Sassafras Lowrey

Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author and artist. She is the editor of the Kicked Out anthology, and lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her partner, two cats and Mercury, a Chihuahua-Doxie mix. To learn more about Sassafras, visit pomofreakshow.com.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Indoor Athletics For Your Dog
Trick training in small places

Small space and active dog. This is reality for an increasing number of people who share their small city apartments with dogs. While there is no substitute for a long walk or run, there is a surprising amount you can do to keep your pup fit, both mentally and physically, in a confined space.

Tricks are the key to happy urban dogs. Trick training might once have had a reputation as dog training’s less serious cousin, but no more! It has tremendous benefits: enhanced bonding, increased canine confidence and a contained way to exercise your dog’s brain absent a yard filled with agility equipment. Trick training is also a fantastic way to build human/ canine communication skills, which will improve all areas of life with your dog. Finally, many build muscle tone and strength.

Tricks generally fall into two categories: physical movement (or manipulating or in some way interacting with a prop) and vocalization. Tricks can be fun and silly (spinning in circles and dancing) or practical (putting toys away in a basket). Essentially, anything your dog does—stretching, yawning, barking or other vocalizations—can be turned into a cued trick.

Some physical behaviors (bowing, spinning, sitting up and so forth) can be trained very easily using what’s called a luring method, in which something of high value to your dog is used to guide the dog into the desired position. Over time, a cue word is added to the behavior; then, the cue comes first and the luring is slowly phased out. The result? A polished trick.

To turn other behaviors such as sneezing, yawning or vocalizing into tricks, a technique called capturing works well. Capturing takes a little more time than luring, as you aren’t manipulating the dog into the behavior but rather, are waiting for the dog to exhibit the behavior and then offering an immediate reward. To be successful, you need to keep treats and/or clicker close at hand. (Clickers can be extremely effective when you’re starting to train tricks because they allow the precise marking of a desired behavior; they’re especially helpful when utilizing capturing and shaping techniques.)

Shaping involves working in partnership with your dog; I like to think of it as putting together a puzzle, or “building” a trick. Shaping focuses on facilitating dogs’ use of their brains. With shaping, you are click/treating (or otherwise rewarding) at incremental steps along the way to the goal behavior. Shaping is useful when training a complicated or multi-part trick.

For example: my dog knows how to “play basketball,” which in our case means dunking a ball into a little basketball hoop. In order to get to the finished trick, I broke it down into small pieces so the dog could understand what I wanted. Eventually, the different pieces of the trick came together. To shape the basketball trick, I first treated for interest in the ball, then for picking it up, then for holding it, then for moving toward the basket and, finally, for dropping it through the net.

Although they take up a little more room, tricks involving props are fun and can add a new twist to your trick repertoire. Hoopla hula hoops or broomsticks can be used to make indoor jumps (be sure to keep the height low for safety). You can also repurpose children’s toys such as basketball hoops, stacking rings, skateboards or wagons for impressive and innovative tricks that show off your training skill and your dog’s brilliance. The biggest payoff, however, is the fun you’ll have together.

News: Guest Posts
Innovative Ideas: Helping the Homeless and Shelter Dogs

Spend any time in a city and you’ve seen it—am older man rummaging through a trash can for bottles or his next meal, a young puppy playfully at his side, or a dirty teenager clothes held together with patches asking passerby’s for change with a dog curled up on a blanket near her feet. The site of a dog living on the streets with a person experiencing homelessness tugs at the heartstrings of many, even people who are normally made uncomfortable by the site of homeless folks, and wouldn’t give a second glance to someone in the same circumstance who wasn’t accompanied by a dog. There are an estimated 3.5 million people who experience homeless in the United States on an annual basis, and like every other segment of our population many of them are dog lovers, and many of them (an estimated 5-10%) share their lives with companion animals, the reality of which often leaves dog lovers concerned about the welfare of the dog.

Although Rhode Island is expected to pass the nations first Homeless Bill Of Rights, which will formally ban discrimination against homeless individuals and grant them equal access to jobs, housing and services, there is a national trend where many cities legislating discrimination against homeless residents by outlawing behaviors like eating, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces. While San Francisco is one of those cities that has in recent years passed what are commonly referred to as sit/lie ordinances criminalizing the daily survival activities for homeless residents, starting August 1st, the city is breaking new ground by taking a friendlier and fuzzier approach at decreasing behaviors associated with homelessness—specifically panhandling. Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, or WOOF as it is being called is a new program, the first in the nation that is pairing homeless individuals with difficult to place dogs in the shelter system. The individuals will receive financial incentives ($50-75 per week) to care for the dogs instead of panhandling. They will also receive vet care, dog training classes, leashes, toys and food for the dogs in their care courtesy of Animal Care and Control.

