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I’ve always had a soft spot for old dogs. The gray muzzles and cloudy eyes get to me every time. One of my own dogs, Rocky, a rescued Pug/Chihuahua mix, is quite elderly at around 14 years of age. He recently had a couple of major seizures and became completely paralyzed from the neck down. A day of intensive care at the vet gave a poor prognosis. He did not seem to be in pain so I made the sad decision to bring him home for the family to say good-bye and then have the vet come to our home the next day.
Strangely, Rocky was coherent and did not seem upset about his predicament. I turned him every few hours and offered water which he lapped with help. The next morning I propped him up and offered a little breakfast which he managed to eat. I then took him out and held him up by his favorite bush where he peed before I settled him back on his cushy bed. I held off on calling the vet since he seemed comfortable. To my great joy, over the next several weeks he regained most of his function and returned to his previous frisky, happy self, even racing on the beach again.
Each day with Rocky is a blessing but I see many elderly dogs, in the course of my work as an animal control officer, who are not so lucky. They sit in shelters, unwanted and unloved. It’s heartbreaking to see these old souls peering through the chain link at the world or sleeping the day away alone.
Old dogs deserve to spend their last days snug in a cozy bed, getting their ears scratched and having walks and playtime with someone who loves them. I often foster shelter dogs who need some care before going to a forever home. Usually these are moms with litters, orphaned pups or dogs needing some behavior modification. I recently fostered two darling seniors who were left behind in a foreclosed home. Maggie the Beagle and McKenzie the Chihuahua sat forlornly at the shelter, day after day. They had a heated floor, cushy blankets and good food but they were depressed and overlooked on the adoption floor.
Maggie at maybe 10 years old, was overweight and grouchy with dogs other than McKenzie. Little McKenzie, who was probably closer to 15 years old, was tiny, underweight and very frail. She was also prone to nip if startled. The volunteers and staff adored them and I promoted them shamelessly to my friends and on Facebook but still no takers.
Finally I packed up the two old girls and took them home to foster. I have four dogs of my own so it was a challenge with Maggie’s dog issues and I worried about fragile McKenzie in my busy household. One wrong footstep from my Great Dane would probably kill her. Still, I made it work.
I fell in love with the two sweet old girls and the judicious use of X-pens and separate dog yards kept everyone safe and happy. Maggie’s issues improved as she settled in and tiny McKenzie especially stole my heart. Had it just been her, I would have kept her in a heartbeat. The two were incredibly bonded though and after all they had been through I couldn’t bear to split them up. They were actually pretty easy and after a month or so I found a delightful home for them with a sweet woman who had seen them on the web. I dripped sappy tears of joy as I watched them drive away.
A month or two later I ran into them at the beach. Maggie and her adopter had both lost a few pounds and looked fabulous, while little McKenzie had gained muscle and was stronger. All three looked incredibly happy which made my day.
It’s on my life’s list to adopt an old dog someday, after Rocky passes and my younger dogs settle down. I want to bring in some old, neglected dog and pamper them for whatever time they have left. Sure they aren’t going to be around as long but people are starting to understand how much easier they can be and the rewards of adopting them. For some people who can’t make a 10 or 15 year commitment, it’s a perfect fit to give a dog the life they deserve for a few months to a few years.
I would love to hear from readers who have fostered and adopted old dogs. Share with us the joys and difficulties of bringing a senior pet into your home.
June 28 to 30—streaming live
SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden and Patti Howard of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training. From June 28-30, 2013, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action—either in a conference hall in Redmond, WA, or streaming live to your living room.
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the goals of the conference: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science.
Canine Science? Explain
If the phrase “Canine Science” gives you pause, I assure you it does not imply that dogs are meeting in the park to discuss the current issues of the day, such as:
- Owner Responses to Half Eaten Sandwiches: A Review
- Why Does the Cat Run Around at Night?: A Roundtable Discussion
- Where Are They Taking Our Poo?
