book shelf, before returning to my book on the floor, giving it another long and even noisier sniff and then, smacking his lips, he decided to lie down right next to the book. I returned to my tauntingly clean sheet of paper whilst keeping one eye on Odie.

Odie fell asleep, or so it seemed, and I finally began filling the blank sheet of paper with some meaningful words. A little later, whilst searching for something on my desk, I happened to knock a pencil over the edge and it fell on the floor, between the desk and that same book shelf, a source of so much knowledge and inspiration for me. Odie opened his big, bulging eyes, one looking right and the other looking left, and approached the pencil. I couldn’t see him or the pencil, but could hear him clearly, grunting, snuffling, puffing and panting. A few seconds later, maybe 15, he came around the desk directly towards me. He was holding the pencil in his mouth, each eye still looking in a different direction, one as wet as the other, dribble all over his face, with his head covered in balls of dust and fluff, reminding me that my office needed a good hoovering.

I stretched out my hand to him and automatically said “tak” (which means “thanks” in the Scandinavian languages and was my sound signal for “release”). Odie, with a grunt, promptly dropped the slimy pencil into my hand. I was impressed. Was that a “retrieval”? Did he really retrieve that pencil for me?

I was so baffled and curious that I proceeded to do something that fellow pencil lovers regard as the ultimate sin towards pencils. You never drop a pencil as it is highly likely you’ll break the lead inside, rendering it useless once sharpened a couple of times. I tossed the pencil so it fell in the same place between my desk and the book shelf; and once again, Odie ran (I think he was running, but don’t know for sure as I couldn’t see his short legs for all the fur), he grunted, snuffled, puffed and panted, rubbing one eye then the other along the floor in an effort to pick up the pencil and, in doing so, collected even more dust fluff. He wouldn’t give up, finally managed to take the pencil in his mouth and promptly returned it to me just as he had done before.

“Hallelujah!” I exclaimed despite my lack of religious conviction, “We have a retriever!” Joy filled my heart. The misery and self-pity the dull, grey day had imposed upon me ever since I had got out of bed that morning were gone like magic. Of all the activities I have undertaken with dogs, the one that has most amused me, and my dogs too it would seem, is without a shadow of doubt search and retrieve.

Odie never again urinated indoors, a fact we have discussed at some length. We are convinced it was the book incident that did it, due to the optimal coincidence of a series of conditions. Firstly, he was caught in the act (perfect timing), secondly, he did not associate the book falling behind him with me (instead with his own behavior), thirdly, the smack of the book falling on the floor had the right intensity to startle him (not too much, not too little), and fourthly, he associated the book aversive with his urinating behavior and nothing else (it happened when he urinated, it stopped when he stopped). No bad feelings towards books and (of course) no bad feelings from books towards him. Of course, the moral of this story is not that you should throw books at your dog. Let me say this loudly and clearly so no one gets it wrong: I do not recommend people throw books at their dogs. It worked in this case because of the coincidence of the many necessary conditions for it to work (as I explained) and that’s it.

I kept Odie and we all trained him. Sit, stand and, down were no problem at all, only difficult to observe for all the fur and short legs. We used treats as unconditioned reinforcers and my “dygtig” (as a semi-conditioned reinforcer), but he would do anything as long as we held a pencil in our hands (this was his reinforcer of choice). He would take the treats only because he was hungry. We put him on a program where he had to work for all his food and he worked a lot: no free food at all. Odie became very popular. His odd looks combined with his skills were an improbable combination in most people’s eyes. The staff at the Ethology Institute sometimes asked if they could take him home to show visiting friends. Odie never disappointed.

At the time, I was living in one of those enormous, old European mansions, like small castles, with three floors and endless of rooms. One particularly cold winter when the fields were covered by snow and ice, our cellar (basement) became a refuge for mice. This is very normal and we all know how to deal with the problem, except that I thought at the time it was more dignified for a mouse to die in battle than to be trapped or poisoned. Therefore, I introduced a hunting session every night at 8 pm after having read my son Daniel his bedtime story.

