The Mystery of Canine Language Capabilities

Have you ever wondered how many words a dog knows? When I write about Buddy the Beagle, I tend to humanize his ability to process English. After all, I am a fiction writer. In my stories, Buddy listens intently to his humans and picks up new words from their conversations.

Contrary to my imagination, my real life interactions with Buddy pair words with action. If we’re on a walk and he tries to gobble garbage, “No” is accompanied by a tug on his leash. When I want him to “lie down” or “roll over,” I use hand signals in addition to verbal commands. “Good boy” is usually accompanied by a treat.

Truthfully, my dog reads more into my body language than my actual words. He also recognizes my tone of voice and facial expressions to understand what I mean. If I smile and excitedly say, “Let’s go for a walk,” Buddy trots to the door.

Dogs process speech in much the same way as human infants do between six and fourteen months. With repetition, both dogs and babies associate certain words with actions. Dogs do listen to human speech, but they don’t consider different letter sounds important. A growing vocabulary requires phonetic precision.

All of this makes sense, unless your dog is the smartest dog in the world. A border collie named Chaser proved dogs can differentiate between words. Chaser’s owner, Dr. John Pilley, taught psychology at Wofford U. (no joke)

After he retired from teaching, Dr. Pilley talked to a sheep rancher whose border collie knew how to retrieve specific sheep from the field by their names. When Jeb was told to “go get Millie and Tillie,” the dog picked Millie and Tillie out of a herd of one hundred sheep and brought them back.

When Chaser was two months old, Dr. Pilley started teaching her proper nouns, beginning with a blue ball. He used a strategy called errorless learning, which means setting up an environment in which the subject cannot fail. He would name it, show it to her, say “catch blue” and throw it to her.“He’d put it in front of her and say “find blue.” On the third day, when she could retrieve the ball from another room, he knew it was time to move on to another object. At the end of the fifth month, Chaser had learned forty words and kept them in her long-term memory. During the course of Chaser’s lifetime, she learned one thousand nouns. Dr. Pilley and Chaser changed the field of dog intelligence using the power of play and positive reinforcement.

Reading about Chaser inspires me to start a list of words Buddy knows.

  • cookie
  • carrot
  • treat
  • popcorn
  • kibble
  • bacon

Hmm… are you noticing a pattern? Food is one category of language Buddy understands. And he can always find it. Like many dogs, Buddy is also good at math. I love this quote by Phil Pastoret.

“If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two of them.”

Are you tuned into your dog’s language abilities? Leave a comment and let me know the details.

Reading: Just Do It!

People who can read, should.

Are you a reader? Do you enjoy losing yourself in a book? May is National Get Caught Reading Month. The campaign encourages people of all ages to read for enjoyment.

REMEMBER WHEN READING WAS FUN ?

When I was a child I loved to read or hear others read. Yertle the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss was one of our family favorites. My mother read the book to us so often, my brothers and I memorized most of the lines.

In elementary school I enjoyed the Boxcar Children. Author Gertrude Warren amazed me with her tale of four orphans surviving on their own in an abandoned boxcar. I admired their ingenuity and the way they cared for one another.

A memorable character I related to was Anne Shirley, the dramatic imaginative Anne, spelled with an E of course! I felt a connection because like me, she got in trouble for talking too much. I read Anne of Green Gables again as an adult. L.M. Montgomery still delighted me with her beautiful descriptions. A few years ago, I enjoyed posing with “Anne” on a trip to Prince Edward Island.

HOW I LOST MY LOVE OF READING

As a parent, teacher, and now as a new author, I’m still talking to children about the importance of reading. Books contain insight, information, and inspiration. Books help us grow mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Parents and teachers encourage their children to read, but do they read for themselves? If not, what happened?

Sometime during my high school years, I was forced to read for information only. The entertainment value of books decreased. My classes demanded I read in order to pass a test, or write a term paper. This continued throughout college. The joy of reading evaporated like a puddle on hot pavement.

After college I became busy with my teaching career, managing a household, and transporting my children to their activities. I always hoped I would have more time to read without interruption. Sigh. Does reading a lesson plan count?