Canine Science, generally speaking, is research devoted to the biology, ecology, behavior and cognition of dogs, wolves and related canids. It is a catch-all phrase that highlights the surge of research into canine minds and experiences. My article in The Bark, Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind, describes this field in more detail. SPARCS brings together the following leading researchers to discuss their inquiry into the dog for a general audience:
Marc Bekoff is a long-time researcher and writer of more than 500 scientific and popular essays. In a book store? Check out one of his twenty-two books, including Minding Animals and the children’s book Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. He regularly updates a Psychology Today Blog, Animal Emotions: Do animals think and feel?
- Bekoff on dogs and their urine: Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.
- Bekoff on play: Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids.
Ray Coppinger has published over fifty papers on dog research. His favorite publication, however, is the book Fishing Dogs, a humorous and iconoclastic look at dogs, fishermen and professors. His book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, is a classic text in the field.
- Coppinger on different behavioral sequences between dogs: Degree of behavioral neoteny differentiates canid polymorphs.
- Coppinger on improving assistance dog training programs: Observations on assistance dog training and use.
Michael W. Fox wears many hats. He is a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in medicine, and he also holds a degree in animal behavior (ethology). His career encompasses extensive research into dog behavior and development as well as holistic and integrative veterinary medicine. He encourages veterinary institutions to incorporate animal behavior and welfare science into their curricula.
- Fox on dog development during the first month of life: The postnatal development of neocortical neurons in the dog.
Alexandra Horowitz’s current research at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College investigates animal communication and attention, dog olfaction, inter-species play behavior, theory of mind and anthropomorphisms.* She writes regularly for The New York Times, and her best-selling book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is essential.
- Horowitz on attention during dog-dog play: Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play.
- Horowitz on the “guilty look” in dogs: Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.
Kathryn Lord received her PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology, which of course means she studies wolf pups. Her research focuses on the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior.
- Lord on sensory development of wolves and dogs: A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).
- Lord on the meaning of dog barks: Barking and mobbing.
Adam Miklósi leads the Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös
Loránd University in Budapest, where I had the pleasure of conducting my Masters research (covered on SciAm by Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal). In the last 15 years, the Family Dog Project research group has published over 100 scientific papers and organized the inaugural Canine Science Forum in 2008. His book, Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition is required reading in canine ethology.
- Miklósi on the building blocks of meaningful social interactions: On the utilization of social animals as a model for social robotics.
- Miklósi on other species’ use of human communicative gestures: A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture.
Monique Udell has worked with a variety of species such as wild cats, megachiropteran bats, coyotes, foxes, mice, non-human primates and a range of companion animals including dogs, cats, and ferrets. She has a special interest in how the cognition and behavior of domestic dogs and wolves can be altered by lifetime experience.
- Udell on dog sensitivity to human behaviors: What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions.
Before Clive Wynne found a way to combine a childhood fascination with dogs with his day job as a psychology professor, he studied the behavior of animals ranging from pigeons to dunnarts (a mouse-sized marsupial) at universities in Britain, Germany, the USA, and Australia. Now head of the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory, he is full of tales of everything from the tame foxes of Siberia to the dogs of the Moscow subway.
- Wynne on anthropomorphism: What are animals? Why anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior.
- Wynne on the relationship between companion dogs and children: The other side of the bond: Domestic dogs’ human-like behaviors.
So, What’s This Conference About?
The SPARCS conference investigates dogs from three angles: “Origins in the Wild,” “Social Behavior and Emotions” and finally “Cognition and Development.”
Origins in the wild
“It is widely accepted that dogs are descended from wolves, but that is about the only uncontroversial fact about the origins of dogs…. I have come to a new proposal for the origin of dogs.” Clive Wynne
“In my presentation I shall talk about the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) – beastly passions – and how they very much care about how we treat them.” Marc Bekoff
“The modern wolf and the modern dog diverged into their present forms, sometime, somewhere, and somehow. We should discuss those when, where, and how questions.” Ray Coppinger
Social Behavior and Emotions
“I shall also talk about why play has evolved – what it is “good for” and why it is very important that we come to terms with the details of what animals do when they play.” Marc Bekoff
“So the basic question is: What makes a dog skillful for living in the anthropogenic [human] environment, and whether we can claim that there is a parallel between some of the behavioral skills of dogs and those of humans?” Ádám Miklósi
“Dogs are socially and emotionally promiscuous and, given the right conditions, can form attachments to members of many other species.” Clive Wynne
Cognition and Development
“How the dog’s brain and behavior develop is integral to our understanding of critical and sensitive periods in helping facilitate a strong social bond and in enhance learning/trainability, emotional stability and stress & disease resistance.” Michael W. Fox
“[W]e must be careful not to forget the true diversity of the domestic dog population, or assume that the sum is more representative than its parts. Indeed, it is at the fringes of the species where we often discover examples of amazing cognitive feats, or hidden canine capacities unveiled by unique environmental or experiential contexts.” Monique Udell
“First, I aim to highlight and examine the attributions we unthinkingly make to dogs. Second, I use findings about the biology and cognition of dogs to create a better picture of the dog’s experience: the umwelt, or point of view.” Alexandra Horowitz
What About My Living Room?
