Tag Archives: chasing squirrels

Dog Dreams

 

Dreaming dogs: Squirrels on their minds?

Dreaming dogs: Squirrels on their minds?

People are always saying about a dreaming dog, “Chasing squirrels!” 

But they’re wrong.

I know this because research has shown that dog sleep (and brain structure) is similar to ours. If dogs only dreamt about chasing squirrels, it would mean I was spending every REM session tunneling through warm cinnamon rolls and German chocolate cupcakes like the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Picchu processing the afternoon's hike

Picchu processing the afternoon's hike

Unfortunately, I don’t only dream of bakeries – just sometimes, and usually I’m being good and not eating anything (yes, I wake up screaming, You Idiot!). 

Dreams are mental workouts. Sure, dogs’ lives aren’t as complicated as ours, but there’s no reason to think they’re so simplistic, either. Surely even house whippets have something on their minds besides high-speed chases.

Picchu and Biski sniffing out each other's dreams

Picchu and Biski sniffing out each other's dreams

C-Biscuit has a peculiar way of dreaming in which she seems to be playing two roles. She alternates between a high-pitched whimper and then a low growl. Maybe she’s showing the effects of having been an only dog for a year before we got Picchu and Sesame.

Researchers at MIT determined that rats taught to run through a maze during the day then dreamed about it at night. So there might be some squirrel chasing in dog dreams, just as I do get ahold of a nocturnal Krispy Kreme now and then. 

Sesame: "Do not underestimate a dog's dreaming. We are philosophic, calculating creatures."

Sesame: "Do not underestimate a dog's dreaming. We are philosophic, calculating creatures."

But aren’t dreams usually symbolic? Nothing like a bakery visit or squirrel chase. The other night, I dreamed I was on my way to my sister’s wedding but didn’t have any shoes on. …could the whippets have anxiety dreams about being the only dogs in Central Park not wearing winter boots?

This work raises questions about long-held assumptions about animals’ thought processes. Only a handful of species — among them chimps and dolphins — were thought to have any ability at all to recall and evaluate detailed sequences of events after they occurred. Matthew Wilson of MIT’s Institute for Learning and Memory points out that ‘this work demonstrates that animals are capable of re-evaluating their experiences when they are not in the midst of them.’    – MIT research on rat dreams published in Neuron Dec. 19, 2001

The real stuff dog dreams are made of: The whippets might map their field in their brains next time they nap, say MIT scientists

The real stuff dog dreams are made of: The whippets might map this field in their brains next time they nap, say MIT scientists

An ABC News reporter quipped about the rat dream research, “Some rats can’t ever escape the rat race, even when sound asleep.”

We seem determined to make light of animal dreams even though, let’s face it, don’t dogs seem more highly evolved than we are? Unlike everyone else in the animal kingdom (except house cats), they have figured out how to get everything they need without working for it. While we, complex schemers and dreamers that we are, can only dream on.

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Squirrels in Central Park Displaced

 

Scrat, the squirrel superhero of "Ice Age"

Scrat, the squirrel superhero of "Ice Age"

Our three whippets’ favorite part of living in New York is nearby Central Park, and the best thing in the park are the squirrels.

They are everywhere, obsessively amassing acorns like our squirrel superhero “Scrat” and also scurrying in and out of trash cans like the junk-food eating wildlife in the movie “Over the Hedge.” Once, a squirrel begging from my friend Chad got impatient and made off with an entire half of his bagel with cream cheese.  

So it is with a heavy heart that we saw dozens of squirrels lose their homes last week as 80 mile-per-hour winds ripped briefly through a corridor of Riverside and Central Parks and brought down hundreds of trees/squirrel apartment buildings.

Bob, my sister Barbara and our whippets touring the storm damage in Central Park

Bob, my sister Barbara and our whippets touring the storm damage in Central Park

The damage looks like the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado, with trees toppled at their roots and branches sheared off by the ton. An estimated 500 trees are down, several of them near 100 years old. 

