Coaxing a Great Film Performance from Dogs
It’s a rare film that offers a realistic portrayal of the human-dog bond, but writer/director Mike Mills does just that in his new, very personal, movie, Beginners. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, who’s not only navigating his father’s final years (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) but also a burgeoning love affair in the company of his father’s Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur — portrayed by the incredibly charming Cosmo. Oliver and Arthur’s relationship is just one aspect of this understated tale of self-discovery, love and loss, which — with the help of trainer Mathilde De Cagny and enhanced by McGregor and Cosmo’s natural chemistry — shines as an honest view of our lives with dogs.
Animal trainer De Cagny, the force behind Moose, the Jack Russell who found fame as Eddie in “Frasier,” has a soft spot for dogs, especially JRTs. Many of her dogs — including Cosmo — have come from shelters and rescue groups. Born and raised in Paris, France, she began her U.S. career as a volunteer with Birds and Animals Unlimited after moving to Los Angeles. On the eve of the film’s premier, Bark spoke with De Cagny about training dogs for film and working on Beginners.
Bark: What’s Cosmo’s story?
Cosmo is very different from Moose — always cuddly, even when I first went to pick him up, and I like that. He was lacking confidence, but that’s what I like to do: build up confidence by our relationship, by training, and by following [a dog’s] instincts and working with them. I had a feeling that he had good potential as a movie dog.
He is, indeed, very loving toward people and very playful, which we use a lot in the movie. And also, the nice thing about rescuing an animal — a dog — is that when I go to shelters and such, I have a sense of what the animal’s going to be like in general. That’s the advantage of getting a dog who’s older. You get to see that personality a little bit.
It was a tricky scene — the reunion, when Hal comes back from the hospital and hasn’t seen his dog in a while. The dog is supposed to be ecstatic — loving and kissing him. That’s usually easier if the person’s on a couch or sitting on the ground, but Cosmo was up in the air, in Christopher’s arms. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I said, “Hi, I’m Mathilde. I’m the dog trainer. And in order to do this scene fast and good, I’m just going to slap a bunch of bacon oil on your face.” I didn’t really give him a chance to say no. I did it, the dog kissed him and I said, “Well, okay, we can go now.” And boom!
When someone’s not too crazy about something, it’s better to work them fast, just like the dog. I don’t do a million repetitions. So, I worked with Christopher the way I would work with a dog who lacks confidence … you don’t give him too much time to think about it.
Bark: What other tools do you have in your training kit?
Bark: Did you know Cosmo had such a cuddly personality when you got him?
The mystery writer talks fictional and real-life rescue dogs.
With the help of her downstairs neighbor, Mr. Contreras, V.I. shares her life with two dogs: Peppy, a Golden Retriever, and Mitch, a half- Golden; each came to her via a case and each has a distinct personality, but both help her unwind from her complicated life. After a road trip promoting her book, Paretsky took time to tell us more about the dogs in her own life.
Bark: Why did you decide to add dogs to V.I.’s story? And why Goldens (or in Mitch’s case, a half-Golden)?
Sara Paretsky: I grew up not liking dogs, and then married into a family of insane dog-lovers. My husband and his three sons were in between dogs when we married and I thought we would stay that way, but the lobbying was intense. When English friends were looking for someone to baby-sit their Golden, Capo, while they went to the UK for a year, I agreed — I thought, One year, I can do this; by then, my stepsons will be leaving home and we’ll all be dog-free.
When we took on Capo, we didn’t know that she had already been in five different homes. She was the sweetest dog in the world, so why home number one gave her up, let alone homes two through five, I’ll never know — unless it was because she was on a mission from the Great Dog in the Sky to convert me.
Tim, our second son, is a great athlete, and Capo was seriously fat. He started running and swimming with her, and within two months, she was a sleek, bright-eyed animal. Tim was her best friend; she slept with him, waited for him to come home from work and basically left me alone, which was great with me. When our friends returned from England, they saw how much healthier she was with us, and how happy, and they let Tim and my husband keep her. I didn’t mind — I just ignored her. In those days I was a marketing manager and was gone most of the day, anyway.And then, two years later, Tim moved out. Capo was desolate. She curled up outside his bedroom door and wouldn’t move, except for brief trips outdoors to relieve herself. She stopped eating. I thought she would die. I still didn’t like dogs — I didn’t like touching them — but I couldn’t let her die, so every evening when I got home from work, I would curl up on the floor next to her with my arms around her. She didn’t know I didn’t enjoy this, she just felt comforted. And after three or four days, she started eating again. And then attached herself to me. When I was ill, she slept next to me, not leaving my side even to eat. When I went swimming, she herded me to shore where she could keep a closer eye on me. When she died at 15, I was inconsolable.
B: It was great that V.I. essentially rescued Peppy; what made you decide to introduce her that way?
SP: Good friends of mine had had a Golden named Peppy, and I used to make fun of them for their adoration of their dog. After Capo converted me, I was so ashamed that I had to give V.I. a rescued Golden named Peppy. And since we had sort of rescued Capo, I decided to introduce V.I.’s Peppy in the same way.
B: Do you feel that adding the dogs changed V. I., or the way she views the world?