Because SPARCS aims to make continuing education accessible, the conference will be broadcast live and free of charge: “As long as you have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, everyone will be able to watch our broadcast from anywhere in the world.”**
SPARCS plans to be a yearly conference, so keep it on your radar!
on Social Media
SPARCS on Facebook
SPARCS on Twitter
All photos courtesy of SPARCS
** SPARCS adds, “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated. If you watched our event online and enjoyed it, consider donating to SPARCS.”
Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind at The Bark
Inside the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.
Yes, If a Proposed Amtrak Bill Passes!
Wouldn’t it be nice to travel with your canine companion on Amtrak, just as passengers with pets on airplanes are allowed to do?
A bi-partisan bill has been submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives that would start the process of allowing dogs and cats to travel on Amtrak.
Short and sweet, the Pets on Trains Act of 2013—co-sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.)—would require Amtrak to submit a proposal for allowing pets on at least one car of each passenger train. Just as with airline travel, the bill requires Amtrak’s plan to allow pets to travel as carry-on luggage in a passenger car, in a pet kennel that meets Amtrak’s stowage size requirements, with passengers traveling less than 750 miles. The bill also requires Amtrak to provide a proposal for pets to be carried as cargo, which—while not as pleasant for the pet as riding in the passenger car—would allow larger animals to travel by train without many of the risks of traveling as cargo on an airliner.
Each sponsor of the bill confesses self-interest in seeing the bill become law. Denham’s dog Lily regularly travels with him to and from California. Cohen considers pets to be family members who should be allowed to travel with their owners on trains, rather than left at home.
Let your representative and congressperson know you support this bill.
The more I consider the continuing debate over the “time” and “place” for the transformation of wolf into dog, the more I become convinced that the puzzle remains unsolved because of human devotion to a simplistic, clever-sounding idea that never made sense in the first place. As first put forth by Raymond Coppinger, that idea was that wolves feeding on the garbage piles of quasi-permanent Mesolithic villages grew tamer over the course of generations until they no longer feared or threatened humans. In the process of taming themselves, those wolves also became less fearful of and aggressive toward humans. They were cute, too. For reasons that were never clear to me, people took these cute obsequious dump divers into their homes, where they blossomed into dogs.
Coppinger pinned his argument on Dmitry Belyaev’s experiment, begun in 1959, at a Siberian fur farm, in which a group of foxes was bred for tameness alone and within ten generations was producing foxes that resembled dogs with floppy ears, piebald coats, and a high need for attention. They were juvenilized in behavior as well as appearance.
There are a number of reasons why the foxes are not a good model for origins of the dog, and I have elsewhere addressed them in detail. For now, suffice it to say that dogs arose not in quasi-permanent Mesolithic villages but in Paleolithic hunting camps. They were not sought nor selected because they solicited attention and showed no aggression—these are hardly traits of a good guard, which was one of the tasks of early dogs. Guarding remains a major reason why people keep dogs.
But the greatest problem with the self-domesticating theory is that it shuts the most creative creature on the planet out of the process. To put it bluntly, that makes no sense. Humans have always collected, tamed, and trained animals. It is inconceivable that they would ignore one as intelligent and inquisitive as the wolf.
