Q&A with Veterinarian, writer, reader and advocate Nick Trout
Unless you lived in or near Boston, Mass., and had a reason to visit the Angell Animal Medical Center (AAMC), you were unlikely to have heard of veterinarian Nick Trout. That is, until his first book, Tell Me Where It Hurts, came out in 2008. Since then, his visibility has risen exponentially, as has his literary output. Born and raised in England, he is a graduate of the venerable University of Cambridge, a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and an AAMC staff surgeon. In addition to his work and his writing, Trout is an avid reader and a passionate advocate for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Bark: Are there differences between vet education in the UK and the U.S.?
Nick Trout: Probably the biggest single difference is the age at which students go to school. In the U.S., training to become a veterinarian is a post-graduate pursuit. In the UK, most British students go straight from high school to vet school, meaning you can be a fully qualified veterinarian by the age of 23. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the American approach because I believe it selects for candidates who are potentially more driven and have enough maturity to embrace a lifelong career more clearly. In a recent Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Survey (2010), only 52.5 percent of respondents said they would still choose to become a veterinarian if they had to do it over. I’m betting that percentage would be a whole lot higher in the U.S., thanks to a career choice made later in life.
B: How about vet practices?
NT: They’re similar in terms of technology and services offered, but roughly 40 percent of UK pet owners have pet insurance, compared to less than 3 percent in the U.S. My sense is that pet insurance can offset much of the financial awkwardness on both sides of the examination table and free pet owners to pursue optimal care. However, it should not become managed care; vets cannot have financial ties to insurers, and we have to prevent third parties making payments with few to no restrictions on skyrocketing costs.
B: How did you choose your specialty (orthopedic and soft-tissue surgery)?
NT: There’s the physicality of using your hands to fix a problem. There’s the potential for instant gratification (yes, totally self-serving, but no less rewarding) when viewing the postoperative X-ray of a shattered bone you’ve somehow managed to pin, screw, plate and wire back together. There’s the responsibility of knowing you might be a dog’s last hope. For me, the most important message I will ever convey to a dog owner, the only thing I will guarantee, is my unwavering, unequivocal determination to do my best.
B: How do you build communication skills with patients and their people?
NT: I don’t wear a white coat during consultations; for many dogs, a visit to the veterinarian is a stressful business, so why wear a uniform associated with rectal thermometers, needles and rubber gloves? Whether the patient is a Great Dane or a Chihuahua, I almost always get down on the floor with them, down on their level, to socialize and better interact prior to the physical examination. The best advice I can offer new veterinarians on the art of good communication is to simply listen. You need to appreciate the intensity of the bond you are attempting to sustain. When communication works, everyone’s on the same page, formulating a plan, weighing the options, considering the budget and fighting for a common cause.
B: Do you do time in AAMC’s ER? Any takeaway lessons for dog owners?
NT: I only get to cover emergency cases one day a week, but I love the unpredictable, chaotic potential of that day. From spinal surgery on paralyzed Dachshunds to the bizarre objects ingested by orally fixated Labradors, anything can happen. The only consistency is the dog owners’ shock, stress and fear. By definition, emergencies require owners to make quick and oftentimes costly financial and medical decisions when they are at their most vulnerable. My advice is to, while your dog is healthy, mull over what you would do during a variety of emergency situations. Consider how far you would go, how much money you would be prepared to spend. That way, if the unthinkable happens, you’ve already got a plan.
B: Are you getting more questions from your clients—do they have more interest in being heard and having their thoughts considered than they did, say, 20 years ago?
NT: With the advent of the Internet and ready access to Google, there was a time when pretty much every dog owner came into an appointment carrying a hefty wad of printed pages telling me what I should already know. Over the last five years, I’ve seen a decline in this physical show of information. It feels like there has been a transition from wanting to catch out the vet to wanting to enhance what can be done together for the animal. Personally, I much prefer it when an owner comes in having done their homework. Decision-making can be tough, and the options are seemingly endless. Anything a dog owner can do to be better prepared to discuss their animal’s health is fine by me.
B: What made you decide to write, first memoirs and then fiction?
NT: Few professions provide better material for a wannabe writer than veterinary medicine. Think about it: my working days are filled with mysteries, drama, conflict and extreme emotional highs and lows. Most veterinarians accumulate a wealth of heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories during their careers, but no one ever has, or ever will, capture the essence of my vocation better than James Herriot. However, we’ve come a long way from England’s Yorkshire Dales of the 1930s. Companion animals are now essential and central members of the American family.
In the spirit of “write what you know,” I have tried to capture the joy, emotional impact and enduring legacy of sharing our lives with animals. My “voice,” for better and for worse, is not the product of creative writing classes; my formal education in English ended when I was 16. I’m lucky to have a job that necessitates strong powers of observation and people skills, a job that strives to restore and maintain a deep relationship between a human and an animal. The switch to writing fiction was originally based on the chance to cherry-pick some of my more quirky and amusing cases and bend them in a direction I wanted them to go. Writing fiction is as liberating as it is difficult!
B: Are there more books on the horizon?
NT: I’m working on a totally new piece of fiction about a boy with a severe illness who discovers that the decline in his health comes with a unique and paradoxical gift—an ability to interpret the pure, unwavering and positive emotions of his dog. For fans of Dr. Cyrus Mills and Bedside Manor, I have a plot outline for a third book in the series.
B: If you weren’t a vet, what would you be?
NT: If I weren’t a veterinarian, I’d like to be a pediatrician. I see significant overlap between the professions, especially with infants, who, like dogs, cannot “tell me where it hurts.” I’m also drawn to human health issues because my daughter, Emily, has Cystic Fibrosis (CF), an incurable chronic lung disease that relentlessly threatens to steal her breath. Over the years, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether I should become a human doctor and help try to find a cure for CF, only to realize that such a radical career change would take me further away from what Emily needs the most—a father who is there for her.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs Help Us Understand Ourselves
In an engrossing new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, science historian Laurel Braitman investigates the symptoms, causes and recoveries associated with behavioral disturbances in a wide variety of social animals. Starting with her own dog, Oliver, who suffered from debilitating separation anxiety, she discovered that mental illness in animals looks a lot like it does in people. In a recent conversation on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, she shared some of her insights with us.