The nightly hunting session began with the troops, Petrine, Elanor (English Cocker Spaniels) and myself, assembling at the door to the cellar. Petrine and Elanor were skilled hunters so this was a good opportunity to stimulate them. Every evening we enacted the age-old game of predator and prey in the cellar of that big, old mansion house. Odie was always very keen to join us on our mission and, one evening, I decided to let him give it a go. Odie experienced his first hunt.

Odie quickly learned the rules of the game, although learn is perhaps the wrong term as it looked like he had always known and just had to be reminded. The first time, he went under a couch to chase a mouse, he took a long time. All I could hear was his usual grunting, snuffling, puffing, panting and the occasional high-pitched squeak from a mouse. I guess the mice were terrified of Odie’s looks combined with the spluttering, snorting and grunting. He came to me carrying his first mouse by a hind leg, the mouse completely stiff and wet, but very much alive. Odie became an efficient mouse hunter. He was quick and could squeeze into confined spaces for which the cockers were too big. Every evening, he was the first to reach our rendezvous point. He was there from around seven onwards, waiting patiently. He insisted on being the first to reach the bottom of the stairs to the cellar which was quite a spectacle for the steps were too steep for his all too short legs. He somehow managed to overtake the cockers on the way down, not running, but tumbling down amidst a cloud of dust and much snorting and grunting. The cockers just looked at him bemused. Up until then, our mission had been a well-planned military operation. Stealth, discipline, training, dedication and precise timing were our weapons. After Odie joined us, it all looked more like Asterix and Obelix against the Romans.

The days passed, one year passed, and Odie grew older and more experienced. I bet he could have won all kinds of competitions, but we never subjected him to that. By then he had become a great hunter, only limited by his physical characteristics, the ones us humans have bestowed upon him through selective breeding.

It was bound to happen sooner or later: one day someone came along that wanted to keep Odie. It was love at first sight when they saw his antics. When they asked me about his original problem, I couldn’t even remember what it was. I had completely forgotten, as had we all. After that first “attack” by my book, he had never again urinated indoors. Odie found a good home, one year after he had entered our lives.

I was sad to see him go. We all were. We often spoke fondly of him and made each other laugh by telling Odie stories. Odie had taught us invaluable lessons. First, that we should never judge anyone by their appearance. He was a little dog, short-legged, furry, flat-faced and cross-eyed, but he was a dog at heart like any other. None of us thought he was ugly, despite my initial horror. He was further evidence that many dogs develop problems because they are not treated as dogs; they are understimulated and their excess energy causes them to engage in any kind of activity, be it desirable or undesirable for the owners. He was a quick learner and an impeccable hunter with an enormous joy for life. Without words, he told us: “Respect and you shall be respected. I’m not a toy, not a thing, not a little human. I’m Odie, a Pekinese dog.”

14 years later, I went to give a talk in a town about 50 km from where I lived. During the break, a couple approached me and asked me if I remembered them. It took me a while, but I did recognize them. They were the new owners we had found for Odie. He was still alive, they informed me, but very old and tired by then. He no longer had any front teeth, as his love for retrieving hard objects had not waned over the years. They said they were getting ready for the day they would have to say goodbye to Odie and I saw their eyes well up.

Thinking of him, my eyes welled up too, Odie, the ugly duckling of a Pekinese that had turned into a beautiful wolf in my eyes and in the eyes of all those who had the privilege to know him. Thanks, Odie, my friend!

Be happy!

R—

PS—I know that metamorphosis does not occur in canids and that a dog cannot turn into a wolf. I also know that a dog is a dog (Canis lupus familiaris) and not a wolf (Canis lupus lupus). Since this is a story with a point written for a blog, not a scientific article, I allow myself some artistic license when I write “Odie turned into a beautiful wolf.”

A Dog’s Self-Respect

Petrine retrieving bird.

