Home
Sheila Pell

Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.

Wellness: Health Care
Bone Regeneration: From Science Fiction to Fact
Bionic Dog
Whisky - Bionic Dog

Something was wrong with Whiskey, and it wasn’t lethargy, whining or refusal to eat that tipped off his owners. It was chew sticks, unchewed. For the 10-year-old Small Munsterlander, chewing was a lifelong obsession. It had been a good life, one spent running down San Francisco city sidewalks; playing in the parks; exploring neighborhood shops; and, of course, chasing toys on the beach.

Whiskey’s owners, Tom Swierk and Robin Addams, indulged his appetite for beef tendons and other treats. The dog they had acquired as a young pup still had “lots of sass,” as Swierk describes him, or he did until last Thanksgiving, when his owners realized he had lost interest in chewing, one of his favorite pastimes. The Small Munsterlander, a hunting breed that originated in Munster, Germany, has been bred for centuries to thrive on chasing and retrieving. True to his roots, Whiskey was a friendly, devoted dog with an intense streak that his owners channeled into play. When Whisky ignored his chew toys, Swierk thought it was a problem with a tooth, and took him to the vet.

It was cancer.

Oral cancer, both malignant and benign, is not uncommon in dogs. Unfortunately, Whiskey’s tumor wasn’t benign. The lesion on his lower left gum was malignant squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common oral malignancy in dogs. In humans, it accounts for 70 percent of all oral tumors.

The wrenching news came with a silver lining: the cancer hadn’t spread to other organs. “This type of malignant tumor metastasizes less than 10 percent of the time,” Swierk says. It is known for its aggressive growth, however, and the tumor had already invaded Whiskey’s jawbone. Nearby were lymph nodes, a ready target and a pathway for the cancer to spread.

What, then, could be done? The usual course of action was to amputate the affected bone, sometimes using chemotherapy and radiation. Another common treatment involved shaving the growth, Swierk says, but that would also mean subsequent periodic surgeries. With the diseased bone removed, Whiskey’s chances for a full recovery were good. A life without chewing, however, wasn’t so promising.

After amputation, the jaw is never quite the same. The teeth and bones gradually fall out of alignment, and the dog’s teeth can cause ulcerations in the hard palate. He could eat, but there would be no more chew toys. He could not play ball or tug of war.

As it turned out, there was another option. A team of vets at the University of California, Davis, had been working on a fix for pets who lost jawbone to disease or injury. It had only been used in five other dogs, but the results had been good. Their vet referred him to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, 73 miles east of San Francisco.

It was a done deal for Swierk and Addams, who were prepared to travel to New York, if that’s what it took to not only save their dog, but have him back whole, and to pay the $8,000 treatment cost. Whiskey was more than a pet to them — he was their companion.

“Whiskey is our world, plain and simple,” Swierk says.

Bone regeneration was seen as science fiction in 1948, when Dr. Marshall R. Urist, a UCLA orthopedic surgeon who pioneered the field, got started. Urist spent five decades at the bone research laboratory at UCLA, where he discovered how to use proteins to stimulate skeletal repair.

In 1971, he proposed the name “bone morphogenetic protein” (BMP) for the growth-promoting factors he used to prompt new bone growth in rabbits. The bone proteins act as signals to stem cells, which migrate to them and are converted into bone-forming cells. These cells then grow bone in the area where the BMP was placed.

Naturally occurring BMP is found within bone, but clinically useful amounts can’t be easily extracted from human donor bone and so must be genetically engineered in the lab.

At UC Davis, Whiskey was in the care of a team of vets who had been perfecting a new procedure to regrow damaged jawbone, work that drew on Urist’s research and other experimental and clinical treatments developed for humans. The team included Dr. Dan Huey, a biomedical engineer; Dr. Boaz Arzi, a veterinary surgeon; and Dr. Frank Verstraete, who heads the dentistry and oral surgery service at the veterinary teaching hospital. Their goal was to put biomedical approaches to bone replacement to use in veterinary practice. Once they had refined a technique that would work for dogs, they put out the word, and soon referrals from other vets were coming their way.

“It wasn’t an experimental study, just an innovative application of existing materials,” Verstraete says.

Over a two-year span, eight dogs have undergone the procedure, and to date, all are doing well, the vets say. Each dog spent three days at the teaching hospital for an exam, surgery and recovery, followed by three post-operative exams.

Whiskey, their sixth patient, had the largest lesion. There was no getting around it: he would lose much of his jaw. But with the help of a titanium plate, a sponge and some bone proteins donated by Pfizer, he would grow a new one in a matter of months.

The team’s first task was to decide how much bone to take in order to remove all of the cancer. That proved to be 2.5 inches, or about half of Whiskey’s lower left jawbone. Once the diseased bone was out, in went a titanium plate built by Dr. Arzi, which was screwed into place on the remaining bone.

But the titanium plate alone was not enough to hold the jaw together. The greatest risk was failure of the plate due to the large gap where the bone had been, Dr. Verstraete says. Over time, pressure on the plate would cause the surrounding bone to resorb.

Enter the scaffold: a stiff, sponge-like piece of material that was fitted into the space. It, too, was only part of the solution. The next step in building a new jaw would require Whiskey’s own stem cells, attracted to the bone proteins in which the scaffold had been soaked. Like a magnet, the bone proteins would draw stem cells from the dog’s surrounding bone and soft tissue to the scaffold, where they would attach and turn into bone cells, according to Dr. Huey. The new bone cells would eventually fill the entire void and integrate with native bone. On a molecular level, the new bone is the dog’s own, with a DNA makeup identical to other bones in his body.

There is no need to match the proteins to a particular dog, Verstraete says. “The BMP we use is synthetic, recombinant human (rhBMP-2). It doesn’t elicit any antibody response in experimental animals.”

Just as the vets borrowed from human medicine, their procedure for dogs will now find its way back into human medicine. Their success with the eight cases has given them material for a report on the work, which they plan to submit to a scientific journal.