Bob, an arborist, used to work in Central Park and this enormous Red Oak was one of his favorite trees. We took some acorns to carry on the "bloodline."

Bob, an arborist, used to work in Central Park and this enormous Red Oak was one of his favorite trees. We took some acorns to carry on the "bloodline."

The dogs were nearly as confused as the squirrels to see tree tops at ground level. We watched squirrels scampering through fallen trees, obviously saying to themselves, “Now, I know my nest was right here in this limb!” 

We were proud of C-Biscuit, Machu Picchu and Sesame for not trying to take advantage of the situation and squirrel-loot. (Being on leashes also helped them “make good choices,” as my sister Barbara tells her first-grade class.)

Bob, Shira, and the whippets with storm-shredded trees in Central Park

Bob, Shira, and the whippets with storm-shredded trees in Central Park

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Hunting with Dogs (or not)

 

C-Biscuit and Machu Picchu at Lake Minnewaska: Release the Hounds!

C-Biscuit and Machu Picchu at Lake Minnewaska: Release the Hounds!

Sure, two of our whippets chase squirrels as if they’re prepared to live off the land. The third, Sesame, doesn’t seem to see squirrels but will always break ranks to snap his jaws on a fly.

Still, recent events leave me wondering if our dogs have any true, wolfy hunting instincts.

First, there are the snake encounters. Or rather, I encounter them. The dogs, apparently, do not see them, sense them, or smell them.

There's a reason I hike in back: Bob, Biski and Picchu supposedly clear the trail of wildlife

There's a reason I hike in back: Bob, Biski and Picchu supposedly clear the trail of wildlife

The first one we crossed was on a day hike this Spring in Harriman. Bob, Biski and Picchu hiked merrily ahead while I was suddenly confronted with a snake splayed across the trail. After I sent Bob back to investigate (and I’m skipping over my hysterics between the sighting and the investigating), he reported, “Well, I see why it wasn’t moving off the trail: It was busy eating a frog. Wow, I’m surprised the dogs missed that.”

Yeah, after all, why are we hiking with dogs, as a woodsy fashion accessory? No, to warn me of snakes! What kind of sighthounds are these? After all, the dogs love chasing tail, and what is a snake but all tail?

Hiking a half-mile with me perched on his back after the snake sighting should have taught Bob to look out for snakes himself if he had to. But I guess it didn’t. Because a couple weeks later, hiking around Lake Minnewaska, Bob decided we would take a short-cut. As we bush-whacked, again Bob, Biski and Picchu stepped right over what I was left to leap over announce as a “SNAKE!”

And I don’t mean a garter snake. This was the biggest snake I’ve seen since my fifth-grade class kept a 4-foot-long boa constrictor as a pet. (Alas, that did not desensitize me.)

“It’s HUGE!” I squirmed to Bob. “It’s a huge black snake! How could ALL of you miss that?!”

He backtracked to the scene of the snake, saying, “I’ve got to see this.” Clearly he was expecting to tell me it was only a root. He took a good look, then could only say, “It’s not black. It’s gray.”

Fun at dog day camp! "We are House Whippets, not Hunting Dogs!"

Fun at dog day camp! "We are House Whippets, not Hunting Dogs!"

So maybe I needed a greyhound to spot it?

But fine. Moving on to our latest camping trip. At the trail head, I caught Sesame jerking his head up and down – snout to dirt, snout in the air – repeatedly. “No!” I called to him, hoping he wouldn’t swallow whatever it was he was hunting. Then I saw what was going on: A little frog was hopping along, and Sesame was merely watching it, following along, up-down, up-down. That was fine with me, except aren’t dogs supposed to, you know, get it?

Our sighthounds are extremely good at spotting lunch, if it's packaged and ready to serve

Our sighthounds are extremely good at spotting lunch... if it's packaged and ready to serve

At the campsite we had another hunting scare. Sesame darted across the site, then I saw him pounce and grab something in his mouth. “Ohmygod, Sesame’s got something!” I yelled to Bob.