Claudia Kawczynska: In the book, you talk about the use of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that not only is one in five Americans on them, but also, increasing numbers of dogs are being given them as well. But there seems to be a divide in the veterinary field on their use. After looking into this subject, how do you feel about it?
Laurel Braitman: Sometimes our dogs need them, or the drugs are used as a band-aid to correct for stressors in a dog’s life that could be changed. Sometimes the drugs don’t work. They don’t always work for people either actually, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them in the right situation. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist, said that if the dogs she sees were humans, most of them would be committed to in-patient facilities. That is why she thinks drugs are useful in really extreme situations—to keep dogs from hurting themselves while giving behavior therapy time to work.
It’s really hard to generalize, though; so much depends on the individual dog. A certain dosage of, let’s say, Xanax, may make some dogs so blissed out that they don’t want a treat or whatever is being offered as an incentive. Other dogs might do really well on the same dosage. And different dogs will react differently to different drugs.
A lot of the behaviorists I spoke with are seeing dogs on dosages that would have calmed most canines, but are in the behaviorists’ waiting rooms because the drug didn’t work for them. There are also cases where a drug causes other issues—such as reducing inhibitions so that a previously-friendly dog becomes more aggressive.
CK: How similar are certain human and canine disorders?
LB: Panic disorders in humans are really similar to canine separation anxiety; when we’re flooded with panic, our first instinct is to escape. The same feeling drives the behaviors seen in many dogs anxious at being left alone; in my own dog’s case, he fled by jumping out of a window.
With humans, we assume that the roots of the disorder have to be dealt with in therapy over time—that we need to understand the triggers for someone’s panic. The approach for nonhumans should be the same.
Drugs are helpful when a dog is so upset, so distressed or suffering so much that the behavioral things that experts such as Ian Dunbar suggest just aren’t possible. Pharmaceuticals act like panic buttons; they can help the animal tap into the physical and emotional resources they need to be able to learn.
CK: It seems like there are at least two approaches to calming an anxious dog. Some veterinarians (such as the late Mel Richardson) believe that soothing an anxious dog isn’t the best approach—that petting only rewards the panicked behavior. But others, including Patricia McConnell, make a compelling case for the opposite approach. This is an important difference.
LB: McConnell is right! Dogs are complex thinkers and will not automatically equate you petting them with positive reinforcement. If they did, dog training would be a hell of a lot simpler! The example that Mel gave, and I included in the book, is different, however. A patient of his came in with a dog who acted scared in her living room, ever since a plate dropped off a wall during a fight the woman had with her boyfriend. The woman may have been rewarding her dog for hugging the sides of the room, not necessarily comforting him for something that was stressful. We do at times unwittingly positively reinforce our animals for behaviors we then find undesirable; but soothing your dog during thunderstorms or fireworks displays makes a lot of sense.
I always comforted Oliver during thunderstorms, I didn’t ignore him, and clearly if that worked he wouldn’t have had a thunderstorm phobia. I think we approach these problems with an almost patriarchal kind of “tough-it-up” attitude. It doesn’t work with children and it doesn’t work with dogs. It doesn’t account for the fluidity and complexity of the human or other animal mind. Dogs know we are reading their distress and they read ours. No other creature on the planet—including other people in my opinion—is better at reading our emotions than dogs. They’ve spent at least 15,000 years at it.
CK: Oliver was a purebred Bernese Mountain Dog. In your research, did you find that abnormal behaviors were more, or less, likely to be found in purebreds?
LB: I wish there were a good answer to that. Every behaviorist I spoke with, and many trainers, were familiar with breed-specific manifestations of mental illness. Tail-chasing, shadow-chasing, OCD. Oliver suffered from an extreme case of separation anxiety, but I didn’t find that was something frequently seen in Berners.
(By the way, I’m not saying that shelter dogs won’t have issues; they could have the same or different problems related to abandonment, phobias, or lack of socialization.) We should really have honest talks with breeders about the mental health of their dogs, but we rarely do. Every breeder will say that they breed “family” dogs. But I have to wonder if—once they’ve spent a fortune on breeding pairs, and the pups are potentially quite valuable—they will really take one out of the mix if he or she develops mental problems.
CK: It was interesting to read that Nicole Cottam, who was at Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, thought that jealousy was the leading cause of canine aggression.
LB: Jealousy is an issue for many more creatures than dogs. It came up a lot in regards to other social animals too, like elephants and the other great apes. Why would we, or our dogs, be the only ones to experience it? Our pack, our families, our troops are everything and it can be threatening if we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we may lose someone’s attention.
In the context of elephants, it’s a matter of public safety. Almost everyone I talked to in Thailand believed that most elephant-on-elephant and elephant-on-human violence comes from jealousy. If a young man who works with elephants visits a girlfriend, they say, he has to shower many times before he interacts with his elephant again and, sometimes even that’s not enough. He’ll need to bring a truckload of pineapples or bananas to win back the trust of his elephant.
Elephants can also be extremely dangerous if one of their elephant friends becomes closer to another elephant and ignores them. Or if a person is feeding elephants and doesn’t feed them at exactly the same time—that can be dangerous as well.
Dogs, of course, can be aggressive and protective around food. But perhaps it may also be that the dog is jealous—that he or she feels another dog is getting more of your attention because the other dog is being fed first.
CK: How can we know that dogs experience jealousy?
LB: Jealousy is actually the darker side of a positive emotion. That is, if we build our lives around those near to us and have close relationships with them, and then suddenly those relationships are taken away, we are going to feel bad. Everything in us wants to connect—we are social beings. Most of us are also our dogs’ primary “other” animal.
Clearly, that is what happened in my dog’s case. He went from being the center of his first family’s world to its fringes because there was a new baby in the house. [Ed. note: Oliver’s previous owners moved him to the garage, among other things, when he started to act out.] I have nothing but empathy for the family. They didn’t mean to hurt him; they just didn’t know what else to do.
CK: How do we know that dogs have these complex emotional experiences?
LB: There are many things we can’t test for specifically (even if we’re doing things like putting dogs inside MRI machines), but since we have been living with dogs for thousands of years, we owe them the benefit of the doubt. Actually, talking to friends at the dog park can teach us a lot. That’s how Darwin did it; he collected stories, then amalgamated the stories into a theory. His stories about his dogs are wonderful and clearly anecdotal—really the equivalent of talking to dog park people.
