Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.
Wellness: Health Care
February 11 2013
Dog? Check. Buccal swab? Check. Apply the latter to the former, inside of cheek. Rub for 10 seconds. Voilà. DNA collected.
Until fairly recently, the garden-variety dog owner could only wonder if potential problems lurked in her dog’s DNA. Now, however, it’s possible to know—maybe not everything, but at least the possibilities. Which can be kind of comforting, since it allows you to focus your anxiety where it might be more useful.
As dogs age, they display a number of signs similar to those experienced by aging humans, among them, loss of muscle tone and strength. And, like humans, those symptoms can be chalked up to simple aging. For the prone-to-worry among us, they can also be signs of something more dire, such as degenerative myelopathy, or DM (see Nick Trout’s column in the Spring 2013 issue for more on that).
For answers, we turn to our vets, and increasingly, to science. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals offers much, much more than insights into a dog’s predilection for, say, dysplasia or subluxations. This nonprofit, which was incorporated in 1966 and began with the mission of evaluating and genetic counseling for those whose dogs were at risk of hip dysplasia, has evolved its objective: “To improve the health and well being of companion animals through a reduction in the incidence of genetic disease.” (They’re also including other companion animals these days, cats, for instance.)
So, when I started noticing hesitations and missteps in my large-breed, 14-year-old dog’s gait, I wasted no time. Going to the OFA website, I was able to request the DNA test for DM, pay for it online and have the kit sent to me. Once I received it, it was comparatively easy to do the cheek swab required (it would’ve been easier with just the tiniest bit more cooperation from the dog in question, but then, that would’ve been out of character). Some DNA tests require a blood draw, which needs to be done at a vet clinic, but many are equally reliable via cheek swab, which pretty much anyone can do at home.
The instructions were simple, as was the return. Within in days, I had a response from the University of Missouri’s Animal Molecular Genetics Lab, where the DNA was evaluated. I was glad to see that the test came back N/N, or no genetic markers for DM. But even if the results had been different, I would have at least known, and knowing is always better. Having this test done also meant I could provide my vet with one more piece of information that he could factor in to his diagnostic consideration.
Another benefit is that by having this sort of evaluation done, you—via your dog—are contributing to the larger body of knowledge on genetic diseases. The samples and associated information about the dog become part of a DNA repository, which may in the future provide answers to some of dogs’ more vexing health issues.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Make a day of it and get great take-away ideas
January 24 2013
How many public botanical gardens welcome both you and your dog? Not many, we’d wager. But the Oregon Garden, an 80-acre botanical sanctuary located about 45 miles south of Portland, takes another point of view. Among their more than 20 specialty assemblages is the appealingly named “Pet Friendly Garden.” Horticultural manager Jill Martini says that the purpose is to show visitors how to turn their home gardens into safe playgrounds for their pets. “With a little strategy, your plants and your pets can live in harmony,” she notes.
In the Pet Friendly Garden, plants are edible, water is plentiful and flowers are undisturbed. Pathways direct pets through and around the garden, and shade is in ample supply. In other words, dogs can dig the garden without digging up the garden. The Pet Friendly Garden also offers information on edible plants, including catnip, catmint, wheat and oat grass for cats, and dwarf apples, blueberries and gooseberries for dogs. A take-home brochure lists plants that can be harmful to pets.
“The Pet Friendly Garden is part of our larger mission to provide a unique and entertaining garden experience while offering practical ideas for your own garden,” Martini says. “We invite you to bring your pet and make a day of it.”
Dog's Life: Travel
Pack up and head for a Winter Escape
December 28 2012
Asheville, North Carolina
When it’s time to settle down for the night, there’s a raft of options, starting with Barkwells’ fabulous cabins, acres of fenced meadows and dog-loving amenities. For a historical venue, check out Applewood Manor Inn B&B, the Reynolds Mansion or the Biltmore Village Inn, which is closest to the Biltmore Estate. There, don’t miss Cedric’s Tavern (named after one of George Vanderbilt’s beloved dogs), or the Creamery, both of which have outdoor seating your dog can share with you.
Marfa may be small, but it has a dog-friendly eatery. Squeeze, across from the Presidio County Courthouse, serves up a mean breakfast and lunch as well as an astounding list of healthy drinks and smoothies; enjoy them on the patio with your pal. The Thunderbird, a retro 1950s, locally run hotel, offers a pool and unpretentious, dog-friendly hospitality. However, the go-to spot for intrepid travelers and their dogs has to be El Cosmico, 18 acres of funky coolness dotted with refurbished vintage trailers, modern yurts, safari tents and teepees. Liz Lambert, who opened El Cosmico in 2009, calls it “part … campground, part creative lab.” An open-air bathhouse and cooking area are among its charms. (Not quite so charming are the goatheads, spiny seeds that can play rough with dogs’ paws; if your dogs will wear them, bring booties.)