Genomics and its offspring have shown that living organisms are not biological machines but energetic systems supported by layers of complexification. Genomics has also contributed to a more dynamic view of “domestication” as a process involving the interplay of biological, environmental, and cultural forces. The hard line between “domestic” and “wild” –always imaginary but not less real for that—has for the dog become increasingly difficult to find despite the distortions that define the current period of breedism. I am using “breedism” to refer to all aspects of the cult of the purebred dog that began to take hold about 200 years ago. Of course, there are significant differences between dogs and wolves, when they are in their own environments, but what happens when the dog goes native or the wolf becomes a lay-about?
It sometimes appears that every new find simply raises new questions while leaving old ones unresolved. That trend is apparent in two new papers by Ya-ping Zhang, a leading Chinese geneticist, who collaborated with geneticists from China and two different labs in Sweden and California on two new papers promoting Chinese indigenous dogs—native or village dogs—as the closest dogs to the ancient type.
Working with Peter Savolainen, of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, Zhang has over the past decade or so insisted that dogs originated in southeast China no earlier than 16,000 years ago, and many researchers elsewhere adopted his argument despite the notable absence of dog or wolf remains from that region at that date and the presence of dog remains from other places considerably earlier.
The researchers redid the numbers using new chips that spot changes in the genome including so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, and indels—insertions or deletions of small amounts of genetic material. SNPs and indels can be used to measure degrees or years of separation of discrete groups of organisms. Crunching the numbers and running regression analyses, they found that southeast China village dogs separated from wolves 32,000 years ago. There were a lot of them by then, too, they reported in an article in Nature Communications [subscription required], with Guo-dong Wang and Weiwei Zhai as first authors and Zhang as senior author—8,500 dogs by their estimate.
The new date fits nicely with some “early dogs” identified from the Altai Mountains, Belgium and the Czech Republic, although Zhang and his colleagues are not quite willing to admit that those animals are dogs. In fact, they appear to want to deal with the early date by using it to mark the beginning of a long period of self-domestication for a group of scavenging protodogs.
Zhang’s group declares: “Early wolves might have been domesticated as scavengers that were attracted to live and hunt commensally with humans. With successive adaptive changes, these scavengers became progressively more prone to human custody. In light of this view, the domestication process might have been a continuous dynamic process, where dogs with extensive human contact were derived from these scavengers much latter [sic] when humans began to adopt an agricultural life style.”
The operative words here are “commensally” and “scavenger.” Together, they say that wolves were drawn to human garbage or some other waste and so started hanging around and hunting with them but without having a discernable effect or bringing them any benefit—thus, the term “commensally”—until the biped started farming. Then the scavengers showed their true worth as crossover omnivores and became dogs.
That is not complex, but it is convoluted. At a basic level, it is not clear why protodogs could not have arrived in southeastern China from the Altai Mountain region, for example, where the people who would come to enter the New World and spread through much of the Old World as the glaciers began to retreat, had gathered, presumably with dogs some 35,000 years ago. A population of dogs and people could easily have gotten to southeast China and radiated outward from there. The much trumpeted diversity of dogs in the region could be a result not of their origins there but an accident of geography and history, including intensive breeding of dogs for food and a settlement pattern that featured many small riverine villages along the Yangtze River, one of the world’s largest.
Zhang’s defense for the lack of wolves in southeast China is that wolf populations have changed everywhere, and so no one has an ancestral wolf for study and comparison. But the Chinese indigenous dogs and a couple of related breeds, are the dogs closest genetically to wolves, and that makes them all the more important as living artifacts, Zhang and his team reason. Specifically, they looked for genetic loci that might show positive selection pressure in dogs and humans and therefor might represent parallel evolution in the two species. The genes they identified as likely candidates are involved in diet, specifically the ability to digest grains; metabolism; cancer and neurological processes, especially some involving the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
Zhang is also corresponding author with Dong-Dong Wu, both of the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Kunming, China, on a Molecular Biology and Evolution paper involving the laboratory of Robert K. Wayne, dean of canid evolutionary biologists, and several of the next generation of dog geneticists who have already published important work—Bridgett vonHoldt and Adam Boyko. They were especially focused on the prefrontal cortex and on parts of the brain that appear involved in fear response and sociability.
