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A Dog’s Eye View

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There are about 75 million dogs in the United States. We love them, feed them, walk them, groom them. But cognitive psychologist Alexandra Horowitz is not so sure we understand them.

They’re not simple humans. They’re not friendly wolves. Dogs are highly evolved for compatibility with homo sapiens.

But the way they sense the world is vastly different from our own. These “creature of the nose,” she says, can actually smell time. And when they do see, they see more of the world in every second. Think about that.

This hour, On Point: The mind of a dog.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guest:

Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of the new book, “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.”

You can read excerpts from three chapters of the book at her website.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I’m looking forward to this.

    My question for Dr. Horowitz is, is a cat’s eye view similar? How do they differ (besides in the stereotypical ways)?

  • Fabian

    Interesting topic!

    My question:

    Will this discussion cover just the typical dogs bred to be highly responsive to humans, or the breeds who were bred to be intelligent, independent and much less responsive to humans?

    I have the great pleasure and privilege of owning a purebred mutt who turned out to be most like his Great Pyrenees grandsire, one of the livestock guardian breeds. When I took him to obedience classes, I thought he was defective because all the other puppies were attentive and responsive to their owners, but he wasn’t. Much later I learned that this was a feature of LGDs, not a flaw. Fortunately for both of us, he had a splendid temperament and he didn’t require much human supervision.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m starting out with a bad attitude. Having read at Horowitz’s Psychology Today blog about how she studied the Guilty Look in dogs, she decided if anything they looked MORE guilty when scolded for something they had not done (the owners had been misinformed that their dog had misbehaved).
    You know what? If I am being scolded or held to account for something and I don’t know what it is, I absolutely count every single one of my possible sins. I get wound into every corner of guilt. It doesn’t matter that I have done nothing. I know I’m being called on the carpet. A child or a dog would experience this a lot.
    I think this exposes more about human guilt than dog guilt.

  • Madhulika

    Looking forward to the show. We got ourselves a puppy 4 months ago, and it is I have to say a life changing experience. Other than the physical aspects of making changes in our lifestyle, our psyches are experiencing change. For one, I am humbled in the knowledge that humans don’t feel for the planet as much as the other animal beings do. From the day Sami walked in, he has loved a patch of grass as much as a breeze blowing a leaf.
    I recommend ‘On Talking Terms With Dogs : Calming Signals’
    By Turid Rugaas, for anyone who faces, deals with wants, loves and cares about dogs. After reading, YOu will see when and how the dog tries to calm you, and what you can do to calm him/her – with a yawn, a move etc. My daughter and niece managed to communicate super effectively in minutes. It is amazing to watch how she will just kneel down, & yawn to him, and he will instantly settle down.

  • David Rhodes

    We have a dog who is old-for-the-breed but still pretty active. Her eyesight has diminished and she now appears to be almost completely blind. What is most amazing to me is the way that she has adapted to navigating her environment. She certainly does a lot more snuffling to find her way around, but I get the impression that she is echolocating. Have you seen any evidence of this kind of adaptation in your obeservations of dogs?

  • http://NPROnPoint Caroline Donaghy

    I am a pet sitter. When I throw a ball for an Australian Shepherd, she watches my eyes – not the ball as all other dogs do.
    Caroline
    Beaufort, SC

  • Mark

    I’ve always wanted to ask someone why dogs like to have their stomachs rubbed. It’s obviously a hierarchical dominance thing, I guess, since exposing one’s stomach makes one pretty vulnerable, but why that behavior in particular? After all, there’s no way for it to happen in the wild — an alpha dog can’t rub the stomach of a lesser dog. So when did they learn this behavior?

  • Putney Swope

    Dogs have something in the order of 1500 times the sensitivity than we do in smell. Some breeds, such as Bloodhounds have extremely acute senses of smell and find the sent of a person even after a rain storm.

    My dog which is a Lab Pointer mix has both good eye site and smell. He has spotted rabbits in the grass at dusk when I can’t see it at all.

    I for one think they are amazing animals and offer us unconditional love. They are loyal, and loving. What more can one ask.

  • Danny Marcus

    My dog is a mixed breed, one part of which is a beagle, and the other part may be Jack Russell terrier. We got her two years ago, and the vet estimates her age to be around seven. She has two mental health issues. One is separation anxiety and the other is aggression toward other dogs.

