Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom.
Smiling in Seattle
February 19 2013
The design sensibility at Urban Animal, a veterinary office that opened last year in Seattle, is part Airstream and part 1978 Ford truck—both of which practice founder Cherri Trusheim, DVM, owns.
Located in an old medical building in what is arguably the city’s hippest neighborhood, the warm modern space features funky vinyl chairs and second-hand medical cabinets, paint-by-number dog portraits, an enormous vintage print of a cabin in the mountains (the Irish Setter pointing in the grass was added by an artist friend later), and, in the corner, a photobooth.
Yep, a photobooth, and not one of those unsatisfying digital numbers. This booth uses film and dispenses slightly wet prints in four minutes (for $4). It’s here for clients and patients to amuse themselves and perhaps take some of the stress out of a visit, but non-clients are also welcome to pop in for snapshots.
The photobooth isn’t the only unconventional thing about Urban Animal. Dr. Trusheim, who’s worked as a relief vet and at an emergency hospital, has a different plan. In addition to its all-walk-in, open-weekends schedule, Urban Animal has a strong commitment to keeping care affordable, an approach that might include not pushing for the most extreme and costly interventions. In an industry with spiraling costs, these ideas are as surprising as, well, a photobooth in a vet’s office.
Algonquin Books; $23.95
February 13 2013
“I thought you were dead,” Stella says to Paul when he returns home from a bar, on page one of Pete Nelson’s new novel. Delivered by an aging, arthritic Labrador/Shepherd mix, the line displays the dry wit and dog logic that makes Stella and, by extension, much of this novel a delight.
At the center of the story is Paul Gustavson, a writer in Northampton, Mass., whom we follow over the course of a year while he pens Nature for Morons, deals with the fallout from his father’s stroke, and dates for the first time since a messy divorce. Much of the story unfolds in conversations (the best between Paul and Stella, more on that in a sec) and instant messaging exchanges; the “action” takes place in Paul’s head. Nelson does a fine job weaving the narrative so that while the end surprises, you can look back and recognize the necessary telltales in the fabric of the story.
Yes, Stella talks. And the conversations are so charming and matter-offact that it hardly seems worth asking from whence this special power comes. It might just be Paul’s creative projection.
In a typical exchange, Paul asks Stella, “If you could be a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?”
“Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”
“There’s been some debate. Why would you be a tomato?”
“To get next to all those hamburgers,” the dog says.
“But if you were a tomato, you wouldn’t want to eat hamburger.”
“Of course I would. Why would I change, just because I’m a tomato?”
Paul dissertates on human behavior (particularly his own self-destructive actions) for Stella, but her smart, simple questions expose the truth, including her sharp assessment of his love troubles — based on observation. “Don’t forget,” she says, “there were three of us in the room, not two.”
Although the love story of the title likely refers to a long-distance romance with a divorced would-be singer named Tamsen, the affaire de coeur that captured and held my attention was between a man and his dog. Paul and Stella are like an old married couple, in the best ways, sharing an abundance of tenderness and humor forged during 15 years together. In one of my favorite moments, Paul snuggles with a frightened Stella during a thunderstorm. In their cave under a blanket-topped kitchen table, he comforts her with the story of how humans and wolves first threw in together. If that’s not love, what is?
News: Guest Posts
Seamus shows up in a video game and political ad
July 26 2012
Every presidential campaign season there is one issue that carries the day. Famously, it was the economy at the heart of Bill Clinton’s 1992 win over George Bush. And really, the economy is the central issue again this year, but that’s not for lack of effort on the part of folks like Scott Crider of Dogs Against Romney and New York Times columnist Gail Collins to keep Seamus in the spotlight.
If you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, it all goes back to Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s family vacation. Back in 1983, he put the family’s Irish Setter in a crate and strapped that crate to the roof of the car for a 12-hour trip to Canada. That this story is still on the radar, five years after it was first reported in The Boston Globe, is sort of incredible.
Most recently, Seamus appears as the protagonist of a video-game-as-social-commentary called “The Crate Escape: Seamus Unleashed,” wherein said family pet escapes from the car and chases after Romney. Created by Crider, according to a story in the National Journal, the game will be released on August 26, which is National Dog Day and one day before the Republican National Convention. Here’s a preview of the game:
But Crider’s not the only one making political kibble out of Seamus. Save Our Environment Action Fund featured Seamus in an ad about increased gas mileage standards. The gist of the spot is that higher standards mean fewer stops during road trips. The news inspires a Setter, who looks like Seamus, to hide from an actor, who looks like Romney, when it’s time to load into his crate. Check it out:
I’ve blogged about this before to the dismay of Bark readers who don’t want politics mixed in with their dogs. Setting aside the fact that dogs do exist in the political realm—leash laws, off-leash areas, breed-specific legislation, funding for municipal shelters and spay/neuter programs, cruelty laws and on and on—what I find so fascinating about the Seamus story is the way it sticks to Romney. It highlights how important this relationship is to many of us and how we feel we can take the measure of a man or woman by how he or she treats a beloved dog.