I say “sociability”, but, following Zhang’s lead, the researchers on these pages say “tameness,” while continuing to cling to the Soviet fox experiment as evidence that the dog was self domesticating, becoming obsequious and ingratiating and nonaggressive while eating garbage and offal. Standard descriptions of this work are abundant, and I won’t repeat them here. But it is fair to say that grand pronouncements about the working of the brain must be treated cautiously.
Most of these searches for genes involved in the transformation of wolves to dogs are based on at least two significant, faulty assumptions about the behavior of dogs and wolves. The first faulty assumption Is that wolves are now, and were in the late Pleistocene, aggressive competitors with humans. There is evidence documenting not only friendly but also mutually beneficial relationships of humans and wolves going back thousands of years. There are suggestive associations of wolf and Homo erectus remains going back hundreds of thousands of years.
The second faulty assumption is that a group of wolves effectively said to humans, “Because we like your leavings so much, we will stop vying with you and aggressing against you. We will be abject before you if you will give us excretia to eat because we cannot live by ourselves.” The question I always ask is, would you want such a creature in your house, in your bed? That is unlikely. This assumption is faulty because there is no evidence that wolves generically dislike or even fear humans. The global wolf recovery with wolves living in ever closer proximity to humans proves that wrong. It is humans who hate wolves.
That wolves and humans, similar as they are in so many ways, should make common cause, should surprise no one. Hunters study hunters. Species cooperate. It would be more aberrant if they did not. Coral groupers, Napoleon wrasse, and moray eels were recently shown to hunt cooperatively, for example. Around the world, hunting cultures had dogs that often interbred with, sometimes were indistinguishable from wolves. In the New World and elsewhere that situation was contemporaneous with the rise of multiple refined breeds in the Anglo-English speaking world.
In a real sense, then, what we call domestication of the wolf was really a rolling and flexible bringing into human culture of wolves who had the psychological and emotional capacity for sociability, for forming strong bonds not just with another individual but also with another species.
Some years ago Adam Miklosi and his colleagues compared hand reared wolves to dogs. The lengthening of the first critical socialization period and a greatly increased capacity to form strong bonds to another species were clearly central to the appearance of the dog, they concluded.
Yet for all of their problems, these two new studies are useful for their focus on indigenous dogs, the landrace dogs who although they might have several uses are generally not bred by humans to any purpose, but who still live, reproduce, and die in human society. How ancient or basic these dogs are is not really known. But they are found around the world, and I think that comparative studies of them and resident wolves and truly self-sustaining feral dogs, where they still exist, will prove most interesting. The same applies to comparison of DNA from ancient dogs and wolves. We do not yet see them clearly.
This article first appeared on Dog’s Best Friend at Psychology Today, it is used with persmission.
Mark Derr is the author of six books, ranging from Some Kind of Paradise, an environmental history of Florida, How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America. As an expert on the subject of dogs, he has been a guest on such programs as The Charlie Rose Show and Fresh Air. His articles and opinion pieces have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Huffinton Post, Natural History, The Bark, Smithsonian and The New York Times. He lives in Miami Beach, Florida.
Erica Feuerbacher smiles when she talks, and why shouldn’t she? As a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida with the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab, she spends a lot of time with dogs (or at least dogs in the form of data). Through her research, she meets many, many, many dogs, some of whom live in animal shelters. This is the story of her latest research and a special subject named Raleigh.
What do you want from me?
Feuerbacher’s research investigates dog preference for different types of human social interactions, or simply put: What do dogs want from us, and under what conditions do they want it? For example, your dog might happily hang out with someone doling out hotdogs, but is your dog also likely to spend time with someone offering petting only and no hotdogs?
In Feuerbacher’s latest study, shelter dogs and owned dogs were put to the test to see whether they chose petting or food. Because dogs, being dogs, often prefer food when readily available, the researchers ran an experiment with multiple sessions where food became more and more scarce.
Feuerbacher wondered, “If food’s not available, will dogs shift their preference to the person who’s offering petting, hang out with nobody at all or continue to hang out with the person who had been giving out food but has stopped?”
During a 1-minute pre-exposure period, dogs learned that one experimenter gave out food while another gave out petting. Then, dogs had 5 minutes to spend time with whomever they chose, and they could move back and forth freely.
Petting or Food?
