News: Guest Posts
The more I read about how dogs have been very helpful for answering all sorts of questions in the field of conservation biology, the more interested I got in learning more about this exciting and growing field. Thus, I was extremely happy that Pete Coppolillio, the Executive Director of Working Dogs for Conservation, was able to take the time to answer a few questions about just what these amazing beings—the dogs and the humans—do. Their banner reads: We train the world's best conservation detection dogs & put them to work protecting wildlife and wild places. We do it to save the world. They do it for the love of a ball.
They also note:
Our work with canine programs in Africa prevents poaching and reduces illegal trafficking in ivory and rhino horn.
Partnerships with 50 conservation groups have taken us to
Thousands of high-energy dogs are stuck
How and why did you get interested in this project?
I was doing “traditional” or what you might call mainstream conservation, and we wanted to use dogs to learn about African wild dogs, because at that time, handling them was not allowed in Tanzania. As I continued working, I kept running into species that were either too difficult to capture, or situations where we were unwilling to capture them because it was too dangerous or too expensive. After being in the field a few times with dogs I got very enthusiastic about the possibilities they offer, and started pestering the founders of the organization with questions like, “Have you ever thought about using dogs to track or stop aquatic invasive species?” or, “What about disease? You think they could tell the scats of a diseased animal from a healthy one?” All those questions and a little bit of enthusiasm earned me a spot on the Board of Directors, and then when the organization got big enough to have someone direct traffic and chase money full-time, so I said I would love to be the Executive Director… and here I am. The photo above is of Ngaio Richards and Lily taking a break from Cross River Gorilla surveys to meet with school children in Cameroon.
What are the benefits for conservation?
There are so many really significant ways that dogs can push conservation forward. One of the earliest benefits we saw, and one of the most obvious, is simply how sensitive and effective they are at finding rare species. Some nice work was done in the northeastern US and they demonstrated that, at very low densities—in that case just one individual animal in particular a landscape—dogs were 39 times more efficient detecting that animal than camera traps or hair snares.
We have also demonstrated that dogs can do things that simply weren’t possible before. For example, they can detect the microscopic larvae of zebra and quagga mussels. No matter how hard we look visually, we can't see them so that's a game changer for stopping the spread of those two invasive species, which cost us billions and billions of dollars every year. Another surprising benefit of having the dogs working on stopping invasive species was how quickly they work. It can take a human inspector over an hour to do a thorough job looking for mussels hitchhiking on a boat from contaminated waters, but a dog can inspect that same boat in about three and a half minutes. That's a big deal because many states’ check stations are voluntary, and if there's more than one or two boats in line people will simply keep driving by, or the officers themselves will wave them on so that they don't delay them. The photo above is Alice Whitelaw, during Diesel's training in Montana. Diesel now works with the Alberta Ministry of Environment to keep exotic zebra and quagga mussels out of Alberta's lakes and streams.
Source: With permission of Pete Coppolillio
The final thing I'll mention is our dogs’ impacts for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking. In some areas, Africa has lost around 60 percent of its elephants in the last 10 years. Our dogs not only make it virtually impossible to smuggle significant quantities ivory in a vehicle or container, but they can also intervene and prevent elephants from being killed in the first place. One of our dogs, Ruger, who is a lab shepherd mix rescued from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, detected and his handlers seized 13 guns in his first two months in the field. On the face of it, that's an enormous impact, but when you take into consideration that a single gun is often shared by seven, eight, or even more than 10 different poachers, Ruger becomes a one dog force for conservation in Zambia.
Are there any downsides?
I think one of the most important things we've learned—and that's the collective “we” of the organization and the whole conservation detection dog field—is that there are times and places where dogs are the best option, and there are others where the traditional methods still make a lot more sense. Collecting scat and detecting species non-invasively is really valuable and important, but it's very difficult to get mortality data, and by that I mean to figure out what's killing a species, without being able to follow individual animals, and that generally means having to capture and collar them. It's also a little bit uncomfortable when we consider that these dogs are in the middle of very serious and high-level law enforcement. Unfortunately, the people who traffic wildlife are also the same nasty characters who traffic in narcotics, guns and even humans, so this work is not without risks to the people who do it and the dogs to help them. Africa in particular, is also a hard place to be a dog. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, can be really serious for dogs and we have had to figure out ways to protect them from it.
