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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Karen Pryor took tools and insights refined with dolphins and applied them to dogs, and training has never been the same… thank goodness!
In 1974, Karen Pryor zipped off her wet suit and hung up her dolphin-training whistle—for good, she thought. She left Hawaii and eventually moved to New York City with her teenage daughter, where she set up shop as a freelance writer. Pryor already had two books under her belt, and now embarked on her third: an easy-to-read manual on using the science of operant conditioning in everyday life, whether it be with pet Poodles or grouchy bus drivers. She hoped, as she says, that the book would also stop parents from yelling at their kids. Taking a line from Pryor’s manuscript, her editor dubbed the book Don’t Shoot the Dog. Pryor hated the title.
The slim volume was published in 1984. It didn’t stop people from screaming at their kids as Pryor had hoped. It was, however, embraced by dog trainers, and in short order, Pryor was invited to speak at their gatherings. She accepted nervously—she knew dolphins far better than she knew dogs. “I was completely surprised,” Pryor says. “It was only because of the title that I had objected to.”
Twenty-some years later, Pryor’s book is still in print. The author has become a well-known training authority, and clicker training, the method her book inspired and she fostered, has made noticeable inroads. Exactly how many people are using clicker training is unclear. Estimates vary from 10 to 50 percent of professional dog trainers. The training method certainly has a very real presence on the web: 150 chat lists exist on Yahoo alone. In the past year, visits to Pryor’s company’s website, clickertraining.com, have increased 72 percent. Hits have come from around the globe, including Kenya, China, even Iran.
Not only has clicker training grown exponentially in the past dozen years, but its emphasis on using positive reinforcement has turned dog training on its head. “It’s night and day now,” says Jean Donaldson, director of the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy of Dog Trainers and author of The Culture Clash.
Before clicker training, the Koehler method, relying on correction and punishment, was the overwhelmingly predominant style. The only choice, Donaldson says, was what kind of collar to use—pinch or prong. Traditional dog training is all about telling a dog he’s made a mistake by jerking his leash or pinching his ear. Clicker training took a glass-half-full approach.
“We never taught the dog what to do,” says Corally Burmaster, a longtime trainer who runs the Clicker Training Center in Leeds, Virginia. “We taught them what not to do. The emphasis now is finding positive ways to communicate to our dogs what we want them to do. The emphasis has shifted dramatically.”
Pryor, in large part, is responsible for this shift. Though not the first to use positive reinforcement with dogs, she was the first to explain how it could be used effectively with them, not to mention with other species. Though dog trainers have worked out the finer points of clicker training, Pryor provided the philosophical underpinnings and scientific ideas behind it. As Ken Ramirez, head of training at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, puts it, “Her book was a guiding light.” Leave it to a dolphin trainer to revolutionize the world of dog training.
This morning in Newport, Rhode Island, Pryor’s influence can be seen and heard. Nearly 400 trainers, mostly women in fleece pullovers with clickers dangling from their necks like lockets, have flocked to a seaside hotel for a weekend of seminars put on by Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Their vans and wagons, with bumper stickers that read “I Click with My Dog,” cram the parking lot. They wander the hotel’s halls with Border Collies and Australian Shepherds by their side. The dogs can’t resist a bark or two at the sight of Panda, a clicker-trained seeing-eye horse, who parts the crowd like a visiting monarch wherever she goes. A slightly high, tinny sound, like people snapping their fingers, echoes through the hotel. This crisp beat, a percussive rendition of the word “yes,” has an uncanny cheeriness to it.
A small army, about 100 strong, settles into rows of padded banquet seats to listen to Pryor talk about cleaning up cues. While a Whippet gnaws loudly on a rawhide in the aisle, Pryor describes the various ways we humans, with all our fidgeting, give dogs—who take body language literally—inadvertent cues. When you give a hand cue for “sit,” she says, you may unconsciously cock your head or throw out a hip. Maybe you toss back your hair. To the canine mind, these are all important signals. “Which one is the dog following?” Pryor says. “God only knows.”
The assembled are here as much to learn about cues as they are to sit at the feet of their inspirational leader. If they expected someone with buckets of charisma, à la Cesar Millan, they might be disappointed. Pryor has an unassuming presence, except for a smile so warm it’s almost beatific. At 74, she’s slender and keeps her hair a soft shade of strawberry blond. She has an easy, down-to-earth manner and isn’t afraid to make mistakes when working a dog in front of an audience. She is also not one for mystique. If anything, Pryor is the anti-whisperer—she’s taken the mystery out of dog training, showing that you don’t have to be a natural or have a special aura. You just need a bit of science, a bit of operant conditioning. “It’s not magic,” Pryor says. “It’s just easy. Anyone with an IQ can do it.”
At its core, operant conditioning is deceptively simple: Behavior is shaped by its consequences. At Harvard University, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, demonstrated this through countless experiments with pigeons. He also found that positive reinforcement was far more effective than punishment at soliciting desired behaviors. As Pryor points out, operant conditioning isn’t hard to understand but is devilishly hard to apply, if only because it is so counterintuitive to humans, who are quick to use punishment as a teaching tool.
Pryor had her initial go at applying operant conditioning when her first husband drafted her to train the dolphins at his new marine facility, Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Pryor was far more interested in the park’s reef fish, but she was the only one handy with any training experience. She had worked with her Weimaraner, Gus, and then her Welsh ponies. However, nothing she had done with her dog or ponies really applied to the dolphins, especially given that she was on land and they were in a big tank of saltwater. She couldn’t use reins or a leash. If the dolphins didn’t want to work, they just swam off.