    My questions are why are some dogs aggressive toward other dogs, and how do such dogs mate?

    My dog, by way, does not get agitated at the sight of cats like she does with other dogs. in Fact, she’s rather blase about cats.

  • Robin McClellan

    It’s hard to believe that you haven’t talked about the theory of dogs being neotnic–arrested in puppyhood. It explains so much of the difference between wolf and dog behavior.

    I think they understand us better than we understand them because they are not distracted by the symbology of language. It’s useful to us to generalize, but not necessarily for dogs.

    Finally, dogs are pack animals and they do treat us as the alpha in the pack. Even if they serve us and play with us, they still see us the boss…or vice versa and that’s when there’s trouble.

    Read (or listen to) Billy Collins’ poem “The Revenant” (on “Billy Collins’ Live”)

  • Wendy Ledley

    My family and I enjoy the companionship of our 6 yr old yellow lab. He is very observant of what clothes we put on and are wearing. It is definitely visual too. When he sees us dressed for work or church he goes and lays down and puts on his most depressed look and lets out a big sigh. When he sees us dressed in gym shorts, t-shirt and sneakers he knows that could mean a walk and he follows us around excitedly hoping that he’s right!!

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Alexandra is brilliant. This show is exactly what I was hoping it would be. Fantastic topic, well discussed. Have her back to talk about anything!

  • David Crossman

    Does the “timeliness” of a smell to dogs have to do with its various constituents fading at different rates? That is, a fresh smell differs from a stale one not just by fading overall, but by the differential fading of its parts.

  • Putney Swope

    In the case of my dog spotting rabbits at dusk and in the dark, I have also noticed how he smells them first, and then gets them in his sight. What is fascinating is how a hounds sense of smell is able to hone into the exact direction that the rabbit is in and how fast he does it.

    When we first moved into our house I found my dog moving around the back yard in a strange and what seemed to be erratic. He had his noise to the ground and was moving in fast zig zag patterns and digging small holes. As I watched him it was clear what he was doing was smelling moles in the ground. In the next few days he rid the yard of about 6 or 7 moles.

  • Fabian

    Got a huge kick out of the “visual acuity” story.

    When my late dog was a puppy we got a training video to watch. I made sure he was there when we watched. His reaction was interesting. First he seemed keenly interested in the apparent dogs, and seemed to be watching them. Then I realized he was sniffing intently. When he realized he could not SMELL the dogs he could hear and see, he decided they were not real and from then on ignored the unreal phantoms on television.

    He was a smart dog. Not in the usual sense of fetching balls and heeling smartly, but in using his own judgment. I will get another dog, but only one as smart as he was.

  • Madhulika

    Some of what Cesar Milan is okay, but with my pup, I found it ludicrous to establish an alpha position, when he was just a baby, completely under our power. I dropped this reading and study right there as I also feel it is a little cruel. For generations we have had dogs, and very few people I have known with great human dog relationships have been alpha. So time to de-mystify that.

  • Nate

    As an evolutionary biologist and a long time dog owner I can honestly saw that I am constantly intrigued and surprised when observing and interacting with my dog. Knowing the “inner workings” and true motivations of my dog does not diminish my love for him in the least.

    As for the tummy rub question a dominant dog will nibble and nudge the belly of a submissive dog that rolls over and shows it’s belly. So the concept of rolling over and receiving some form of tactile stimulation/contact is not uncommon. Your hand rubbing the tummy of a dog is no different than another dog nudging or nibbling their tummy. Evolutionarily speaking the receiving dog doesn’t care if it is a rubbing hand of a human or a nudge from another dog’s nose…

  • Tim

    I grew up with cats and never thought I’d own a dog until my wife and I adopted a Shiba Inu we named Yuki a couple months ago. It has been a life-changing, perhaps a life-evolving experience, as I now find myself completely head over heels for the new addition to our home.

    In Brooklyn, nobody really talks to their neighbors, but with our new puppy, we have become part of a circle of animal lovers and have befriended most of our block and the surrounding areas. I walk Yuki around and people come up to me and say hi, ask to pet her, and often know our dog by name. Our little puppy has made so many people around us happy and broken down the barriers between worlds that keep people separate and alone. Never mind all the love she gives us directly from one moment to the next!