What do you say to people who feel that you're using dogs against their will? Do you think this is so?
When I watch a working dog in the field, I wish that for just a few seconds I could lose myself in my work or my passions as completely as a dog does. I think anybody who sees that happen recognizes that these are very lucky dogs who truly love what they're doing. The days of coercive and dominance-based “training” are really over for serious dog trainers. Positive or reward based training is simply much more effective, and of course it's more ethical, so I can say without a doubt that all of our dogs not only want to work; they love to work. Our dogs also live with their handlers. That’s preferable from a technical standpoint because they really know each other well, so the handler can see when a dog struggles or is even just having a bad day, but it’s also nice because the dogs and handlers are partners for their whole lives, not just for their work.
Are there any other organizations that are doing similar work?
Yes, a little over 20 years, ago Megan Parker, one of our founders, started a collaboration with a woman named Barb Davenport, who is the lead trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, and Sam Wasser, who is a conservation biologist at the University of Washington. Meg and three other women who are all biologists started our organization, Working Dogs for Conservation, and Sam and Barb have started their own organizations as well, and these three are the oldest and most established organizations in the country and the world. We have each grown to occupy slightly different niches now, but we all do similar work. Nowadays, there are lots of conservation detection dogs working in this country, and Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly in Asia and Africa. In 10 years time I believe that every university, every state wildlife agency, and just about anyone doing serious wildlife work will have or use dog teams. They will be as common as camera traps and radio collars for wildlife research, management, and conservation.
Why do you think it took so long for people to recognize how dogs can help us along and not suffer by doing it?
It's a great question. We've spent decades trying to figure out what wild carnivores are doing, as they run around the landscape leaving little messages for each other in the form of scat, or urine, or scrapes, and it took us until the mid 90s to look down at our own dogs and realize they could read the messages themselves, and even more importantly, they’re keen to tell us about it. It's hard to imagine, given that we've lived with these guys for 30 or 40,000 years, but maybe that's why we've taken them for granted.
What have other conservation biologists said about your project?
People love to see what dogs can do, and when we talk with biologists or land or wildlife managers the conversation almost always leads to new ideas and new ways that dogs can help. It's great fun. Dogs are also a great tool for outreach because people love to see what they can do. We often work on projects where biologists have been studying or working to protect an animal for years or sometimes even decades, and they laugh because the first time a dog comes to help them do their work, the press is there, and they want to hear about the project. This is also a pretty good job to have when you go to cocktail parties. A friend of mine recently introduced me as her friend “the environmental conversationalist”, which isn't far from the truth these days, I suppose.
What projects are planned for the future?
This is an exciting time for us. We've grown a lot, and we've moved from being a service provider who sits back and waits for people to ask for our help, to a real driver in our field. We are now able to try new things, develop new methods, and work in places and focus on issues that we think are important for conservation and the health and wellbeing of wildlife. We're going to continue to grow in two important ways. First, we're shifting towards building capacity. That's just a fancy way of saying that we're going to teach others how to do this work, rather than try to do it all ourselves. We believe that conservation dogs need to stop the illicit wildlife trade by being as ubiquitous and effective as narcotic detection dogs. That's a huge, daunting undertaking. Think of all the borders, airports, post offices, shipping terminals, rail stations, and everywhere else that dogs would need to be. By creating model programs and sharing how we do the work we do, we hope to make it as risky to trade and wildlife as it is to traffic drugs.
The second, and maybe even more exciting, growth area for us is through innovation. Every new laboratory technique opens a door for us, by increasing what we can learn from scat. Just last year some of our collaborators made it possible to detect pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and heavy metals in mink and otter scats, so we’ve combined these techniques with dogs’ ability to find those scats, to create a new way to monitor the health of aquatic ecosystems. We also started another related program looking at the ways in which poisons, specifically rodenticides, move through terrestrial food webs. The results can be a little bit alarming, because we find contaminants and poisons in places we thought were pristine, but the information is invaluable in documenting the problem and figuring out how to prevent it.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?
No matter how much I do this work, I continue to be amazed at how effective the dogs are, and how tirelessly and enthusiastically they do their work. We really are only limited by the crazy things we can dream up and ask the dogs to do. As more people know about us and see the possibilities that dogs offer, they support our work, either financially, through donations and grants, or by collaborating with or hiring us to try new things and expand the possibilities. It's really amazing how many different issues or problems are limited by what we can detect, so it's great fun and really gratifying to have a bunch of partners who run around with the world’s best chemical sensors on the front of their faces!