Many shelter dogs and all owned dogs had an initial preference for the person giving out food. But in sessions where food was not available, many shelter dogs spent time with the person offering petting. When food again became available, dogs almost always went back to the person with food.
Some of the shelter dogs initially showed a preference for the person doing the petting, not the person giving out food (although, eventually, they all opted for food). As you might imagine, dogs in animal shelters are frequently deprived of human interaction, so it isn’t all that surprising that shelter dogs would opt to spend time with people when given the chance. Alternatively, owned dogs initially went for the food person and stayed with the food person, even when food became more scarce. Owned dogs have ready access to petting from their loving owners (raise your hand if you are petting a dog right now), but food is not always available.
Raleigh, a mutt who had been picked up as a stray, was game for any interaction with humans. As the graph shows, when food was available (triangle), Raleigh was all over it, but when food stopped, Raleigh was all about the petting (circle) — he was quick to say, “bye bye food person,” and “hello petting person!” And when food came back into circulation, he was more than happy to accept.
“He’s a food type of guy, but he’s also a petting type of guy” Feuerbacher explains. In the session where dogs were exposed to continuous petting but food was doled out at 15-second intervals, Raleigh approached the food person. He waited about 8 seconds, and when he didn’t receive any food, he then went to the petting person, where he remained for the rest of the session. His social behavior was much more extensive than a lot of dogs.”
When the study ended, Feuerbacher kept an eye on Raleigh at the animal shelter. When he still hadn’t been adopted after 2 months, Raleigh joined the ranks as a foster dog in Feuerbacher’s home, where he now spends his time with three other dogs doing doggie things like waiting for food, snuggling on the couch and frolicking with his foster siblings. But he is also waiting for a home.
Raleigh is available for adoption through Phoenix Animal Rescue in Gainesville, Florida.
Raleigh, of course, has a Facebook page.
You can meet Raleigh this Saturday, May 18, 2013 at PetsMart in Gainesville, Florida.
Feuerbacher has good reason to smile when she talks about Raleigh: “I liked that he liked food because that helps with training. But I also liked that when food wasn’t available, he was really social. Everything he did was gentle. I just thought he was a really neat dog.”
Feuerbacher, E. N. & Wynne, C. D. L. Dogs’ preference for different types of human social interaction in a concurrent choice test. (In prep)
Images copyright E. Feuerbacher
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.
Jake's visits to the dog park ended when he bit off part of a Bulldog's ear. Jake, a black Lab-Pit Bull mix, belonged to a first-time dog-owner who reacted to his frequent aggressive behavior by saying, “Oh, Jakey, we don't do those things” in a high, sing-song voice. Jake's owner paid the $1000-plus bill for the Bulldog's surgery but the incident reflected the biggest problem with dog parks-and it isn't the dogs.
In 2010, the city of Cambridge, Mass. built a state-of-the-art fenced dog park close to our house. It has running water and bowls for the dogs, free biodegradable waste bag dispensers, and awning-covered benches for the owners. There are two smaller fenced areas, one for puppies and one marked “Time Out.”
At first, it was nirvana for dog-owning city-dwellers.
But as the number of visitors increased, the “Dog Park Rules” posted at the entrance were supplanted by the unwritten code “My Way Rules.” Some examples:
1. You must accommodate my dog's peccadilloes.
2. My dog is sick. Deal with it.
3. My dog is a studly guy. It's an honor for him to hump your dog. Or how about the owner who chuckled as she commented on the libido of her young 110-pound Bernese Mountain Dog while he relentlessly mounted much smaller dogs. Observers mentioned that his behavior was a sign of dominance, not sexual prowess. She looked annoyed and half-heartedly reprimanded him, without physically removing him from his victims. One of the objects of his supposed “affection” was a smaller dog whose rear legs collapsed under the weight of the young goliath.
4. I've got mail. I've got to check the Red Sox scores. Dog? What dog?
After avoiding the dog park for the past year, I recently walked my leashed dog on the paved path near its perimeter fence. I watched as a Weimaraner assumed “the position” near a knot of seven preoccupied owners and left a pile that could not be missed if anyone had been paying attention. Not a single person moved to clean it up.