CK: Modern life can be difficult for dogs; most have far too little to do, and few opportunities to express their true “doggishness” or funktionslust (a great German word you use—taking pleasure in what one does best). For many dogs, that would be running, sniffing, chasing and so forth. How can we give our dogs more of what they need?
LB: Most dog owners have the best of intentions, but realistically, can’t pack up their urban lives and move to the country, or get a second dog to provide their dog with a companion.
But going to a dog park and spending most of our time engaged with our phones—emailing, tweeting, posting to Facebook—and then going home and sitting in front of the TV (even if our dog’s sitting with us) isn’t good for either of us. Most of the things that will make our dog feel better are things that will help us feel better, too. Neither humans nor dogs are prepared for many aspects of contemporary life. We spend too much time indoors, seated, by ourselves. . How all of this has affected our canine companions, we still don’t know, but it can’t help but contribute to some of the issues we are seeing in dogs.
CK: Our own dogs are almost always with us; they come to the office, they get long hikes in the local parks and so forth. But when we take them up to the country, they seem to come alive; they’re different beings. It is amazing to see how they behave when they have free access to the outside. They rarely nap during the day, they’re always alert—they just seem more fulfilled.
LB: It’s the stimulation, and we all need that. Dogs who are not as motivated or curious about their environment may need less stimulation, but they still need some.
CK: Behaviorally, there are similarities in canine and human cognitive decline, you point out that in dogs, as in us, it can perhaps be offset by mental stimulation and a diet rich in antioxidants. (As a devoted crossword puzzler and blueberry lover, I was heartened to read this.) Any more thoughts on this?
LB: Avoiding the problems of an aging brain, or at least slowing the process, is really at the forefront of human medicine now, and we ought to be looking into that for other creatures. Adding a miniscule amount of blueberries to dog treats isn’t going to do it, however—that’s crazy. But if we need another reason to stimulate our dog’s minds, this is it.
Puzzles we can solve together are fun. I played hide-and-seek games with my dog—that was a great brainteaser. Talk about memory! He would always look first in the last place I hid. Clearly, he thought, She was behind the fridge the last time so she’s probably there this time, too.
CK: We do this with our three all the time, and what I find interesting is that they never seem to use their noses to find us.
LB: I wonder if they may be “playing fair” with us, giving us a fighting chance. They might realize we’re so bad at this game, and know that if they use all their abilities, they would win all the time. End of game! No fun!
CK: People don’t seem to like complicated solutions, especially when it comes to dog training and behavior. We want to know the answer now. How do we accommodate that?
LB: I think it’s human nature to want answers, especially when we have an animal who is upset. It feels like life and death, and sometimes, it is; the stakes with this stuff are high. If a dog’s emotional problems manifest in aggression or make life too difficult and we can’t fix them, the dog can wind up at a shelter. People’s sense of urgency though can lead them to absolutes that don’t help them or their dogs.
I am hoping that this book helps people understand why helping dogs can be a little complicated and a lot rewarding. A dog’s social and emotional world isn’t as fixed as most people think it is, and on the positive side, a dog’s resiliency can work in our favor. Even though many dogs have every reason to not believe in the goodness of humans, they often do anyway, giving us chance after chance to help them. That is a magical, heartening thing.
For more insights, see the book review for Animal Madness.
Dog's Life: Humane
Prison inmates train dogs behind bars.
Freedom Tails is a joint program with the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Wash., and the animal rescue group North Beach PAWS. It partners rescued dogs with SCCC inmates who train and care for the dogs to prepare them for life in their adoptive homes. We feature Freedom Tails in the April/May 2011 issue of The Bark, along with two leather collars made by the SCCC K9 Club to support Freedom Tails (see “Kit’s Corner”).
We spoke with SCCC Corrections Unit Supervisor Dennis Cherry, who heads up the program on the corrections end, as well as Program Assistant Karen Diehm, who writes the program’s monthly newsletters, and Carl Corcoran and Robert Wrinkle, two of the inmate trainers. They explain how the program got started and how it has dramatically changed life inside the prison.
Bark: What made you specifically want to try a dog program at SCCC?
Cherry: We heard how successful it was for bringing violence down in the units and how it was helping the offenders cope with being in prison and helping them when they get out. It gives them a self worth, like they’re helping the community. And it helps them to progress in their lives once they get out. It gives them some responsibility while they’re in here. They have to take care of a dog and they’re totally responsible for it. And it seems to be working pretty well.
Bark: Trainer Corcoran, what made you decide to participate in the program?
Corcoran: It gives me something to look forward to every day. I have something to care for, and it gives me a self-worth. I feel like I’m doing something good for the community and a dog.
Bark: The dogs you’ve been training, are they dogs that have been surrendered and have been in shelters?
Corcoran: My first dog that I had was a Terrier. Her name was Cookie. I came in just a couple weeks prior to her graduating, and that was the dog that I learned on. Maverick was the first dog that I trained on my own. He was a black Lab. He was an owner surrender. The owner didn’t have time for him, so they just gave him up. Now I have Skeeter.
Diehm: Skeeter’s a special project this time around. His owner has a disability, so we’re training him to help her when he gets back home.
Corcoran: Right now I’m training him to ring a bell. I have started training him to bring me a bag, which is going to have medicine in it. He’s picked that up real well. And he wears a special harness. It’s kind of like he’ll be used for a cane, or if she falls down, she can use him to get back up.
Wrinkle: I trained the first [assistance] dog. We trained her last session, and she was trained for a 17-year-old who has Down syndrome, and she was the first special needs dog we did. That was kind of difficult, because we had to train her to be very gentle with her mouth, no jumping. Everything that a person with Down syndrome needs. And we teach ourselves in some sense on how to train dogs in that way.
Bark: Do you feel like doing this has prepared you for leaving the correctional system?