Program participants will go through an intensive screening process by the San Francisco Animal Care and Control program to assess stability and appropriate fit for the program. Individuals cannot be street-homeless and must be residents of a supportive housing program. They will also need to prove that they do not have a history of violence, aren’t in substance abuse treatment, and are not severely mentally ill. Additionally, because the program is specifically aimed at stopping panhandling in the city, program participants must commit to not panhandle while participating, and if caught doing so they will be removed from the program and the puppy returned to the shelter. WOOF will give difficult to place dogs the chance to have one-on-one human contact and exposure to living in a home, while giving the homeless participants an opportunity to gain animal-related skills that may be transferable into the job market.

WOOF is the newest in a growing trend of social service providers who are recognizing the unique and powerful bond between people and dogs and pairing individuals who are experiencing homelessness with dogs in order to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Outside In a leading homeless youths service provider in Portland Oregon runs the groundbreaking Virginia Woof Doggie Daycare facility, which now has two locations in the Portland area.  Virginia Woof is more than another daycare option in Portland, it is a job training program that hires homeless youth, giving them dog training and work experience in the ever-growing doggie daycare industry. 

Virginia Woof and now WOOF are two examples of great programs that are working to pair individuals experiencing homelessness with dogs with the intent to develop workplace skills, but there are also an increasing number of programs that are working directly with homeless people who are the guardians of companion animals. UC Davis Veterinary School runs the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless, a student operated organization that offers free medical care through a  monthly clinic for the pets of homeless people in the community. Others, like the nonprofit organization Pets of The Homeless works to provide pet food and veterinary medical care to the pets of those experiencing homelessness across the country. 

Many dog lovers struggle with understanding why someone who is homeless would choose to have a dog, but think for a moment about the important role dogs play in so many of our lives, the unconditional love and nonjudgmental companionship. For many homeless people who have been thrown away or abandoned by families and communities a relationship to a dog is the most important and secure relationship they have in their life. It is unfortunately often those same vital relationships that keep people street homeless instead of homeless shelters, as most shelters do not permit people to bring animals with them. Thus, many people unwilling to be separated from their dogs live in their cars, or on the streets in order to remain with their dogs. There are however an increasing number of drop-in centers, especially targeted at youth who allow clients to bring their well-behaved companion animals into the center and not forcing them to choose between access to needed social services and their beloved dogs.

As an advocate for both human and animal rights, I applaud the steps being made by WOOF and other programs to work proactively with homeless communities and dogs. I also look forward to the day when amongst dog lovers talking about programs and support for individuals experiencing homelessness receives as many smiles and as much support as talking about of homeless dogs on the streets and in shelters.



News: Guest Posts
Queer Storytelling Series Focuses on Dogs

In the introduction to his 1997 book Queer Dog: homo/pup/poetry, Gerry Gomez Pearlberg writes, “Why do gay men and lesbians have so much to say on the subject of dogs? Perhaps because we’re masters at reconfiguring what it means to create family, what it means to be animal and living in skin, what it means to exist in a state of exuberant, unapologetic disobedience.”

It is the spirit of this quote I hoped to bring to life Saturday night, January 16, when I guest curated a pets-themed evening of the successful NYC storytelling series Queer Memoir. The event brings to the stage people from all areas of the community to “provide an avenue to share queer lives and celebrate the ritual and community-building value of storytelling.” 

Queer Memoir: Pets was attended by nearly 80 people included storytellers from all across the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community with many stories focusing on the special role that dogs have played in the lives of readers.

Allison Joy, who combines a Reiki practice with her work as a dog trainer with social justice activism, brought a treat bag and clickers to the stage and shared a series of rants about dominance-based training. Colten Tognamino, a dog photographer, shared intimate stories about the joy and heartbreak of being a dad of several very high-needs dogs.

The love and loyalty of dogs was a common theme shared by readers, including Jessica Pabón, who read about holding her best friend Emma, a rescued Rottweiler, before she “went to sleep forever.” I shared an excerpt of my own story (first published in my anthology Kicked Out), which focuses on how my teen years were spent competing in dog agility, but when I came out as gay and became homeless I lost my dogs.