“A big ‘Aha!’ for me was discovering operant conditioning,” she says. Like other early dolphin trainers, she realized that a wholly new approach was needed, and found it in operant conditioning. The science not only made stunningly good sense to Pryor, but she quickly had proof of its effectiveness as she taught the wild-caught dolphins to flip on command. A crucial tool was the whistle, which, in operant-conditioning talk, is a bridge. The whistle tells the dolphin exactly when it has done the desired behavior and to come poolside for a reward of fish.
This was the crucial piece of the puzzle for dog trainers who had tried to use positive reinforcement, such as Burmaster. “The ability to communicate precisely what you wanted, that was the piece for me that was missing,” Burmaster says.
In her early talks to dog trainers, Pryor used her dolphin whistle to demonstrate how to use a bridge. Dog trainers got the idea, but didn’t go for the whistle. In 1991, Pryor teamed up with Gary Wilkes, then a shelter manager and now a well-known clicker trainer, to give talks. Wilkes proposed using a plastic noisemaker he’d found in a novelty store rather than a whistle. The twosome handed them out at a presentation, and clicker training was essentially born.
Burmaster, who had given up training because, as she says, “she got tired of jerking her dogs around,” attended a Pryor–Wilkes seminar that same year. She went home and in short order, taught her Airedale to hold a dumbbell and her quarter horse to quit whirling when it was released into the field. She returned to training and started the Clicker Journal. Likewise, Donaldson, after attending a seminar in 1992, went, as she says, “clicker mad.” “It blew my mind,” she says. “I went home and trained my dog for hours.”
In 1993, Pryor started Sunshine Books, which publishes various clicker training manuals, and that enterprise grew into her larger company, Karen Pryor Clicker Training. In 1998, she moved from Washington state to the Boston area to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. She lives on the first floor of a two-family house that borders a golf course in the western suburb of Watertown. She shares her digs with Twitchet, her 15-year-old Border Terrier, and Misha, an eight-year-old German harlequin Poodle. Both are clicker trained.
Though Pryor is a celebrity in the dog-training world, that is just one facet of her very busy, productive life. Her 1963 book on breastfeeding is still in print and has sold over two million copies. She’s authored many scientific papers. She has worked with a large variety of species, and is a regular consultant to zoos, which explains why, during her Newport talk, she showed video of a warthog and a lion who had been clicker-trained. She has joined forces with a scientist, a gymnastics coach and a dance teacher to see how clicker training can be used to teach humans. And she is writing a new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, due out from Scribner’s in 2008. A philosophical approach knits all this varied work together, she says. Her central thrust is to “reduce gratuitous cruelty in the world.”
To that end, she’s made some headway in the pet dog world. Though there’s far more work to be done, she’s set the ball rolling. Clicker training “has a life of its own now,” she says. “I can almost kick back now and let it take its own course.”
Recent events in Northern Africa have turned the spotlight on Gene Sharp, PhD, a scholar and social scientist anointed by the Daily Beast as “the 83-year-old who toppled Egypt.” For decades, Sharp — through his manuals and books, including From Dictatorship to Democracy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action— has argued that nonviolent action is the best way to overcome repressive regimes.
Sharp has a PhD from Oxford University, taught at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard, and is now senior scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit he founded in 1983. His office is on the ground floor of his East Boston home, where he lives and works in the company of Sally, a Golden Retriever mix; before Sally, he had a black Great Dane, Caesar, who was said to serve as Sharp’s chief confidant.
As we were trying to find information about Dr. Sharp’s relationship to the world of dogs, we were pleased to discover an article he wrote in the March 1976 issue of the magazine Fellowship. In this article, “Disregarded History: The Power of Nonviolent Action,” he offers empirical historical evidence for the power of active resistance, including the fact that “it wasn’t Gandhi who introduced fasting as a political weapon”; it was Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1765, urged colonists to fast in their struggle against Great Britain.
Sharp goes on to offer the observation that nonviolent actions of this kind can be seen in nature as well. He starts his argument by demonstrating the ways a recalcitrant child tries to win over a parent with “hunger strikes” and similar resistance, then continues to the canine side of the family:
“Many animals and pets do all these things. Haven’t you had dogs or cats act this way? They want to go with you in the car somewhere—when they know they are not supposed to—they go and jump right in. It’s a ‘sit-in.’ Or, they know very well what you’re saying to them and pretend they don’t, just like you’ve done yourself. Or you say ‘move,’ and they lie down, whimpering, and look up at you with the saddest possible look—like some demonstrators do to police. Sometimes they’re being ignored, particularly if there’s company coming and there’s a big fuss in the house and nobody’s paying attention to them when they’re trying to say, ‘Come and play with me.’ The dog then goes into the middle of the living room rug and does a ‘nonviolent intervention’—not biting anybody, not growling at anybody but getting attention! So we don’t have to change human nature—or even animal nature—in order to be nonviolent.”
Leave it to a visionary like Gene Sharp to incorporate lessons learned from our animal companions in the quest for human freedom.
A documentary about Gene Sharp, “How to Start a Revolution,” directed by Ruaridh Arrow, is expected to premiere in spring 2011. genesharpfilm.com
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Profiling notable second acts: Heidi Hill
When Heidi Hill was growing up, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. As so often happens, that dream was put aside; instead of going to vet school, she earned a degree in accounting and embarked on a successful career in corporate finance and human resources.