What lies ahead for the promising surgery? The vets hope to be able to modify the technique for use with larger jawbone defects in animals. Also on the horizon: human arm and leg bones. There is more work to be done, however. “The technique that we used has not been done for weight-bearing bones yet,” Verstraete says.

Is the new method a cancer cure, or a quality-of-life issue?

“Both,” Verstraete says. “We only do the surgery for tumors that haven’t spread. Reconstruction greatly improves the quality of life compared to the previously used technique.”

Swierk knows there’s no guarantee that Whiskey will remain cancer-free. “The assumption is that it’s a cure, but the verdict is still out.” But based on Whiskey’s September checkup, it’s “so far, so good.”

Swierk says the bionic jaw is doing its job. “He eats all his yummies as he did before.” In addition to munching kibble, caulif lower and chew sticks, he’s back to chewing and chasing balls and toys. Swierk isn’t surprised that their dog has bounced back, or that the new technology was available right when he needed it. “We never doubted for one minute that Whiskey would succeed with this new cutting-edge surgery.” It’s all part of Whiskey’s good nature, Swierk says.

“He’s led a charmed life.”

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Nose for Nature
Dogs help game wardens work

When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.

It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.

A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.

No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.

 

How It Works

“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.

Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.

 

Training Day

Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.

Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.

Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.

The teams also work on different kinds of footing to meet the challenges encountered in the field. Ramps and stairs teach them to be aware of their feet. People can see their feet and watch each step; dogs can’t. Obstacles—things the dogs go up, over, under and through—are also put to use. “Everything is in building blocks,” Shimek says. With tubes, for example, they start with straight ones and add culverts as the dog gains confidence. “When Iris goes in, we listen for the tail,” Shimek observes. Thump, thump, thump: she’s doing fine. As she exits, they watch her behavior. Smiling? Stressed?

Iris is also watching her handler, according to Shimek. “Dogs are masters of body language. They read the handler when the handler has no idea.” Her secret for turning out successful teams? Positive reinforcement, behavioral modification and building trust between handler and dog. She believes that when a dog fails to learn, it is always the handler’s fault. Even as the person is training the dog, “the dog is teaching the handler how they learn.”

DFG’s K-9 program has two types of trained dogs, both certified to detect specific odors. Dual-purpose teams locate people, apprehend suspects, and perform tracking or trailing duties. Detection teams focus on odors and evidence; illegally taken wildlife, invasive species, firearms, spent casings, and more. The dogs may be trained to track, but not contact suspects. Depending on their locations, teams are taught to detect bear, bear gallbladders, deer, fish, elk, abalone, waterfowl and squirrel. A minimum of five scents must be mastered to pass the academy.

 

An Urgent Problem

DFG’s K-9 program began in 2007. The agency estimates that one well-trained dog can save roughly 800 personnel hours per year. With 20 trained dogs on duty, they’re well on their way to meeting their 24-dog goal. Shimek’s current scent dog, a black Lab named Lance, certified with her in May, as did five other teams. Nearly 50 out of 58 counties in California have added K-9 support.

A shortage of wardens lends urgency to the K-9 program. In California, for example, there are 200 wardens for every 180,000 people, according to the HSUS. This is, they say, the lowest ratio “in any state or province in North America, and a number that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.” In the documentary Endangered Species: California Fish & Game Wardens, filmmakers James and Andrew Swan spotlight the result of that shortage: organized crime has become involved in poaching, and a wildlife black market that generates more than $100 million annually has been created.

Poachers—who hunt in the off-season; take more fish or game than allowed; or illegally sell abalone, sturgeon, bears and many other species—put enormous pressure on wildlife. So do pollution, habitat destruction and the insidious practice of introducing non-native fish like northern pike and white bass into California's lakes and rivers.

In April 2011, HSUS created the California Anti-Poaching Action Network. Their objective is to address the warden shortage by mobilizing groups of community-based volunteers to closely follow poaching cases in their counties and encourage prosecutors and judges to deal with poachers in a meaningful way.

 

Habitats Under Siege

Poaching is not the only problem, however. The West’s rich variety of environments creates endless opportunities for invasive plants and animals, “alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health,” as defined by the National Invasive Species Council. The U.S. Geological Survey is also concerned about the effects of these interlopers, pointing out that exotic species “have altered physical processes related to fire and hydrology in a manner favoring their further expansion.”

Quagga and zebra mussels, hitchhikers that travel from the Baltic Sea to the U.S. in ships’ ballasts, are the top two offenders on the list of threats posed by invasive species. These rapidly reproducing mussels clog water-delivery pipes and devastate waterways. “Our department is the only state agency in the nation that is training dogs to detect mussels,” Shimek says. That training began in 2008, when Shimek took stock of the looming threat. So far, the state’s boat-inspection program has yet to put the dogs to work in any systematic way, relying instead on human inspectors. Still, the dogs are getting ready for deployment. In fact, K-9 invasive-species detection is a whole new arm of conservation.

 

The Friendly Factor

From the standpoint of agencies whose employees carry firearms, dogs are also helpful when it comes to public perception. Dogs’ popularity was among the justifications offered by Colonel Dabney Watts for adding a K-9 program to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The idea had been kicked around over the years but never got going, and Watts believed he had solid evidence of its usefulness with everything from agency branding to reducing employee hours in the field. “We sent a survey to 18 states” with K-9 programs, he told colleagues in an April 2011 presentation, “and got 14 very positive responses.”

Today, 24 wildlife agencies in the U.S. have K-9 units, Watts said. Their time has come. “There will be other uses for these dogs, non-traditional ones,” in the future, he added.

The nation’s first wildlife K-9 program began in New York in 1978 with the Department of Environmental Conservation K-9 program, and soon caught on in other states. At first, additional police dogs were assigned to the wildlife beat; then in the 1980s, sporting breeds were introduced, which, according to Watts, “helped gain widespread public acceptance for the use of dogs by wildlife agencies.”