Dog's Life: Humane
Oregon’s Indigo Rescue thinks big
July 19 2012
Dogs romp in large fenced pastures on a 16-acre ranch in western Oregon’s rolling green countryside. Swiss milk goats, alpacas and bunnies frolic nearby. Bordered by a park, a golf course, lush woods and the Nehalem River, the cage-free boarding facility known as Oregon Canine University at Indigo Ranch looks like an idyllic solution for Portland-area residents who need to board their dogs. But it’s a solution of another kind for Indigo Rescue, which takes on some of the region’s most challenging (and expensive to maintain) homeless animals.
This small, grassroots group, based in Beaverton (just outside Portland), has turned to the for-profit world in a way that could be a model for other organizations. Executive director Heather Hines sums up the challenge simply: They’re competing for donor dollars against much larger, more highprofile shelter and animal-welfare organizations, and traditional fundraising events, drives and grants won’t get them where they want to go. To achieve their goals, they need to be innovative.
Hines and two others founded Indigo Rescue 14 years ago to find homes for hard-to-place dogs and cats. Partnering with Washington, Multnomah and Columbia county shelters, Indigo Rescue takes in ill, injured and disabled dogs and cats who would otherwise be euthanized (or simply not accepted by some shelters). In other cases, they provide foster homes for animals who are failing in the shelter environment.
The founders initially funded their work out of their own pockets, with donations and through traditional fundraising efforts such as dog-wash events. They had an early, out-of-the box success with their “one-man’sjunk recycled jewelry” sale, for which they collected and sold donated jewelry. Now in its 12th year, the jewelry sale is highly anticipated and always a big success.
Then, in late 2005, the group received a bequest. “We went, holy moly, we’re somebody,” Hines says. “And so we thought, what should we do? Should we squander this bequest on vet bills and various other expenses or should we try to build a legacy and a perpetual source of funding? We decided to embark on a business.”
In addition to hiring Hines as the first and only staff member, Indigo Rescue bought the ranch in Vernonia, 32 miles northwest of Beaverton. In its first six months, the ranch was beset by a string of troubles. Real estate values plummeted. The cost of gas rose. People stopped traveling or, if they did, relied on friends and family for dog-sitting. A flood, the first in documented history, hit Vernonia. And Hines was diagnosed with cancer.
Suddenly, the rescue’s driving force was faced with a stressful, long-term treatment regimen and possibly death. “We had a meeting and voted,” Hines says. “I really pushed for going forward. I said, ‘If I do die, I want you to continue on. I worked my fanny off for this.’”
That didn’t change; Hines worked every day through treatment. She’s now in her final year of oral chemotherapy, and the ranch is on the verge of breaking even. Once it turns the corner, all profits will go to Indigo Rescue.
Continuing to think big and cover their bets, Indigo Rescue launched a second business last October. The idea grew out of the Indigo Ranch shuttle, which transports canine clients. For fun, Hines and volunteers decorated the windows with vinyl decal portraits of the various shelter dogs.
The results were so adorable that they decided to make them available to others through digmydog.com (as well as digmykitty.com and digmybuddy.com). A long-time supporter and professional sign-maker creates the decals; Hines and another volunteer do all the digital work, as well as the trimming and shipping. The hope is that this will become a second source of income for the rescue.
The seriously type-A Hines is motivated by a bigger vision. Once the rescue is fully supported, she plans to take aim at aggressively promoting spay/ neuter, especially in low-income communities and for Pit Bulls. The businesses are about providing long-term funding for long-term solutions, a bold and praiseworthy goal.
For more information, visit indigorescue.org and indigoranch.org.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Three companies to watch
July 13 2012
Pet Check Technology
“Our hope is, of course, that customers will begin to request this service, so they can have peace of mind that their dog is being properly walked and/or exercised,” says Doug Simon, founder of Pet Check Technology. The Pet Check Technology software is also designed to function as a business- management tool for professional dog walkers, and includes scheduling and billing applications. Membership starts at $29.99 per month.
Jogs for Dogs
After a few years, Fahey got out of the time-intensive business of managing a small army of bonded, insured runners—mostly University of Washington students—and, last May, launched JogsForDogs.com, a matchmaking website that brings dog-loving runners together with dogs who need runs.
In the new paradigm, a dog is most likely to be paired with an avid runner and dog-lover who works in an unrelated field. “It’s about connecting people with dogs and people who love dogs,” Fahey says. “It’s more like hiring a babysitter than a nanny.” Joggers set their own prices and dog owners do their own interviewing and reference-checking. Currently, Jogs for Dogs has runners in 22 states and eight other countries, including Canada, the UK, Sweden, Italy, France, Spain, Slovenia and New Zealand.