Wrinkle: It’s helped me. You see, when we first started this, I was kind of a wreck. Not really that much of a sense of responsibility, although I’d been through some college. And it’s like having a two-year-old kid on your shoulder all the time, so you’ve really got to pay attention. You’ve got to feed him, exercise him. You’ve got to bathe him. Everything in your daily life, you have to do with a two-year-old kid more or less. As far as responsibility, I mean we’ve got to give the dog meds, everything to do with this dog we live with him day in and day out for the next eight to 12 weeks. So it’s taught me more responsibility in the 14 or 15 months that I’ve been in the dog program than I’ve learned since I’ve been down. Plus, it’s also taught me that people do care. We get to interact with the community in this program in ways that we never have before.
Bark: When you say “interact with the community,” do you mean specifically with the outside trainers?
Wrinkle: With the trainers and, at graduation, they bring in all of the families that are adopting the dogs, and we go through a dog show, sort of just like on TV. And everybody sits there and watches, and when we’re done, we interact with the public at large. Some of the phrases and some of the comments we get are stuff that we—that I—haven’t seen in over 20 years. I’m just living in an enclosed bubble in here and we don’t get to see a lot of stuff. It kind of brings to light some of the positive aspects of everything we’re doing.
Bark: What are the dogs like when they arrive at SCCC? Do they mostly need to be resocialized?
Corcoran: Well, some dogs, when they come in, have been chained up in a backyard their whole lives without much contact with humans or animals. So when they get here, some of them don’t know how to react to all these people or another dog. So it takes a lot of time and patience on our part to just adjust this dog slowly, get him to be around more humans and other dogs. Some of these dogs come in not knowing how to be a dog.
Wrinkle: Plus, our lead trainer has actually saved dogs that are on the way to be put down. We had one dog that they found under a boat, named Angel; she was so near death they did not think she was going to make it. We’ve had other dogs come in that are so underweight that they’re about 50% of their actual weight. We’ve had other dogs come in that we’ve actually had to do a hair care session with them because they’re so patched and bald that you would never think that they’d come out of this program the way that they do. It’s just really amazing.
Bark: Do you see parallels between your life in prison and the lives of all these surrendered dogs?
Wrinkle: Yeah, I do. It’s actually put life back into my life. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s given me back a lot of stuff that I’ve lost over the years. And it’s not just for me, but for my family. It’s helped me re-interact with my family as far as how they’re feeling. That’s a topic of conversation every single time I talk with my family. They want to know what’s going on with training, just about everything about it.
Bark: Is it that you have something in common to talk about, or is there more?
Wrinkle: That’s a big part of it, that it’s something to talk about. But there’s more to it—like almost every single member of my family wants me to train their dog now.
Bark: What has surprised you most about Freedom Tails?
Wrinkle: The calm in the unit. When the first dog walked into this unit... Within a week, it was like the tension level dropped to about 50%. And the stress level. It was almost as if everybody had new conversation. I don’t know how else to say it. It just was a drastic change. You can even see when there’s no dogs in the unit, in the two-week span when we don’t have dogs sometimes, you can actually see the difference between the stress level and attitudes and everything.
Bark: Having dogs around gives you a common connection.
Wrinkle: Yes, definitely.
Cherry: Yeah, you can see it in their faces. Guys who aren’t involved in the program, when they can pet the dogs when they see a green or yellow collar. And when they’re petting the dogs, you can see the smiles on their faces instead of frowns. It’s pretty amazing, really.
Bark: Do you see other correctional facilities interested in starting dog training programs as a result of Freedom Tails?
Cherry: We have. From our program, there’s probably four others that have started in our prisons across Washington. Walla Walla has one now, Munroe has one, Cedar Creek has one, Olympic Corrections Center has one. They modeled it off our program, pretty much.
Bark: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the program?
Wrinkle: The only thing I can really say is this has made a drastic change in my life and everything in it has been for the better. I know it’s going to help me when I release.
Cherry: I’d like to make one point, that the whole purpose of our program was to save dogs that might not have a life. If a dog ends up in a kennel, he’s facing death sometimes. And we’re actually taking these dogs and we’re re-training them and adopting them to good families, so we’re saving these dogs in the community. Some guys even relate it to their situation. Some guys are never getting out of prison. They see that and they think, “That’s cool. They’re out there giving that dog a second chance. You know, I wish someone would give me a second chance.” Maybe it gives them some hope. Maybe it doesn’t. But at least it gives them some appreciation of what we’re doing.
Corcoran: Yeah instead of doing something negative for the community, we’re doing actually something positive. And it feels good.
To learn more about Freedom Tails, visit North Beach PAWS. The SCCC K9 Club makes leather collars, leashes and keychains that are available for sale. All proceeds are collected by North Beach PAWS and go to support Freedom Tails.
We had the chance to talk with Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe and author of one of our 2014 “Best Reads” about his first book, Off the Leash: Year at the Dog Park and his conversion to being a dog lover. His is a rather unique perspective because not long ago he was definitely on the other end of dog-loving spectrum.
You seem to be in a rather unique position being rather new to the dog world, you can see both sides, can’t you? So from the “other” side, the non-dog-loving side of things, can you recall your reasons for not liking dogs, and are they any that perhaps make you cringe today when you remember those feelings?
The first thing I think of is the way my hand would buzz after I touched a dog, until I got to a sink to wash it. I did not like to have physical contact with dogs, or with anything they’d touched!
Good lord. Now, I pet my dog Toby 100 times a day, scratching under his chin and around his ears until he starts swooning with pleasure. I kiss his snout, I sniff and kiss his paws, I rub the boogers off his eyes in the morning. I love the tactile sense of him.
I think back on my distaste and cringe ten times over. I was missing one of the great joys of life…. Wow. I was living in a bubble, and I felt that dogs were just too spontaneous and reckless for me. I depended far too heavily on a sense of order and control, and dogs were the opposite of that.
Also, my mother was terrified of dogs, and that filtered down to me. She would not be able to relax if there was a dog in sight. Nowadays, when I see little kids at the park, I enjoy introducing them to Toby, trying to make them smile at the big lug of a goose who’ll sit and give me his paw for a treat. It’s very healing, unless the parent is too nervous.
What advice would you give to people who don’t much like dogs but perhaps, for the sake of the children or their spouse, might be considering getting one?
It took me years to fall in love with dogs. I fell in love with a dog person, and that was the start of the change. To use a popular term, I evolved… So I don’t think there’s a magical solution to the dislike of dogs.