Then one day, as she was casually leafing through a magazine, she read an article on homeopathy. Intrigued, she began to explore the topic, which eventually led her not only to formal study at San Francisco’s Pacific Academy of Homeopathy, but also permanently changed the way she viewed health, illness and life in general. Opening Holistic Hound—a “health food” store for dogs and cats—in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003 allowed her to combine her two passions, animals and holistic health care, and realize her earlier dream in a new form.
As a retailer, Hill has been on the front lines—the connection between the marketplace and the manufacturers. Recently, Bark quizzed her on what she observed during the spring 2007 recall and during the months that followed.
Bark:When the recall was in full swing, what did you notice as far as your customers were concerned?
Heidi Hill: I think that, for many reasons, people didn’t pay a lot of attention to pet food before the recall. Afterward, they certainly did. As the recall developed, people understandably became very nervous, and changed their animal’s food to higher-quality brands. Some started feeding raw foods, and others started cooking for their dogs.They also worked to educate themselves.Web sites made a great deal of information available.
B:What, if any, changes have you seen in the amount and type of information manufacturers are sharing now, as opposed to pre-recall?
HH: Many are disclosing more, though they still don’t disclose much (they didn’t disclose anything before).But for the most part, they still seem to be reluctant to identify their sources. From what I can gather, the reason they don’t is competition— for competitive advantage.
B: Are manufacturers now operating differently in any other ways?
HH: Yes, I think so. Some of them have very sophisticated and elaborate testing facilities in place, and in some cases, you can go to a manufacturer’s site and see what the food’s been tested for. On one of them, you can even look up your own batch. I wasn’t aware of anything like that before the recall.
B: What’s your take on the long-term consequences of the recall?
HH: For the companion animals whose health was affected, or who died, the results were obviously tragic; in that way, it was an awful situation. In other ways, it has had a positive outcome—the pet food industry will never be the same. Consumers are demanding more, and are more discriminating. They ask more questions and want to know that they can rely on what a company tells them. The recall definitely raised people’s consciousness, and they know they need to do their homework. I think it’s safe to say that we all want to do the right thing in terms of providing for our pets’ nutritional needs, and we now know that we can’t take marketing claims at face value.
Giving voice to Hollywood’s dogs
“Can we try that again?”
“Okay, one more take.”
Hollywood has been home to countless hounds who’ve acted in film and television. And while the sounds those pups emit have sometimes been their own unadulterated, 100 percent doggie growls and whimpers, often what we’re hearing when we watch a cartoon canine (and the occasional live-action mutt) is, well, very much human in origin.
Of course, since the invention of celluloid, human actors have often provided impressive sound effects for numerous fish, insects and various animals and other creatures. Flies buzz, salmon burble, squirrels chitter, kitties purr convincingly, often due in large part to an accomplished bipedal, Screen Actors Guild card–carrying actor at the microphone. But many artists who voice dogs aren’t merely playing the wisecracking, pants-wearing woofer who likes to drink beer and play baseball (in short, the played-for-laughs, extremely humanized hound). In addition to numerous animated animals, humans are ably voicing honest-to-goodness, real-life, silver-screen dogs, the kind of pups we live with.
“It seems like half my life, I have been barking…and some of that has been professionally,” says Frank Welker, an industry icon who has voiced a bevy of big-name bowwows, from Scooby Doo and Dynomutt to Goddard on The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. “When I go to the doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor asks me to cough, I bark! It’s just a natural response.”
Feeling Like a Dog
It isn’t simply a matter of asking an actor to bark or growl with abandon, however. As real dogs can express fear or excitement or joy, the humans impersonating —or “in-dog-onating” perhaps—a pooch have to be able to convey the feeling the onscreen animal is experiencing at the moment. “When you’re making animal sounds, you still have to emote an emotion even if you’re not using words. Often the sounds will imitate the way a word sounds—the same amount of syllables,” says voice director Donna Grillo. “You know you’re going to have fun when you’re recording animal sounds.”
And while it is certainly a specialty in both the fields of animation and live action—being able to bark, with emotion, on cue—there’s more work for bipeds who can snorfle like a four-pawed pup than one might expect.“There’s usually a dog in the family and there need to be sounds for it,” says Grillo,who has directed her share of grunts and wheezes and sniffs while working in cartoons. “If it’s a comedy, I look for funny sounds. If it’s a serious or action-type show, I go for realistic.” Maybe the breaking-into-thebiz part is a bit harder than arriving at a traditional casting call with a headshot in hand, but, if you’re a film fan with a gift for growls, it might be a career course that will surprise the folks back home: Really? You bark for a living? Really?
But aspiring snarlers should know ahead of time that the recording process is quite rigorous and consists of much more than just yipping and zipping. You have to truly become the dog. “In Disney’s film Homeward Bound, I did all the actual dog [and cat] sound effects while celebrity actors did the spoken voices,” says Welker. “This was so much fun. They put the film up on a screen in a darkened studio and I would just roll with it and fill in the sounds as I felt them—it’s a process I love, called looping. Mostly it was breathing to make the audience buy into the strange reality of real live dogs speaking. It really works to help to make the transitions. The director was great and liked what I was doing. He said it was so realistic that the sound editors were not sure when the real dogs stopped and I started. That is the highest compliment I can get: being [mistaken for] a dog!”