I remember when elementary schools used to have D.E.A.R. time during the school day. Everybody, including the teacher, was supposed to Drop Everything And Read. It was a sacred time when teachers were supposed to model good reading behavior. That’s a great idea in a perfect world. The reality was much different. It was hard for me to ignore the children and sit with a book when Johnny was writing with a Sharpie on his desk. Well, like many short lived programs, D.E.A.R. was dropped for learning goals and standardized testing. How sad.

Fortunately for me, retirement brought an opportunity to read more. One of my favorite books is The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Author Kim Michele Richardson tells the story of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the prejudice they encountered during the 1930’s. As someone who is “blue,” Cussy Mary Carter had plenty of reasons to hate white people, but instead responded with love. Cussy worked as a “packhorse librarian.” She carried books to some of the poorest and most remote shacks in Appalachia. The packhorse lending library was sponsored by the WPA of the Roosevelt administration. Cussy’s patrons grew to appreciate her love for books and gave her the name Book Woman. This book made me think about the importance of reading and how I often take it for granted.

START NEW HABITS

It’s hard to change old habits, but here are five tips to increase your time spend reading.

Read for fifteen minutes every night before you go to bed.

Order books from the public library. Most libraries lend ebooks these days.

Join a book club. You’ll read books you wouldn’t normally read, and make lifelong friends.

Join Book Bub, an online service that emails you daily with reduced prices on Amazon ebooks that suit your interests.

Dedicate one night a week to uninterrupted reading. Stay away from your phone, or better yet, turn it off.

Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to get busy reading, but keep reading blogs, too! (I think that counts.) What are you reading lately? Leave a comment about a book you’ve enjoyed, or offer a reading tip of your own.

How Your Dog Feels About You

Are you one of the 69 million people in the United States who own a dog? If so, you probably make sure your pet’s needs are met. You adapt your schedule to walk your furry friend at the same time each day. You might bring Fido a doggy bag from your favorite restaurant. And of course you take him for an annual checkup with your vet.* You love your dog! But have you ever wondered how your dog feels about you?

Emory University scientists studied the emotional states of dogs. Using MRI, the scientists measured the nueral responses of dogs as they were exposed to familiar and unfamiliar odors. When the dogs smelled the familiar scent of their owners, the reward center of the animal’s brain was activated because they associated the smell with pleasure.

In a similar study, Budapest scientists learned the canine brain responds positively to the happy sounds of their owner’s voice. These studies are scientific proof of what you probably knew all along. Our canine friends are social, emotional, beings that respond to human smells and voices. Think about all the ways your pet tells you he loves you.

  • From the minute you walk through the front door, your pal is right there to greet you. He might pick up his favorite toy and carry it to you.
  • Your dog wants to snuggle with you on the couch. He feels safe with you and considers you part of his pack. It doesn’t matter if you just got out of bed and have morning breath. Your dog loves you unconditionally.
  • Your pet looks at you with loving eyes. Making direct eye contact is considered aggressive action in the canine community. When two dogs meet, one will look away in deference to the alpha dog. Not so with human interaction. Your dog looks at you with eyes that are relaxed and tender.
  • Your four-legged friend just can’t seem to get enough of your company. He follows you everywhere.
  • Your dog shows empathy when you cry. He tries to comfort you by putting his head on your lap or licking your hand.

So, if dog’s are such social and emotional creatures can they experience jealousy?

Again, research supports the theory. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE showed that canines tended to display significantly more jealous behaviors when their owners showed affection for a stuffed toy dog. For example, the canine tried to force himself between the owner and the stuffed dog. As anyone with more than one canine companion may witness, some pups don’t take kindly to their owners doling out affection to another dog.

My upcoming children’s book Truckload of Trouble explores the theme of love and jealousy. Buddy the beagle’s life seems perfect until his human, Henry, takes in Jack, a stray cattle dog with blue fur. Henry gives Jack plenty of attention and Buddy feels jealous. Buddy loves Henry so much. He will do anything to gain his approval. When Henry takes Jack to the dog park and leaves Buddy at home, the little beagle knows he must do something drastic!

I wrote this story during the height of the Covid pandemic. During this extended period of social distancing, I had plenty of time to watch my beagle and let my imagination soar. I have written three books from Buddy’s point of view, and may have developed the ability to think like a dog. (I hope I don’t start licking the floor for crumbs.)

What do you appreciate about your dog? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment. Please join my book launch team by sharing this post. Thanks!