November 8 2012
Two young women separated by 60 years fight for and find salvation in their dogs—specifically, in their sturdy, wolf like Siberian Huskies. For the Chukchi people who developed the type over more than 3,000 years, the dogs also had a spiritual role as guardians of the gates of heaven. The way people treated their dogs determined whether or not they would be allowed through those gates.
An Echo through the Snow is a tightly woven tapestry of past and present. It begins in 1929, with the Red Army’s eviction of the Chukchi from their northeastern Siberia homelands. Jeaantaa, a young Chukchi woman, is Keeper of the Guardians, the dogs who “had been at the center of Chukchi life since woolly mammoths had lumbered along beside them.” The Keeper’s first responsibility and loyalty was to the dogs, an obligation that came before everything and everyone else, including the Keeper’s own life and family. As Soviet soldiers advance on her village, Jeaantaa gives a precious ceremonial sled and 30 young dogs and puppies to an American who had come from Alaska in search of a lead dog, then flees with a team of elderly Huskies.
The second strand picks up in 1992, with Rosalie, an 18-year-old trying to survive in a small Wisconsin town on the shores of Lake Superior. Slowly being destroyed in an early, disastrous marriage, Rosalie defies her brutal husband to rescue her own Guardian, Smokey, a neglected Huskie that rumor has it will soon be shot by his drunken owner.
Each woman’s path unfurls through the book and in the end, the two paths merge in a surprising yet credible way. In between are marvelous descriptions of traditional Chukchi life, Siberia, sled-dog training and racing, and, of course, the glorious Huskies who are the true, beating hearts of both women’s lives.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
An SAR call to action
August 21 2012
In the wake of a disaster, the first critical task is to find survivors. To accomplish this, we turn to dogs for help. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, mudslides, terrorist attacks—search and rescue teams are on the spot and on the job until the last person is found.
The nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) estimates that the nation needs more than 400 Advanced Certified canine search teams to adequately respond to disasters. But today, there are just 180 teams, and experienced pairs are retiring every year. To help narrow this gap, SDF has secured 122 acres in Santa Paula, Calif., on which it plans to build the first national training center of its kind in the country. Over the next three years, SDF plans to raise $15 million, which will be used to purchase the land, construct the facility and establish a maintenance endowment. The center will also allow SDF to consolidate its kennels, search-training sites and offices in one location.
Founded in 1995 by retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville, SDF’s mission is to “produce the most highly trained DHS/FEMA Advanced Certified canine disaster search teams in the nation.” To accomplish this mission, the organization accepts donations of dogs from individuals and rescues dogs from shelters, trains them, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders. Both the canines and the training are provided at no cost to the departments. Completing the loop, SDF also makes a commitment to the lifetime care of every dog it accepts into the program, regardless of whether or not the dog completes the training; once rescued, these dogs never need to be rescued again.
For more about their programs and to make a donation to this or another SDF project, visit their website or phone 888.459.4376.
The Penguin Press, 238 pp., March 2008; $25.95
April 9 2012
This is a story of a life measured out in dogs. Today, Morie Sawataishi is 94, and when he looks back at the road he’s traveled, the signposts all look like Akitas.
Akitas are dogs of Japan’s snow country: long, heavy legs; tightly curled tails; great stamina; and a thick double coat heavy enough to protect them in all kinds of weather. These were the dogs who are thought to have come onto the main island of Japan with the first tribes of migratory hunters some 2,000 years ago, and who, for 300 years, were inspirations for Japan’s samurai class. The story of Hachi-ko—the Akita who, daily for nine years, met the four o’clock train at the Shibuya station, watching for his deceased master—is known by every schoolchild.
Yet, during World War II, the breed came close to being wiped out. The military paid dearly for heavy Akita pelts, which were used to line officers’ coats, and in those grim times, there was no shortage of sellers.
In Dog Man, Martha Sherrill describes how Sawataishi—a single-minded man with a fierce will—helped save the ancient Akita from almost certain extinction. To Sawataishi, the Akita wasn’t exotic; for him “it was simply the local dog, the regional dog, the breed he’d seen everywhere as a child growing up in snow country.” No one was more surprised than him when, in his 30s and newly returned from a stint in the Japanese navy, he was overcome with a desire for an Akita. By that time, there weren’t many around, and because food was scarce too, feeding a dog was a hard thing to do. But Sawataishi persevered, and one day, came home with an Akita puppy—to the immense dismay of his wife.
This wasn’t the first unconventional thing Sawataishi had done; within days of marrying a well-educated girl from Tokyo, he took her to the island’s far north to live near his family. She returned to Tokyo while he served his time in the navy, but when he completed his duty, back they went to snow country, where everything was not only colder, it was more difficult. Thirty years ago, when he decided to build a traditional cottage on slopes of Mount Kurikoma, everyone else in the family objected, and some thought he’d lost his mind. But build it he did. He didn’t want the things most of his countrymen craved: a golf membership, a fine home in Tokyo, an easy life. No, he wanted space, and quiet, and room for his dogs. And there, on the side of the mountain, he found them.