Dog's Life: Travel
Travel tips and tricks
June 19 2012
When packing for a trip with my dog, I load his bag first. Then, I set it on top of his travel bed right next to the front door, where, without fail, he’s waiting. “You’re going!” I say. He wags his tail madly, but it’s hard to tell which one of us is more excited.
I’ll admit that taking dogs along on trips has its challenges—fur in your travel mug, for one. It also requires research to find accommodations and attractions that welcome them. But the joys of a having a canine co-pilot outweigh these minor inconveniences.
Chief among the aforementioned joys is dogs’ enthusiasm for the smallest things; they have the right mindset for adventure and can teach us a thing or two about enjoying the moment. Plus, dogs require pit stops, and with each one, there’s an opportunity to explore places you might otherwise have passed by. And it’s not just the landscape that opens up under a pup’s scrutiny; people do, too. Dogs are the world’s best icebreakers.
If you are traveling to join friends and family during the holidays, make special note of the special social settings that accompany festive get- togethers—front doors and gates opening and closing, plates of food left unattended, rambunctious children, an overload of sights and sounds that can confuse even the best trained dog. Some spot training (of dog and people) may be useful, and extra caution required in you preparation.
As you plan, keep a few things in mind.
Remember that “dog-friendly” is relative. It may take a little digging to determine if a hotel, inn, B&B or condo is more than “dog-tolerant.” Special pet packages and amenities, a canine mascot, and websites with photos of dogs are good signs. A phone conversation with the front desk will also help you get a bead on the extent of their dog love. Be sure to ask about size and/or breed restrictions as well as extra fees and rules, such as a prohibition on leaving dogs in your room.
Do your research. It pays to know if your destination comes with special canine concerns, such as deer, frozen bodies of water, sensitive wildlife and the like. You want to be prepared for the unexpected, so it’s good idea to do a little advance work on identifying local veterinary services and emergency care—let’s hope they are not needed, but if they are, you’ll be glad to have done your homework.
Pack smart. In addition to your pup’s regular gear, remember to take a canine first-aid kit, grooming supplies, and an extra collar and leash. Travel with extra blankets and coats in the winter and plenty of water all year round.
Make and carry a “dog file.” It should include your dog’s vital info, (vaccinations, medications, allergies and health conditions) as well as a photo in case she goes missing while you’re on the road. Some travelers keep this material in their car’s glove compartment in an envelope marked DOG INFO so it’s easy to find in case of an accident. If you’re a tech type, load the records and photos on a small USB drive and attach it to your keychain.
Make sure your dog has proper identification. If she becomes lost in an unfamiliar place, a tag and a microchip could be key to getting her back. Since time is of the essence, be sure to provide your own contact number and that of a reliable friend or relative as a backup.
Restrain your dog. If you’re traveling by car, find a comfortable way to transport her safely. A harness seat belt or secured crate keeps a dog from moving around the vehicle and becoming a dangerous distraction, as well as potentially reduces injuries to both of you in case of an accident. If your dog is not used to wearing a seatbelt or traveling in a crate, take a few pre-trip practice runs before embarking on any long hauls.
Be a good guest. Make your friends and family thrilled that your dog joined the festivities by being considerate of all guests and insuring that your dog is on his/her best behavior. Make your dog feel at home and safe by bringing along some extra gear—your dog’s favorite bowl and kibble, a familiar bed, even a doggie gate. Reward hoteliers, restaurateurs and shop owners who roll out the canine red carpet by following the rules; traveling with your own dog sheet, towel and lint rollers; and spreading the word about good dog service.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
With a leash and a prayer, Kat Albrecht pursues an admirable goal: improve the odds when a best friend goes missing.
June 19 2012
It’s a cloudy, late-winter morning in Clovis, just outside Fresno, Calif. The night before had been stormy, and later, a tornado will touch down nearby. You wouldn’t want your dog or cat roaming in weather like this. But somewhere out there, hungry and wet, might be Tinkerbell and Pumpkin. The skinny, tiger-striped, two-year-old mother cat and her look-a-like five-month-old kitten have been missing for two weeks.
Owner Becky Brady had let the cats out for a little break. “It was late afternoon and they were sniffing bushes while my daughters played,” Brady says. “Then, suddenly, they were gone.” Like many indoor-only cats, they had neither collars nor microchips. To make matters worse, Brady and her three daughters will be moving to Denver in five days.
We learned about the cats from a posting on craigslist.com. Eager to demonstrate how Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians do their job, Kat Albrecht called Brady to offer her services. MAR uses the same investigative techniques, technologies and strategies that police detectives and search-and-rescue technicians employ to find missing persons. “Some people think it’s a scam,” Albrecht says. “They think we’re nuts.” But Brady is game, or desperate, or both.