“DROP IT!” Bob told Sesame, while I went over to inspect the victim, which I thought might be one of those porcupines that John Burroughs writes about crawling all over the Catskills.

“Oh,” I told Bob before he arrived at the, shall we still call it, scene of the crime. “Never mind. It’s just, uh, a tennis ball.”

“A tennis ball? Where did he find that up here?”

If Bob wants to rough it, that’s fine. But why should the children suffer? “I brought it,” I told him. 

It wasn’t until the next day that he saw Sesame attacking a miniature bull, its eyes wide and horns shaking as Sesame whipped it around.  “I can’t believe you hauled that up the mountain,” Bob said. (“It doesn’t weigh anything,” I explained. “And Picchu was using it as a pillow.” So there.)

If the whippets aren’t going to scout and hunt for us, I figure we will have to do it for them. 

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Favorite Things: Ruff Wear Dog Harness

When we got C-Biscuit she would lunge, jump fences and even climb trees to go after squirrels. Whippets have long, muscular necks that are not fragile, but we still hated to see her buck and twist against her collar. So we looked for a harness. 

Web Master Dog Harness by Ruff Wear

Web Master Dog Harness by Ruff Wear

Most regular harnesses don’t fit the deep chest and tiny waist of a sighthound. Plus most are designed for dogs to be pulling forward, so when they back up they can escape. In a squirrel frenzy, anything is possible. Which is why the breeder said, “Please don’t put her in a harness. She can back up and be gone!”

We were then delighted to discover the Web Master Dog Harness ($50) made by Ruff Wear. The company says that “Houdini dogs that manage to get out of traditional harnesses will find it nearly impossible to escape the Web Master.” Which we have found to be true.

The back strap can be cinched around the whippet’s narrow waist, so they can’t back out of the harness. Additional straps go behind the front legs, around the front of the chest and between the front legs. Our girls have worn the harness on long hikes without any chafing. (C-Biscuit’s dog backpack by Ruff Wear has the Web Master Harness as its base layer.)

Picchu in her Web Master Dog Harness

Picchu in her Web Master Dog Harness - comfy, safe, secure

With a snug and secure fit, the harness also has a handle on top to lift the dogs up – that recently came in handy while climbing some steep rock faces on Slide Mountain. Its bright red color means it can double as a safety vest for off-leash hiking.

C-Biscuit has learned mostly to watch squirrels without lunging for them (although when especially tempted, she will still try to scale a tree or fence), so she doesn’t wear the harness anymore. Picchu, though, embarrasses us with her squealing and lunging, and the harness keeps her from potentially snapping her neck at the end of her leash.

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Scrat: A Dog’s Superhero

Scrat, the Saber-Toothed Squirrel of "Ice Age"

Scrat, the Saber-Toothed Squirrel of "Ice Age"

I could have named this site “Squirreling for Sesame.”

I come from a family of squirrel-lovers. My partner, Bob, makes his living in trees (as an arborist) and used to sleep there with the squirrels. Their biggest fans, of course, are C-Biscuit and Machu Picchu, who like many dogs are absolutely fixated on squirrels.

So it is with great glee that the whole family follows the adventures of Scrat, the hilarious “saber-toothed squirrel” starring in the Ice Age movies.  

Here’s one of Fox’s trailers for Ice Age 3, opening July 1st:

 

Modern-day descendent of Scrat

Modern-day descendent of Scrat

The more time you spend in the park staring at squirrels while holding back dogs on their leashes, the more you see squirrels haven’t changed much since Scrat: They still spend their days darting around, flapping their bushy tails and scratching for acorns; you can still see their little hearts beating in their chests (okay, I guess it’s really their lungs) when they pause and sit up, alert and seemingly unsure what to do next.

All they’ve lost is that helpful tool, the mythical saber tooth.

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