Petrine, the English Cocker Spaniel, compelled me to ask: are intelligence, reasoning and self-respect only human features?

Did she cheat me? Did she manipulate me? Or was it a proof that my English Cocker Spaniel had a sense of self-respect; that dogs behave intelligently?

It happened long ago, but I still think about it, trying to find a plausible and scientifically correct explanation. My dogs have always been fun dogs, independent and skillful, but manipulative and naughty at the same time. It’s my fault. I’ve brought them up to be that way. I trained them because at the time (the beginning of the 1980s) I was keen on demonstrating that there were other ways of training dogs than the traditional, mostly compulsory and often forceful methods of the old school. Since I believed (and still do) that the best way to have someone change is not by forcing, persuading or convincing, but rather by showing attractive results, I trained my dogs to help me in this quest, and none more than Petrine, my female, red English Cocker Spaniel did so.

At the time, there was a very popular dog training series on TV called “No Bad Dogs the Woodhouse Way” with the unforgettable Barbara Woodhouse.  Those of a certain age will chuckle nostalgically when they hear inimitable “walkies.” Mrs. Woodhouse, born in 1910, was a charming, efficient lady who loved animals. She herself was not mean; it was just her methods that were forceful to say the least. Does this sound familiar? History repeats itself, as we well know! Instead of attacking her and her methods personally, or trying to argue for ways I thought were better, I found a better strategy: to channel the interest in dog training that Mrs. Woodhouse generated and present my own way as an alternative. Of course, I had to show results, I had to be able to teach the dogs the same things Mrs. Woodhouse so efficiently taught them. If I was successful and my methods were not only as efficient but more attractive, they would win the public’s favor. If I couldn’t achieve the same results she did, my way would not win. I went for it, confident that I could make dogs as “obedient” as Mrs. Woodhouse did, but using my own methods. To allow for an obvious comparison, I even used the terminology of the time, which I later felt entitled to change when my first book came out in 1984: from there on a “command” became a “signal,” “obedience” became “cooperation,” and “praise” became a “reinforcer.”

So, Petrine and I did a lot of “obedience” training together, even if we weren’t too keen on the fastidiousness of the process. We trained using motivation, treats, facial expressions as reinforcers, the word “dygtig,” later to be called a semi-conditioned verbal reinforcer and sometimes a whistle as a conditioned positive reinforcer (the precursor of the clicker); and together we won several obedience competitions.

At the time you didn’t see many Cockers competing and our victories did help to prove my point, but our achievements weren’t exactly a big surprise.  They were more like appetizers. What really did it was when we won a hunting-dog competition. That caused quite some stir in the dog-training community of that time because we beat all the smart, greenclad hunters with their pointers and the like. At the time, it was unthinkable that an English Cocker Spaniel (not only red, but female too!) and a longhaired, bearded, young fellow (in worn-out Levi’s and clogs just to top it off) could beat the establishment. Well, we did! That day of fame and infamy set me on a career path I could never have imagined.  Training in a new way, the “psychology rather than power” way rather than the Woodhouse way, we made it into newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, and to be on TV was a big thing at the time. Inevitably, we were heroes for some and villains for others, but my message had been conveyed as the first edition of my first book, entitled (of course) “Psychology Rather Than Power” which showed a completely different way of training dogs based on ethology and the scientific principles of animal learning, sold out in three months. It was a victory for psychology rather than power in more than one way, as it also proved my point that showing results works better than arguing, persuading, convincing or forcing.

Petrine was indeed an amazing dog. She taught me most of the important things I know about dogs, but she also taught me about life, respect and affection. As I said before, I trained her because it was necessary, but I must confess that I never liked the training as much as the interaction. Training was definitely secondary to having a good relationship. Therefore, I always encouraged and reinforced any behavior that showed initiative, independence, and her resolving problems her own way. This was (and is) my philosophy of education for any species. I think of my job as an educator as like being a travel guide, providing my students with opportunities to develop, to learn how to deal with their environment, to stand out from the crowd and not be just a self-denigrating face, but to make of themselves whatever they choose. If my dogs found ways to circumvent the rules and succeeded (that is what I call good canine argumentation and reasoning), I would reinforce that even at my own cost. In other words: I have always reinforced sound argumentation and conclusions consistent with their premises, even though they might have gone against my own wishes and, as the good sportsman my father educated me to be, when a better opponent on a better day beats me, I accept defeat gracefully. I applied the same philosophy to the education of my son.