    I never thought of myself as a dog lover — more a cat person, until Yuki opened up my eyes. Learning to communicate with her has been a challenge of course but we found a puppy school that has taught us a lot how to read her signals. Although she can’t speak, her noises, her little growls, the way she walks and the looks she gives us often clearly tell us what she wants or needs.

  • Madhulika

    Look at the puppy/dog play groups. THEY ARE AWESOME. It has made our puppy so happy to spend an hour a day with other dogs. And it has changed how he feels, and how WE feel for the rest of the day.

  • Chris Johnson

    It amazes me that my dog will come tell me when it’s 6:00 pm. She gets her dinner at 6:00 and invariably comes to let us know that it’s time. Almost without exception, it is within 5 minutes of 6:00.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Great show Tom and Alexandra. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I don’t even have a dog. I’d love to hear a similar show on cats.

  • Fabian

    The “alpha” concept is misunderstood. Alpha dogs are merely leaders, the dog that other dogs look to for leadership. Other dogs either accept or challenge their leadership. Alphas need not be aggressive in the least, merely confident and consistent.

    Confident and consistent – that should be the take home message for any dog owner.

  • http://27SeaverStreet,Wellesley,Ma Jeanne Mayell

    Here’s a remarkable story of how a dog saved a newborn baby’s life. It was a home birth. The baby came out of the womb not breathing. The (certified) nurse midwives were doing everything they were trained to do to get this baby breathing. Meanwhile the family dog was circling the bed wimpering and trying to butt in between the frantic people. Suddenly the dog burst through and began licking the baby all over. The baby began to breathe and today a healthy young woman. Of course, anyone who’s attended a dog or cat birth has seen the mother lick their babies all over. (The parents told us this story a few years later when we met them at a small dinner party.)

  • Fabian

    The dog “midwife” may well have been a livestock guardian dog. It’s not always easy to know if you have an LGD, but the surest sign is a complete fascination with infants of any kind. LGDs not only guard herd animals, but they will reliably clean newborns and are compelled to investigate any young animal. My dog alarmed more than one parent when he stuck his nose into strollers to check out their baby. Only babies, though. Toddlers were of no interest to him.

  • Seralee

    The doctor explained an experiment she conducted trying to measure whether dogs felt ‘guilt’ when their owners were scolding them for eating treats when they were instructed Not to do so. Another commenter here also cited this, saying the owners hadn’t been correctly appraised of their dog’s misbehaving. What a ridiculous and flawed experiment!!
    First of all you’re misleading the dog who is obviously confused for being scolded without cause – dogs aren’t stupid, they learn from habit and experience. They are capable of realizing wrong doing and when confronted with contrary behavior by their owners, no wonder they behave in a reflexive manner of contrition and confusion. I’m sorry, but the credibility of this psychologist went out the window when she talked about this inane experiment of hers as it proved nothing except calling your pet on the carpet for doing something they didn’t do…

  • Mitch Rothenberg

    True story. About 35 years ago I was working security for a concert promoter at a Grateful Dead concert. The stage manager from Vermont had a German Shepherd with him. At about 1:00 in the afternoon he walked around the stadium with the dog. He looked directly at the dog and said “Everyone here is okay. No one new. And no uniforms.” I swear, throughout the day, sound crew, union workers, hangers on, whoever had been cleared by the command could walk in and out of the security perimeter and the dog just lay there. Any one new, the dog stood alert and barked. And no uniformed personnel could get by without the dog raising an alarm.

  • Sara

    I have a female newfoundland, whom I adore. She is smart and the most gentle creature I have ever met. There is something she does that I have always wondered about… Whenever someone comes into our house, she gives them a “present.” Usually it is a shoe, but a hat or dog toy will also suffice. When I come home, she woowoo’s at me, gives me a sniff and goes through my legs. But then she is totally fixated on finding something to offer me. Does anyone think they know why dogs do this?

  • Taerie

    Came into this program late so I couldn’t call in but I read the Time article online so I know what is being said. I am not a behaviorist but I have worked and played with dogs and they are an important part of my life. I have to disagree often with the experts that seem to be seeking to impress with oversimplification.