About 35 percent of the work is public relations, he estimates—one reason Virginia chose three Labs for its program. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which started its K-9 program in 2002, also uses even-tempered Labrador Retrievers.

In 2011, Idaho joined California and Kansas when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game added Pepper to its workforce. The Lab will help track poachers, assist in search and rescue, and promote conservation efforts by visiting schools and other groups. The program, which consists of only one team, is considered a trial. After five years, it will be evaluated to see how well it worked. If it succeeds, more Scent Detection K9 teams will be authorized for use throughout the state.

How do you train a fish and wildlife dog when you’re launching the first such program in the state? Like Virginia and Kansas, Idaho sent their dog and handler to Indiana, where the state’s Department of Natural Resources hosted a free training academy. Merely attending, however, is no guarantee of success. Of the three dogs Virginia sent, two flunked out in the first 10 days. Luckily, Kansas, with its well-seasoned K-9 program, brought backup dogs.

 

Come One, Come All

Though the work may be similar from state to state, there are also regional differences. Florida is rich in biodiversity—and wildlife crime—but not every state crawls with alligators. In southern California, dogs help conduct surveys of desert tortoises. One thing all wildlife agencies share is the desire for people-oriented dogs, fully socialized with humans and animals alike. Hence, most are companion dogs, pets of wardens who later join the K-9 team. For example, Ruger was Warden Bob Pera’s wife’s dog until the Shepherd decided he needed a job. “He started going to work with me every day,” Pera says.

When it comes to breed, the field is wide open. Mixed breeds are welcome and “pre-owned” dogs of every sort can find a job if they’ve got the knack. When DFG is planning to offer a detection academy, a request is put out to see who’s interested. Shimek then travels to interview candidates, and find out if they have a dog. Once they graduate from the six-week academy, the department purchases the warden’s dog for a dollar.

Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.

As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.

Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.

When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.

Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.

The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.

As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Aging Lessons
Longevity researchers turn to dogs.

Their muzzles may be grizzled and their teeth worn, but old dogs lead the way when it comes to unraveling the secrets of long life. As with their extra-old human counterparts, the question arises: What has enabled them to dodge cancer and other common or crippling diseases?

 

Both dogs and people are living longer these days—a well-reported trend. Still, not all dogs make it to their 13th year. That’s the “lucky number” for Rotts, according to researcher Dr. David J. Waters, director of the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies at Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation at the Purdue Research Center, who pursues his work by keeping tabs on America’s oldest Rottweilers. To qualify for a slot in the foundation’s Exceptional Longevity Database—which includes more than 140 cancer-defying Rottweilers —each dog must be at least the equivalent of a 100-year-old human. That is, 13 in dog years, an age few Rottweilers attain.

 

In March 2010, Waters set out to meet the database’s surviving 15 hardy seniors on a 23-day, cross-country trip dubbed the “Old Grey Muzzle Tour.” These dogs had lived 30 percent longer than expected for a breed whose lifespan averages 9.4 years.

 

The Murphy Foundation, which focuses on “basic, comparative and clinical research at the crossroads of cancer and aging,” is home to the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies (gpmcf. org/celsmainpg.html), the first systematic investigation of extreme longevity in pet dogs. The Exceptional Longevity Database was established in 2005. “At that time, we had information on fewer than 25 Rotts who lived at least 13 years,” Waters says. “Now, we have collected life history data and medical records from almost 200 of these ‘centenarian Rottweilers’ from across the U.S. and Canada.”

 

Working with these senior Rottweilers has allowed Waters to observe their lifestyles and environments and interview owners, who filled out questionnaires about their dogs’ background and medical history, parents’ lifespans, diet—including supplement usage—and more. With each dog, Waters performed an exam and collected DNA samples.

 

Since the completion of the Old Grey Muzzle Tour, Waters has visited 11 additional long-lived Rotts in their homes, making detailed observations and swapping stories with owners. “You’ve heard of the Dog Whisperer. I guess you could call me the Dog Visitor,” Waters says. “At each stop, I’m searching for a special kind of information, finding the differences that make a difference in how we think about the process of successful aging.”

 

These individual dogs interest Waters, but it’s no small task sorting out what makes them unique, which takes the work into the realm of epigenetics, an emerging field that is contributing to our understanding of the heredity and environment puzzle. Beyond both nature and nurture, epigenetics is “the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down at least one successive generation,” according to John Cloud in his article, “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny” (Time, Jan. 2010). “It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next,” writes Cloud.

 

Waters is optimistic about the future of canine studies, saying they hope to expand their work to other breeds. “We have established BAM—the Biorepository at Murphy—the world’s first biorepository of DNA, serum, blood cells and autopsy tissues from exceptionally long-lived dogs,” he says. “Now that we have these biological specimens and medical data in hand, we are gearing up to probe the underpinnings of successful aging.”

 

For years, cancer studies have Been carried out on rodents. But when it came to human clinical trials, the research often didn’t translate well. With the sequencing of the canine genome in 2005, researchers realized that dogs are genetically more similar to people than rodents are, making dogs better models for studying the ways tumors develop. Working with dogs also allows scientists to gather data about cancer progression in a much shorter time.

 

Dogs get the same cancers as humans: prostate, lung, breast/mammary, head and neck, soft tissue sarcomas, melanoma and the bone cancer osteosarcoma, making them a good model for cancer studies in people. The treatment options are also similar: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Statistics compiled by the National Cancer Institute, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Cancer Society are dramatic: Each year, some 6 million of the 65 million dogs in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is the major lifespan glitch, causing nearly half the deaths of dogs age 10 years and over. There are also more than 11 million Americans living with cancer, and over one million new diagnoses each year.

 

Canines offer a unique opportunity to explore the gene-environment interactions that lead to the disease. Because dogs share many of the same environments and living conditions as humans, veterinary pathologists at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine are studying how commonly used environmental chemicals may cause cancer in dogs.