Many thanks, Pete. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. This is fascinating work and I look forward to learning more about your future projects and successes. I imagine there are a lot of dogs who would love working with you. You can contact Working Dogs for Conservation here.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A retired Army captain goes through a harrowing two days at the airport.
Last year Army veteran Lisa McCombs was waiting with her service dog Jake to board an American Airlines flight home, something she'd done many times before. Lisa suffers from PTSD and Jake is able to calm her anxiety and panic before it overwhelms her. However, this time an airline agent approached her in the boarding area and asked "in a condescending tone, 'ummm, are you going to fly with that?" He began repeatedly interrogating her, believing that she was faking a disability. The agent wouldn't accept her email as proof that Jake was a service animal. He said that Lisa could pay $125 to have Jake shipped in cargo or could resubmit her documentation and book a flight two days later. The agents' tone was so harsh that strangers started scolding the agents and comforting her. Humiliated and stressed, Lisa was ultimately not allowed on the flight with Jake.
To make the situation worse, when Lisa cursed in frustration, the agent called the police to arrest her. Since American Airlines wouldn't compensate her for lodging, the officers offered to take Lisa to a shelter.
The next day Lisa booked a new flight with an American Airlines agent who assured her that she'd be able to fly home that day with Jake. The agent noted in the airline computer system that Lisa would be traveling with a service animal. This time Lisa also printed out her documentation that confirmed that Jake's status.
However, the nightmare wasn't over. When Lisa arrived at the airport, she was met with more hostility from another American Airlines agent. He claimed that her paperwork couldn't be confirmed because the doctor's letter was missing a date and Jake's graduation certificate had to be dated within the previous year, both which are not actual requirements to fly with a service dog. Lisa was forced to miss yet another flight.
Desperate, Lisa was about to turn to a different airline when a woman from American Airlines' corporate offices booked her on a new flight and assured her that traveling with Jake would not be a problem. Finally Lisa was able to board, but during the layover in Dallas she says, "an entourage of American Airlines representatives came onto the bridge pushing a wheelchair, while loudly calling out so that all could hear, 'we have a disabled veteran, excuse me, a disabled veteran, we are looking for Lisa McCombs, a disabled veteran." Again Lisa was embarrassed and mortified. She didn't need a wheelchair, though the representatives insisted on escorting her through the airport in one. She finally arrived back at home two days later.
American Airlines' Military and Veterans Programs has since tried to rectify the situation, but this was such a harrowing ordeal for Lisa. I can't imagine that she could ever forget.
She is now filing a lawsuit against American Airlines, and their regional subsidiary, Envoy Air, for their breach of contract and violation of the American with Disabilities Act and disregard of her rights. She's asking for the airline to compensate her tickets, legal fees, and medical treatment.
Lisa developed PTSD after her four years in the Army, touring in Iraq and Afghanistan. When she was honorably discharged in 2009, she had reached the rank of captain, and had received multiple awards for service including the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, the NATO Afghanistan Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Not only is this a serious issue for Lisa, but also for countless others struggling with this illness. Unfortunately there are many people trying to pass off their pups as service dogs to get them on planes, but that's no excuse for airline employees to treat people disrespectfully. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that PTSD afflicts 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 percent of the veterans of the war in Iraq. Those numbers are astronomical. Many people with service animals are not in favor of a registry that would prove status, but with growing numbers of service dogs, airlines need to be sensitive while working under the current laws in place. I hope no one else has to go through a situation like Lisa's.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Michigan man's pre-marital celebration becomes an unforgettable event.
While most bachelor parties are infamous for debauchery, Mitchel Craddock's pre-marital celebration in the Tennessee woods was memorable thanks to his love of dogs. One morning, Mitchel and his seven friends were cooking breakfast when a dog appeared at the front door of their cabin. She wouldn't come inside and looked dehydrated and malnourished. Mitchel could tell she recently had puppies. The guys gave her food and water, slowly gaining her trust. She then started producing milk again.
Soon after, they noticed that the dog was protecting a certain area of the woods, leading the guys to discover seven puppies in a big hole.
“We set each pup down in front of her, and she nuzzled their faces," said Mitchel. "To the person holding them, she gave the look of ‘It’s okay, I trust you.’”