Ultimately, a common thread among the storytellers on this night was the power of dogs to help us make sense of our place in the world. Sound familiar?


News: Guest Posts
A Collar That Tweets
Barbie makes room for a Mattel-cyberspace-canine mash-up

Curious about what your dog is doing all day while you’re at work? Does he or she have a Twitter account? Now, not only can your dog social-network with everyone at the dog park, she can post to Twitter when you're not even home! Sort of. In the fall, toymaker Mattel will launch Puppy Tweets, the company’s first dog toy. As the name indicates, the device allows dogs to mini-blog what’s happening in their lives in 140 characters or less.

Attach the Puppy Tweets tag to your dog’s collar, and her every movement or bark will trigger one of 500 messages—from “I finally caught that tail I’ve been chasing and….OOUUUCHH!” to “I bark because I miss you. There, I said it. Now hurry home”—posted to your dog’s Twitter account.


The device (suggested retail, $29.99) is admittedly a little cheesy, but who am I kidding, I totally want one for my dog. Like most dog parents, I’m curious as to what he does all day (I suspect sleep) but still, I imagine it would make the long hours at the office a bit more entertaining if punctuated by his “tweets” over the course of the day, which perhaps is at the root of Mattel’s venture into a world beyond Barbie. 

News: Guest Posts
In the Crowd at Westminster
Walking into a childhood dream

I dreamed about Westminster the way other children do Disneyland. As a dog-obsessed child, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was the ultimate fantasy somewhere glamorous and far away from the abusive place I called home. Although I watched Westminster on TV every February, I’m not sure I really connected it with a real event. It seemed too good to be true.

Growing up, dogs were my salvation. My first dog Peepers, a shy Lhasa Apso, was the only real friend I had for most of elementary school. Together we’d sit in the family room and watch the dog show long after I was supposed to be in bed. It’s been many years since my February has been defined by dog shows, and yet I jumped at the opportunity to attend Westminster.

As a teenager, I trained and competed in obedience, tracking and the sport I loved above all else agility. I dove into the dog world, spending weekends at trials and evenings training. At seventeen, the situation with my family deteriorated and I was forced to leave home. With no job and nowhere to live, I had no choice but to rehome my dogs—Snickers (a Miniature Schnauzer) and Flash (a Sheltie). Losing my dogs, and in turn loosing the dog world was more devastating than losing my parents. This week, walking into Madison Square Garden was the first time I’ve been able to bring myself to attend a dog show since.

After arriving, I stood in the middle of Westminster and looked at the hundreds of dogs in the bench area bored, and stressed and awaiting their turn in the ring. I was struck with the question of why I wanted to be there and contribute to an industry and event that goes against so many of my political and ethical beliefs. These are dogs who rarely, if ever, are given the chance to actually be dogs. Owners spend hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning dogs who barely know them since they spend years on the road with handlers. I saw dogs who look like they’ve never been given the chance to run and play in a muddy dog park, and even dogs with personal bodyguards.

Yet, despite my skepticism I couldn’t deny there was something magical about being surrounded by dogs, in arguably one of the most prestigious venues NYC has to offer. 

I wanted to attend Westminster because it’s full of history, like a museum, a living and breathing monument to dogs. In that way, I was not disappointed. Westminster was a bit like a very grand museum, except that the “artifacts” were dogs, many with health problems, unable to do the jobs they were breed to do. But I can only criticize so much because it’s clear the organizers, handlers, judges and spectators love those dogs just as much as I love my own, and who am I to argue with love?  I can’t deny there was something deeply satisfying about being surrounded by thousands of other people as obsessed with dogs as I’ve been my entire life.

I stayed for a few hours, watched Dalmatians, Border Collies and Keeshonds in the ring. I made my rounds of the venders (alas all the freebies were things my highly allergic pup couldn’t have), swooned over my favorite breeds in the benched area, and celebrated the number of rescue and therapy organizations with booths.

Leaving Westminster, I thought about how Mercury, my funny little mutt, would never win best in breed because he doesn’t have one. He wouldn’t win Best in Show because he’d never make it through the door. Attending Westminster I was able to see both sides: the fun and glamour of being surrounded by such incredible creatures and the ethical implications of breeding. Being at Westminster meant saying goodbye to a childhood dream. The dream ended not simply because of a shift in politics, but because I don’t need it anymore.