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Hitting The Books

After the airplane adventure with Angel, I decided to hit the books to learn more about her and her ancestors.  My early experiences with dogs were obviously well out of date.  After reading a number of books and researching on the Web, I put together a short summary that updates the modest amount I know which gives credence to the extraordinary contributions that dogs make to humans.

According to the experts, we are told that dogs were descended from wolves and could have been domesticated for 135,000 years.  While this time line may be a stretch, there are clear references to dogs in ancient Greek writings.

Homer, composing the Odyssey, it is surmised, in  the 8th or 9th century BC, says:

  As they were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears…”

This image of a sleeping dog who rises up and pricks his ears is pure Angel, spanning the time divide and is as relevant today as it was in the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Having established the long relationship (and companionship?) to man, I sought to find out how the dog’s brain works.  Researchers report that, although the brain of the average dog only accounts for .5% of its body weight (as compared to 2% in the average human and .07% in most other mammals), the dog’s brain is able to synthesize, interpret and act upon an extraordinary amount of information it receives from its senses.  Since the brain needs a great deal of nourishment to function properly (it gets 20% of the blood pumped from the heart). Angel, who, as has been established by now, has a passion for food, especially table food, must have a well-nourished and healthy heart.

Brain activity is, in part, pre-determined by “fixed wiring” provided by the genes.  As human brains are pre-wired for language, so is the dog’s brain pre-wired to interpret scents, a large part of the brain being devoted to this process.  Of course, the brain also processes information from all the other senses – touch, taste, hearing and sight.  However, what dogs lack that humans have is an abundant capacity for association, so the dog often looks to humans for guidance in decision making and how to avoid danger.

The dog’s brain can, as determined by genetics, store conditioned or learned information.  Composed of billions of cells (neurons), each of which may, it itself, have 10,000 connectors through various neurotransmitters and receptor sites, anatomically, the dog’s brain is quite similar to the brains of other mammals.  As in humans and other mammals, the cerebrum controls emotions and behavior, while the cerebellum controls muscle activity.  Even though emotions in a dog may be limited, experts generally agree that dogs can express these feelings in a manner that has allowed them to communicate them successfully with human for millennia.  As only one of many examples, when Paula is away for an extended period and returns, Angel greets her with delight, running around, going for her toys and bringing them to Paula.  Under the same circumstance, I get a much more restrained greeting – it’s not exactly clear why.  One can hypothesize that for Angel this may be the result of her having been abused by a male owner, or it could simply be that Angel likes Paula better.  I attribute this entirely to the manner in which Paula prepares Angel’s lamp chops.

The brain stem connects to the peripheral nervous system, each sense feeding into the brain through its own unique dedicated network of nerves.  A specific region of the brain (the limbic system) integrates instinct and learning, giving emotional value to what we sense and what we learn.  Lamb chops are a good thing, baths are not – for Angel. 

But what about those things that require “empathic” connections?  Lamb chops taste good immediately.  Baths feel bad immediately.  What about lying quietly still while your owner is in the midst of an important business call?   This is, as every dog owner quickly learns, where dog biscuits enter the picture.  Modifying certain aspects of Angel’s behavior solely because of her associational limitations requires patient teaching (and dog biscuits).  The good news is that most dogs are quick studies, and they learn quickly what must be done to earn a treat, and, it seems at times as though the dog has trained me to give treats more than I have trained the dog to do the act necessary to earn them.  Nevertheless, I am never without a supply of treats.

Dogs, as with many other mammals, have their unique characteristics, as well.  They have a strong sense of homing, often travelling long distances on land and water to return to their home.  Since their  eyes are flatter than humans’, they can change the shape of its lenses, allowing them to be more sensitive to light and movement than a human, although their resolving power is less efficient.

The mobility of the dog’s ears allows it to scan the environment for sound.  A dog can hear sounds four times farther away than a human and can locate the sources of the sound in six-hundredths of a second.  It appears that Angel, a quiet loving dog, barks well before we hear that a stranger is at our front door or we hear the first sound of  thunder.

Touching is very important in the dog and human alike.  It is the first sense a dog develops and remains powerfully important.  There are touch sensitive hairs called vibrissae, especially above the eyes, on the muzzle, and below the jaws.  The entire body, including their paws, is covered with touch sensitive nerve endings.  Angel’s heaven, as with most family dogs, is a belly rub.  I am a strong believer that, from an emotional standpoint, the human  gets as much pleasure from petting a dog as the dog gets in being petted – and I suspect that the dog figures that out very quickly.

While dogs have fewer taste buds than humans, approximately one for every six of ours, they still have an ample supply to register sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes.  With yards of shelves of different dog foods being offered in the super markets, the manufacturers have certainly figured this out and have become extraordinarily adept at exploiting (and profiting from) this.  Unfortunately, they have not yet developed a food which caters to Angel’s highly specialized taste buds, her favorite food being rotisserie chicken (white meat only).

The dog’s sense of smell is legendary.  Within their two nostrils, there are about 200 million receptor cells, depending upon the breed as compared with 5 million for humans.  In sniffing, a task in which Angel excels, she is able to bring molecules into contact with a superior olfactory epithelium, in which the receptor cells are found.  Dogs not only have a strong selectivity and specificity of smells, but can store and recall an extraordinary number of them, as well.

As previously noted, dogs make relatively few decisions alone, but look to humans to sort it all out for them.  Yet, they make the most of what they have.  Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin has an elegant explanation of the three brain theory and how the larger neocortex in humans enables us to process information that a dog cannot.  On the other hand, as sophisticated as the human brain is (and brain researchers believe becoming even more so), they are often weak where dogs are strong.  Military dogs have been very important in protecting our soldiers living in Iraq.  Welsh Stinger Spaniels are trained to sniff out incendiary bombs in Iraq.  Beagles at airports are able to detect produce illegally brought drugs into the country,  Seeing Eye dogs escort their charges through crowded Manhattan streets and through traffic.  Hospice dogs give comfort to the terminally ill.   Dogs protect local police.  Dogs have been known to rescue the drowning, and find the lost.  And there are dogs who are now able to detect the immanent onset of hypoglycemia in diabetics.  Of course, their survival skills are also exceptionally strong.  Angel who is now my service dog had enough decision making capacity to escape from an abuser, stay on her own for four months, find food, protect herself, and locate shelter in inclement weather.  The decision-making capacity for survival had been hardwired into her brain and a part of her heritage.

Armed now with this very modest understanding of the history and physiology of dogs, I set about reaching out to Angel to see how far I could get with what was originally this unknown quantity who appeared in my life, much as a manager might find himself encountering a new largely unknown organization to manage.

The management approach which I had been utilizing for over half a century was to learn as much as I could and then use what I had learned to achieve the goals of a successful business --- one that helps those involved  to achieve their full potential.

Given Angel’s limitation and advantages, I settled on a select number of issues that were important.  The road we travelled took two years and we’re still counting, but I realized that I had traveled this road before, both as follower and leader.  How hard could it be?

While there are many permutations, in the end it became apparent that there were only 4 basic rules that would work for Angel, the same rules that were extracted from six decades of successful management.