So here we are in a modest neighborhood of single-family homes and condos at 8:30 in the morning. Albrecht, in jeans, work boots and a Day-Glo orange “Lost Pet Search” coat, looks every inch the former police Bloodhound handler, crime scene investigator, search-and-rescue manager, and police officer that she is. Parked nearby is her dark green truck with reflective SEARCH and RESCUE bumper stickers and a PETHNTR license plate in a frame that reads: “Get lost. Make my Bloodhound’s day.” In the past eight years, Albrecht has conducted about 150 full-scale searches and helped reunite approximately 1,800 owners with their pets through consultations.
Before we search a square inch, Albrecht asks Brady a few questions about the missing cats. Last sighting? Habits? Experience outdoors? Temperament? Neighbors with a grudge? She’s creating a “feline personality profile” that will help her determine probabilities for the missing cats across a spectrum that ranges from theft, rescue and unintentional disposal to injury, illness, death, deliberate displacement and more.
Barring intervention, “there are predictable patterns for how a dog or cat will act when he gets free,” Albrecht explains. Those patterns dictate search strategies. Of course, it’s easier with cats. With dogs, several x-factors, including a much greater likelihood of human involvement, make predictions more difficult (see below).
Temperament is key. According to Brady, Tinkerbell is outgoing with humans and dogs. If she’d been “skittish and xenophobic,” Albrecht would have recommended humane traps with food, the best way to capture a frightened, hungry cat seeking food under the cover of darkness. She’s recovered many this way. But since Tinkerbell has a “curious clown” temperament, a daylight search of the immediate area using a cat-detection dog is the order of the day.
This is no undercover operation. Seasoned volunteers Beverlee Bargamian and Jill Buchanan, also decked out in neon, join Brady and Albrecht. A retired US Marshal, Bargamian wields an amplified listening device (ALD), the little dish and headphones favored by hunters and PIs, and a turbo flashlight.
Buchanan has her hands full with Susie, a four-year-old Jack Russell Terrier tricked out with her own “search dog” shabrack, a neon-orange vest. Susie is a cat-detection dog. She searches for kitties indiscriminately and in the process, we hope she flushes out the two we are looking for. She’s angling to get started, poised on her back legs and straining at her leash.
“I’m not the first person to use a dog to find lost pets,” Albrecht says. But she probably is the first to codify the training and to try to create a national resource. When she originally suggested using one dog to find another dog (an invention born of necessity when her police Bloodhound A.J. went missing in 1996), it was a heresy to her colleagues in the K-9 unit and her search-and-rescue peers. They considered the idea a misuse of a good dog and a waste of training. “I lost a lot of friends,” she says.
Currently, Albrecht has two scent-detection dogs at home: Chase, an 11-year-old Bloodhound once used in police work to track criminals, and Kody, a three-year-old Whippet-mix. Both can identify individual dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, ferrets, iguanas and geckos (and probably much more) by scent.
Albrecht and Brady start knocking on doors, asking for permission to check backyards. To my surprise, no one says no, although one homeowner looks at the search crew and says under her breath, “She must really love her cat.”
We quickly circle a well-kept yard that offers few hiding spots for a cat. Buchanan directs Susie to “check here” and “check here” along the fence and edge of the house. The dog sniffs eagerly but determines almost immediately that this yard is a bust. “We rely on their body language to tell us what they smell,” says Albrecht, who never doubts a well-trained dog’s nose. “They live in a world that’s different from ours.”
The next yard is a potential bonanza. There’s scrap wood, an upside-down stroller and lots of other domestic junk on the patio. As we peer under bushes and old mattresses, Albrecht is answering Brady’s questions. She sounds like counselor, explaining why the cats might not respond to calls of “Tinky.”
“A cat’s only protection from predators is to hide and be quiet,” she explains.
Why haven’t they returned home?
Because Tinkerbell and Pumpkin are indoor cats, they haven’t established an outdoor territory. Albrecht explains that the world beyond the threshold was new and unknown. There’s no reason to think that once they wandered off, they’d even be able to recognize home.
“My friend thinks they might be stolen,” Brady offers. “They are really beautiful.”
“Well, maybe,” Albrecht says, not terribly convincingly. “But this was the first time you ever let them out.”
She’s already explained to me that pet-theft is a common explanation. People often want to believe their animal has been stolen because it means closure. “They want to stop grieving,” she says. It happens, but it is rarer than you’d think.
At the next house, a woman gives a dead-on, uncoached description that matches Brady’s: a skinny, white-and-tan, gregarious cat, seen several times in the past two weeks. Pay dirt. Albrecht said the two cats would be nearby. Meanwhile, Susie pulls Buchanan behind a shed, and she sees tiny, muddy paw-prints on the fence. A frisson of excitement shoots through the group.