This is not only a story about a man and his dogs, it is also the story of a time in Japan that Americans heard little about. During World War II, it was hard for those in the U.S. to imagine that there were people in the island nation who didn’t want to kill them, people who were appalled by the military’s raging ambition. In Dog Man, we learn about some of these “other” Japanese and the hardships they endured as every resource their country could muster went to support the military. Who lived in fear of bombers overhead. Who, starving, were urged on to even greater sacrifices by their emperor. Under those circumstances, Sawataishi’s desire for a dog is both a snapshot of normalcy and emblematic of his independent and determined nature.
“In the old days of Japan, honoring the specific look or ‘breed’ was never part of the dog tradition. Spirit was the thing one hoped to keep alive.” Dog Man is a celebration of a man with spirit to spare, and of the dogs that marked and enriched his life.
Buy this book
June 28 2011
“You take in dogs?” Lonely after the loss of their 14-year-old German Shepherd, Barrie Hawkins and his wife embarked on rescue work, starting GSD Homefinders (gsdhomefinders.org.uk) in their rural English village with only the most general idea of what it would involve. Word spread quickly, and in no time, all manner of Shepherds in need of homes turned up on their doorstep. In Tea and Dog Biscuits, Hawkins chronicles the couple’s first year of rescue and fostering. He does a lovely job describing each dog and is candid about his general ineptitude, especially in the early days. This is a story of hope and healing, both of the dogs and of the couple who took them in.
News: Guest Posts
Attack of the hairballs? Furminator to the rescue.
March 10 2009
Where there's a dog, there's dog hair, and if you have double-coated dogs, you’re looking at dog-hair dust bunnies the size of, well, actual rabbits. After living with Huskies for more than 25 years, I was skeptical that any single grooming device could make a difference. Until I tried the FURminator. This cool tool with a silly name is almost magic. Not only does it leave the dog’s coat tidy and sleek, it’s nicely weighted so it’s easy on the wrists. Plus, it doesn’t get jammed up with hair and won’t scratch your dog’s skin. Watch the video on the FURminator website--that carpet of loose hair isn't advertising exaggeration. This is one tool I'd hate to be without.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Severn House Publishers, 224pp., 2011; $28.95
It’s been way too long since the last Holly Winter mystery hit the shelves — 2007, to be precise, when All Shots was released. But finally, oh finally, our patience is rewarded with the 19th in the series: Brute Strength.
Fights, frights and mysteries break out at every turn in this new book. Amazingly, none of them are of the canine variety. Rather, Holly’s family and friends are the ones doing the scrapping. Turning down adoption applicants for her local Alaskan Malamute rescue group doesn’t win Holly any points, either. The big story, however, is the way catastrophe seems to surround a new neighbor, a woman with a gorgeous and slightly overweight Malamute female, the latter of whom has her almond-shaped eyes on Sammy, Holly’s young Mal.
Add references to Jane Austen, clueless (and careless) breeders, and observations on real-life training techniques and the scientific investigation of dog cognition and you have a literary meal dense and rich enough for the hungriest Malamute. Speaking of which … Over the years, I’ve learned as much about the behavior of northern breeds by reading this series as I have from much more serious works. At least once, and usually more often, I find myself smiling in recognition as Conant describes a typical behavior — in this case, the mealtime feeding frenzy, which Holly chooses not to train her dogs out of: “I have seen sick and dying dogs become indifferent to food and refuse it altogether. These raucous displays of appetite are confirmations of health, and I revel in every leap and every shriek.” To which I say amen.
As she frequently does, Conant keeps multiple story lines going, wrapping them up tidily at the end, albeit with a major scare as part of the conclusion. Now, when’s the 20th Holly Winter mystery coming out?
How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
Dogs and wolves may have more than 99 percent of their DNA in common, but when it comes to understanding dogs, John Bradshaw says it does them an injustice to look to wolves as models. Not only did domestication have a profound impact, but also, many early wolf studies were carried out on groups of unrelated animals forced together in artificial environments, which resulted in behaviors not exhibited by wild-living wolves.
Using this model has led to what he calls “one of the most pervasive—and pernicious—ideas informing modern dog-training techniques”: that dogs are driven to set up dominance hierarchies. This has real consequences for their well-being. Bradshaw suggests that many of the behavior problems that result in dogs being abandoned or euthanized can be laid at the door of inept training, especially training based on force.
What matters, he says, is how dogs actually learn. Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, provides a wellgrounded overview of the Canis family’s evolutionary journey. He also considers dogs’ brainpower, emotional states, sensory capacities and problems that come with breeding for looks rather than temperament.
The point of all this science is to lay the foundation for his central thesis: “If owners were able to appreciate their dogs’ intelligence and emotional life for what it actually is, rather than for what they imagine it to be, then dogs would not just be better understood—they’d be better treated as well.” Ultimately, this is what makes the book so appealing. He does more than simply lay out interesting theories; he uses science to advocate for a better life for companion dogs.
Listen to John Bradshaw's interwiew with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.
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