SP: For V.I., having dogs in her life means she has to think much more about rooted personal relations than she did before. She has responsibilities that she has to think about every day, but she also has a source of comfort. One of the challenges for me as a writer is not to get bogged down in details, and I realize as I’m writing that I spend a lot of space on the details of how V.I. looks after her dogs.
B: How many of V.I.’s interactions with her dogs come from your experience?
SP: Our first Golden, Capo, was perfectly trained. She responded to both voice and hand commands, and we never needed to have her on a leash, but she did live to swim — the first time she saw Lake Superior, she jumped from a 20-foot cliff into the water. We didn’t know until then that our perfect dog needed to be on leash when she was near water! V.I.’s Peppy is like Capo. Mitch is more like our current (third) Golden, Callie. She, too, is very sweet, but she is incredibly high energy, and even though we have been working for seven of her seven-and-a-half years, and she stays and sits and lies down like a champ, she will not heel. And she gets wild fits where she roars around — we just have to stay out of her way until they pass.
B: Tell us more about Callie, your “senior C-dog.”
SP: That’s a funny one. I set up a solo corporation about 15 years ago, when we had our second Golden, Cardhu. I wanted the name to reflect me, my husband and the dog. My husband’s name is Courtenay; he served in the Royal Navy during WWII. Roosevelt’s code name for Churchill was “seadog,” because Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty at one point. So my husband was a seadog, or a C Dog, and my corporation is called Sara & Two C-Dogs, Inc. When Cardhu died from bone cancer, we were so distraught that we thought we would never have another dog. But after four years, we couldn’t stand it, and we got Callie. Because of our adored Capo, we stick with Goldens. And because my company is Sara & Two C-Dogs, their names start with C. Courtenay vetoed Chernobyl, so I chose Calliope, Callie for short, because she’s a merry-go-round.
B: Just for fun, how would you compare V.I. with Peppy and Mitch — any personality traits in common?
SP: V.I. is definitely more like Mitch — high energy, hard to control. Maybe that’s why she enjoys Peppy’s company more.
Jon Provost and his Collie co-star.
He was the favorite boy of America's favorite dog. For Jon Provost—“Timmy” on the “Lassie” television show—50 years later, life is still very much about dogs.
“When I was 10, 11, 12, Lassie and I would travel around the country for parades and special events. In every city, we visited children’s hospitals,” Provost said. Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, insisted that Lassie be allowed to visit ailing children at their hospital bedsides, something unheard of at the time.
“Rudd had a saying: Every child should have a dog and every dog should have a child. He just knew that the thrill of meeting Lassie would do a child good,” Provost said. Those visits also had a profound impact on Provost. He feels that the special bond he had with Lassie taught him empathy for animals, ingraining in him the conviction that caretakers must always be loving guardians.
His mother took him on his first audition after reading about a “cattle call” for children in a Hedda Hopper newspaper column. He made his film acting debut in 1953 at age three in So Big, a film starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, based on Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the struggles of a widow trying to support herself and her son. A year later, his film parents were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
An interesting chapter in his new book focuses on his relationship with Lassie’s trainer, the late Weatherwax. A hard-working, hard-drinking, old-school sort, Weatherwax was also something of a grandfather figure for Provost.When the series’ initial boy, Tommy Rettig, who played Jeff Martin, left the show, Weatherwax insisted on checking out Provost’s rapport with Lassie before any filming. The boy-dog chemistry was quickly confirmed.
“One thing that Rudd really instilled in me was respect for animals. On sets you see animal trainers of all sorts.Rudd always trained his dogs with lots of love,” Provost said.Weatherwax’s Lassies (now raised by his descendants) were all males; a primary Lassie usually had five or six backups for long shots or special stunts.
After earning 100 “Lassie points” for good behavior on the set, Provost was given his own Collie. The dog, whom Provost promptly named “Rudd,” grew up running through orange groves near the Provosts’ home in Pomona.When a move to Beverly Hills meant Rudd was limited to an average-size backyard, a family decision focused on what was best for the dog.
“We’d take Rudd on summer visits to my grandmother’s.After a few summers on 120 acres in Arkansas, Rudd retired from Hollywood to chase rabbits there. He got the true Lassie life in the end,” Provost said.
Although the philologist and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien did not himself keep a dog, he put several memorable canines into his books. Indeed, a dog is the “start” of the most recent of his stories to have been published, Roverandom (1998). In 1925, Tolkien and his family were on a seaside holiday when his middle son, Michael, lost a beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, Tolkien invented a story in which a real dog, named Rover--no points for an original name!--annoys a wandering wizard, is turned into a toy as punishment and goes on adventures to the moon and under the sea. On his travels he meets two other Rovers, a moon-dog and a mer-dog, while he himself is renamed Roverandom, because he doesn’t know where he is going to next.
One never doubts that Rover/Roverandom is a dog, or rather a puppy, young, impetuous, prone to mischief. When we first meet him he is playing with a ball; by page two he has bitten the old wizard’s trousers. Even when given wings or webbed feet he remains true to his canine nature, and he reacts just as a dog would when he is on his way to the moon on the back of the seagull Mew and sees a dark island below:
Over the water and up to them came the sound of a tremendous barking, a noise made up of all the different kinds and sizes of barks there are: yaps and yelps, and yammers and yowls, growling and grizzling, whickering and whining, snickering and snarling, mumping and moaning, and the most enormous baying, like a giant bloodhound in the backyard of an ogre. All Rover’s fur round his neck suddenly became very real again, and stood up stiff as bristles; and he thought he would like to go down and quarrel with all the dogs there at once--until he remembered how small he was.