My advice would be to open up your heart as much as possible, watch the pleasure the dog brings to the other members of the family, try to appreciate that. Don’t shut yourself out of the experience because you were pushed into it. Who knows, you may evolve, too, in a lovely way.
In your book you do a very good job about what that immersion was like, but tell us what your biggest surprises were about discovering that you are really a dog lover? Any surprises about being thrust into the middle of the dog park community? What did you think it would be, and what was it really like?
I continue to feel surprised by the change, some 10-12 years into it, and I have friends from the old days who still tease me about how I once did not like dogs. When I’m with dogs now, I feel happy in a way that’s hard to define, but that still feels new. It’s like the presence of dogs changes everything for the better, and I relearn that over and over again.
The surprises at the park were fantastic. I thought it would be a catty (!) environment with lots of breed snobbery and competition. I thought conversations would be painfully superficial. I thought watching dogs play would be boring. But within a few months, I understood that those fears were mostly unfounded, that the relationships we form daily at the dog park can be profound, that watching dogs play is one of the best pleasures in life, that we meet great people at the park we might never have met otherwise.
I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Are there things about the dog park community now that make you wonder if you are truly a part of it? I realize there are all sorts of factions within any societal group, but like the bulldog meet up group who “spoiled” it for others at that one park, what are you views of that? And what, if you were able to warn enthusiastic dog people about, what would that be?
Some days, I feel like an outsider. Either there’s no one to talk to, or there are people but they’re in what seem like closed groupings. But I’ve learned to let that go, and it has been a great shedding of baggage. No friends at the park today? Wait until tomorrow.
Dogs are my role models in many ways, not least of all because they are experts in resilience and letting go.
I’m not a fan of breed “meet-ups,” just because they can be exclusive. They also draw people from far away who may not much care about treating the park with respect. Still… who am I to judge any kind of celebratory gathering of dogs? Meet-ups are not for me, but any dog joy is good.
My biggest warning to a dog-park newcomer is: Don’t assume all owners are responsible. We want to think the best of anyone who loves dogs, but some owners have aggressive dogs and subject other dogs to that. It’s so awful. I recount an attack on Toby in my book, and I still shudder when I think of the sounds my little goose made while a whippet started snapping at him.
No one wants to be in the position of keeping a dog on leash at the park, but if your dog has been proven to have issues, you need to protect others. If you show that you want to be fair, that you are responsible, people will inevitably try to help you out. If you keep letting your dog go after other dogs, you will probably face a hard road with a lot of angry people moving away from you.
I do think that a lot of the “opposition” to dogs results from some of us being rather clueless when it concerns others and how they perceive us and our dogs. What do you think and do you want to give any examples?
Some dog lovers don’t understand just how terrified of dogs people can be. But, as someone who has been on the other side, I am fully aware of it. It’s not an act. A person who is afraid of dogs doesn’t understand anything about breed temperament or size; all they know is they are scared. So I think dog owners need to find some patience and respect for the fearful.
We kind of need to be ambassadors of the dog world when we are among those who don’t understand it. I’m not saying we don’t have rights; I’m just saying a little bit of sensitivity and friendliness goes a long way. Rather than put a non-dog person on the defensive, try to cultivate them.
One other thing: Dog owners need to pick up their dog’s poop, always. Poops on sidewalks and park grass are the dog-haters’ best ammunition against us. Plus, no one – not even dog owners – wants to step in it.
Are there any things about raising the pup Toby that you would do differently?
We’re lucky, because he’s turned out so happy and peaceful. I was very gung ho about training him early on, and in retrospect, as I detail in the book, I was being too controlling. So maybe I would be a little less aggressive about teaching him commands.
Although he still won’t “drop it,” dammit!
Everyone seems to love to talk about the “lessons” learned from their dogs, so tell us if there are any you would like to share with us?
That’s such a great question, and one I hope my book answers to some extent. The lessons include resilience, being in the moment, remembering to play, keeping joy in your daily life, not being afraid of the complications of socializing, becoming more trusting, and on and on…! I still learn new things from Toby and his friends every day.
You and your partner have a different style of dog-raising, has that resulted in any conflicts, how are they resolve? Has he ever taken to the dog park scene that you so successful have?
Tom is definitely not a dog park person. For a while, my friends at the park teased me about my phantom husband and whether I’d made him up.
He loves Toby in a more private way. He has a man-and-his-dog fantasy, and he lives it out by walking Toby around the city and on trails. Some couples come to the park together all the time, or alternate; not us.
There have been tense moments when I’ve had to remind him that Toby loves to be among dogs, and there have been moments when he has gotten tired of my dog park stories. But overall, we have adapted to our differing styles. We both love Toby so much; it always comes down to that.
Do you have a difficult time seeing Toby as a dog? Do you ever fear that you aren’t living up to his expectations?
Sometimes, yes. For one thing, I talk to him all the time, and I give him voice, too. I have conversations with him, while he sits looking at me with his big brown eyes like I’m such a strange creature. But ultimately, I love the fact that he is a dog, and not a human being. That’s one of the best things about dogs – that they aren’t human!
His expectations are steak every day, cookies in between, and a constant flow of the best, most squeakiest toys. So I know I’m not living up to his expectations! But seriously, I think he’s a happy dog, and I think he likes having some restrictions – say 10 cookies a day instead of 1000. I think he knows that we are madly in love with him, and that we would do anything for him. And I love that feeling. He trusts us, and that is everything.
Being a TV critic, what are the most memorable dog characters on TV now? If you were to write a TV show about your dog, what would that be?
It’s not for everyone, but I love “Wilfred” on FXX. We see the dog on the show as a man in a dog suit, which is kind of twisted but a lot of fun. The writers insert a lot of jokes that only dog owners will understand. I also enjoy Stella the French bulldog on “Modern Family,” mostly because of the love and humor she brings out in the humans.
My fantasy would be to see “Off the Leash” as “The Office” at the dog park, with a cast of lovable misfits and a mockumentary tone. I think that would be perfect.
Q&A with the hit television show’s “girl-next-door”
With its devoted cult following—including many devoted dog lovers—in tow, Wilfred will begin its final season on Wednesday, June 25 at 10 pm on its new home FXX. Exploring the surprising intersections of existentialism and dog culture, this dark comedy features Elijah Wood as Ryan, a miserable and apathetic ex-lawyer who maneuvers through life with the help of Wilfred (Jason Gann), a dog he sees as a brazen, cantankerous stoner in a grungy dog suit.