*feature photo of Enrique Duprey, DVM (a.k.a. Dr. Smiley) pictured with Buddy at Corrine Drive Animal Hospital in Orlando, Florida.

Are Coyotes Dangerous to Dogs?

Spring is in the air! The bees are buzzing, the birds are singing, and the coyotes? Well, the coyotes are increasing! Yes, April is breeding month for coyotes. Look out pet owners, because from now through August, coyote parents will be more protective of their young.

Have you seen any coyotes in your neighborhood? My neighbor encountered the coyote pictured above when she was biking around Lake Baldwin. Like many urban areas, Orlando has seen an increase of coyotes in the past few years. Habitat encroachment forces them to migrate to cities in search of food. These animals have adapted to city life so well they are known as “urban coyotes.” Their population continues to thrive because efforts to relocate them fail to work. Coyotes are smart and quite successful in finding their way back. In fact, coyotes are so established in Florida they’ve become naturalized—meaning they are part of the ecosystem.

Should you be concerned? Yes. As part of the ecosystem, coyotes will prey upon whatever they can find. And although their diet mainly consists of rodents, rabbits, fruit, and insects, they might eat a smaller domestic pet (under twenty-five pounds) if they have an opportunity. Fortunately, the frequency of a coyote eating a dog is rare.

If a dog is eaten by a coyote, it is usually due to risky behavior on the part of the owner. Coyotes are more active at night. When a pet owner leaves their dog outside unattended in the evening, trouble could arise. It’s also not a good idea to walk your dog at night using a retractable leash. A six foot leash is much safer. Remember to carry a flashlight with you after dark.

Did you know dogs are attracted to coyotes? Since they are genetically similar, sometimes dogs become excited by the presence of a coyote and chase after it. If a tragedy ensues, the coyote is always to blame, even though the dog initiated the encounter. Coyotes can carry rabies. If your dog or cat gets bit by a coyote, take your pet to the vet immediately.

Coyote management is largely about people management. Coyotes are here to stay, but there are many things people can do to help manage the dangers. Our pets can be better protected if we do not feed ferrel cats outside. We are basically asking the coyotes to keep coming around.

I’m excited about the release of my new children’s book, Truckload of Trouble, on June 7 from Elk Lake Publishing. Buddy the beagle escapes under the backyard fence in search of Jack, a stray dog who decides he’s better off living on the street. When the two dogs encounter a coyote, Jack puffs out his chest and lets out a fierce growl that scares the coyote away.

Coyotes are usually afraid of people. If you encounter a coyote, do what Jack does. Stand tall and maintain eye contact. Make loud noises and back up until you and your pet are a safe distance away.

Hopefully my post has increased your awareness of the dangers of coyotes. As a nature lover, I value wildlife. But I also value my pet, and want to help other pet owners protect their fur-babies. I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment!

Are Two Dogs Too Many?

For all of our pet-owning years, we have continued to be a single-dog household. I have a friend who told me she owns two dogs because she never wants to be dog-less. What an interesting idea. However, acting upon the idea probably entails a life-long commitment to owning two dogs.

Did you know almost fifteen percent of the U.S. population owns more than one dog? When I take Buddy (our beagle) for a walk and encounter people with two dogs, I wonder how they manage.

My wondering led me to the inspiration for my third children’s book, Truckload of Trouble. The story begins when Buddy the Beagle’s friends gather in the backyard to celebrate his birthday. Buddy’s life seems perfect until his human, Henry, takes in Jack, a stray Australian cattle dog. Henry admires Jack for his appearance, strength, and athletic ability. Buddy is jealous of all the attention Jack receives and wants him to leave. Henry’s wife, Jen, disagrees with keeping Jack because he digs up her flowerbed and makes messes in the house. She feels like “two dogs are too many.”

I chose an Australian cattle dog for this book after reading about the breed. They are active, intelligent, and mischievous when bored. Buddy and I met Moxie (pictured above) at a book signing event in Longwood, FL. I loved meeting an actual Australian cattle dog, but Buddy was kind of shy and walked the other way.

While writing this book I realized how important it is to consider the needs of each animal before adopting more than one dog. An owner needs to consider the following:

  • Which dog breeds get along well together?
  • How much space and exercise does each dog require?
  • Does my daily routine allow me to give the right amount attention to each dog?
  • Do I have the energy to train a second dog in the rules of the house?
  • Can I afford the food, vet bills, etc. of more than one dog?
  • Who will care for my dogs if I need to travel?