 

Comparative oncology—studying animals with cancer in the context of how people get the disease and respond to treatment—is an emerging field, and one that has caught on with vets, medical oncologists and universities involved in cancer research. At Tufts, vets are collaborating with oncologists at Massachusetts General Hospital to gain insights into osteosarcoma, the most common bone malignancy in humans. According to Dr. Lisa G. Barber, a veterinary oncologist at the Cummings School, limbsparing surgeries used to treat children with cancer were first developed in dogs.

 

Comparative oncologists are working on three fronts: understanding environmental risk factors such as exposure to pesticides and tobacco smoke, unraveling cancer’s genetic footprints and finding new treatments. Other efforts include the Animal Cancer Foundation’s (acfoundation.org) focus on furthering research in this field, the National Canine Cancer Foundation’s (wearethecure.org) creation of a detailed library of every cancer known to affect dogs and the mapping of the canine genome, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

 

Gene mapping will also help Purdue researchers unwrap the treasures of the Old Grey Muzzle Tour—the stuff that makes a Rott a Rott, and an old Rott a longevity scientist’s workhorse. The breed is prone to a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and Waters’ team thinks they may know why. Though it goes against everything vets have been advising for years, recent research conducted by Waters and others indicates that delaying sterilization may increase a dog’s lifespan. Needless to say, the work is controversial. 

 

Study of the non-reproductive effects of sex hormones is in its infancy, but Waters’ work adds to the uncertainty felt by vets who are beginning to question what to tell clients about “fixing” their dogs. For one thing, there’s a higher incidence of testicular and mammary cancer in intact animals. But testicular cancer responds to castration, while castrated dogs have up to a four times greater risk of developing prostate cancer. Sterilized dogs also have a 1.5 to 3 times greater chance of developing bladder cancer.

 

In his blog post, “Spaying, Neutering and Cancer in Rottweilers,” veterinarian Demian Dressler discusses something he says has been “kept under wraps, or hasn’t been spread in the veterinary community.” He cites statistics included in an article in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention (Nov. 2002 11:1434–1440) to explain why Rotts may be vulnerable to osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer common in large dogs: If a male Rott is neutered before one year of age, his risk of osteosarcoma almost quadruples. For a female Rott spayed before one year of age, the risk more than triples. (For other purebreds spayed or neutered before a year of age, the risk more than doubles.) So, those sterilized before their first birthdays had a roughly one-in-four lifetime risk for osteosarcoma and were far more likely than intact animals to develop a tumor. Dressler’s conclusion? “It’s my viewpoint that Rotts should be spayed and neutered after a year of age.”

 

In 2008, Waters offered a look at findings from the first 100 senior Rotts in the database in a presentation he called “Sex, Ovaries, Rock & Roll.” According to Waters, the results support the notion that how long females keep their ovaries influences how long they live.

 

Waters’ team found that Rottweilers spayed after age six were 4.6 times as likely to reach 13 years of age as those spayed at a younger age. Female Rottweilers normally live longer than males, a statistical norm also documented in humans. But according to Waters’ study, published in the journal Aging Cell (Dec. 2009 8(6):752–55), removing ovaries during the first four years of life erased the survival advantage.

 

Waters’ team spent a decade collecting and analyzing medical histories, longevity and causes of death for 119 Rottweilers in the U.S. and Canada, comparing them with a group of 186 Rottweilers with typical longevity. They found that female Rottweilers who kept their ovaries for at least six years were four times more likely to reach exceptional longevity compared to females who had the shortest lifetime-ovary exposure.

 

The findings mirror those of a human study, the Nurses’ Health Study, conducted by William Parker, MD, and colleagues from the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. This study, which included more than 29,000 women who underwent a hysterectomy for benign uterine disease, found that the benefits of ovary removal—protection against ovarian, uterine and breast cancer—were outweighed by a higher mortality rate from other causes. Parker pointed out that for 35 years, doctors have advised women undergoing hysterectomy to have their ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer. According to new findings, women who retain their ovaries for at least 50 years often live longer than those who don’t.

 

For dogs, the comparable age for keeping the ovaries intact, at least for large breeds like Rottweilers, is about six or seven years. (On average, Waters says, the 11 females he visited on his tour had “four years of lifetime ovary exposure.”) How ovaries affect longevity in Rottweilers is not understood, but many vets agree that hormones and genetic controls play a role in cancer.

 

However controversial, current research gives rise to a new set of questions. Waters compares sterilization to an ecosystem. Remove an element—say, caterpillars—and there are likely to be unanticipated consequences. A shorter lifespan might be one consequence of removing ovaries.

 

Nonetheless, Waters doesn’t recommend that people delay spaying their pets, saying that more research is needed. Not every Rottweiler benefits from keeping her ovaries. The challenge now is to identify which dogs will.

 

The research points to three options for owners of female dogs: do not spay; spay the dog after age six; or spay before puberty, which is the commonly accepted practice, and the one most vets recommend. In fact, spaying prevents two potentially fatal health problems: mammary tumors and pyometra, a serious uterine infection. It also helps with behavioral problems related to the heat cycle. And, of course, spaying helps curb overpopulation.

 

Waters’ work is part of a shift towards the study of healthy aging, which is more than simply long life. To that end, Waters, who is also professor and associate director of Purdue University’s Center on Aging and the Life Course, developed the first gerontology training program for vets, which teaches them how to educate owners on lifestyle choices.

 

Those of us who love pets can take heart: a dog’s environment and emotions; their diet; and, yes, their lifestyle, matter greatly. How we care for our dogs can make a huge difference in the quality and length of their lives. For example, studies show that slightly underweight dogs live an average of two years longer than heavier ones. Other studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol plays a role in triggering the growth of later-stage cancer cells. Reducing stress by addressing behavioral problems could lower the probability of cancer in some dogs.