Welker also favors a more realistic approach rather than a highly stylized, overly artificial performance.“Sometimes the project requires a dog who has a lot of personality that isn’t obvious on the screen. That is one of the more difficult things to do, trying to stretch it but keep it believable. I remember when I did the horror film Cujo—you had one of the most lovable creatures on the planet, a Saint Bernard. And it was supposed to be a rabid killing machine. I looked at this dog’s sweet face and thought No way ... but with good makeup (foaming jowls) and some of my most vicious growling and barking (I’m getting a sore throat now just thinking about it) and a mix of real dog sounds and some very good camera work, they did indeed create a classic horror flick. I leave it to the audience to judge if it worked, but I will tell you that I won’t watch it just before bedtime.”
Truly becoming the dog is key to the performance. The human self has to be stashed for the moment and the canine character fully assumed. “I picture myself as a dog, literally get into a stance, but stay on two feet, and prance around in front of the microphone as the dog, and then bark as if I were talking with that dog’s point of view,” says actor Barb Heller.When asked to play a Poodle,Heller modified her woof. “I had to come up with a higher pitched, feminine and spoiled bark. If I were doing a Terrier, I might have been a bit smaller and gruffer,with a bit of a squeak.”
For Heller to summon a particular “hound”sound, attitude is essential.“Figuring out what pitch and what type of ‘attitude’ s/he has” is part of the challenge of creating realistic dog f/x, according to Heller. “For all animals, this is the most challenging part in speaking as them.We only have their animal sounds and sighs or breathing patterns to work with.”
And while actors look to the fictional Fido they’re voicing to inform their performance, it’s no surprise that a real-life buddy is often the inspiration. Before one audition,Heller observed a pal’s pooch.“My friend Erin has a super cute Toy Poodle, and although he was smaller and more masculine than the older female Poodle I was playing, he had the right stuck-up, no-nonsense style. I started with his walk and high-pitched bark and went from there.”
Frank Welker lived with his furry muse for well over a decade. “I had a wonderful German Shepherd I loved dearly,” remembers Welker. “She lived with and tolerated me for 14 years, and I still dream and think of her often. She was a great friend and companion. I know she taught me a lot more dog than I taught her English—but then, there were days when I swore I heard her say, perfectly clear, ‘Uh, you’re not really going to wear that shirt with those pants, are you?’”
Merrill Markoe shares a few funny bones, and then some.
If you’ve watched much television during the past 20 years, chances are that Merrill Markoe has made you laugh. As the original head writer for Late Night with David Letterman, she hatched Stupid Pet Tricks and garnered five Emmys for comedy writing. She was a regular contributor to Sex in the City, Not Necessarily the News and Moonlighting, to name but a few of her television credits. She is also the author of several books, including What the Dogs Have Taught Me, How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me and a children’s book, The Day My Dogs Became Guys. Recently, Bark’s Alison Pace spoke with Markoe about her new novel, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down, and the dogs who inspire her.
Q One of the things I loved most about Walking in Circles Before Lying Down is that the dogs actually speak to your protagonist, Dawn. You’ve vividly brought to life the thought that so many dog owners have had: If only I knew what my dog was thinking. What sort of literary decisions, hesitations and big leaps went into deciding to make the dogs converse with Dawn?
A One of my favorite things to do is write conversations with my dogs. I get a kick out of imagining a serious backand- forth on topics like “Why did you pull the face off of the brand-new stuffed frog? We’ve only had it less than 10 minutes!” Or, “How can you possibly have to pee so many times in a row? We just went 30 seconds ago!” There are a number of these kinds of conversational pieces in What the Dogs Have Taught Me.
Before W.I.C.B.L.D. was published, when I was trying to figure out what to write my next novel about, I realized that I had never really gone the distance with the complexity of my feeling for dogs as a long-form topic. So I decided I wanted to flesh it out and go on record in a bigger way.
Q In your essay collection What the Dogs Have Taught Me, many of the essays were based on the life you share with your dogs. Are the dogs in Walking in Circles Before Lying Down based on real dogs—specifically, your dogs? If not, who and/or what provided the inspiration for the characters of Swentzle and Chuck?
A Swentzle was based on Lewis, one of my favorite dogs ever. Lewis was kind of a Flatcoated Retriever, or maybe a Golden/Newfie mix, which I read is what a Flatcoated Retriever was to begin with. I dedicated the book to Lewis, and I wrote the piece “Greeting Disorder” [in W.T.D.H.T.M.] about Lewis. He was the greatest guy.He’s one of those dogs I’ll never get over.When you came in the door to my house, he was so happy to see you that he greeted you in a way that was, for some people, occasionally confused with assault. And then, after you had been greeted to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, Lewis was still so glad to see you that he would go downstairs to my living room and have sex with the sofa for the whole rest of the time you were at my house. That is just how welcome he felt you were! In a way, he was a litmus test for friends—those who were utterly grossed out by this display were doomed to the discard pile. (And probably happier there.) I used to think that if Lewis was a songwriter, his hit tune would have been called I’ll Never Stop Saying Hello.
Chuck is based on one of my four current dogs, the incredibly hilarious and very smart Puppyboy. Puppyboy is kind of a Shepherd mix.He is very attentive and obedient and interactive, but he has that doggy fetch-obsession to the point of mania. From the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, Pupp is bringing you stuff he hopes you will throw.He is dropping them into your lap and staring at you. And he never stops staring at you in this way until you go home. (Sometimes he keeps it up after you leave.)