    It is the dogs who end up misunderstood at the end of it by people who buy everything the next “expert’ says.
    The bottom line is that no one dog is much like the next. Like all intelligent, social animals they are all individuals and anyone who tells you that all dogs do that or pretend that they have all the answers for every dog is wrong.

    I have had mostly “soft” dogs my whole life. Breeds do have tendencies to be certain ways although this again is never a hard rule. Collies and Irish Wolfhounds tend to be the easy going cooperative and non confrontational types.. Now I have a Corgi and all that I learned with the dogs before went out the window. This dog pays close attention to dog rules and if you are not in the dominant position he will try to assume it. What I am saying is that the way I approach dealing with the Corgi HAS to be quite different. Cesar Milan could work with this dog. He would have been VERY over the top extreme for my last Wolfhound.
    It also sounds as if they are trying to say that when a dog or puppy licks your face he is trying to get a meal out of it. I believe that your dog would be very surprised if you puked for him. (pleasantly so probably.) If you believe that he is kissing you you are much closer to the truth than the current experts seem to be. The licking may have evolved from the wolf pack puppy thing.. but it has become a social bonding ritual over time.. much like the play bow behavior that a dog does probably evolved from getting up and stretching. It means. “Lets go!” It doesn’t mean “I need to stretch.”

    The experiment with scolding a dog drew the wrong conclusions as well. If a dog is only behaving in a submissive way he knows will deflect wrath with no sense that he has done wrong then why is it that you can walk into a room with no idea that he has torn up your shoe and be tipped off by the guilty way he acts before you have any idea a crime has been committed?
    I need to see better reasoning behind the conclusions that I am seeing presented as “fact” before I give any credence to these particular researchers.

  • Susan Olsen

    Why do some dogs eat their own poop? I never experienced this til adopting two dachshund pups a few months ago – one of whom often eats his own poop and sometimes his brother’s. Why?

  • Putney Swope

    Good question Susan. My dog is the opposite, he wont even walk on it when we are out and will jump over it high grass if he comes to across it.

    I also think that all dogs can be trained to stop bad behavior if their owners have the will and patience to follow through.

    Our dog can use some more training, but we did train him to sit before he can eat. Now he’s does this naturally without asking most of the time.

    My wife gets him to do all sorts of tricks before he can have his food. Food is the best way to train dogs from what I have read. They seem to focus when a treat is in front of their noses.

  • Ruth

    I rescued a Mini dapple long haired dachshund, whose function was breeding, after which she was in five different homes. I find her ‘submission peeing’ to be her biggest hurdle to overcome, and would love feedback. I plan to give her a ‘forever home’.

  • Fabian

    The german shepherd story is a great example of what guarding breeds are/should be capable of if they haven’t had the brains bred out of them. Breeding for conformation gives beautiful dogs, but if you don’t breed for intelligence and temperament, you may end up with a gorgeous dog that is stupid and bad tempered – and useless.

  • Putney Swope

    Ruth I would find a professional trainer who knows how to deal with dogs with problems. Ask your Vet they sometimes have list of trainers. It means spending money, but if you love the animal this should not be an issue.

    All dogs want to please their masters.

  • Fabian

    “All dogs want to please their masters.”

    Perhaps “All dogs want their master’s attention.” is more accurate. The less responsive breeds will not wait on their master’s every whim, but will pursue their own interests instead. Hunting dogs will hunt, guarding dogs with guard, watch dogs will watch, and so on. Dogs which are very devoted to their jay-oh-bees can be quite challenging to get to respond to do what their masters want them to do, especially when their masters want to do it. A running joke for livestock guardian dogs is that they don’t come when called, but take a message and get back to you.

    The key to training these dogs is early, consistent training with emphasis on positive reinforcement. Don’t rely on food treats because some dogs won’t respond to them. The books are written for the Average Dog and I was fortunate to have a dog that was beyond average.

  • Putney Swope

    Fabian my dog responds well to treats. I went to a good trainer and he said most dogs will respond to threats.

    He now responds to me without treats. It’s called conditioning. That’s how you train a dog with a lot of repetition and positive reinforcement.