 

According to Waters, the critical choices owners make for their pets involve diet, vaccinations, ovary removal, the use of lawn chemicals and more. In fact, based on human-twin studies, he attributes only 30 percent of age-related health issues to genetics alone, meaning about 70 percent of longevity is attributable to non-genetic factors. “Exactly how long each individual lives is not genetically carved in stone,” Waters says. “When it comes to longevity, the lifestyle decisions we make really matter.”

Dog's Life: Humane
Downtown Dogs
People who matter: Lori Weise

She has been threatened with guns and knives. Dogs she’s saved have killed one another. Prisons and shelters steal her clients. But Lori Weise “can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.”

The 42-year-old cofounder of Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR), a nonprofit affiliate of Friends for Animals in North Hollywood, is a believer that good things happen in bad neighborhoods, every day. With her “get things done” approach, Weise is helping to make a difference by bringing free services to communities the city ignores. Her block party-style spay/neuter events, hosted on the rough and tumble streets of Compton and Watts, are just one example. South Central Dog Club is another. Evidence that her work is being noticed arrives in the form of grants and awards, and a stream of glowing letters, like this one she received from Apple Valley Animal Control after she paid the $90 fee a woman couldn’t afford to claim her old Shepherd, who was facing euthanasia.

“Thank you, Lori…She came in to say good-bye and left with her beloved dog. The dog was so excited—he was talking and whining up a storm the minute he saw her. Makes it all worthwhile…”

Broken Dreams, Broken Lives
The idea of rescuing dogs conjures up images of wagging tails and grateful kisses. But Weise has another story to tell. It’s about dogs and people living in Third World conditions in the seventh-richest city in the world. It’s about a place where people’s belongings fit into a shopping cart—a place where tails don’t always wag. Why would Weise, a soft-spoken, college-educated furniture-factory manager, choose this beat? Why—in a city that worships appearances—would she shun makeup, jewelry and loose hair (she’s already given up TV and movies, since she says that what she sees on the streets is more than she can deal with visually)?

For the dogs, of course. DDR is the only organization in California—if not the United States—founded to assist the most forgotten sector of the American pet world: homeless dog owners.

It began in 1996, when Weise and Richard Tuttlemondo, managers at Modernica furniture factory in downtown Los Angeles, decided to do something about the suffering dogs that swarmed the streets. Their plan to spay and release the females led them to the nearby Skid Row—a 50-square-block urban dead zone where the sun rises each day to a congregation of thousands: people in wheelchairs getting high, half-naked prostitutes, men selling themselves for crack, a sea of bottles tilting.

They ventured into these homeless encampments looking to capture dogs, but learned they would first have to capture the hearts and minds of the people who lived there. Many of the “strays,” they discovered, had owners.

Street Scenes
Iron Head, an older Pit Bull, never strayed far from New Orleans-born Benny Josephs. Josephs was Weise and Tuttlemondo’s first link to Skid Row’s dog-people. He had found Iron Head with a burn mark on his head, as though he’d been hit with a frying pan. He told them he was afraid of the big black dog at first, but soon they were sharing a cardboard “double-decker”; Josephs slept on the upper deck and Iron Head rested below—like a bunk bed.

As Weise gradually learned, the life of a “road dog” is a journey filled with hazards. Road dogs trade the anguish of confinement for the dangers of the street. They may pay for their freedom with their lives, Weise says, but none of these dogs would survive LA’s overcrowded shelters. (In 2001, Iron Head was killed by a stray, who then claimed his territory.)

For the first seven years, Tuttlemondo and Weise confined their efforts to Skid Row, where they encountered the many problems homeless owners face. Necessities were scarce. Dogs couldn’t be licensed if their owners didn’t have an address. Homeless shelters and Section 8 housing don’t accept pets. Disease was rampant. Some dogs were abused, or kept solely to aid panhandlers.“The situations were just slightly above awful, ”Weise says, admitting that initially, they wanted to take the dogs away from these conditions. But, considering that there were too many dogs, that most were highly unadoptable and that the owners objected, separating dogs from homeless people who’d been caring for them didn’t feel right.

Instead, Tuttlemondo and “Miss Lori, the dog lady,” as Weise became known, brought services to those who needed them. They delivered food, took dogs to the vet, bought some from abusive owners and housed them in kennels that Tuttlemondo built behind Modernica. They solved the licensing problem by providing their business address, and paid the fees to license more than 300 dogs. Today, Josephs is one of only two Skid Row clients. While they continue to work with the homeless, there are far fewer Skid Row dogs, thanks to their successful spay/neuter campaign.Gradually, DDR’s focus has shifted to low-income owners in Watts, Compton and South Central LA.

But Weise still keeps an eye on Skid Row, where she often brings dinner to Josephs, who walks unsteadily as the result of an old gunshot wound. Josephs now lives in an alley, in a fenced industrial yard. His new outdoor “spot” has a bed, running water, TV,DVD player, a microwave— and plenty of space for his adopted “kids,” Twiggy and Lizzy (mixed breeds), and Freeway (a bouncy Pit Bull).

“I don’t know what I’d do without ’em,” Josephs says.He finds it easy to explain why so many have crept into his fold over the years:“I got some kind of magic with dogs.” He has rescued hundreds,Weise says.“And he’s a lost a few too,” she adds gently, giving him the dinner she has brought.

“You need to call Social Security,” he reminds her. “I will, I will,” she assures him.

Risky Business
One day in 2003, as Weise was walking by a business near Modernica, the owner called out that he had found a dog for her. He led her to a beautiful blue Pit Bull chained in the yard.

By now,Weise was very familiar with her canine client-base.Most were Bully breeds, raised on street survival. Some were trained fighters. All were unpredictable.