We follow the direction of the sighting. An elderly woman lets all of us, Susie included, tromp through her house to the backyard to check a garden crowded with tropical plants, bushes, a wishing well and outdoor bric-a-brac. The team is gleeful at the sight of so many potential hiding places. (After a few hours of this type of work, you never look at a yard the same way again.) Susie lets out a series of shrill barks and bolts for a corner. A fat gray cat leaps over the fence.
“Gooooood girl,” Buchanan and Albrecht praise her. The former shelter dog vibrates with excitement. It’s not the right cat, but she’s not expected to discriminate. She’s nailed her quarry.
With a cat already here, Albrecht doesn’t expect to find Tinkerbell and Pumpkin sharing this territory, but we make a thorough check. The woman watches through her glass doors, and as we file back through her home, says she’ll pray for the cats.
Other neighbors have seen nothing but promise to look, and then tell us sad stories about how they lost a pet. On several posts nearby, flyers describing a lost dog are water-soaked and illegible. On this gloomy morning, lost pets seem like a universal condition. According to Albrecht, no one keeps track of the number of pets that go astray annually. “We know how many cars were stolen in a year. And how many guns. But we can’t say how many pets go missing,” she says, clearly disgusted.
As we head to a new block, a man shouts across the street, “Are you for real?”
We pass a yard with a broken television set and pile of clothing on the sidewalk. The garage door is cracked open and junk spews through it. “I’d like to get in there,” Bargamian says. But no one is home to give permission.
Many of the homes in this neighborhood have raised foundations ventilated by small, screened openings. If there’s a hole in the screen big enough for a cat, Bargamian pokes in with her ALD to listen for cat sounds. A neighbor dog barks, and she gives a little leap.
When training Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians, Albrecht teaches aspiring pet detectives to investigate hiding places for signs of fur. Once, she used a DNA lab to match fur tufts found at a coyote kill site with fur taken from a cat’s bed at home. This is where Albrecht’s police background really comes in handy.
After some early positive signs, the trail is growing cold. We’ve been searching a three-block area for almost two hours. Even with bad knees and a back injury that permanently sidelined her from police work in 1998, Albrecht shows no sign of fatigue or frustration. She’s tracked pets through bramble-covered ravines and in foul weather. (Many of these adventures are described in her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective.)
When she finally calls off the search, she’s confident we’ve made a good start. The neighborhood is on alert. Frequently, the mere visibility of a search makes all the difference. A few years back, while trailing Bubba, a lost Jack Russell, she was approached by a bystander investigating the commotion, who proclaimed: “I’ve got that dog in my garage.” Case closed.
This morning was the first time any of Brady’s neighbors learned about the missing cats. The chances that she will get a phone call the next time Tinkerbell or Pumpkin surface are far greater now than they were yesterday.
We pile into the truck. Susie is wet but reluctant to stop, as though she knows that all the unsearched yards, alleys and garages out there harbor more cats—a giant smorgasbord.
“There is a lot of pressure on you and your dog to turn up a miracle,” Albrecht says on the way home. But she sees her job as improving the odds of a search from “a needle in a haystack to a coin in a sandbox.”
At the Clovis home Albrecht shares with her 80-year-old mother, two dogs and two cats, Susie is rewarded with playtime. Cheeto, an ample orange feline, allows the Jack Russell to jump her and hold a cheek-full of fur in her muzzle. Like a scene from a romantic comedy, they roll across the carpet. This is actually Cheeto’s job. As a “target cat,” she is used for training dogs to hunt down, but never harm, missing cats. She appears to love her work.
In a back bedroom is Albrecht’s office, home of the Missing Pet Project, the national nonprofit organization she founded in 2004 to research the behavioral patterns of lost pets, educate pet owners in how to properly search for a lost pet, and educate animal shelter staff and volunteers in the science of lost pet behavior. Also, it’s the base of operations for Pet Hunters International, a pet-detective academy established in 2004 to certify MAR technicians, investigators and search dogs. There’s yellow CRIME SCENE tape on the door, and a doormat hanging on the wall reads: “Come back with a warrant.”
“I want you to hear this,” Albrecht says, hitting the button of her answering machine. The plaintive voice of a Texas woman fills the room. Her cat has been missing for a month and she’s desperate for help from the woman who put pet detecting on the map.
“It kills me that I can’t help her,” Albrecht says, her voice breaking. “She shouldn’t have to call me all the way up here.” I’m surprised to see her cry.
After pouring her heart—and much of her bank account—into the effort to create a national organization, Albrecht and her Missing Pet Project have yet to establish stable financial support. And though she’s trained and certified many better-known pet detectives and at least one professional cat profiler, she and her profession still aren’t taken seriously.
On top of it, the realities of Albrecht’s life—financial troubles; job disappointments; health difficulties for her and her mother; and the deaths of Rachel and A. J., the dogs who launched her passion—often collide with her dream, sometimes running her off the rails. Her great idea isn’t an unqualified success yet.