Although I do not answer all of these questions in Truckload of Trouble, the book touches upon responsible pet ownership in an entertaining way. Children ages six to nine will enjoy my next book in the Tails of Blueberry Street series coming soon from Elk Lake Publishing.

Do you own more than one dog? Leave a comment and share your advice on the topic.

Friends

You are there…

when I don’t know where to turn

Amid the confusion and despair,

you are there, my friend.

If my plans are thwarted

and success seems as distant as the furthest galaxy,

you remain in control—steadfast as the rock of ages

nothing shakes you.

If the stars I wish upon tumble into the sea

their vacancy leaves room for you

to extend your hand and say…

“This is the way, walk in it.”

So I place my hand in yours

and know…

Your conclusion is so much better than any I could write.

My Northern Lights Experience

Brrr! Even though I dressed in the warmest layers I own, I still shivered as I stepped out of the bus into the cold air. I wondered, “How am I going to survive this night?” My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as I trudged across the packed snow to join the group of stargazers carrying iphones.

What was a Floridian like me doing miles above the Arctic Circle in Maze, Norway? I was searching for the Northern Lights, of course.

Here is how the evening unfolded….

About fifteen minutes after my arrival, a gasp went up from the small crowd. “Look!” A guy pointed toward the western sky, where a faint mist appeared.

Someone cried out, “It’s beginning!”

A few minutes later the mist rose higher and began to vibrate. Unlike a cloud, the mist began to glow and shimmer. That’s when I realized I was actually looking at lights.

I continued to hold up my iphone 12 and snap photos. The camera captured the colors I couldn’t see with my naked eye. It seemed magical!

The dancing lights changed into a new shape which reminded me of a paper airplane. The plane soon changed into a luminous green flying V. Wow!

I blinked and the flying V transformed into a singular light which streamed down, down, down to the earth below.

Everyone cheered! What could be better? Some of us had traveled thousands of miles to see this. We endured numerous regulations put in place by our governments due to Covid. We stood outside in fourteen degree temperatures. We felt like this light show was our reward. Indeed, it was worth it all!

Was I looking at a vapor? A light? What are the Northern Lights?

  • The Northern Lights are caused by activity on the surface of the sun.
  • Solar storms give out clouds of electrically charged particles.
  • The particles are drawn toward the north and south poles where the earth’s magnetic field is stronger.
  • Upon entry to earth’s atmosphere the particles heat up and begin to glow.
  • The unique drapery like folds of the particles are caused by lines of force in the Earth’s magnetic field.

Forget the legends and stories of the ancients… science can explain everything, including the various colors. Different gases give off different colors when they are heated.

  • Green is due to oxygen in the atmosphere.
  • Purple, blue, or pink, are due to nitrogen.
  • Red is due to very high altitude oxygen and is only present when the particles are very energetic.

I hope my scientific explanation hasn’t destroyed any ideas you might have about the mysterious Northern Lights. In my opinion, the phenomenon is still more art than science.

In nearby Alta, a church reflects the beauty of the Aurora. Known as the Cathedral of Northern Lights, the building is a landmark, and serves as a local parish.

Winters are long and dark in this part of the world, and the long bright windows lift the spirits of the community.

The interior of the church inspires worshippers to look up toward the heavens.

A bronze figure represents Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s redemption.

Dear Reader, if you have not experienced the Northern Lights, add them to your bucket list. You will not be disappointed. In closing, I want to thank Herb Burton for coming up with the idea to book a trip to Norway in January. Viking Cruises offers a wonderful tour. What are you waiting for?

How Buddy the Beagle Stole the Christmas Candy

Yes, Christmas 2021 has come and gone. The tree ornaments and lights are boxed up and stored until next year. But we still have a few pieces of my favorite chocolate sitting around. And even though I’ve started my diet, I allow myself one or two, just to brighten up another dull January day.

We have to be careful where we set the candy bowl. A few nights before Christmas, Buddy gave us a scare. When it was time to turn in for the night, I realized Buddy wasn’t in the living room. I called his name and he wandered out of the spare bedroom.