She called Tuttlemondo, and together they walked “Blue” to the factory, where their dog Sinbad greeted him. In a flash, Blue went from calm to crazed, lunging so violently at Sinbad that they knew he would kill him. Jumping in,Weise and Tuttlemondo wrestled Blue into a kennel. Locked inside, he exploded, spinning and rocking the frame. The powerful dog then tore a hole in the military-strength kennel, nearly ripping off the door.

Shaken, they rushed him to a vet for boarding, and wondered if it was time to quit.

That same year,Weise’s husband of 14 years moved out, unhappy with her new “calling,”which entailed a seven-day, riskfilled work week. Her beat now covered some of the most dangerous streets of South Los Angeles, where several Skid Row clients had found housing. Weise and Tuttlemondo had a kennel license and nonprofit status.But a huge challenge remained: The dogs were uncontrollable. And unadoptable. There had been fights to the death. Their decision to keep the dogs separated only deepened their distress. Weise was plagued by fears of fights and of failure. Then a law was passed prohibiting the homeless from sleeping on the streets.As their owners were arrested or forced to move on,more dogs were in need of rescue.

One afternoon, a friend convinced Weise to take Blue to meet “dog whisperer” Brandon Fouche of Canine Communications. Arriving at his South Central LA facility, she was surprised to see a pack of Bully breeds playing together. Fouche, a fit black man in his forties known for whisking uncontrollable dogs off to the mountains and returning them transformed, asked her what her dog knew. “Sit, down, heel,” she answered. Fouche told her, the animal shelters would be far less crowded.Aggression is among the 10 reasons dogs are abandoned in Los Angeles, according to data compiled by rescue organizations. Come back in two weeks, he said, and Blue will be running with the others.Weise didn’t believe him. Still, when she saw Tuttlemondo, she told him how inspired she was by the meeting with Fouche. Perhaps it was a turning point.

Two weeks later when she arrived to retrieve Blue, there he was, romping with the pack. “I had tears in my eyes,”Weise recalls.

They brought more dogs to Fouche for rehabilitation. His methods, which focus on the dog’s nature as a pack animal who craves order, help poorly socialized dogs “learn to judge their own aggression,” Weise says.

One day, Fouche turned down a dog.
“You’re gonna do this one yourself,” he told her.
“She’s too aggressive!” Weise complained. Lulu, a stubby white Pit Bull with one blue and one brown eye, was always picking fights.
“You can do it,” Fouche insisted.

So Weise started taking the incorrigible Lulu everywhere. Socialization “boot camp” lasted two solid weeks. Then, before releasing her into a group with a few of the calmer dogs, she walked her up and down the stairs of the three-story warehouse until the potbellied Pit nearly collapsed. It worked. One fight-free encounter led to another. Today, when the group gets raucous, Lulu tattles by barking. “She will kill the fun,” Weise says. “Lulu is more than ready to be adopted out to the right owner.”

The experience transformed Weise as well. Soon after her first successful rehabilitation, she says, “I began to implement programs no one had seen before.”

The Power of the Pack
Every day after work, Weise opens the kennels behind Modernica and about 20 “Bullies”mob together. The yard resembles a preschool, with a plastic pool and other fun fixtures. The dogs tangle, Lulu referees and Weise does her best to stay out of it. Play is expressive and an outlet for normal aggression within the pack, she says.When natural behaviors are suppressed, dogs become stressed, often acting out with greater aggression.“The trick is judging the limit, and what all the barks and growls mean.”

Unlike rescue facilities, she argues, shelters resemble prisons. The structure isolates dogs, reinforcing their problems and lowering their chances of adoption. She also notes that dogs with low-income owners are more often abandoned because their owners are more affected by fines and fees. Vets in poor neighborhoods have been known to charge very high rates, and neglect to tell eligible owners about free city services, Weise says. In other cases, people have actually chosen homelessness over housing that refuses pets.

When people call DDR, intending to relinquish a dog, volunteer Sandy Dragoits first asks, “What will it take for you to keep your dog?” The many answers to that question have helped inform Weise’s unique programs.While the usual menu of services is offered, there is nothing usual about distributing thousands of hip-hop flyers on gang turf that beckon homies to “Pimp Your Pit” and “Get Fixed or Die Tryin’.” Or hosting block party–style events in places like Watts, or Compton; a city only ten square miles in size that’s home to over 57 active gangs. “People told me it would be a disaster,” Weise says of the first large-scale spay/ neuter event in 2002—“and it turned out great.”

Unlikely Allies
Rosalie Bardwell, 67, a steely Compton volunteer, says that while they are able to manage the crowds, neighborhood reception is sometimes chilly.The notoriously tough city is even less welcoming to outsiders. It may be hard to get the keys to the restroom, says Weise, who often hears comments suggesting she doesn’t belong in a certain neighborhood.“Dog people are dog people,” is her standard reply. She admits that, in some cases—like the time she unwittingly walked in on a drug deal—fear has forced her to leave dogs “in terrible situations.”To deal with these circumstances, she relies on volunteers— her “street soldiers”who know the community. “They’re my eyes,” she says. She’s also learned to practice the “buy-in,” which simply means paying someone for help or information (like distributing flyers).Weise, a rap music lover who finds locations for events from songs, counts rapper Unkal Bean among her allies.Her low-income volunteers attend weekly adoptions, tell her about dogs in trouble, and talk each other into spaying and neutering. Pit Bull breeders are the toughest sell, but Weise takes their unwanted dogs, as well as their concessions: “For what you do, you’re all right.” Recently, the Humane Society’s Chicago dog-fighting division approached Weise, wanting to duplicate her urban programs in other cities with a “Pit Bull problem.” Her advice to rescue groups seeking streetcredibility: “Realize that you are the one who needs the education. Otherwise, there will always be the wall.”

The wall is thick with language, cultural and religious differences, in addition to issues of mental illness. Some owners don’t “believe” in spaying. Others take pride in their dog’s aggression. Weise favors outreach over preachy reform. “I try to set an example,” she says.“Through the dogs, I can promote social change.” She bets her own money on it through housing deposits, rides to appointments —even paying the salaries of homeless people she employs at Modernica.