Once again, the AKC is getting bad press. This time our leading authority on dogs stands accused of supporting, encouraging, or at least turning a blind eye to the illegal mass-production of sickly, traumatized animals for sale as pets in homes across the country. The only thing I find more annoying than the recent Today show interview is the AKC’s official response.
A carefully worded press release says Today “disregarded the important facts that should have been told.” But which “facts” are being “disregarded”?
The AKC wants to be seen as a poor, misunderstood victim of animal rights extremists like the Humane Society, award-winning scientists, and investigative journalists who forget to mention the AKC’s stellar achievements in “canine health research”—for health problems they themselves created by backing dogs into a genetic corner and endorsing items churned out like sausage links to set standards—approved and regulated by them—on shape, size, and color rather than health, temperament, or function.
The AKC suggests they’ve been minding their own business all these years like babes in the woods, that clients pay those registration fees to them “voluntarily,” and that they contribute to “kennel club inspections” (by a skeleton crew of just nine inspectors for the whole country). They also say there are, technically-speaking, no such entities as “AKC Registered Operations” or “AKC Registered Breeders”—because it’s a free country and nobody’s forcing anyone to seek the AKC’s imprimatur for those vast numbers of sickly, traumatized animals to be sold as pets?
The AKC implies it has a purely passive role, almost as an innocent bystander, in the current pedigree health crisis and puppy mill scandal. Meanwhile, they say they’ve taken a proactive role in “educational programs for responsible dog owners” who buy pitiful creatures wrapped in papers that seem more meaningless by the day.
“Facts” are easily missed or dismissed when someone’s playing word games, as in: “The belief that mixed breed or mongrel dogs are more vigorous, healthy, or well-adjusted than properly bred purebred dogs is a myth.” Of course there’s no guarantee that every or any one single dog will turn out healthy and balanced, but it’s a fact of nature that, on average and with vast numbers of AKC-registered puppy mill dogs tipping the equation, a tenth-generation mutt has better chances in life than a “purebred” or even a first-generation cross. Ask any evolutionary biologist. The fact is, and the AKC should know this because they write the grants that fund the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, the annual list of “Top Ten” breeds—which the AKC just happens to announce each year on the eve of Westminster and which they actively promote—is top-heavy with hip dysplasia and other musculoskeletal defects (and a long list of other health problems) in percentages far higher than the average dog and many breeds.
Minding their own business? The real “education” would be an exposé on the AKC’s training of legislative liaisons to get out there and play with words some more in courts across the country. Campaigns are under way to limit the legal definition of “puppy mill,” to protect the rights of breeders to keep inbreeding for as many defects as the show-ring judges demand, and to stack their products in cages for as long a shelf life as the law will allow. Compared to the AKC’s history of working against the interests of dogs and the people who love them, “DNA testing” begins to look like puppy store window dressing.
And yet however shocking or unbelievable any or all of this might seem, there’s really nothing new about puppy mills or passing off inferior products as superior. This is the way dogs have been bred, packaged, and sold since the early twentieth century when the AKC incorporated, assumed control over breed standards, and targeted an emerging consumer market. The AKC, and the entire dog fancy, was built on puppy mills and unsound breeding practices. If anything has changed, it’s society’s feelings on what, exactly, “humane” treatment of animals means, and how far we have a right to go in expecting pets to please us. The AKC, show-ring judges, breeders, and associates are just doing business as usual, only they’re not used to being challenged and are acting like dogs backed into a corner. But what’s on trial here isn’t so much an archaic institution, its misplaced priorities, or its shady friends. The real bad guy is a bankrupt tradition of valuing companion animals for pedigree and for standardized shape, size, and color—and the belief that’s it’s alright to produce them in large numbers to meet these whimsical demands.
Not only is it not alright, the results have been disastrous. Time for the AKC to join the 21st century or go down with the rest of them.
Editor's Note: See our other post on this issue too.
Michael Brandow is the author of New York’s Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process (Purdue University Press, 2008). His upcoming book, Dog Snobs: The Myth of the Purebred Dog, will be published by Beacon Press in 2014. He has written on society, the arts, and canine culture for The New York Times, New York Post, ARTnews, Stagebill, Town & Country, Barron’s, The New Criterion, and Animal Fair.