But still she persists, and it looks like things might be turning around. The Today Show recently taped a segment featuring Albrecht’s work, and she’s in discussion with television executives about a reality show based on MAR cases. That sort of exposure could generate the momentum she needs to take her detection dogs from the fringe into the mainstream. Clearly, we are in the middle of this story. It’s too early to say how things will end.
Postscript: The fate of Becky Brady’s cats remains a mystery—after the search, Albrecht never heard from Brady again.
Kat Albrecht offers certification seminars for aspiring Missing Animal Response technicians; for more information, or for helpful advice if you’ve lost a pet, visit www.missingpetpartnership.org.
News: Guest Posts
Crystal Mountain, Washington
June 15 2012
There is nothing quite like the crisp, exposed atmosphere of alpine mountains. Unfortunately, reaching these elevations can be a pretty big job. So last fall, I happily headed to Crystal Mountain Ski Area, in the Cascade Mountains about an hour and a half southeast of Seattle where I live, to ride the gondola to the top of the mountain.
In the summer, the Mount Rainier Gondola welcomes dogs. I figured Renzo, my Husky-Border Collie mix, and I would ride in style, taking in the fantastic views during the 2,500-foot climb to the summit and there enjoy, without so much as a bead of sweat on my brow, the lens-popping view of the snow-covered dome of Mount Rainier. Weather-permitting. Then we’d hike down leisurely with gravity on our side, weaving through fir, hemlock and cedar forests, skirting deep blue alpine lakes and crossing lush meadows loaded with sunflowers, columbine, lupine, Indian paintbrush and more.
Ah, the best intentions. The gondola operators were ready and eager. As was I. Renzo had other ideas. The strange, swinging gondola cars careening noisily into the loading station alarmed him. When I could get him to approach, coaxed by treats, the fact that the gondola never fully stopped seemed to be a deal-breaker. My dog is an anxious one so I wasn’t willing to carry him aboard for a 20-minute ride from hell.
We hung around and watched two dogs hop aboard without hesitation before turning boots and paws upland. I was bent on seeing that summit view, which is often socked in when I ski there, even if we had to do it the hard way. It was a longer and more exhausting day than I had planned but the real point was just getting out together in this beautiful place. I was glad it was just the two of us, with no one disappointed by the change of plans.
Trail past small lake, the "view" of Rainier on Sept. 17, 2011
Still I do think gondolas offer a wonderful chance for access to backcountry views for families with younger children, grandparents and a senior dog or too—always with the caveat that things may not go as planned.
The Mount Rainier Gondola runs every day from June 17–September 19, and then weekends-only through October 2. If you live near or plan to travel to a ski area with a gondola, check to see if it’s dog-friendly. I hear the views are often fabulous.
Dog's Life: Travel
Find out if a job with the dogs is right for you
June 5 2012
Ever fantasize about trading your laptop in for a chucker, or your commute for a daily spin around the agility course? Here’s your chance to live the dream of hanging out with dogs and getting paid for it.
Five years ago, Brian Kurth was an ambitious marketing executive at Ameritech, a phone company in the Midwest, when he hit a career rough patch. “I was doing the corporate grind, working my way up and all that, but I was just unfulfilled,” he says. During long commutes along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, he killed time thinking about what he’d rather be doing. One of the fantasy careers that kept surfacing in the glow of brake lights was dog trainer.
Not satisfied with what-ifs, Kurth decided to pursue his daydreams without giving up his day job. He convinced a local dog trainer to let him shadow her and learn the ropes. “My question to her was: What did it take for you to do this? She said, ‘I put all my savings and my house up for collateral,’” Kurth remembers. “It’s stuff like that I needed to know.”
He didn’t chuck it all to become a dog trainer, but word got around about his experience lining up a mentor for that and his other dream careers (wine-making and tourism), and soon he was helping friends find mentors for their most heartfelt ambitions. Out of that experience, a job layoff and a cross-country move, Vocation Vacations was born. By the end of 2005, Kurth’s Portland-based company was offering more than 200 dream-job holidays—a chance to spend a day (or longer) experiencing the nitty-gritty of an occupation under the tutelage of an inspiring tutor.
Through Vocation Vacations, people pay anywhere between $349 and $3,500 to walk in the shoes, boots or loafers of their professional idols in 30 states and the United Kingdom. They can talk hops with a Long Island brewmaster, take bids in the style of a Bozeman auctioneer, do color commentary for a Fort Worth Cats baseball game, create a signature fragrance with a Nantucket perfumer, and on and on.
“It’s the kind of stuff that people say they want to be when they grow up. Well, now they’re grown up and they’re not really doing it,” the 39-year-old Kurth says. “So we’ve brought them the opportunity to see if it’s really something they want to pursue. It’s that first baby step; it’s not the cure-all. But it breaks down the barriers. It breaks down the fear factor.”