“That’s the Isle of Dogs,” said Mew, “or rather the Isle of Lost Dogs, where all the lost dogs go that are deserving of lucky. It isn’t a bad place, I’m told, for dogs; and they can make as much noise as they like without anyone telling them to be quiet or throwing anything at them. They have a beautiful concert, all barking together their favourite noises, whenever the moon shines bright. They tell me there are bone-trees there, too, with fruit like juicy meat-bones that drops off the trees when it’s ripe.”
Of course there really is an Isle of Dogs, without the bone-trees: a tongue of land the projects into the River Thames in southeast London. Its name, on which Tolkien is playing, may have come from Henry VIII of Elizabeth I having kept hounds at that place when in residence across the river in Greenwich.
A rather different dog, Garm, appears in Tolkien’s mock-medieval tale Farmer Giles of Ham, first published in 1949. Garm is Welsh for “shout” or “cry,” and is also recorded as a dialect word in Cornwall meaning “scold, vociferate loudly.” The name suits Farmer Giles’ dog very well. Dogs, Tolkien writes, “had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters. Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in. Bullying was for beggars and trespassers, bragging for other dogs, and wheedling for his master. Garm was both proud and afraid of Giles, who could bully and brag better than he could.”
Garm is a coward in other respects too, a selfish animal more interested in saving his own skin than in protecting his master’s, and as such is an ironic opposite to the Garm (or Garmr) of Norse mythology, the powerful dog who guards the gates of Hel. But Giles’ Garm is not so afraid of his master that he won’t sneak out of the kitchen at night without permission and roam the fields looking for rabbits. Unluckily for Garm, one night he comes upon a giant, and on a longer expedition runs into the tail of a dragon. Giles deals with both menaces, with no help from man’s best friend: In the face of danger Garm runs away, or hides. Nevertheless, when Giles becomes lord of his land, Garm also rises to a higher station: Though he does not deserve it, he is given “a gold collar, and while he lived roamed at his will, a proud and happy dog, insufferable to his fellows; for he expected all other dogs to accord him the respect due to the terror and splendour of his master.” In contrast, dogs make only brief appearances in Tolkien’s most famous book, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). In the former, very much in the realm of children’s fairy-tale, the shape-changer Beorn has “several large long-bodied grey dogs” among his servants--”the dogs could stand on their hind-legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet”--while in The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his friends encounter three huge “wolvish-looking dlogs,” Grip, Fang and Wolf, who belong to Farmer Maggot. But the lack of canine characters in these works, set in the Third Age of Middle-earth, is more than made up for by the greatest of Tolkien’s dogs, Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor, who plays an important role in a key tale of the First Age. Huan means “great dog, hound” in one of Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages.
He first appears in the “Tale of Tinuviel,” one of Tolkien’s early “Silmarillion” legends published in The Book of the Lost Tales, Part Two (1984). There Huan, Captain of Dogs, is the sworn enemy of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and in their enmity is reflected the rivalry of all cast and dogs. In those days long ago, many dogs had chosen to dwell with Men and guard them, while cats, led by Tevildo, were inclined toward the dark lord, Melko. “Did ever any of these” dogs who were foes of evil “viewTevildo or any of this thanes or subjects, then there there was a great baying and a mighty chase.” With guile and strength Huan defeats Tevildo but sets him free. “Little to Huan’s liking was it that Tevildo lived still, but now no longer did he fear the cats, and that tribe has fled before the dogs ever since, and the dogs hold them still in scorn since the humbling of Tevildo in the woods nigh Angamandi; and Huan has not done any greater deed. Indeed afterward Melko heard all and he cursed Tevildo and his folk and banished them, nor have they since that had had lord or master or any friend, and their voices wail and screech for their hearts are very lonely and bitter and full of loss, yet there is only darkness therein and no kindliness.”
This tale over the years evolved into the version published in The Silmarillion (1977), in which it is told that Huan was born in the Blessed Realm far in the West of the world, and raised by Orome the hunter, one of Valar, or angelic powers. Therefore he was of a special breed: “Nothing could escape the sight and scent of Huan, nor could any enchantment stay him, and he slept not, neither by night nor day.” He understood human speech, and was permitted himself to speak with words three times before he died. It was decreed moreover that he should not meet death until he encountered “the mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world.” He aided the Elf-maiden Luthien Tinuviel and the mortal man she loved, Beren, in their quest to wrest a great jewel from the crown of evil Morgoth, and at last he fought to the death Carcharoth, the Wolf of Angband: “No battle of wolf and hound has been like it, for in the baying of Huan was heard the voice of the horns of Orome and the wrath of Valar, but in the howls of Carcharoth was the hate of Morgoth and malice crueller than teeth of steel.”