Finding Safe Havens
 Some ofWeise’s clients rehabilitate dogs. They do so even when the comfort they bring to a dog’s life is missing from their own. Jo Barker,who lives in South Central, has recently undertaken “back-to-back rescues” and facilitated her first adoption— a family who took in a sweet Pit Bull that Barker rescued from a violent neighbor. Barker doesn’t go looking for them. “The good dogs always find me,” she says. And they are never just dogs. They are the “coffee hound,” the “pogo stick,” the “Dachshund who saved himself...”

Her favorite part of rescue is the first few days,“watching them crash into relaxation,” then “seeing the refreshment growing slowly into trust and watching them open up…shedding the bad skin and learning new things.” They’re grateful, she feels, “for being given a softer touch in life.”Then there’s the “pure noisy happiness when ‘mommy’ comes home.”

But in 2003, Barker, then 42, had no home. “My whole family’s world came crashing down,” is how she describes her pitch into homelessness.Her son moved in with his girlfriend and Barker’s four dogs stayed in the yard of an acquaintance.“ They were the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night before going back to the shelters,” she says.

She lived this way for three years,moving from shelter to motel to the experimental Dome Village in downtown LA. She was able to keep two of her “kids” (Dekota, a Shepherd-Chow, and Daytona, a Pit Bull), while Weise—whom Goodwill Industries contacted on Barker’s behalf —took the others.When Daytona later died of leukemia, Barker was crushed, and Dekota felt the loss as well. Barker insists Dekota cried, showing her attachment to her lost companion by adopting Daytona’s habit of overturning her food bowl with her nose.

Then Boxer came roaring into their lives. The handsome but headstrong young Pit Bull had spent his life chained to a tree, taunted by cranks. Unable to keep him, his owners gave him to Barker. At the same time, Dome Village was closing its doors, although there wasn’t much to close. According to Barker, the 250- square-foot fiberglass domes weren’t even affixed to the ground. “Living there was real close to living on the streets,with all the druggies and molesters—knowing anybody could put a fist through the walls, pop open the door and climb through the window,” she says. But it was a roof. Now residents would be back on the streets, or in Section 8 housing— provided they abandoned their dogs. It began with “staff telling the residents they had to give up their dogs for housing,” Barker says.

Just as Barker was taking on the belligerent Boxer, she began a fight to help residents keep their dogs. She dedicated herself to legal research, unearthing documents which showed that under the Fair Housing Act, a homeless person’s dog can be considered an “emotional support” service animal. Such dogs are permitted in Section 8 and other federally assisted housing programs. The sticking point was finding landlords who would willingly accept them. The battle between staff and dog owners raged for months, until the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was called in. LAHSA’s plan was to post the dogs on “Craig’s List” for fostering. Panicked dog owners redoubled their efforts, Barker says, and a flurry of letters were mailed in protest.

After three months of contention, an agreement was finally reached.Residents would not have to choose between keeping their dogs, or a roof over their heads.

Now Barker faced a new struggle with Boxer. She called Weise, and an intensive training session began. She walked Boxer, whom she describes as “a very angry, confused, undisciplined dog,” up to six times a day.Weise waited for a call for backup, but it never came. Today, she says, the difference in Boxer “is like day and night.” He can play with other dogs, and likes some people. She admits that, “without Jo, he would probably be dead.”

To assist with his deprogramming, Barker had him neutered.When Boxer returned home after the surgery, Dekota was ecstatic. That’s when she knew Boxer could stay. “Dekota had accepted him, even with all his bullying vigor,” she says.

They now live in a house in a rough South Central LA neighborhood, where Boxer is learning trust and stability—no easy task, considering his rough beginning. Pit Bulls, Barker says, have especially keen memory retention.To get such a loyal but strong-willed breed to take a submissive role in the family means “controlling a very dominant framework within that type of dog.”

She says he is slowly learning about “other people’s blankies,”her canine code for people in their yard behind their fence. She also mentions a toilet paper fetish and the “modifications” he made to her best wool sweater.

At night, things are easier. Boxer loves to snuggle and “pretends he is a rotorooter crawling under the covers.” She credits Dekota for calming “this devildemon.” He’s finally grasping the difference between what’s okay and what’s harmful, says Barker.

Boxer’s strong urge to protect the home he finally found isn’t altogether unwelcome for a woman living alone in one of LA’s toughest neighborhoods.“He loathes crackheads, heroin addicts and obnoxious drunks,” she says. He also dislikes people who approach them too quickly, especially at night.“He is my bodyguard and house protector,” she says, confessing her belief that it has something to do with the distinct coloring on his shoulders— in the shape of angel wings.

Weise, who sees dogs with similar markings all the time in her work, has a more earthly view of the 70-pound Pit Bull. “Everything Jo has is special,” she says. “She loves that dog.”

Culture: DogPatch
Dog Star
Susan Orlean’s quest for the truth about Rin Tin Tin

What Susan Orlean knew about Rin Tin Tin in 2005 wouldn’t fill a sticky note. What she learned when she embarked on a story about Hollywood animal stars and their trainers for The New Yorker magazine is now filling a book. Rin Tin Tin: His True Story sprang naturally from that assignment, says the New York–based writer, discussing how she happened onto her forthcoming “biography” of the canine actor. “It was kind of accidental—one of the better ways to get onto any project.”

As with her best-seller, The Orchid Thief, Orlean has a knack for bumping into good ideas. She is known for overturning the quiet little story that might have simmered away unnoticed—the obsessive subculture of orchid-collectors, how Americans spend their Saturday nights, the life of a female matador. She has also co-authored a cookbook for dogs. So what captured her interest in such a tried-and-true subject as a pop culture star with a fan club?