The stuff of dream jobs, in Kurth’s experience, falls into five basic categories—food, fashion, sports, entertainment and animals, particularly dogs. The latter category is especially dear to Kurth (who might be clicker-training Retrievers right now had fate not intervened) and his entire dog-crazed staff. Vocation Vacations currently offers 15 dog-related immersion opportunities, including shadowing an animal shelter director in Ridgefield, Conn.; splashing through suds at a Denver-based pet supply and dog wash; and observing surgery at a veterinary hospital in Orange, Calif.
When Chris Macey, who does oil and gas mapping for a geospatial company in Denver, Colo., started thinking about a career change, his thoughts turned to animals. The 36-year-old grew up in a house filled with pets—everything except snakes. And he fondly remembers helping raise and train German Shepherds as a teenager.
On the strength of that happy past and some recent experience house- and pet-sitting, Macey plunked down nearly $1,000 ($349 for the Vocations Vacations fee plus airfare, food and lodging) for the privilege of seeing the inside works at Schroeder’s Den Doggy Daycare in Hillsboro, Ore., last October.
The 12 hour-learning experience included plenty of time romping with more than 40 dogs in the indoor off-leash areas. Macey said it totally lived up to his fantasy of hanging out with dogs all day. But owner-operators Pam and Wayne Pearson also provided nuts-and-bolts information on sanitation and safety, billing systems, segregating the dogs, evaluating dog temperament, vendor relations, finding the right employees, dealing with local zoning ordinances—the millions of details that have nothing to do with tossing a Kong.
“It is a lot of work, and that’s kind of what’s holding me back right now,” Macey says. Since he returned home, he’s scouted daycare locations and worked to raise capital in his free time. He also stays in touch with the Pearsons, who continue to be helpful and supportive.
“Being in the middle of it, it seems overwhelming,” Macey says about his dual-life. “It’s like this will never happen. But Pam had a corporate job and Wayne had a corporate job, so it is possible.” When he thinks back on the work holiday, Macey’s biggest takeaway has nothing to do with start-up costs or customer relations.
“You can make a living and you can be doing what you want to do,” Macey says. “I think that’s the purpose of Vocation Vacations: to show you that yes it is possible. If you want to do it, you can do it.”
The inspiration impact is key. Kurth and his colleagues are proactive in searching out excellent mentors, and they frequently turn away people who aren’t a good fit. Not just anyone will do, Kurth says. He wants to help people “change their lives,” which means finding mentors who will inspire “vocationers.”
That often translates into finding mentors who themselves took a mid-life leap of faith like Kurth. Lisa Collins is a classic example. For several years, the 32-year-old Chicagoan worked in finance by day, but her nights were all about dogs. She began as a volunteer in the dog adoption room at the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago, and quickly advanced to a dog-training apprenticeship and leading classes herself.
Dabbling in training turned serious when she was laid off from her day job about three years ago. “I got the kick in the butt to go and try the dog stuff full-time,” Collins says. Soon after, she launched Collins Canine, which offers a variety of positive-reinforcement behavioral and obedience training geared to average dog owners.
When Brian Kurth approached her about a mentorship late last year, she knew she had something to offer. “I get about one email a week asking how I became a dog trainer,” Collins says. She signed on with the company because an immersion-holiday seemed like the best way to answer that question.
Vocation Vacations is always adding new canine-centric opportunities. Last October, the company launched an experience with a pet detective, Kat Albrecht of Pet Hunters International based in Fresno, Calif. Albrecht uses many of the tools of traditional law enforcement to find lost pets (including snakes). The two-day mentorship costs $999 (plus airfare, lodging and food), but includes working with specially trained detection dogs, developing leads and interviewing witnesses, participating in mini-stakeouts, and much of the on-the-job training required for certifying Missing Animal Response Technicians.
In January, Vocation Vacations launched a mentoring opportunity at the Paw House Inn in Rutland, Vt. This 1786 farmhouse oozes rustic charm and dog-loving details that routinely fuel retirement fantasies in guests. The eight-bedroom bed-and-breakfast is tricked out for pups, with dog beds in every room, an off-leash park with an agility course, and an indoor dog daycare center so owners can enjoy nearby fun (like skiing at Killington or Okemo Mountain) guilt-free.
The mentors for this dream-job holiday are innkeepers Jen Fredreck, 34, and Mitch Frankenberg, 38. Five years ago, they didn’t have the benefit of Vocation Vacations when they made their leap. Fredreck was an attorney working at a law school and Frankenberg was a financial analyst when they decided to trade in their fast-track New York existence for a wholesale life-change.
Though Frankenberg took an online innkeeper class, “there was a lot of trial and error. We learned from our mistakes,” Fredreck says.
“It’s not the glorified, romantic ideal,” she admits. “Until you actually own an inn, you’re not going to know what it’s like.” The $899, three-day mentorship offers an owner’s-eye view of the business, covering everything from how to prep gourmet breakfasts day-in/day-out to dealing with dogs of different temperaments. The overriding theme is hard work and plenty of it.