One of the results of the fame Tolkien enjoyed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was that readers asked his permission to name their pets after characters. To one of them he replied that Bilbo, after Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, seemed a good animal name, and indeed, his own brother had given the hobbit’s full name to his dog, a young animal of “variable behaviour.” The dog was called Bilbo when good and Baggins when bad--he knew the implication of each.
Imagining the lives of famous people has always been a favorite American pastime. There are a whole raft of magazines designed to help us picture the inner worlds of the very talented and the very beautiful and the very rich. We envision the people we admire with such clarity that our ideas about them can seem, at least in the little movie theaters in our heads, quite true. Renee Fleming, for example. I imagine that she is always singing. I imagine her singing while she brushes her teeth in the morning. I imagine her wearing a modest rack of diamonds from Harry Winston while she trills like a lark to wake up her daughters, who pop up from bed, bright as daisies, singing in reply.
“Waf—fles for break—faaaasst?” Renee Fleming would sing.
“Yes, Mo—ther, pleeeeease,” the girls would harmonize.
When I was asked by this magazine to write a profile of Renee Fleming’s dog, the story spilled out before me like so much red carpet on opening night: Of course this would be a dog who lived for music, a dewy-eyed Lassie who stayed hidden in the folds of her mistress’s Ferrer gown, a dog who slept beneath the piano, her tail brushing trustingly beneath the pedals. She would run from any corner of the apartment when the first scale was sung to be near the singer, leaving behind half a bowl of good canned food without a second thought in hopes of being present for a bright and shining high C.
This dog would never tire of rehearsals, and on performance nights she would pace vigilantly near the door, keeping an eye on the children while Renee took her fourth curtain call on the stage of the Metropolitan or Carnegie Hall. When Renee came home in the small hours of the morning, she would drop all the roses in her arms to scoop up the dog whom she loved, who loved her, who was, in fact, her muse.
Something like that.
There is a great deal of barking when I knock on the door, the kind of frenzied viciousness that implies protection of home and hearth. Renee Fleming greets me, looking extremely smart in high-heeled boots and a long black jacket, exactly the way I had imagined an off-duty opera star would dress. “That’s Rosie,” she says, and I catch a glimpse of my subject, a silky flash of pale fur who is both barking and backing up down the hall. Then she’s gone.
“She’s not great with strangers,” Renee says, leading me into the living room. I look wistfully over my shoulder, but there’s nothing there. I want to tell her it’s the dog I’m here to talk about, but then I realize not even Rin Tin Tin could give a good interview. The best way to get to the Diva’s dog is through the Diva herself.
And the Diva’s daughters. Sage and Amelia, 8 and 11, respectively, come and sit with us in the living room. They are anxious to tell me the story I want to hear.
“Her name is Rosie and she’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” Amelia says. “She has mahogany spots. She’s like a cow, only mahogany and white instead of black and white.” She tells me Rosie was born in Ireland.
“She came from Ireland before we met her,” Sage says.
“We got her four years ago,” Renee says. “It was after Christmas. It’s hard to find a puppy after Christmas, like trying to find a rose after Valentine’s Day.”
Even though the story is very clear in my mind, I take the time to ask them about their dog’s relationship to opera. The beautiful woman and her beautiful daughters stare at me. The little one blinks.
“What does Rosie do when I sing?” the soprano asks her daughters.
“She runs away,” the older one says.
“Sometimes she makes a weird noise before she runs away,” the little one says, “like a whine.”
The older one thinks it through carefully. “Or she sleeps.”
“She barks at oxygen,” Sage says.
“She barks at the air, at nothing, and she’s afraid of pigeons.” The girls explain to me that she is both ferocious and cowardly, that she was impossible to house-train, that she sheds, and that they love her madly.
I’m beginning to worry a little. I am not here to write a story about a dog who is afraid of pigeons, a dog who will not come out into the living room. I ask again, isn’t there some connection between Rosie and opera?
They are trying. Renee tells me a story about an Irish Wolfhound who howled along through her aria in Manon. She mentions that all of her mother’s Great Dane’s puppies were named after characters in Wagner. They continue to mull it over with great earnestness until I feel as if I’ve asked a heart surgeon how the family Basset Hound enhances her surgical skills. Why should a nervous Spaniel be artistically connected to the greatest singer of our time? Wouldn’t it be enough simply to be Renee Fleming’s dog?
But suddenly Renee is onto something big. “There was a King Charles in a production of Der Rosenkavalier,” she says, and I wonder how she could have failed to tell me this before I had my coat off. “Every night I played the Marschallin they brought me this lovely King Charles on stage, and we fell in love. That’s when I decided I wanted one.”
“And her name is Rosie,” I say excitedly. “Is it short for Rosenkavalier?”
Renee looks at her daughter Amelia, the namer of dogs.
“Rosie was just the first thing that popped into my head,” she says.
“So maybe Rosie could play the Cavalier King Charles in the next production at the Met?”
“No!” the three of them say in unison.
“She would start barking and try to run away,” Amelia says. Journalistic ethics prevent me from telling the story my way: Rosie was the puppy understudy for that King Charles Spaniel, and one night the famous dog mistakenly ate a box of bonbons meant for a tenor and was too sick to go on. It was Rosie’s big chance, and when she was handed to the famous soprano dressed as the Marschallin, their big eyes locked onto one another and in an instant, each knew she had found her destiny. Rosie gave up the stage to be a lap dog. Renee’s heart nearly broke with gratitude.