Although the mom was in rough shape, the puppies appeared to be healthy. “Every single one had a big fat belly on them," described Mitchel. "The mom had given the pups literally everything she had.”
The guys knew they couldn't leave these dogs behind. So they gave the puppies a bath and used the bachelor party beer fund to buy kibble. Between the groom, his groomsmen, and their relatives, all eight dogs, including the mom, were adopted. Even cooler, all of the new homes are within a five mile radius, meaning the puppies and their mom will be able to grow up alongside each other.
Mitchel's wife, Kristen, was excited bout their new addition. Given the couple's history, it's no wonder that Mitchel's bachelor party turned into a rescue mission.
“I proposed to Kristen with our Chocolate Labrador," explained Mitchel. "Now it’s our joke that for any of our big life events, we’ll get a dog."
What a heartwarming story!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Does playing after training sessions make a difference?
Many people know that going to sleep after studying helps consolidate the information and commit it to long term memory. (It works out beautifully if the subject was putting you to sleep anyway!) For dogs, a different approach may be worthwhile. Researchers conducted a study in dogs called “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)” and concluded that physiological arousal—in the form of play—following training has a positive effect on learning in dogs.
The subjects of the study were all Labrador Retrievers, which allowed the researchers to make sure that differences between breeds did not influence their results. The dogs were trained in a choice task between two objects that looked and smelled differently. Training took place in sessions of 10 trials with short breaks to walk around outside or rest in a waiting area in between each session. Dogs were considered successful at the choice task when they chose the right object eight or more times in two consecutive trials of 1O.
Once dogs reached this level of success, they either rested for 30 minutes in the presence of their guardian and one of the researchers, or they were active for 30 minutes. Specifically, that activity consisted of 10 minutes of walking on leash, then 10 minutes of off leash play (fetch with a ball or with a disc or tug, depending on the dog’s preference), then 10 more minutes of walking on leash. The dogs in each group (rest or activity) were monitored for salivary cortisol levels and heart rate to confirm that their states of physiological arousal were different. (They were.)
The following day, all of the dogs were tested again to see how many trials it took them to relearn the task. The difference between the two groups was remarkable. The dogs who walked and played after training took an average of 26 trials to relearn the task. The dogs who rested after training needed an average of 43 trials to reach that same level of success. The differences could be a result of chemical changes in the brain.
The brain is affected by chemicals that influence memory, whether those chemicals are naturally produced by the body or given as a drug. Various studies have shown that hormones and drugs that induce high arousal can have positive effects on memory if the brain is exposed to them after training.
The results of this study provide further evidence that arousal following training can be beneficial, since dogs in the active group were more highly physiologically aroused than dogs in the rest group. However, I’m not convinced that the data show that play itself is the key factor that caused the difference between the two groups in the study. Perhaps the walking part of the post-training activity played a role, and it may be that any form of exercise could be beneficial following training.
I hope researchers conduct studies in the future to investigate whether it is truly the play itself that improves learning in dogs. I would love to know if playing during training (as opposed to after) enhances dogs’ learning, whether because of physiological arousal, or simply because it might be easier to learn when having fun.
Whether play is the cause of the difference between the two groups or not, I’m definitely in favor of playing with dogs after training sessions. It provides a mental break for dogs after the hard work of training. Most dogs love training, and the fun of play prevents a negative feeling about the end of a session. Both training and play can strengthen relationships between people and dogs and doing them back-to-back may be especially powerful. I often play with dogs after a training session, and if that enhances their training because of positive effects on memory, that’s another bonus.
Do you play with your dog after training sessions?
Arriving home at 4am with the ghost
This is what I need – belief that everyone
Have we gone too far with this Halloween dog costume thing?