When I take a nap on the couch, I often wake up to realize that Puppyboy is poised behind me, staring at my back, holding something in his mouth for me to throw —no hurry, he’s just waiting. And when I try to turn over, I realize he has been piling all kinds of other fetch options on the couch behind me… like, say, the squeaking ice cream cone and a torn stuffed animal and a ball.As though he’s thinking, Well, I guess she’s not into the headless froggy right now. But this’ll get her: the latex bone! I wrote about this particular aspect of him in W.T.D.H.T.M. also, in a piece called “Something Extremely Important.”
Q A life lived with dogs has clearly been an inspiration.What else inspires you?
A I am greatly inspired by all things in the natural world—biology, the different species of animals and their sociology. I find physics really inspiring. I don’t understand it too well, but I keep trying. That goes double for string theory. I am inspired by astronomy and marine biology and everything about evolution. And geology. And ancient civilizations.And plants. I love to read about human psychology. I love anything having to do with aberrant behavior and crime. In college, I had a minor in criminology because I like all of that stuff so much. I still get very inspired by anyone who is really going the distance in any of the arts—music, painting, film, theater. I don’t know if you can include comedy in the arts, but I love comedy and am very happy when someone does something that is actually funny on purpose. I am hypercritical and it doesn’t happen much. Currently I am completely inspired by the movie Idiocracy by Mike Judge (just out on DVD).He is my comedy hero right now.
Of course, I like reading. But I also like collecting stuff that is weirdly phrased, like misconceived advertising campaigns. I get stimulus overload in the grocery store. I feel like I’m on an archaeological dig, collecting samples of a weird culture. I am very inspired by the cheap plastic crap that our culture and every other culture on this planet spews out on a daily basis.
Suffice it to say that I find most of the outside world pretty interesting and inspiring, even if it’s only in a negative way. Sometimes the stuff I react to negatively is the most inspiring of all.
Q You were a judge on the excellent Animal Planet show Who Gets the Dog, in which each week you helped a shelter dog on his quest to find the perfect family. Any special stories to share from that experience, and is there any chance of that show making a return?
A I am pretty sure the show is not making a return anytime soon. I’m glad you liked it. I don’t think it got very good ratings. I can share with you the fact that the vet on that show, Dr. Dean Graulich, is my real vet. So I still see him quite a bit, often under less-than-ideal circumstances.
I can also share with you that everyone concerned with that show really meant well and really fretted and worried about giving the dog to the right home. I used to interrogate the members of the crew who had gone out on location to the potential homes— I wanted to find out what they had observed, because sometimes they would see something in person that was not obvious in the footage we watched, some sign of irresponsibility or weirdness. We didn’t want to give a dog to someone who would end up abandoning it.
Tamar and Dean and I were almost always in agreement about who should get the dog, (with a couple of spectacular disagreements where, of course, I am sure I was right). But we usually unanimously agreed to eliminate the people who had a big problem with dogs getting on their furniture. We really liked those dogs and I hope we did well by them. I would have taken half of them home.Hell, I would have taken all of them home. I’m lucky no one let me.
Q There have been a lot of changes in the dog world in recent years.Among other things, I don’t think I recall there being such a vast array of dog commerce a decade ago.What do you think about the state of dogs today, and how it has shifted over the years?
A Certainly, dog food has gotten a lot more nutrition- conscious, if the packaging is any indication. Even the worst dog food has drawings of carrots and apples on the sack now—and boasts of fish oil and glucosamine and every kind of vitamin and mineral. (I always think if dogs were in charge of making their own purchases, there would be drawings of garbage cans and kitty litter boxes and dirty napkins on the package.)
I have also noticed how even airports now have franchises that sell all kinds of dog and cat gift items—figurines, outfits, bowls, treats—and whimsical, overpriced, supposedly funny things,T-shirts, ridiculous crap. So clearly, dogs (and cats) are now a profitable moneymaking arena for big business.
I would wish that this meant that the dogs of today are being catered to in a nice way. Certainly some of them are.You and I both know their owners. But then, what are all those signs I see on bulletin boards and telephone poles, where people are moving and giving their dogs away? The only violent feelings I ever get happen when I read those signs.How dare these morons give their dog away just because they feel like changing apartments? How about getting a new apartment that takes dogs, you creep! And if things are so great now, how did all those abandoned dogs wind up in rescues and in shelters?
And then there’s the horror of what is going on in other countries. For example, China, where they have been killing thousands and thousands of dogs (including people’s beloved pets, even though the dogs have been inoculated) as a response to a relatively small number of people getting rabies.Not offering rabies shots, just killing every dog for miles and miles! The animal- abuse horror stories all over the globe are so widespread that it is difficult to know if any progress has been made, overall. Sometimes I say to myself, I don’t know why I am surprised at the way people treat animals. Look how awful we are to each other.
Q Having spent time on both coasts, do you see a big difference in the dog world between the East Coast and the West?
A For me, it is much more pleasant having a dog on the West Coast.When I was in NYC, I found all things involving my dogs to be stressful and difficult. I am thinking right now of that cozy moment in the middle of the night when your beloved dog comes up to you at 4 AM and whines and nuzzles your face, indicating that it would be a good idea if you would get up; put on several layers of outerwear, including sweaters, coats, boots, gloves and a hat; and then leave the apartment, travel down in an elevator, walk through a lobby and stand on a freezing cold street full of potentially dangerous strangers so he can pee. Or maybe he didn’t really have to pee, maybe he just wanted to see what was going on. Or bark at something that he thought was going to be there but is now gone.