For the mutt’s owner Jenna, played wonderfully by Fiona Gubelmann, Wilfred is merely a playful canine. As the cheerful neighbor to Ryan, Gubelmann’s character has swung from sunny to dark over the first three seasons. In addition to focusing on Ryan’s mental panic, Wilfred also depicts Jenna grappling with her own difficulties. Fiona Gubelmann talked to The Bark about Jenna’s evolving storyline, her relationship with pets and her take on Wilfred’s philosophy.
The Bark: Do you have a dog, or did you have one growing up?
Fiona Gubelmann: My family sadly lost one of our dogs this year, but until recently we had two dogs. I personally don’t have a dog now at the moment, but I have three cats. I would love a dog and my husband wants to get foster dogs, but we aren’t home enough to do that now. I don’t have a neighbor to watch my dog!
Is your relationship with Wilfred much like the relationship a pet owner has with their pet?
Yes, definitely. When I first saw the script, I imagined Wilfred as my cat Dragon, a large Maine Coon. Dragon is gray, loving and yet quite moody—much like Wilfred. When I auditioned, I just thought, “How do I talk to Dragon?”
I imagine the set is a crazy one to work on with all the talent and wicked humor. Is it hard to keep a straight face?
Sometimes! We keep the tone of the show truthful and dark, so that helps us stay grounded. However, there are times when we have a couple of takes in the bag, and then they’ll say, “Jason, just be silly and go for it.” He’ll do just that, making it rather hard to keep a straight face. Jenna doesn’t see Wilfred as Ryan sees him, so I usually just wait until I watch the episode. Otherwise, I’d be laughing too much on set!
We’re fans of each character, but Jenna has especially evolved. Women are often written as comic foils for men, but Jenna is much more than that. Do you agree?
Jenna was initially an effervescent “girl next door.” A lot of shows may have kept her there, but we actually gave her a storyline that’s quite dark and almost tragic. We see her first as optimistic with everything going for her. But over the first three seasons, you see everything in her life fall apart. I get to have a range of emotions and explore different things. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.
Your work for Funny or Die is hilarious! Do you have any comedic heroes who you look up to?
For women, I definitely admire Sally Field, Goldie Hawn and Lucille Ball. They were always so committed to what they were doing. Soapdish is one of my favorite movies and I’ll never forget Goldie Hawn in Overboard — those performances are so funny and timeless. As for men, Bill Murray and Robin Williams have always been two of my favorites. I worked with Robin Williams in season two. That was one of my career high points.
Wilfred’s tone moves brilliantly between dark and light— how would you characterize the upcoming final season?
Although there is still humor in it, the last season has a more serious tone. They’re tying everything up and explaining why everything happened—who Wilfred is, delving into my relationship with Wilfred and answering all of the remaining questions.
Dog people are going to be your hardest critics, but we believe Wilfred has won them over. The show touches upon many corners of dog culture—agility, dog parks, phobias and other things only people who have dogs really know well. Have you noticed the world of dogs more since you started playing Jenna?
We call those dogisms—they’re fun for fans to relate to. I have many fans who are dog owners, who work in dog rescue or who are involved with dogs in some other capacity. They tweet me pictures of dogs and tell me dog-related stories. It’s so cool to see how they relate their relationships with their dogs to the show.
Wilfred has such strong views of the world that he constantly imparts to Ryan. How would you summarize Wilfred’s philosophy on life?
There’s one episode in which Wilfred says “Carne diem” instead of “Carpe diem.” He truly does want Ryan to live in the moment instead of living in fear. He’s pushing him to action. That would be Wilfred’s philosophy—to seize the day.
Also a special thanks to Sophie Cox who contributed to this interview.
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
Author of The Good Boy
What could be better than a novel that combines a strong sense of place, a fast-moving story and a dog as a primary character? Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur), fulfills all these requirements and then some; Butch, a Chicago PD K9, races through its pages in a most authentic way. Despite a busy book-tour schedule, Schwegel kindly took time to answer a few questions—like all dedicated dog people, she enjoys talking about her co-pilots.
Bark: In the acknowledgments, you thank the dogs who inspired you, Wynne and Wiley and CPD K9 Brix. Tell us more about the first two, and how you came to know Brix.
Theresa Schwegel: Wynne is my wonderfully neurotic Australian cattle dog mix; Wiley is my stomach-brained Ridgeback-Lab. They’re rescues and they’re my best friends. My husband trained them when they were puppies, and they’re easier off-leash (especially since Wynne’s herding instinct only tangles us). They both exist in Butch— his yin and yang, I suppose—as does Brix, the German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix I met when I asked a detective friend to find me a working K9. And yes—Brix is Butch’s physical model; I’d seen Bloodhounds work as well, but I needed a dog who could track and trail and detect and protect.
Bark: Your portrayal of the world of the working police dog has a lot of authenticity. Were you already tapped into it, or did it require research?
Schwegel: Research, of course. I need to see what I write, whether it’s a place or person or procedure. I was fortunate to spend time with some German Shepherds; both a trainer and a former K9 officer were kind enough to let me peek into their homes to see how a working dog lives off the clock. And Brix’s handler, Tara Poremba (now a trainer for the Chicago Police Department), was instrumental in teaching me how a dog team works; at one point, we staged a mock drug search at a neighborhood bar. Truthfully, though, I think Butch’s authenticity comes from living with my two dogs. I think Wiley would be a great K9 if I put bacon in the Kong.
Bark: Butch has a brief foray into dog fighting. What made you decide to add that element?
Schwegel: I felt Butch needed to fight his own fight, too. To be the real “good boy.” What limited research I did with regard to dogfighting was mortifying. The culture, the language, the cruelty. Despite the tough bullying scenes in the book, I could only bring myself to allude to the dogfight.
Bark: Butch really is a central character, one who in some ways drives the action, or at least inspires a lot of it. Did you start with that intent, or did it develop as you wrote?