I hate to admit it but I’m a Scrooge when it comes to dressing dogs up in Halloween costumes. I know that some dogs look irresistibly cute but few, in my eyes, really seem to enjoy it as much as we humans do. Especially when the costumes are too elaborate, that seems to be happening more and more. So I was relieved when I read New York Magazine’s blog “The Cut” and how they too frowned at this extravaganza that, at this time of year, is on display at dog runs around the city. Foremost among them is the ever popular event at the Tompkins Square dog run. That particular one we have covered in the past with contributing editor, Lee Harrington (author of the popular Rex and the City), even serving as one of the judges. I guess it is just that people might just be going overboard and not paying enough attention to how their dogs are taking it on it, or trying to squirm out of restrictive costumes. As The Cut pointed out, that a few years ago Alexandra Horowitz had this observation about costuming a dog in the New Yorker:
“To a dog, a costume, fitting tight around the dog’s midriff and back, might well reproduce that ancestral feeling [of being scolded by a more powerful dog]. So the principal experience of wearing a costume would not be the experience of festivity; rather, the costume produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking is nearby. This interpretation is borne out by many dogs’ behavior when getting dressed in a costume: they may freeze in place as if they are being “dominated”— and soon try to dislodge the garments by shaking, pawing, or rolling in something so foul that it necessitates immediate disrobing.”
Or Patricia McConnell, the leading dog behaviorist and former Bark columnist, commented on this topic last year that
“I can’t think of anything that better exemplifies our changing perception of the social role of dogs as the current splurge in dressing them up for Halloween.”
She then went on to say that:
“But what about the family Labrador dressed up like Batman? Or the Persian house cat dressed up as a mouse? Are they having as much fun as their owners? I suspect that many are not.”
Karen London, our behavior columnist, also agrees and she urges “caution when considering costumes for dogs. Most dogs hate costumes. They easily become stressed and uncomfortable when wearing clothing, especially anything on the head or around the body.”
Simple, soft costumes, like this one, work best. But heavy, stiff and hard ones like this one, should be avoided.
There are so many better ways to share the joys of our relationship than imposing the necessity to “perform” for us on our dogs, then dress them up as a superhero, pope, or a presidential candidate. Just think of much more they would like it if you just took them on a nice long walk in the woods letting them sniff around, letting them follow their noses and embracing them for being “just” dogs.
So what do you think? Do you or have you ever dressed your dog up for Halloween? How did your dog like it?
News: Guest Posts
There’s something special (and valuable!) about it
Having two dogs can be more than twice as much work as having one, and having three can require way more than three times as much effort. That pattern continues as the number of dogs increases. There’s no doubt that having a multi-dog household is a big undertaking, and yet many people can barely imagine having just one dog in their heart and home at the same time. They would miss scenes like the one to the left of an adorable dog pile.
These are the three dogs—from two different households—that my family recently hosted for a couple of days, and it was a good experience for all of us. (They live on the same street and their guardians are friends, so they know each other. Luckily, they all get along.) The companionship they gave one another during their stay with us made me happy, and not just because it took some pressure off of me to make sure that they were having fun. When I observed them together, there was a comfort in the company they provided one another that was lovely to see. I’m not saying it is better or worse than the social benefits to dogs of being around people, but it’s different.
Despite the extra work for the people, I kept thinking about the benefits for the dogs of being in a group, beyond just how nice it was for them to have a couple of buddies of the same species around. There are obviously drawbacks to having more than one dog, but some of those can be channeled positively. Having multiple dogs can provide training challenges, but it also offers opportunities to help dogs learn to attend to a person despite big distractions. While these dogs were visiting us, I made a point of doing some training sessions with the added difficulty of having other dogs around. Here is a photo of Marley and Saylor successfully holding their “stay” while Rosie (out of view) played with a toy nearby.
Performing any skill in a distracting environment is a challenge, and the presence of other dogs is often particularly hard for social dogs. With three dogs in the house, it was easy to set up situations where one dog worked on a skill while one or both other dogs were there. Rosie worked on her “spin” trick a lot during her visit. In the first video below, she practices it while the other dogs are not around. That work was to lay the groundwork for the success you can see in the second video, in which she spins when the other two dogs are present.
Walking three (or more) dogs at the same time is not always easy, but it offers opportunities, too. Each time one dog stops to sniff or for a potty break, the other dogs need to exercise patience.
It’s hard standing around when you want to keep going, but being required to do so brings benefits. Handling frustration and exhibiting self-control in such situations is beneficial to dogs. Similarly, waiting your turn when it comes to treats or dinnertime also gives dogs practice with emotional self-control, and that is an important part of maturing into a pleasant adult.
My main concern before the shared visit was making sure that Marley, who is 10 years old, had some peace and quiet from both his regular housemate Saylor, who is about a year old, and from his neighbor Rosie, who is about eight months old. Marley likes both dogs and often plays with them, but he needs more rest and snoozy time than the young pups. He opted out of some play sessions, as many older dogs often do. He would take a rest, hang out with us or chew on something while the other two played.