The Today Show sparks a heated debate on the AKC's kennel inspections
The internet has been buzzing about the Today Show's segment on the American Kennel Club's negligent inspection of dog breeders. I've since seen the topic fiercely debated among my dog friends on Facebook and on mailing lists. My Sheltie, Nemo, is from an amazing AKC registered breeder and we participate in AKC sanctioned sports like rally obedience and agility. In many regards, the AKC is doing a lot of good for dogs. They raise millions of dollars each year for canine health research and educational programs, their affiliated clubs run many of the breed rescue organizations referenced by the Today Show, and they promote relationship building activities like dog sports and the Canine Good Citizen test.
But since people think they can rely on the AKC "stamp of approval" for picking a breeder, their inadequate kennel inspection program is particularly troublesome. The AKC only has nine inspectors for the entire country, so it's inevitable that some breeders will fall through the cracks. And there have been reports of breeders who passed the AKC inspection, but were found by local law enforcement to be raising animals in deplorable conditions.
Given that the AKC is in the business of profiting from puppy registrations, they're clearly not in the best position to objectively evaluate and regulate breeders, particularly large operations who are generating a lot of income for the AKC.
This conflict of interest is also evident in the fact that the AKC has a history of opposing legislation that could potentially regulate puppy mills. I agree that a small kennel can have inhumane conditions and a large kennel can be well maintained, but in general someone with less animals will be able to devote more attention and resources.
Besides the high cost of properly caring for dogs, it takes a lot of time to make sure puppies are well socialized. My breeder played sound tapes, took the puppies to experience different people and environments, and brought them along on trips to get them used to the car. This is hard work and would be almost impossible to do if you had multiple litters born at around the same time, which most large kennels do.
Dogs are members of our family, not a product you buy off of a shelf. You can't and shouldn't rely on a "stamp of approval." It's up to you to determine if a breeder is responsible. Even if the AKC significantly improved their inspection program, I would still extensively do my research on any breeder before getting a puppy from them.
What do you think about the AKC's inspection program?
As long as I don't have to pry ticks off, I'm happy
To Frontline, or not to Frontline, that is the constant question come Spring! Well, we got an answer a couple days ago. A stubborn gray speck on my Border Collie Magnum's eyelid proved to be a baby tick. We were too late. Ick!
I didn't feel comfortable prying this bloodsucker off of his eyelid, so we zoomed over to the vet. In the lobby, one of the vet techs came to greet us and take a look, but Magnum was worried and scrambling as best he could on the tile floor toward the door. I could still see that baby tick hanging on for dear life. Ugh!
We soon were ushered into the exam room. Before he could squeeze himself behind my chair, I offered his favorite tug rope. Suddenly, my scared little boy lit up and tugged all over the room. He shook his head back and forth till I asked him to release and offer a sit. Then we tugged and shook all over again.
When the vet tech came in, he flopped over for a belly rub and allowed her to take a good look at his eye. "Where is it?" she asked. I scanned his eyelid and only saw a tiny bald spot where the baby tick had been. He had shaken it off! If only it was always that easy to remove those things.
If you find a tick on your dog, how do you remove it? For tick prevention, do you use Frontline, Advantix or a natural remedy?
A much-commented New York Times article explores the singular pain and responsibility that comes with end-of-life decisions for our pets. How much effort, and how much money do you spend to extend their lives? All of the diagnostic tools and treatment options available today make these questions inevitable and also much more difficult to answer. Cancer can be treated with chemo and radiation, even amputation. Nearly every medical specialty for humans has its counterpart in veterinary medicine—cardiology; neurology; oncology; surgery—including hospice care for the end of life. We don’t like to talk about the expense involved with the treatment options we’re offered, but financial resources for our entire family (including our other pets) are impacted by the choices we make.
The same questions we must answer for ourselves—health care directives regarding heroic measures, do-not-resuscitate orders, what a quality life looks and feels like—should be answered with regard to our pets, at least in a general way before we’re sitting in the vet’s exam room and are asked “What do you want to do?” There are no easy answers, no one-size-fits-all. Ultimately, we as pet guardians must decide what’s best for them, what they would want, and what maximizes their quality of life.
Reading the article and the comments it generated are a good way to start your own discussion.
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