Schwegel: I knew Butch would cause Joel’s journey, and I knew he had to go along (Joel would need someone to talk to). He became a central character as I realized he was the only one who couldn’t tell a lie (and everybody else in the book was buried under them). His “personality”—if I may anthropomorphize, because I always do— developed as a result of his interactions with Joel.
Bark: We were also interested in your choice to give Jack London’s book White Fang a role in the story; what inspired that? Are you a reader of dog books, or other mysteries with dogs in them? Any favorites or recommendations?
Schwegel: I wanted Joel to have a city map and a moral compass on his journey. White Fang is one of my favorite soul-searching books, and so it was an obvious choice. I don’t really seek out “dog” books, though two favorites that both feature dog-as-narrator are Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
Bark: Are there any more “Murphy and Butch” books in the works?
Schwegel: I don’t have plans for a series, though I had a writer-friend recently comment that Joel would be a “pretty interesting dude” if I let him grow up. The novel I’m working on now jumps to the other end of the spectrum, as it deals with financial exploitation and elder abuse. (I must admit, though, that I’m partial to the idea of giving the detective a dog.)
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog trainer Denise Fenzi talks about methods and perceptions with
On engagement and relationship building:
However, in the switch to food-based training, we seem to have lost some of our basic positive interactions and expressions of joy with our dogs. Instead of learning to joyfully work together, we “pay” our dogs with cookies—and once they’ve paid, many owners forget to tell their dogs how proud they are of whatever [the dogs] accomplished. I think this is a terrible loss. Humans can be so much more than Pez dispensers!
Great training should not be about substituting cookies for approval. Great training should be about getting needed behaviors (often through food), then taking it further. That next step —relationship—is what fascinates me about dog training.
Building a relationship with a dog is much the same as building a relationship with another person. While sharing food is a fundamental pleasure, no one would say that the meals “create” the relationship. Food simply supports one aspect of it.
What’s really being developed (quite possibly over a meal) is an understanding and an awareness of that other person; the thing that develops, which we call relationship, is incredibly hard to explain or put into words. It is sympathy for their circumstances —both what goes right and what goes wrong. It’s about knowing what makes them happy or sad. It takes a relationship to know that, since each person has unique needs. The stronger your relationship with another, the more likely you’ll make the right choices.
We can have exactly the same type of relationship with a dog, but I think very few people are aware of that. When I think about the time I spend with my dogs, most of it [involves] trying to build that underlying foundation. I study my dogs carefully to understand what matters to each of them. I pet them and play with them, and soon I learn what does or does not work for each one. I know what frightens them, and I support them as needed. I also know when to back off and let them solve their own problems. And each dog is completely different!
I do use lots of food and toys to train. But at the end of the day, my goal is much bigger than acquiring behaviors. It is finding out what we can become together. Since this is a unique process (just like it is a unique process to develop a relationship with another person), it never gets tiresome, boring or “rote.” It’s fascinating. And it can take you places that most people have no idea were possible with a dog.
On what her peers in IPO and competitive obedience think of her use of positive reinforcement:
At the lower levels, I think most competitors like what I am doing and are interested in learning how to train with more positive methods. At the middle levels, I think there is curiosity mixed with a good dose of doubt. They have been raised on the idea that dogs must learn that they have no choice about training, and they struggle to believe that this might not be correct. This level of trainer is already using mostly positive methods to train new behaviors, but they don’t understand the final steps that are important if you want to compete and still not use compulsion.
At the middle/high levels, I am an irritation. They want to believe that they have the most current and best methods, and it irritates them that I am succeeding without compulsion, because they are convinced that it is not possible. This group often speaks very poorly about me, but they know nothing about my methods nor do they show any interest in learning. They have already decided that what I am doing is not possible. The high level trainers mostly ignore me. They are successful however they are training, and they neither know nor particularly care what else might work.
Of course, those are generalities. I have supporters and detractors in all camps, but those are my basic observations.
Dog's Life: Travel
On the road with Kelly E. Carter and Lucy
Kelly E. Carter, who’s visited more than 40 countries on six continents, has serious travel cred. She also loves dogs, especially her long-time companion, Lucy. Lucky for her, she’s able to indulge both passions. Lucky for us, she writes about them in her newest book, The Dog Lover’s Guide to Travel. Recently, she took time to answer a few questions—actually, a lot of questions!
Q: What kinds of changes in dog-friendly travel have you seen in the past 10 years?
A: It has gotten easier! The quarantine rules in the United Kingdom and Hawaii are among the biggest changes. Two years ago, the UK brought its procedures into line with the European Union, thus allowing pets to enter or re-enter the UK from any country in the world without quarantine as long as they meet certain requirements. Hawaii, the only rabies-free state in the U.S., still has a 120-day quarantine but several years ago, implemented a five-day-or-less release program that allows people to take their pets with them after they arrive. But you must start the process more than four months in advance, and it isn’t cheap. Australia also just reduced its quarantine from 30 days to 10 days, which is still long, but it’s a start.
Another difference is the level of amenities lavished on pets at hotels. Doggie room-service menus, massages and canine concierges are just some of the perks for four-legged guests. Guest-room phones at the Hotel Palomar, a Kimpton hotel in Dallas, even have a “pet concierge” button for pet-related requests. While it used to be very hard to find a dog-friendly hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas, now, you have quite a selection—the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Four Seasons, THEhotel at Mandalay Bay, Vdara and six hotels under the Caesars Entertainment umbrella boast pet-friendly status. All have designated outdoor areas for dogs, which is a necessity in a place like Las Vegas, where the Strip is often crowded (plus, dogs are only allowed there between 5 a.m. and noon) and there isn’t an abundance of grass.
Q: What do you look for when you fly with Lucy?
A: I always check seatguru.com before I purchase my ticket to find out if a particular aircraft has reduced legroom. If I’m flying business or first class, I make sure Lucy is allowed as well. Many airlines with lie-flat beds in their premium cabins only allow pets in coach because of rules that require all carry-on bags to be stowed for takeoff and landing. Some airlines, such as American Airlines and Swiss Air, will put pet carriers elsewhere for takeoff and landing, which is great.
I haven’t put Lucy in the cargo hold and would try to avoid doing so, but I know many people have no choice but to transport their pets this way. While it helps that the Department of Transportation requires airlines to file monthly reports on incidents involving the loss, injury or death of animals, the reports don’t prevent uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations. I always advise people who want to take their pets with them to research all their options.