    I hate to disagree with you, but not all dogs fit into neat little boxes. For instance my dog was adopted at about 2 or 3. We had no idea what happened to him in his early life. But he did have some trauma. For instance anytime you raise your voice in an agitated fashion he get’s upset no matter the context. He is a very well behaved dog, in fact I wonder what he did to end up on doggy death row.

    The other thing many people do is make mistakes in the kinds of dogs they get. For instance a lot of small breeds such as Jack Russell’s do not make very good apartment dogs. They have a lot of energy and need a lot of stimulus. Grey hounds are great for apartments as they sleep a lot, and are quite docile.

  • Putney Swope

    “All dogs want their master’s attention.” If you don’t pay attention to your dog you don’t deserve to have one.

    They are social animals and need a lot of interaction.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Alexandra took quite a bit of heat about her experiment and thoughts about dog guilt/shame, and since I brought it up, I’ll say I was satisfied that she laid it out on air and said that “secondary emotions” are complex and hard to study, something like that. It is not good to be angry at a dog when it is not clear to the dog what the offense is; even to one who speaks the language, it is confusing.
    I’d like to say that when we heard that dogs are not meant to be left alone for long stretches, other than to sleep, I thought of a puppy dalmatian that lived in an attic apartment above mine. Dalmatians are born to run, not sit home in the attic. And this dalmatian had three very active young men tending her. They all had multiple jobs and left that dog alone most of the day and early evening. The dog was a ventriloguist, a grand-opera singer of a ventriloquist. She howled for hours without ever repeating herself, howled with intensity and passion and expressiveness to rival anything, and a policewoman who finally came to help me (I called a few times; this went on for weeks) identify where the drama was going on could not figure out where it was coming from either. I met the dog a year later, a very docile dog, very friendly, happy to run all over town with her owners.

  • Louise

    Cats are far more intelligent than dogs, I’ve never seen a cat eat it’s own vomit like dogs do. People who own cats are also more affluent and better educated than dog owners, that’s why I own a cat and not a dog.

  • Putney Swope

    Louise next your going to say cats are republicans.

    That’s the biggest load of nonsense. Cat’s have a different kind of intelligence which is not very easy to test as they don’t do much. By the way my dog does not eat his own vomit. I use to own a cat that did, so much for that theory.

    People who own cats are more affluent and better educated than dog owners? Where do you come up with this stuff.

    The late Ted Kennedy was very well educated and extremely wealthy and he owned dogs. Come to think of it I think Albert Einstein owned a dog, so much for that theory.

    Never seen a cat rescue anyone from a burning house or sniff out explosives or drugs.

  • gina

    Louise, you’re hilarious! I always laugh at your comments, but today you’ve outdone yourself.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Last time I went down the street, I heard a lady walking a small dog say to it, quite loud, “Don’t eat that; it’s poop.” Everybody on the street except the dog would understand the words. I’m not sure about the dog.
    My father hated cats. We babysat a cat one week, whom he named “Cat,” and it was a kitten actually. It jumped up on the counter, onto the gas stove, and burned the end of its tail. It never recovered. So much for cat smarts. Or is it that our family prejudice caused its stupidity.
    I’d say cats don’t think with their hearts. Dogs do.
    Maybe Alexandra Horowitz is the sort of researcher to sort these things out, and then the Republicans can be at peace with the Democrats too. LOL

  • Joseph

    We also had a West Highland terrier that did the television watching thing. Of course, everyone said it was just the sound or the motion, but one of the things that made him attack the television was when someone held up a poster of a dog on Antiques Roadshow.
    He liked watching a variety of things, sometimes just sitting in front of the TV watching the news. But anything with an animal drove him wild, and we would have to turn it off (which infuriated him). None of our other dogs would watch, but would bark at him when he barked at the television.

  • Cecilia

    They said that dogs have evolved to be compatible with humans. Does that then mean that humans have evolved as a result of living with dogs?

  • mike b

    A few years back i had a gold lab/rott mix. when we were living with my aunt, every day 15 mins before she got home from work he would sit in the picture window and wait for her. now, some days my aunt would not want to cook and would stop and pick up some chinese food or mcd’s whatever. no rhyme or reason to when she would be late coming home. didnt matter. 15 min before she got home he would go to the window. the dog was never wrong about this.