When Daniel was little, we travelled a lot together. I always thought traveling, experiencing other ways of thinking and having other stances on life were good antidotes to narrow-mindedness and all that comes with it. On one occasion, we arrived at a guesthouse after a long journey and Daniel, by then about 9 or 10 years old and already an experienced traveler, quickly assessed the situation.

“OK, we have only one little bed,” he said.

“Yes, so I see,” I replied, whilst removing my heavy backpack, trying not to lose the car keys or spill our cokes.

“I have 50% of your genes and when I have kids, they’ll have 25% of your genes, right?” he asked rhetorically.

“For sure,” I said, amazed at what a kid could learn just by accompanying his daddy to talks and seminars whilst quietly drawing pictures at the back of the room.

“So if you want me to pass 25% of your silly genes to my kids, you have to take good care of me, right?” again a rhetorical question.

“Yes, absolutely,” I answered.

“OK, so I take the bed and you sleep on the floor,” he concluded.

I slept on the floor.

Petrine, the red, female English Cocker Spaniel was indeed one of a kind. I remember one day I had decided to invite guests for dinner and prepared a roastbeef to serve them. It was no mean feat considering my extremely limited culinary skills. I was in the living room surveying the table when I glanced towards the kitchen and my eyes registered a sight that caused instant paralysis of every muscle in my body, including my jaw, which gaped open as I recollect.

Next to the kitchen table, where I had placed the fruit of my hard labor, the once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece, my roastbeef, stood Petrine. That in itself is not reason enough to make me stop breathing and incite a serious and irreversible heart-attack you may think and you’re right, but add to that Petrine holding my roastbeef in her mouth and I think you will begin to understand the cause of my instant, full body paralysis. For a moment that seemed interminable, we stood there looking at one another, me, drop-jawed and paralyzed from head to toe, and Petrine with her deep brown eyes staring at me intensely, roastbeef in mouth.

If I was paralyzed, Petrine certainly was not.  She began to walk towards me with a swift, self confident, elegant pace, not once averting her gaze from mine. I merely stared in disbelief at her approach with the roast beef.  Without stopping, she trotted around me in a perfectly calculated circle  and sat right next to my left leg, lifting her head and the roastbeef towards me, her eyes still fixed on mine.

I think I took longer to react than I normally would on this type of occasion but I managed to bend down, take hold of the dummy (read roast-beef) and give the signal “Tak” (read release). I know I managed it because I remember trying to wipe away Petrine’s teeth marks from the roastbeef and placing it on a plate on the table ready to serve to my guests. I also remember that, even though my paralysis had only been momentary, my brain was still not fully functioning, as the next thing I heard was a barely perceptible whine from Petrine. I looked down to find her gazing up at me, wagging her tail and all lower body as cockers do. She was right and it was good of her to remind me. I was failing in my duties. “Free,” I said and, as swiftly, as elegantly and as self confidently as she had brought the roast-beef to me, she went off to perform some other of her daily chores. It had all been just another episode among the many life presents us with. No more, no less— or so it seemed to her.

It was only once the guests had gone, the kitchen tidy and Daniel in bed that, sitting on my porch and enjoying a well-deserved glass of Portuguese “vinho verde,” I cast my mind back to the Petrine episode. What had been going on?