I think the story is better my way, but I’m not the one who gets to make those choices.
My 10-year old Boxer, Otto, and I have a ritual in which the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin plays a central role. The ritual is enacted during our annual late-spring pilgrimage to a farm owned by generous friends in a profoundly underrated portion of upstate New York. Along with Otto, the main players in the rite are the dozen or so frogs who reside in the pond that lies just steps away from the farm-house. The ceremonial text is Kumin’s wonderful poem “Custodian,” from her book Nurture, published in 1989.
The annual custom commences just as soon as we arrive. Once Otto is relieved of his leash and I of my shoes, we make our way down to the pond with me well-worn copy of Nurture in hand. There, Otto circumambulates the water’s edge, gently disrupting the concentration of each and every frog, one after the other, until all have been evicted from their cozy spots in the sun to wait it out in the water before calmly kick-stroking back to the muddy shore. As Otto conducts this painstaking effort, I stand, barefoot in the mud, reading Kumin’s “Custodian” aloud.
I read it partly by way of apologizing to the frogs--formal recognition that our presence here brings a certain amount of inconvenience to them. I read it partly as an invocation to the pleasures of being outdoors, dog and woman sharing the day, free of our urban fetters. I read it because saying poems aloud when out-of-doors is, for me, one of life’s greatest pleasures--all the more so when the poem is so perfectly suited to the occasion, simultaneously reflecting on and enlarging it.
As you’ll see in the sampling of work presented here, reflection upon and enlargement of the occasion--be it feeding the many creatures in one’s care or recounting the life story of a much-loved Dalmatian--are important aspects of Maxine Kumin’s writing. The author of more than a dozen books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Long Marriage, Kumin has also published four novels, a collection of short stories delightfully titled Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?, over 20 children’s books, and four books of essays, including Women, Animals, and Vegetables, in which her essay “Mutts” appears. Animals of all kinds--dogs and horses frequently among them--populate much of Kumin’s work, which may be seen, at its essence as an ongoing treatise on empathy.
The annual ritual enacted by the pond in upstate New York with the Help of Maxine Kumin’s poem is, for me, a way of honoring the importance of poetry, the arrival into nature and the beautiful ways of dogs and other animals. And, like Kumin’s “Custodian,” the ritual celebrates ritual itself--continuance, inevitability, the endless cycles of living as passing away, “the taking and letting go,” as Kumin puts it, “that same story.”
I treasure the last time I saw John Steinbeck. We met for lunch in San Francisco while he was on the final lap of driving his camper around the United States, the basis of his best-selling book Travels with Charley. We were at Enrico’s sidewalk care, and Charley, the big Poodle, sat obediently in a corner near our table. With us was Howard Gossage, the innovative advertising man who, among other things, had given the world the current rage, Beethoven sweatshirts. Oh, to have had a tape recorder and been able to catch the sound as well as the words on the following dialogue, because John growled out his sentences in ursine grunts while Howard’s congenital stammer heightened rather than hampered his wit.
“Look at that dog over there,” said John. “Yesterday in the great redwoods of Muir Woods he lifted his log on a tree that was twenty feet across, three hundred feet high and a thousand years old. Howard, Howard! What’s left in life for that poor dog?”
Howard thought of the terrible dilemma for a moment and then said, “Well, J-J-John, he could always t-t-teach!”
Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck had a great affinity for domestic animals, as can be seen in many of his novels and short stories, but nowhere is his love and understanding of dogs more apparent than in his picaresque and picturesque Travels with Charley. I recently re-read the book and was dazzled by it and fascinated by the eponymous dog, Charley.
Early in the 1960s, Steinbeck, who had left California and was living on Long Island, New York, was feeling restless, with a growing and insistent urge to renew his acquaintance with America—all of America. Accordingly, he bough a small, one-man camper truck, which he christened Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He outfitted it for a long and serious hegira that would last for sixteen weeks and result in a classic literary work. At first he was going to do it all alone, but then he asked his wife if he could take along their beloved big Poodle for companionship.
“That’s a good idea,” she said. “If you get into trouble, Charley can go for help.”
“Elaine,” John answered sternly, “Charley isn’t Lassie?”
But John, at the age of 58, was somewhat worried about traveling alone off the beaten path, and he was delighted that his dog would be with him. Tough gentle in disposition, Charley was, according to Steinbeck, “a good watch dog—has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn’t bite his way out of a cornet de papier.”
Day by day as Steinbeck prepared his camper for the long swing around America, Charley grew more excited—and more worried about being left behind; like so many watchful canine companions, he could read the signs of departure, “long before the suitcases come out.” But this time Charley would not be left behind. Finally they set out, Charley sitting in the front seat, his head almost as high as the six-foot Steinbeck.
For the next sixteen weeks the pair would travel around the United States, eating and sleeping together in the little camper, Steinbeck recording his impression of the places and people he encountered. Charley loved the traveling and would take a great interest in the scenery as well as the people and animals they encountered.