Same situation here in LA means that the dog can just jump off the bed and go out the doggy door without so much as a permission slip needing to be signed.
I also love how, on the West Coast, I can drive to Costco and get a nice 75-pound sack of food, then drive home. It made me crazy in NYC to buy a four-pound box of dog kibble, serve it for dinner to the team and then be out of dog food.
Q Which rescue programs and shelters are closest to your heart?
A I like PETA because they seem to actually get things done. I like Best Friends. I love Jane Goodall. My friend, comedian Elayne Boosler, has a rescue foundation, Tails of Joy. My friend Sam Simon, one of the creators of The Simpsons, also has a rescue, the Sam Simon Foundation; they take dogs out of shelters and train them to work with disabled people. My “daughter”Hedda came from a rescue called New Leash on Life.
I pretty much like every rescue until I read an article in the National Enquirer about how they are a secret hell on earth. I have donated to so many dog charities that taking in my mail is a traumatic experience, because every day I get 10 envelopes seeking donations, and every one of them is decorated with a photograph of a poor, sad, miserable-looking animal who appears to be on death’s door. It certainly takes all the fun out of getting mail.
Q What advice might you have for someone whose dog is constantly eating vile things off the street?
A Boundaries, Alison.You must maintain your foundaboundaries. No matter how much she goes on about what a great experience it is, how surprisingly delicious and exciting, do not let her talk you into joining her. Take it from someone who learned her lesson the hard way.
Q What’s next for you?
A I’m writing another book. Once again, it is dog-intensive.Other than that, I have a few freelance assignments. I think I am going to get to make a short film based on “Something Extremely Important”— someone is threatening to finance it. If it works out, I will definitely link to it on my website, as I will be very, very happy to give Puppyboy his first starring role. If it doesn’t work out, I think I will make it anyway.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Building trust is the first step
For 30 years, Marilyn Pona, founder of Assistance Dogs for Living, has been training dogs: rescued, traumatized mutts; show dogs; obedience-school dropouts; neurotic dogs in danger of exile from their families; and service dogs of every kind.
“There’s one thing nearly every trainer does too soon,” she confides. “Train.”
The usual impulse, she explains, is to jump in and try to impose control immediately. Pona learned patience from her work with service dogs: When you’re transferring a dog from his trainer to his new person, you can’t rush it.
What are the signs that tell you it’s time? When ears and tail change position, the body relaxes, breathing slows, and the dog is not hypervigilant or showing any stress signals—that’s when you know the dog’s finally getting a calming message: This is all that’s required of you. Be with me, in this moment. Pona shakes her head ruefully. “People want to go out in their khakis with their whistles and teach their dog tricks. After this kind of quiet moment, they’ll say, ‘But we didn’t do anything.’ Well, if you missed what we did, I don’t even know how to explain it.”
An orthopedic surgeon brought in his dog, who was showing aggression toward other dogs and humans. The dog got right up in Pona’s lap and kissed her. The surgeon said, “I can’t believe this—he’s tried to take down every vet and trainer in town.” She replied calmly, “Well, he’s introduced himself to me.” She’d been seated in her wheelchair when the dog entered the room. “I always relax my breathing when I meet a new dog, and I don’t reach out of my body space,” she says.
She doesn’t even talk directly to the dog; she lets him approach her, circling closer and closer. “If the dog doesn’t look at me and solicit my attention, I wait. If he just stops and looks up, I’ll avert my eyes and keep talking to his person. Then, if he stays near, I might touch him. But here’s my personal rule: One of my fingers or my thumb has to be touching my knee when I touch him. That way, I’m in my body space, not his.
“It’s all about building trust. He’s testing me to see if I’m going to try to push myself on him. Often, when I’m working with a new dog, especially a highly reactive dog, for the first 15 minutes we don’t do anything. This stops that tendency to say, ‘What is going on? What do we do here?’ We do nothing. We have to train dogs to do nothing. Because most of the time, asking the dog to do nothing is the basis for them being under control.”
In the beginning, a dog will resist even a simple request to “Come, stand next to me and be calm.” A dog is another species, and his own language is going to interfere and make him wary. What you’re really doing at this point is taming, Pona says. “Taming is noncommunicative. It’s just sitting next to each other until you feel comfortable. Failure to do this is why rescued dogs are so often returned to shelters, and why people’s relationships with their dogs don’t deepen.”
Often, when someone at wits’ end calls, Pona will say, “Just bring the dog into your body space and stop correcting. Too much correction or cueing can actually be feeding the behavior you are trying to stop. You start to think, ‘God, this dog is not getting it.’ And you’re right: The dog is not getting that you want him to be calm. When you say that and mean it, they understand, and it’s such a joy to watch. Then you can proceed with your training, because now the dog trusts the safety of being in your body space.”
A volunteer at a rescue organization called her recently. There was a problem with a Pit Bull mix trying to fight with the other dogs every time she walked past them. The volunteers there don’t like to use leash corrections, and Pona readily agrees. “It would have been counterproductive anyway, especially with a Pit Bull,” she remarks. “They are so headdriven and body-tough that when they are focusing on something, you could jerk them all day and it would be a mere annoyance. You’re not teaching them anything.”