As I told you, my philosophy of education encourages determination and reasoning and Petrine was good at that. She realized that she had been caught in the act. She had several options: one, to drop the roast beef and show submissive behavior (active and/or passive), which would have been accompanied by a “Phooey” from me, an ugly face and a very assertive tone of voice; two, to scoff as much of the roast beef as she could before I caught her, which wouldn’t have taken long considering I was no more than 6 meters (20 feet) away; three, to run away with the roast beef, which she could have done but I would inevitably have caught up with her. And, of course, she also had the option that she chose, which is not one I would have thought of myself. Why did she choose that option? All things considered, I believe it was the best option open to her, but what went through her head when she chose to do so, I would pay a handsome fee to know for sure.

None of my (attempted) scientific explanations succeed in convincing me fully. Having been caught would produce the “phooey” and ugly face, she knew perfectly well. Being the self-confident individual she was, I have no doubt she hated any “phooey.” That I could see clearly from her expression on the few occasions I had had to use it. She had been brought up to think for herself, to be imaginative and creative, and to believe in herself, not to be a pitiful dog waiting for her master’s voice before daring to blink.

If Petrine had rejected “phooey” as “an unacceptable means” of solving the conundrum, the only way to come out of it without losing face was to do what she did. She actually controlled the situation. If it is true that I could trigger her retrieving behavior (and that, combined with searching, was our best game in the whole wide world), by just assuming any position that remotely resembled “the game,” so too could she trigger my behavior, my part in the game. That, she did indeed. She showed me a perfect retrieve and put me in my role in the game. “Your line, now” she said to me, clearly and emphatically without even the need of words. Like an experienced actor playing a Shakespearian part, I reacted promptly to my cue.

If a behavior repeated often with fairly predictable consequences creates moods (Pavlovian conditioning) in all of us, independently of species, which seems to be the case, I have no doubt that she associated the retrieve game with the most pleasure she could have in life. When in trouble, we have a tendency to perform behaviors that previously have brought us success, pleasure. This is a reassuring procedure, the basis even for stereotyped behaviors according to some. It is an organism’s attempt to re-establish emotional (neurophysiologic) homeostasis. If this is the case, Petrine’s solution was a good one, an intelligent one (as we would say of ourselves) and entirely compatible with our body of knowledge. It may seem improbable at first, but it becomes more reasonable the more we think about it.

Some of you will still think I am anthropomorphizing and you have every right to do so. Pre-Petrine era, I would have thought the same. I would never have conceived of such an explanation. However, post-Petrine, a little dog that helped me discover many facets of life on Earth, I’m no longer so sure of the boundaries of anthropomorphism. Are intelligence, reasoning and self-respect only human features? In my opinion as an evolutionary biologist, it is unlikely. Maybe language is misleading us once again. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” After all, why should “we” be so radically different from “them”?

Whilst I wouldn’t dare to rely on the unobservable self-respect on a scientific study, I wouldn’t dare either not to rely on it at a personal level on any one-on-one relationship independently of species involved. Unobservable and un-measurable, it may be, yet it remains for me a solid guideline reminding me that I am but one among many.

Life is great!

R—

 

Bongo Home Alone

The Misadventures of Bongo

Bongo Home Alone

Bongo Home Alone

In 1994, I created Bongo to illustrate the various situations dog owners and dogs get into and how to get out of them the best possible way. My objective was to explain and illustrate that many dog problems (maybe most) were the result of misunderstandings between us and them and that if we spoke a better “Doguese,” we could certainly avoid the worst troubles. I paired up with Henriette Westh, a brilliant Danish illustrator, and she gave Bongo more than a form; she gave him a character of his own as well.

Bongo is a nice, friendly and naughty English Cocker Spaniel (orange roan, the original drawings were in color) with his own mind. He’s a good dog and loves his family very much, but he gets often in trouble, mostly because of misunderstandings as you can see in “Bongo Home Alone.”

“Bongo Home Alone” was first published in 1994 in my book “Hunden, ulven ved din side”. The book was coincidentally edited by none other than Henriette’s brother, Poul Henrik Westh, for Borgen Publishers. The book never appeared in English, but Bongo did.

Enjoy this bit of history and nostalgia and have a good laugh!

R-

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