There are so many wonderful happenings in this delightful odyssey. I had not read the book in thirty years, and I was amazed at how informative, fresh, funny and often profound it is. I was sorry when Rocinante finally came to the end of its voyage of discovery, but in reading I learned a great deal about America, as well as John Steinbeck. And perhaps best of all, I came to know and love a remarkable Poodle.
And the dog world sits up and listens
Ian Dunbar is a doctor twice over, holding a veterinary degree (from the Royal Veterinary College in his native Britain) as well as a PhD in animal behavior (from the University of California, Berkeley). But he’s most renowned for revolutionizing the way dogs—and especially puppies—are trained. The founder of Sirius Puppy Training, and more recently, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (an educational organization that promotes dog-friendly training methods), Dr. Dunbar routinely prescribes lure-reward training techniques, patience, and most of all, a sense of fun. We spoke to him in his home in Berkeley, which he shares with his wife, two cats and at least three dogs.
Bark: Our society has changed so much in the span of your career, and obviously the role of dogs has changed, too. Dogs are no longer primarily in backyards, but in our homes and even in our beds! How has this happened?
Dunbar: The change has actually been over the last century. Dogs used to be working utility animals, owned by people who required a dog to perform a task, or who were so rich that they could employ people who could raise the dogs for them. Today, they are primarily a companion animal. And having a companion animal is on par with having a relationship with a person. What is that lovely quote? “One’s not half two, it’s two are halves of one.” e.e. cummings, I think. Meaning, when you look at a dog, you are looking at half of a relationship.
Do people know a lot more about dogs than they did 30 years ago?
The general public knows a lot more than they used to, that’s true. For example, they take their puppies to puppy classes now; there wasn’t such a thing as a puppy class 30 years ago. The only classes that were available to dog owners 30 years ago were obedience-based, kennel-club-type classes, and classes for working dogs. There wasn’t anything available for “pet dog training.” Now, puppy training is taken as automatic. Trainers and veterinarians today are well educated about behavior, which was not the case even 20 years ago. But I think the general public still really needs to learn how easy it is to train their dogs.
Well, you make training look easy …
It has to be easy. Most dog owners are not experts, so the methods have to be time-efficient and effective. Because even though it’s a relationship, dog training still bears the stigma that it’s a chore. I want to change that view. You don’t train your dog, you live with your dog, and every aspect of living together is training and guiding and perfecting its behavior. You should not be living with a person or an animal who does things you don’t like; it’s too silly for words! Especially since the behavior problems that dogs have are so easily treatable, and the temperament problems are so easily preventable.
Was it your research on canine development at UC Berkeley, that led you to prescribe puppy classes as a preventative for temperament problems?
The puppy classes grew out of a combination of things. I came to California for my PhD in dog behavior, specifically, the development of sexual dimorphism in dogs. We were looking at the development of social hierarchies. To study this, we observed puppies as they grew up. We had one litter with a puppy we called Sirius, who was an absolute bully, with an overinflated view of himself. One day we put him in with three litters of puppies, and he started to bully a female from another litter. She was older than him by three weeks, and much bigger, and they had an altercation. It lasted only about 10 seconds, but it changed Sirius’s entire temperament. He went from being the most belligerent bully to a very low-profile, seeking-to-please type of dog.
I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t pet owners like to know this?” Because the general view among behaviorists then was that you could change behavior quite easily but you couldn’t change temperament. And here was a wonderful example of a dog whose temperament and personality just totally changed. At the time, the bias on genetic antecedents of behavior was colossal in the kennel club world.
Another inspiration for the puppy classes was Omaha, my Malamute puppy, whom I got in 1981. I was freaking out: “He’s going to be 100 pounds!” I wanted to get him into school, but I couldn’t find a class anywhere that would take him until he was six months to a year old. I thought, “This is absolutely crazy. He has to go to some kind of puppy class!” But they didn’t exist! So I started one.
I knew from my research that puppies begin their education when they are two days old. The development of hierarchies begins when the little blind neonates are suckling, competing for available teats. Then there was the Sirius experience, a wonderful experience and one that changed his entire personality. I thought, “Why are these dog training schools telling me I’ve got to wait until he’s a year old?” It’s like not sending your kid to school until he’s 20! It’s ridiculous. So I decided I would teach puppy classes.
To the amusement of your vet school chums?
Yes, a lot of the people I was at college with laughed about it, my veterinary degree and PhD, and me teaching puppy classes. But I really enjoyed it, meeting people, families, and helping them out with their little puppies.
Very quickly, my puppy classes became quite famous, largely because of the video I made in 1987—Sirius Dog Training was the first dog training video ever made, and it went ’round the world. On the strength of that video, I went all over the world, giving talks about puppy training and lure-reward training, with the emphasis on early socialization and preventing aggression as the way to go.
You once said that learning to be more positive with the dog helps you to be a more positive person overall.
Dog training is a great template for teaching human relationship skills. That’s what it’s all about. If you can’t work out a relationship with a dog, how the hell are you going to live with a person? If you can’t get your dog to come when called in a park, how are you going to get your husband to come home from the bar? Or your kids to come home from school on time? If you can’t housetrain your puppy, how are you going to potty-train your kid? It’s a very nonthreatening way to teach relationship skills, and what we learn we can apply to our human relationships … And for some reason, people can learn this better with dogs than with other people. Often, they then learn to apply it with other people.