What she wanted to teach the dog was simply to be quiet and walk near her leg. “Every time she would bristle up or go into an alert, I would have her back close to my leg. Finally, she gave me the eye contact I’d been waiting for. I said, ‘Okay, she’s ready. She understands what I want her to do. But let’s go outside and walk her and sit with her a bit and keep this going.’ We walked for a while and then sat on a stone wall, with her at my knee. I stroked her from the ear down, with one finger only, requiring nothing of her but being in my body space.”
Earlier, Pona had watched the volunteers gush over this Pit mix, and she’d seen the dog flash stress signals. “They were overwhelming her, and she was trying to soothe herself, yawning, licking her lips.We could have bounced a dime off her skin, it was so tight. But after we sat outside with her, just doing nothing, she relaxed. I got her to continue making eye contact, establishing some lines of communication. And then we went in and walked right through the dogs.When a particularly hyper Sheltie mix kept jumping and barking at her, she actually looked the other way and kept walking.”
The volunteer watched in amazement. “I never even saw you correct her,” he said.
Pona shrugged. “There was no need. I’d taught her, ‘Stay by my leg and be quiet.’”
That’s the whole point: Once you relax with each other, you can communicate.
For more on Pona and Assistance Dogs for Living, visit marilynpona.com.
Notable second acts: Lydia Best
From corporate executive to dog walker is an unusual career trajectory, but Lydia Best doesn’t regret a moment of it. As director of recruiting for several IT consulting firms, Best logged thousands of miles of travel a year, which kept her from adding a dog to her life, as she and her husband— who was also a well-traveled citizen of corporate America— were so rarely home. Tired of being dogless, she changed jobs and adopted Daisy, an English Bulldog. When travel threatened in her new job, she decided it was time to quit altogether and consider what she wanted to do with her life. In 2000, she traded her Ann Taylor wardrobe for more casual wear—“You should have seen my husband’s face when I told him his six-figure-executive wife was going to pick up dog poop for a living”—and now, almost eight years later, her company, Everything and the Dog, coordinates the work of 78 independent contractors providing services to more than 1,600 active northern Virginia clients. Pet sitting and dog walking are on the menu, as are errandrunning (grocery store runs, dry cleaning drop-offs, etc.) and concierge assistance (reservations, vacation planning). Everything and the Dog is a family affair—Best’s mother is her office manager and her mother-in-law is one of the dog walkers. Completing the trifecta, her husband quit his corporate job and is now the company’s private chef, adding party planning and hosting as well as in-home chef services to the list. Best says she feels very fortunate that she gets to make a living doing something she loves, plus be with Daisy all day.
Interview with the actor, writer, and director.
Alan Cumming is best known for his appearances in movies such as X2: X-Men United, Son of the Mask and Nicholas Nickleby. This winter on the Sci Fi Channel, he stars alongside Richard Dreyfuss in Tin Man, a miniseries based on The Wizard of Oz.
In most of his films, Cumming takes the roles of creeps, geeks or crazies. “Subtlety’s not my forte,” he says. “I think you can be as big as you like as long as you mean it.” But in real life, he is a glamorous and charming figure. Even though he’s in his 40s, a boyish enthusiasm infects everything he does—and he does a lot. A native of Scotland, he now splits his time between Manhattan and upstate New York; in between acting jobs, he oversees his various other projects. His latest, Suffering Man’s Charity (which he directs and stars in), is making the rounds of the film festival circuit. He’s also a well-known campaigner in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and a novelist. His book, Tommy’s Tale, was published in 2003, and he’s currently at work on the screenplay.
All in all, perhaps, not the sort of celebrity who would have a lot of time for a dog, you might think. But in fact, Alan is crazy about canines, and it’s all thanks to his dog Honey. To find out more, Bark caught up with him on a recent visit to the UK to ask him a few questions about life with his beloved doggie companion.
Bark: Did you have any dogs before Honey?
Alan Cumming: As as child, I had two West Highland Terriers. They were my constant companions growing up. But no dogs as an adult, which seems crazy to me now. I can’t imagine life without one.
B: How did you come by Honey?
AC: A friend was working at Cause for Paws, a charity in New York that rescues dogs from dog pounds on the day they would have been put down. They foster them out, and Honey was fostered with my friend. The weirdest thing was, I had no intention of getting a dog. But Honey was so amazing, I had to have her.
B: What do you think her background was?
AC: I think it was pretty difficult. At first, Honey was quite freaked out—she had paint all down her side and she slept the whole time. She was scared of bin bags [garbage bags] and skips [Dumpsters] —and she loved homeless people! My theory is that she was thrown in a skip and homeless people looked after her.
B: What does having a dog bring to your life?
AC: Obviously a huge great amount of love. And also, there’s a new kind of responsibility. I really enjoy having to make time to walk her—it’s not only about me anymore. And when I’m on walks, I see parts of the city I never would have seen otherwise, and talk to different people. A new world of camaraderie has been unlocked that I just didn’t notice as a non-dog-owner. But I can find myself getting judgmental too: I’ll see someone being rough with their dog or something and think, There’s no need to talk to him like that!
B: Honey has been forging her own show biz career recently.Can you tell us about it?
AC: Well, she helped me with my makeup on X2—it took four hours every morning to get that blue face! (Cumming played the role of Nightcrawler). Honey had her own chair, although she hated sitting on it. Last year, she played herself in a film called Sweet Land, about rural Minnesota in the 1920s. I play a farmer, she plays my dog. I got her a part in another film but she was cut out of it, so I was determined that it wouldn’t happen in Sweet Land. I made sure she was in the film’s biggest scene, which happened to be everyone running towards the camera, so it suited her quite well.