We also helped Marley get away if he wanted to by letting him up on our couch, but not allowing the younger dogs to bother him when he was there.
The only reason it ever felt overwhelming to have three dogs was a result of bad luck in the form of the weather. It rained all day in the middle of the visit, which meant that every time the dogs came inside, we had a dozen wet, muddy paws to deal with. I’m not going to lie—that was a big hassle. Other than that, we had a glorious time while these three little angels were visiting us.
What advantages do you appreciate about having multiple dogs?
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
86 toxic plants to keep away from your dog
While plants and flowers are a great way to decorate, not every plant is safe in a home with pets. Below is a list of 199 common poisonous plants, 86 of which are toxic to dogs, so you can be sure you’re picking the safest choice. The majority are safe to grown in your home, but should be avoided if you’re concerned of accidental ingestion from a curious and/or hungry pup. Look through the list of plant names and make sure no one in your home is at risk.
Infographic by proflowers.com
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study trains dogs to sniff out bacteria from urine samples.
What if service dogs could do double duty, helping people with limited mobility, while monitoring them for possible infection? Many people with assistance dogs have injuries that make them especially prone to frequent and complicated urinary tract infections (UTIs). These infections aren't just uncomfortable, they can spread quickly to the kidney and blood stream, causing sepsis that can result in death. Early detection is important, but difficult for this population. So Assistance Dogs of Hawaii teamed up with Pine Street Foundation and the Kapiolani Medical Canter of Women and Children to explore how their talented pups could help.
In their study, five Labrador and Golden Retrievers were clicker trained to identify urine samples that were culture-positive for bacteria, including E. coli. They had no previous scent training. After eight weeks, their new skills were put to the test with 687 new urine samples. 456 were from subjects with negative urine cultures (the control group) and 231 were from subjects with positive urine cultures for bacteria.
The dogs detected positive samples with a 90 to 94 percent accuracy. Also, sensitivity was not affected when E.coli urine was diluted with distilled water. The study showed that canine scent detection is a feasible method for the detection of bacteria. The scientists hope that future research can teach dogs to identify other infections, such as MRSA and C-Diff, or distinguish between bacterial and viral infections. At the moment they're conducting research in hospitals, where UTIs are the most common acquired infection in all patients.
A month after the study was completed, one of the dogs spontaneously alerted the staff to a person visiting the training center. They had been feeling ill, but hadn't suspected a UTI. Afterwards the person went to the doctor who made a UTI diagnosis.
There is really no limit to what our amazing dogs can do!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
New research explores how kids respond
The dogs of childhood are important beyond imagination. Kids describe them as their best friends and as their siblings. Many children view themselves as the primary recipient of their pets’ affections. Often, young people see little difference between the close connections they have with the human members of their family and those they share with the non-human ones. Because of most animals’ shorter lifespans, though, many kids must face the death of a dog, cat, or other pet. Their emotional response to the loss of a pet and what they say about the experience is the subject of the dissertation research and further study by Joshua J. Russell, PhD.
According to Russell’s research, children’s responses to the death of a pet are predictable in some ways. Kids had a much easier time dealing with the death of a pet if the animal reached an age where death was expected. Early deaths, especially unexpected ones, made it much harder for children to come to terms with the loss. Russell points out that kids have a strong sense of fairness related to whether their animals lives as long as they were “supposed to” or whether they died before that. Acceptance was easier for kids whose pets lived far into the normal lifespan for the species. Generally, kids understood that hamsters and fish don’t live very long, but many struggled to understand that our dogs, cats and rabbits will often die before we do. When a death happened because of an accident, it was especially difficult for kids to cope.
Many children who Russell interviewed felt that euthanasia was the right thing to do if a pet was suffering. Kids were split in their views about getting another pet after the death of another. Some felt that it was disloyal to the previous pets and their relationships with them. Others felt certain that they would feel better if they got a new pet and that the new relationship didn’t have anything to do with the old one.
It’s always difficult to deal with the grief of losing dogs, and it hurts my heart (a lot) to consider the pain that it causes children. It’s no fun to think about the way it feels for children to lose a pet because we can empathize all too well, no matter how old we are.
What do you remember about what is was like when a dog from your childhood died?
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