Countless times I’ve been asked in puppy class, “Will this work on my kids?” And I always say, “Yep, and on your husband, too.” My students used to come back with hilarious things that they had done to solve problems: “My husband always moans when he comes home from work, and I got rid of that in one week!” “What did you do?” “Nothing! You just don’t respond to a moaning person. You only respond to a smiling person!”
No, I don’t get angry. If I get angry, they will become defensive and I will lose them. A dog growls at you; do you hit him? No! He’ll bite you! Same with people. If they disagree with you, don’t disagree with them back! It just gets worse! You just nod and smile, and get them talking, and they’ll come around!
I think of all the important skills to learn in the world, that’s the most important: learning to get past the anger and find a way to deliver information to that person that will help him.
Training dogs and educating people, especially children, are the same: It’s not teaching them what we want them to do, it’s teaching them to want to do what we want them to do.
What’s next on your professional agenda?
I’m getting toward the twilight of my career, I hope. I’m looking forward to gardening and construction on the house and writing. But I want to spend two or three more years trying to promote the education of prospective puppy owners. Selecting a puppy is no different from selecting a school for your kids, or buying a new car. You have to be really discerning. Too many people take home eight-week-old puppies that are behaviorally retarded; they haven’t been raised and handled properly. Also, too few prospective owners know that dog training is fun, easy and effortless; it’s actually what living with a dog is all about! I’ll be evangelizing about these things for the next few years, and then I’ll retire to my garden—and hang out with my dogs on their leather couches.
Dr. Eric Davis and the RAVS team take their veterinary show on the road to benefit underserved animals everywhere.
Growing up in Portola Valley, California, Dr. Eric Davis lived in a household with lots of animals around—dogs, cats, sheep, cattle and birds. He learned to treat living things humanely, but acknowledges that “little boys will be little boys.” When he was five, he taped a “daddy long-legs” spider to the floor by its legs. His mother saw him, and pointed out that he was hurting the spider, which was just as alive as he was. “My parents started me down the road to working in animal protection,” Davis remembers, “by teaching me that all living things had value and feelings, and deserved kindness and respect.”
Davis became a veterinarian and an advocate for animal welfare and outreach. “Every animal deserves to be taken care of with the best quality care possible,” he maintains. Today, he’s the director of Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), a program of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that provides veterinary medical services and education to underserved rural communities in the United States and around the globe. In 2005, RAVS’ four full-time veterinarians, working with hundreds of volunteers—veterinarians, vet students, vet technicians and others—provided health care to more than 32,000 animals in 115 communities. Though the estimated value for aid rendered was in excess of $1.5 million dollars, communities receive RAVS’ services at no cost.
RAVS began in 1995 as the veterinary arm of Remote Area Medical (RAM) Volunteer Corps, a private medical aid group for people, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time, Davis was on the faculty at the University of Tennessee; his wife, Ila, also a veterinarian, was a graduate student in immunology. At RAM’s request, the couple agreed to set up a rabies vaccination clinic in Rosebud, South Dakota. They took some supplies and three volunteers with them, and the five-member team worked hard and treated the people and animals kindly and respectfully. Neighboring tribes heard about the program through word-of-mouth, and realized that their animals could also benefit from the sort of veterinary attention that Eric and Ila Davis and their associates were providing. The program steadily grew. Davis ran this animal-aid project as part of RAM until 2001, at which time the project affiliated with HSUS and became RAVS.
The organization primarily deals with companion animals, but also treats livestock, horses and, according to one vet, “whatever critter needs help.” Basic health care services for dogs and cats include spay/neuter surgery, vaccination programs and parasite treatment and control. The education component, which is designed for both adults and children, addresses disease prevention, humane pet care and dog-bite prevention.
RAVS teams visit countless rural communities and Native American reservations in the US, places such as Scott County in Appalachia and Turtle Mountain in North Dakota, which have little or no access to veterinary care. Internationally, expeditions travel to the Pacific and Caribbean islands and Central and Latin America, among other remote locations. Even Easter Island is on RAVS’ well-beaten path.
Clinics last between two days and two weeks. Some consist of a full-service mobile veterinary facility, complete with surgery suite, state-of-the-art equipment, and separate intake and recovery areas. Others are more makeshift, operating with limited personnel, water and electricity, instruments, and supplies. Regardless of the conditions, Davis maintains strict protocols regarding pain control, basic surgical principles and anesthesia. He insists on providing whatever is needed for each animal’s comfort. He credits Ila, “the smartest veterinarian in the world” in his words, for helping him maintain this focus. In every case, he poses the question, “Are we doing the best we can for the individual animal?”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Dr. Davis is the absolute value of the individual animal,” says Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian at a private clinic in San Francisco. In her eight years with RAVS, she’s traveled to Romania, Chile, Bolivia, Micronesia, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands and Easter Island. It can be tempting to allow standards to slip, she admits, “but if it’s not good for the individual, it’s not good.” She explains that by setting the bar higher than just getting the job done, RAVS provides a great example to communities at home and in other countries. She loves helping people by improving the lives of their animals. “RAVS has been nothing but absolute joy for me,” she says.