Honey also has her own show on the Sundance Channel, Midnight Snack. She and her stepbrother Leon (Cumming married his boyfriend—Leon’s dad— last winter in London) review all the new DVD releases. Honey puts her paws up or down, depending whether she likes the film or not. Leon (he’s a Chihuahua) howls if the films meet his approval. To get Leon to sing, we had to record the sound of a fire engine. It’s so funny! When we press play, he starts looking interested in the tape player, then he just goes crazy.
B: What do Honey and Leon request backstage? I know some celebrities can be quite demanding.
AC: They have their own dressing rooms, with their own beds in them. They have their own rider: dog food. There are special rules too. For example, you can’t leave tape in Honey’s dressing room because she’ll eat it. And she doesn’t like noise either.
B: Does Honey travel with you when you are on location?
AC: Quite a lot. She has her own passport and chip and her own account with Virgin—you can get doggie air miles. At first she was frightened about traveling in the hold in a cage, but now she’s a seasoned traveler; she knows it’s going to end. Sometimes, if I’m working in Vancouver, I travel with her across the U.S. in my campervan. It’s a great way to see the country.
B: Describe a typical day in Honey’s life when she’s not on the set.
AC: She’s up late, forced out of bed by Dad. Then off to Tompkins Square dog run [in Manhattan] to see her friends. Leon goes to the little dog park—they’re quite strict; no dog over 23 pounds is allowed in the little dog park. So if I have both, I have to position myself where both dogs can see me.
Also, non-dog-owners are frowned upon, but a few come in just to look. I see Moby there sometimes and I think to myself, I’m sure you haven’t got a dog! At the weekend, everyone hangs over the fence to ogle the dogs. It’s great, it’s very sociable. I often see the same dogowners and we chat.
After the dog park, Honey takes a walk around the East Village. Then she goes into the office to hang out with my assistant and deal with her correspondence. Then she’ll probably take another walk before dinner.
B: What’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought for Honey?
AC: Swimming pool steps. I was so worried about her drowning that I installed these special steps she can climb up to get out. She goes swimming with me a lot; she’s quite trepidatious at first, but she gets into it.
B: What are Honey’s best traits?
AC: She’s aloof. She’s not a dog who seeks love from everyone—she doesn’t need affirmation all the time. But when she sees someone she knows, she just goes nuts.
B: Her worst?
AC: She’s a scavenger. She’ll make a dive for something even though I’m trying to pull her away from it.
B: If Honey was a person, who would she be?
AC: A posh English actress. She sits in the window with paws crossed looking out like a character in a Bergman film. We joke that when Leon tries to hump her, she looks as though she’s calling for her agent to come and deal with him.
B: What kind of dog would you be if you had to come back as one?
AC: A Scottie. Happy all the time, but also feisty.
B: If you could be a dog for a day, what would you do?
AC: I would be in my house in upstate New York. It’s become Honey’s place— it’s great for dogs. There was a deer standing there the other day and Honey was furious, as though she was saying, “Get away from my house!” I’d love to know what she saw and what she smelt and heard. It would be great.
Editor's Note: Unfortunately, Honey was diagnoised with cancer and passed away in 2014. Alan has adopted a new dog Lala and you can check out their adventures on his instagram page.
She’s been called a master of the English mystery, her books have been adapted by the BBC and, with the publication earlier this year of This Body of Death, she has 17 wildly popular “Inspector Lynley” novels to her credit. However, Elizabeth George is no British blueblood — rather, she’s an Ohio-born, California-raised former schoolteacher with a gift for crafting deliciously long and complex stories populated by strong, welldefined characters, some of whom are of the canine persuasion. Take, for example, Peach, a Longhaired Dachshund who lives with two of the series’ central characters, Simon and Deborah St. James: “Watch out for Peach … she’s wanting food. Fact, she’s always and only wanting food.” When it comes to the behavior of Dachshunds, George has her research subjects nearby — sometimes even underfoot. So, while everyone else was asking questions about her newest book, we thought we’d find out more about the dogs in Elizabeth George’s life.
Bark: In many British mysteries, the murder victim’s body is discovered by a dog. Why do you suppose that convention is so often used?
B: In your observation, is British “dog culture” similar to or different from our own?
B: Tell us about the dog(s) who inspired the fictional Peach, and about Lucy, your current dog.
B: It’s clear that Peach is an important part of the St. James household, and that both Simon and Deborah dote on her. What’s your take on dogs’ roles in our domestic lives?
B: In addition to Peach, you often incorporate dogs into the Lynley books. You not only give them wonderful names — Leo, Beans, Toast, Taboo, Frank, Tess — you also take time to develop them as characters (who fit their names perfectly!). How do you choose the names and, for that matter, the breed types? And what do you feel they add to the stories?
B: In This Body of Death, we learn a lot about one of the characters (Gordon Jossie) through the ways he interacts with his dog. What lay behind your decision to use this device?
B: Can you imagine Lynley with a dog? Or is he perhaps more of a cat person?
B: We’ve read that you didn’t have pets as a child. When and how did you acquire your first, and was it a dog?
B: Have you ever written anything for your dogs?
B: Has your dog ever accompanied you to a reading or book signing?
B: In Write Away, you mentioned that a photo of your dog is one of the items you keep on your desk as inspiration and to cheer you up. What do you think of, or feel, when you look at that photo?
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