I checked the bedroom and discovered a pile of chewed up foil wrappers on the floor. Buddy had gotten into the one bag of chocolate I’d purchased earlier that day. The bag was labeled “Lumps of Coal.” I thought I would put one piece in each of my loved ones stockings as a joke. Now the joke was on me.

Chocolate is toxic to dogs. The hour was late, and we did not want to make a trip to the local emergency vet clinic. So Herb accessed information about dogs and chocolate on the internet. He found a chart which listed dog weights and how much chocolate they could eat and still live. Buddy weighs twenty pounds and he would need to eat one pound of chocolate before he would be seriously affected. We also learned dark chocolate is more toxic to dogs than milk chocolate.

I hurried back to the bedroom and looked at the paper label from the bag. “We’re in luck!” I called out. “The candy contained more peanut butter than milk chocolate and the weight of the package was only three ounces.”

Buddy usually sleeps in his crate, but that night we carried it into our bedroom and so he could sleep near us. I’m sure he felt like he had won the lottery that night. In the morning he was fine.

The moral of the story…. “life happens and chocolate helps” only applies to people. On that note, I think I’ll have a piece of chocolate.

“Take Heart” in 2022

Welcome to 2022! Are you excited about what the new year might bring?

I can relate to those of you who feel exhausted right now. I’m worn out from fighting each variant of the pandemic. I’m tired of the interruptions, the cancellations, and the nagging fears.

Christmas was not very merry at our house this year. Our son contracted Omicron and was isolated from the rest of the family. Thankfully he recovered after five or six days. I laughed when he told me he gave his Omicron experience a “better” review compared to his first bout with Covid in 2020. Apparently the virus is weakening. At this point, I’ll take any good news I can get.

Even though I’m tired of all the bad news circulating around me, I’m trying to stay positive. Throughout the centuries a new year has always been a time for starting over. A time to forget about the disappointments of the past and expect good things. But it’s hard to have hope when every time I turn on the news I hear more bad news. Who can I turn to for hope in a such a hopeless world?

When I feel hopeless I find encouragement by reading Scripture. Then I remember God’s unlimited power can do more than I could ever think or imagine. Even though I’m in a hurry to throw off the past, maybe I need to take some of the past with me. When I reflect upon all the times God strengthened me last year, I remember He is the same …yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Sometimes He brings a blessing into my life when I’d least expected.

I realize this year’s journey can and probably will bring more trials.

In the words of Jesus: “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Be encouraged, friends. Take heart knowing an all powerful God still loves you. Focus on His power to carry you through these dark times and give you hope. He will never let you down.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”__Corrie ten Boom

A Christmas Story

A friend and I like to walk on the bike path which circles Lake Baldwin in Orlando. The strip of land between the lake and the path is a natural habitat for a variety of plants and animals. Bald eagles and coyotes are among the local residents and I am always on the lookout for photo opportunities.

One morning something seemed out of place in the green landscape. We stepped closer to see a small package wrapped in red paper nestled among the needles of a bushy pine. “I think this the beginning of something,” I chuckled to my friend. In addition to the package, a shiny piece of garland adorned one side of the tree. We agreed the decorations must be someone’s idea of a joke in order to tease passersby to add more ornaments.

A few days later I walked my usual route and noticed many more decorations on the tree. A red and green bow served as a tree topper and bright ribbons spiraled the limbs. Then I noticed a note at the base of the tree inviting the community to add more ornaments in memory of “Bob.”

The author of the note shared a few details about Bob’s life. He loved to walk the path around the lake and started the tradition of decorating the small tree in 2020. Sadly, two months later Bob died from Covid 19. His family wants to continue the tradition in his memory and refers to the evergreen as the Community Tree of Baldwin Park.

The note touched my heart. This was not a joke but a serious memorial to a husband and father I never knew. This humble tree is very different from all the glitz and glamor of the Christmas tree in the Neighborhood Center of Baldwin Park. I prefer Bob’s tree because it represents the people from all walks of life who frequent the bike trail.

I never knew Bob, but I have a feeling I would like him. We have a common bond. He loved nature, walking, and Christmas.

December is a bittersweet time for many folks. I pray the Community Tree comforts Bob’s family as this will be their first Christmas with out him. Tomorrow I think I’ll visit the tree again and if there’s any space left, add a small token to tell Bob’s family they are not alone.

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