The realities of busy field clinics—rustic living and working conditions, long hours, unfamiliar environments and cultures, limited resources, and unforeseeable challenges—are not for everyone. However, for some, these realities are what draw them to sign up for trip after trip. Lisa Toolen, a third-year student at California’s UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is a five-time participant. “RAVS encompasses everything I love about veterinary medicine,” she observes. “Dr. Davis is a natural-born leader.” She pays what may be a student’s ultimate compliment to a teacher: “I know there will be situations throughout my career where I’ll hear his voice in the back of my head.”
The trips offer participants a mother lode of experience: performing physical examinations, administering medications, helping with anesthesia and surgery, communicating with clients. Some vet students claim that one RAVS trip gave them more practical surgical experience than four years of school. Davis hopes participants also gain a sense of altruism and an appreciation for the animal welfare problems that exist in the US and beyond. Three of the organization’s staff veterinarians started as RAVS student volunteers. Toolen, for one, says her RAVS experience has truly shaped her career goals; in the future, she hopes to concentrate on animal overpopulation.
Randolph Runs After is a tribal environmental health specialist on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north–central South Dakota. About 14,000 tribal members and their animals live in this remote land, and the closest veterinary care is 40 miles away. RAVS has made annual trips to the reservation since 1997. “RAVS is one of our invaluable resources,” Runs After says. “It’s an integral piece of the puzzle for our animal efforts.” His own dog, Sissy, a Blue Heeler/Lab-mix, is a rescued RAVS dog
Davis has garnered accolades and recognition for his contributions to animal welfare from a variety of sources: the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Surgeon General, his peers and students. His home is filled with gifts of appreciation: porcupine quill earrings, a rattlesnake tail, beaded bracelets, ceremonial blankets, pieces of Mayan pottery. Yet some of his greatest rewards have been simple words of thanks.
He recounts an exchange with an “old, grizzled Chiklero” (someone who harvests chicle—a gum obtained from the latex of the sapodilla tree—in the jungle) after an equine clinic in northern Guatemala. His bony horse was the only thing this man had in the world, Davis remembers, and “he thanked me for treating his animal so kindly.” The man’s gratitude touched Davis. “This told me that the people really cared about their animals and that the clinic had given them an opportunity to recognize that.”
As RAVS heads into its 11th year, there are signs that it is bringing about long-term change. In some communities, returning vets report a decrease in dog bites and mange or an increase in animals as pets as opposed to semi-ferals. They revaccinate animals they had previously spayed and neutered. Local people seem to be responding to the educational resources and support as well. High school kids volunteer in the clinics and express an interest in public health and animal welfare issues. In some communities, groups have formed humane societies, brought in an animal control officer or started raising money for a shelter.
The Davises live in Salinas, California. Ila works as a veterinarian for Monterey County, and both teach at Hartnell Community College. They have their own sanctuary, which, according to Davis, is filled with “unadoptable dogs, unadoptable bunnies, unadoptable horses, an unadoptable ox, several unadoptable sheep, and numerous unadoptable chickens and ducks.” The similarities between his own animals and those he encounters on the road are not lost on Davis. In part, they fuel his tireless efforts and dedication. “I would not operate a clinic where I would not take my own animals.”
Following her discovery of a small pamphlet about Dogtown, a long-gone Massachusetts hamlet, Anita Diamant set to work creating a deeply imagined story of its life, and its demise. She captures the town’s story in her latest book, The Last Days of Dogtown (Scribner), in which the lives of its few remaining citizens, and the pack of dogs tat lived in their proximity, are perceptively rendered. Recently, Anita was kind enough to indulge a few of Bark’s questions.
YES. Buddy (Miniature Schnauzer from Schnauzer Rescue of NE) is my current canine companion. He is my mood elevator, exercise machine and pal. He is also the “neighborhood dog,” especially beloved by the kids on the block. He is my third dog: first was the Beagle, Bartholemew, them Pom the Poodle. I have written about my love of dogs for publication, too. (See the “Dog and Katz” essay in my collection, Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith.
In your research, did you come across information on dogs of the time—how they lived, how they were regarded?
I didn’t come across anything about the dogs of the 1800s. There were farm dogs, wild dogs, and pet dogs, as there have been for centuries. In all matters canine, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ wonderful book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, was my guide.
What led you to incorporate dogs into the story?
Well, the name of the town was Dogtown. However it should be noted that “dogtown” was kind of a generic and not-very-nice term for a place that was on the skids, especially a rural, “slum.” Someplace that was “going to the dogs” was called a dogtown.
In all of these cases, the loving relationships were not planned by the humans. These were not farmers, who kept working dogs, but very lonely poor people, for whom dogs were a sort of last resort, and for whom the shared affection comes as a surprise, and ultimately, a form of salvation from loneliness. As for the relationship of the dogs to one another, I really, really tried not to anthropomorphize (in honor of Ms. Thomas) though that’s probably not possible for a human.
What lay behind your decision to tell part of the story through Greyling’s eyes?
I suppose I wanted an outside perspective and also to introduce the intelligence of the dog. That was a challenge since, even in that case, I really wanted to avoid “humanizing” the canine. So while she’s intelligent, she’s totally non-judgmental, which is a non-human attribute.
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