Orlean attributes it to the discovery, one surprise at a time, that her assumptions about Rin Tin Tin—whom she knew only from a ’50s kids’ show—were wrong. “I thought Rin Tin Tin was just a TV figure, and had no idea he was a real dog with a real life and a real history. Every bit of reporting I did continued to surprise me on that score.”

The heroic German Shepherd, who starred in 26 movies before his death in 1932, has become more enigmatic with the years. “There are many refuted histories of Rin Tin Tin, many versions of who and what he was,” she says. What didn’t vary, from the original dog to each of his successors, was “a fixation on the character as something almost magical.” Orlean recognized in his human entourage the same “monomania” she’d encountered in the plant enthusiasts she met while working on The Orchid Thief. She became intrigued by Rin Tin Tin’s magnetism, which inspired not only his handlers, but generations of admiring fans. Was it the animal himself, or something he represented, which was also embodied in his string of successors—perhaps the enduring loyalty of an intelligent canine?

So began her three-year quest to untangle his legacy.

Her subject’s almost one-hundred-year history kept Orlean busy traveling—but the travel was “through time more than through places,” she says. Hours spent sifting through archival material made this “a very different project for me,” says the author, who is known for her intensive, in-the-moment reporting. “I did a fair amount of historical research on Orchid Thief, but never in this concentration. The main source has been all the history, the records, all the notes—more than a person.”

Lucky for Orlean, Lee Duncan, the American serviceman who brought the original Rin Tin Tin home after World War I, kept lots of notes, including carbon copies of many of his letters. “I feel in my own way I’ve gotten to know him,” Orlean says. “All the flotsam and jetsam of his life.”

Duncan found Rin Tin Tin as a pup in 1918, in a bombed-out kennel in France. He named him after a puppet called Rin Tin Tin that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck. When the war ended, the pup returned home with him to Los Angeles, where Duncan later taught him tricks that included scaling a wall nearly 12 feet high. As the story goes, his owner believed he was destined for fame.

When Duncan’s protégé successfully filled in for an unwilling wolf in the 1922 movie The Man from Hell’s River, Hollywood producers took notice. The dark-hued Shepherd would be cast as a wolf or wolf-hybrid many times after that. With his starring role in the 1923 silent film Where the North Begins, “Rinty” earned a new nickname, “the mortgage lifter,” as he rescued Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.

From 1930 to 1955, his character was heard in three different radio series, beginning with The Wonder Dog, in which he performed his own sound effects. With his death, his son, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., took over, also appearing in several short films in the 1930s. In 1947, Rin Tin Tin III starred in The Return of Rin Tin Tin, while Duncan’s Rin Tin Tin IV appeared in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, an ABC television series that ran from 1954 to 1959.

His financial success inspired imitators from other studios. “There were dozens and dozens of German Shepherds making movies in the ’20s and ’30s,” Orlean says. This copycat trend reflected “the way people consumed culture from many fewer outlets back then.” Rin Tin Tin: His True Story will cover all of the dogs—every German Shepherd actor surrounding his legacy. “He was a “huge profit machine,” she notes.

The profits didn’t end with his death in 1932 at the age of 14. Nor did the colorful stories. Of the many colliding versions of his life’s events, Orlean finds the one about his death most striking. (One of the most-cited tales has the celebrity dog cradled in the arms of actress Jean Harlow.) “There are what seems like a million stories of how and where the original Rin Tin Tin died. They get quite dramatic and extreme, and the truth is probably much more ordinary.”

As one of the first canine actors, Rin Tin Tin was considered remarkable. By today’s standards, his skills might seem less so due to developments in training techniques that have led to more believable performances. However, in her book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger devotes a chapter to Rin Tin Tin that suggests otherwise: “The astonishing thing about watching Rin Tin Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act,” she writes.

But animal acting was hardly what it is today, with agencies in place and even a “Dog Actors Guild” with a database, searchable by breed, where those with aspiring canine actors post resumes. Another development is the American Humane Association’s involvement in monitoring the welfare of animals during the production of films and television programs. The AHA assumed this role in 1940 with the creation of its Film and Television Unit; acceptable movies and television programs now receive the “No animals were harmed” credit at the end.

The original Rin Tin Tin, though “hardly a model of breeding,” Orlean observes, was saved from genetic oblivion after the death of Lee Duncan in 1960. Earlier, endorsement, breeder Jannettia Brodsgaard had purchased several direct descendants from Duncan in an effort to maintain the line. After her death in 1988, her granddaughter continued the lineage at “El Rancho Rin Tin Tin” in Latexo, Texas.

Rin Tin Tin’s descendants are also trained as service dogs to assist special needs children. Ironically, the breed is being dropped by one major guide dog training school in favor of Retrievers, and has also been targeted in some places for breed bans for being “overly aggressive.” The Shepherd has “more connotations than many other breeds,” notes Orlean. These are, of course, undeserved stereotypes. But Orlean considers it all part of what makes Rin Tin Tin fascinating. “Collies are straightforward. They don’t have as many complexities as the German Shepherd.” And, she adds, “Labs don’t have that kind of history.”

As a child, she was obsessed with German Shepherds—“there was hardly a kid alive who didn’t want one.” But today, she says, “My taste in dogs has changed.” While we are talking by cell phone, her breed of choice bounds out of the bushes and frightens her. “It could’ve been a bear!” But in fact, it’s just a dog—Cooper, her handsome red-and-white Welsh Springer Spaniel.

Has Orlean managed to find the “true” story of Rin Tin Tin?

“I think the true story is that there is no true story, ever,” she says. “There is a story that I think is closest to what really happened, but I think much of what I’ve learned from working on this book, and much of what it’s about, is the frail and faulty nature of memory, and that truth isn’t an absolute.”

What endures is the ideal—and the longing.

“Rin Tin Tin was the ultimate in terms of embodying steadfastness, wisdom and devotion. That’s a pure emotion that people wouldn’t be able to embody, so he represents something even better than human.”

 

Pages