  • Putney Swope

    Cecilia it’s quite fascinating how wolfs evolved into dogs. There are some scientist and animal behaviorist that have come up with a theory that wolves became domesticated, or dogs in a about one or two generations.
    It was a give and take relationship. They had something humans wanted, acute hearing, smelling abilities and our ancestors had something they wanted, food.

    So they became early human hunting companions and guard dogs. After that I suspect the next kind of dog breed was herding dogs. This must have came about as humans went from hunter gathers to herding and agricultural subsistence. There is a excellent documentary on how we humans bred dogs using different traits of wolves.
    For instance Border Collies use stalking to herd sheep, but were trained not to kill them.

    Louise is a hoot, dogs smarter than cats, that’s a laugh.

  • Lauren McKenney

    Alexandra,

    Thank you for a terrific hour.

    I find the journey into the minds of our furry friends always fascinating. All too often I see dog owners humanize their canines. I strongly feel it is our repsonsibility to learn more about our best friends, as if we understand them better we can be better best friends to them in return.

  • Tony Scialdone

    Great show, Tom. Thanks. We have a 12-year-old female Sheltie who marks (pees on some other dog’s “spot”) a lot, like a typical male. Is this common?

  • P

    Tony my dog does this as well, I think it has to do with wanting to claim the turf and marking it with their smell.

  • Kasee Story

    By chance I happened upon this wonderful broadcast with cognitive psychologist, Alexandra Horowitz. I shared some of her findings with my psychology students while lecturing this week, which was relevant to our discussion on “sensation and perception”. Many of my students share my love for dogs and were equally fascinated to learn more about a dog’s visual system and superior sense of smell, thanks to the laboring efforts of Ms. Horwitz in her research with canines. I also shared Ms. Horowitz’s findings with my husband who is a veterinarian. I have just ordered Ms. Horowitz’s book and can’t wait to share more with my flock. I’m sure my fuzzy little adorable pups, Chloe and Rascal, will also benefit from my exploration. Thank you for highlighting this topic on your show!

    Kasee Story

  • BC

    My dog went through a poop-eating period — the vet said it was a normal reaction to some kind of nutrient deficiency, and told us to put Accent on her food for a while. I think he also may have given us something in a bottle for her. She went back to normal (for her!) in a couple weeks.

    Never could get her to refrain from attacking the neighbors’ garbage cans though. When caught, she would seem to laugh in an embarrassed way. Unfortunately, most people thought her laugh seemed more appropriate to a hyena; people were sometimes a bit scared by it.

  • BC

    (“Accent” as in MSG, I should have said. I don’t know if it’s a standard prescription for poop-eating dogs.)

  • Putney Swope

    Hyena’s are not related to dogs. Hyenas bear some physical resemblance to canids, they make up a separate biological family that is most closely related to Herpestidae (the family of mongooses and meerkats), thereby falling within the Feliformia. From Wikipedia.

    Your dog sounds like Dick Dastardly’s dog Muttley.

    My dog eats grass which the vet said is related to something missing in his diet. He likes cucumber and squash so I have started to feed him this and he stopped eating grass as much as use to. He also loves apples.

  • Toby the Schnauzer

    Regarding your aspirations, and affectations, fine.  But I’ll buy your argument on intelligence when I see cats used for rescue purposes, bomb & drug detection, and helping the handicapped.

    Until then, I love cats, they taste like chicken. – Toby the Schnauzer

  • curious

    What a fascinating point to consider.  We have a wire fox terrier who we worked hard to socialize very early to strangers, children, dogs & (our) cats.  He loves meeting new people and dogs (& would love to meet cats but they strangely do not reciprocate his enthusiasm).
    But he’s just nutty about babies.
    He doesn’t have to go up to them, he’s content to worship from afar.  Clearly, though, just seeing a baby really makes his day.
    I thought maybe it was that babies smelled like food?  Never considered a hard-wired protection function.  He would love to lick them but we try to keep him for overwhelming people.  He thinks he’s Mr. Irrestible to dogs & humans everywhere.
    He doesn’t prefer puppies over dogs, but babies really send him.

    • curious

      That would be “from” overwhelming people.  Sigh.

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