Still, there are times, Fredreck says, when she’ll be out in the snow playing with the dogs, her husband and their 18-month-old son, and she’ll pause to appreciate the special life she’s been able to create. “It’s a fantastic family business,” she says. “We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
People take Vocation Vacations for two reasons, Kurth says. For many, like Macey, it’s a window into a passion they hope to pursue. For others, it’s a one-time deal—a lark or a chance to gain insight into an industry but not a catalyst for change. The majority of vocationers come from a few high-burnout professions including the law, information technology, accounting and financial services. They range in age from 18 to 70, but the baby boomers and upper-end Gen X’ers looking for a second or third career—and usually a dramatic lifestyle shift—comprise the bulk of his clients.
David Ryan fits squarely into this demographic. The 43-year-old Ryan was an international banker. He worked for the world’s third largest bank for 17 years and in eight countries. Early in his career, he and his wife adopted a “stray mutt” in Taiwan, who went everywhere the couple until she passed away at the ripe-old age of 14. They decided to wait until they settled down before finding another dog.
“I tried living without a dog for a couple of years, and absolutely hated it,” Ryan says. “When we moved back to the states, I couldn’t get a dog fast enough.” It was that deep affinity that put thoughts of a dog-centered second career in Ryan’s head.
After reading a Wall Street Journal article about Vocation Vacations on an airplane, of course, he signed up for two dream-job holidays.
He spent a couple days working with Heather Stass at K9 Capers Doggy Daycare in Agawam, Mass., where he learned a very important lesson. “There is too much poop involved in this for me,” he recalled thinking.
Still he developed enormous respect for Stass specifically and dog daycare in general. Talking with clients at “go-home” time, he discovered the enormous and important difference the service made in the lives of the people and their dogs. Stass helped plug Ryan into her network of daycare owners and she stays in touch as a friend and resource.
In his second dream-job vacation, Ryan spent a few days with Kirsten Nielsen, a dog trainer in Portland, Ore., and one of the earliest Vocation Vacation mentors. “Kirsten was incredible at not just letting me see her business and shadowing her for a day, but she has been an ongoing contact for me and a mentor in terms of thinking about dog training,” Ryan says.
The two experiences turned his world upside down. He retired from banking, sold his New York apartment, and enrolled in The Tom Rose School for professional dog trainers in St. Louis, commuting back to his family in New Hampshire on weekends.
“Kirsten and Heather made me realize that there are people out there who make their living with their love for dogs,” Ryan says. “And that realization gave me the courage to make the move from my banking world to my animal world.”
Today, he is launching two businesses simultaneously. He is a trainer under the name Beyond Dog Training, and he works as a consultant to dog businesses in six states (so far). “I learned there are an awful lot of incredibly talented dog trainers and groomers and daycare owners and kennel owners, all sorts of people, but their main strength and interest is not in running a business,” he says. Ironically, the “mentoree” has become the mentor.
Vocation Vacations founder Brian Kurth says this is typical. Vocationers who make the change to a second or third career often discover their previous experience takes on new importance in the new role.
“It looks to people like I’m working harder now than I did as a banker, but it doesn’t feel like work,” Kurth says. In fact, plans to begin taking blood pressure medicine during his last year in banking have proven unnecessary. “It’s marvelous to be working in the interest of something I really love. I have to remind myself [that] every once in awhile, you’re supposed to take a couple days off.”
The transformative power of Vocation Vacations is Kurth’s mission, but for Ryan, the mid-life job switch has had a second unexpected bonus. Suddenly, his kids think he’s cool.
Recently, he was walking a friend’s dog with his children. “One of my kids saw one of his friends, and yelled, ‘Hey Schyler, this is my dad, he’s a dog trainer!’ They’re much more thrilled about having a dog trainer for a dad than a hot-shot banker.”
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What Difference Does a Few Pounds Make?
June 1 2012
People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing and a lack of energy—nothing to smile about.
Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in United States are overweight or obese—and, like canine waistlines, the numbers keep expanding.
“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”
By doling out diets high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, we’re making our dogs fat. Dr. Ward explains. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.
On top of poor nutrition, we’re giving our dogs too much. Most of us rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed our dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to our specific pets. We don’t know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.
And then there are the add-ons—biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps and on and on. APOP estimates that 90 percent of pet owners give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. They’re called treats for a reason.
“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, it’s overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”
There’s the rub. Weight control is not about winning beauty contests, at least not for most of dogs. It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.
“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.
A key to our dogs’ health is getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating any of the disease conditions that result from being overweight. Smart diet and consistent exercise not only saves your health care dollars and spares your dogs discomfort and suffering, it will probably extend their lives.
A 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your best friend. That’s the best treat of all.
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