Q: What do you look for in a dog-friendly hotel?
A: While cute dog dishes and plush beds are very much appreciated, what I really value is printed information on local pet services, such as veterinarians and groomers, dog boutiques, dog-friendly restaurants, and dog parks. I’m also grateful when hotels have a designated area for dogs to take care of their business, with pick-up bags and a trash receptacle. Some hotels pride themselves on not having trashcans throughout the common areas, and I’ve ended up taking a poop bag back to my room.
Q: What’s been your most memorable stay?
A: Domestically, it was at Palm Springs’ La Quinta Resort & Club, where Lucy and I enjoyed a “Me & My Best Buddy” massage, a side-by-side treatment in the Canine Suite. What a terrific bonding experience that was. We were there during the holidays a couple of years ago, and there must have been at least 20 other dogs staying at the hotel. There were dogs everywhere, and I had a ball playing with pooches of all sizes. It warmed my heart to see so many dogs included in families’ holiday travels.
Internationally, it was at the Palais Hansen Kempinski in Vienna. I was blown away by the attention showered on Lucy. The staff found her photo online before we arrived. When we checked into our suite, there was a brochure with Lucy on the cover, listing an array of local dog services, boutiques and an in-room doggie-dining menu. She had turndown service, which included fresh bottled water in her bowl and a personalized note card with pink hearts wishing her sweet dreams. When we checked out, the hotel surprised me with a framed gallery of photos that included Lucy and several of Vienna’s top attractions, as well as a note thanking Lucy for her stay. These perks are standard for all pet-toting travelers.
Q: What separates a four-star from a one-star stay?
A: Although one-star hotels can’t offer the pet amenities and services that four-star hotels do, they can offer the same love to canines. Pats on my dog’s head from the housekeeping staff and a smile from the front desk clerk when I take Lucy out for a walk go a long way in brightening my stay at budget hotels.
These days, travelers can expect a lot at four-star hotels. Pick-up bags should be at the front desk or bell stand. The concierge should know where the closest dog park is, be able to tell me the name of the closest pet boutique without looking it up and suggest a few dog-friendly restaurants and pet sitters. Bonus points for sharing info on dog-walking and dog-sitting services.
Q: What was one of your most important lessons about traveling with dogs?
A: Know the law before you go. As just a small example, if you’re accustomed to feeding your dog from the table, you may be surprised to find that some cities require dogs to be on the outside of a railing of a dog-friendly restaurant, not at your feet, and that feeding dogs at some pet-friendly restaurants is a no-no.
Q: When you’re in another country, does having a dog make it easier or more difficult to navigate?
A: Carrying an American passport may not endear you to foreigners worldwide, but walking a dog often does. Assuming you’re able to communicate in some form, a dog gives you an excuse to strike up a conversation with a local pet person by asking about dog parks or where to buy food.
Not long after Lucy and I moved to Italy in 2003, I met a British woman who had moved into my apartment building in Florence a couple of days before I arrived. A few weeks after getting settled, she and I went out to lunch. Everybody on the street stopped to say hi to me, which shocked my new neighbor. She hadn’t met any locals and couldn’t understand how I had become so popular in such a short time. I told her it was Lucy’s doing. People stopped me so they could play with her. I’ve gotten in good with hotel management because of Lucy as well. Hotels in Nice, Martinique and Amsterdam offered to keep her at the front desk while I left the hotel to work for extended hours.
Q: Have you always had a dog?
A: When I was growing up in Los Angeles, there was never a time when our family didn’t have at least one dog. Over the years, we had a couple of Poodles, a German Shepherd, a St. Bernard, a Husky/German Shepherd mix and three Pit Bulls. Because dogs have always been part of my life, I’ve been keenly aware of their loyalty and companionship for as long as I can remember. I always knew that I would have a dog and would name her Lucy (a family name); “have kids” was never on my to-do list. Timing was the big issue. Ironically, I traveled too much to get a pet when I began my journalism career. I was a sportswriter and on the road all the time, including four years as a beat writer covering the Lakers, every game, home and away.
When I switched to entertainment writing, my travel slowed down just enough that I could get a small dog to accompany me. Though I didn’t plan on it, Lucy served as the icebreaker when I interviewed Hollywood’s biggest celebrities. To this day, every time I see Denzel Washington, he looks inside my purse for Lucy though it’s been 12 years since he first met her. I’ve been in a relationship for the last three years, but before that, I was a die-hard singleton who came home to an empty house and was always alone in hotel rooms until I brought Lucy into my life. Although she’s as aloof as a cat, she’s such a hoot—her tiny stature is paired with a big personality and a high opinion of herself. Sometimes I think I’m going to squeeze her to death because I hug her so hard.
Q: Have you ever had a larger dog?
A: Four years before getting Lucy, I had a Sheltie named Deena for a couple of months. A friend gave her to me, then took her back. That’s another story! I didn’t have her long enough to take any trips with her, but she accompanied me plenty around LA. She was so sweet and beautiful. I’m still partial to Shelties. Maybe I’ll get one at some point! But for now, I get my fix as a volunteer at Pets Unlimited’s animal shelter in San Francisco. Every so often, there’s a big dog at the shelter and even if I’m not scheduled to walk it, I find time to socialize with the pooch.
I’m so jealous of people whose four-legged friends can keep up with them during outdoor activities. I know some small dogs can do it, but my Lucy is not one of them, especially at 13. I take her to Alta Plaza Park in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights almost every morning just so I can gaze at the big dogs playing fetch. Then I power walk at Crissy Field, where I smile at the big dogs running in the water and playing on the beach with their guardians. One day, that will be me, I think to myself.
Kelly’s (Off-the-Beaten Track) Picks
If you travel with your co-pilot, you know that Carmel, Provincetown and Taos are among the top go-to destinations. We asked Kelly for tips on places with charms that were perhaps not quite so well known, and she shared a few of her discoveries.
Savannah, which has grown in popularity in recent years, has dog fountains in some of its squares and welcomes dogs in some museums. And a few of its pedicab drivers will double as dog sitters so their people can sightsee. (More here.)
Colorado Springs has an unbelievable number of dog-friendly attractions, not to mention Bear Creek Dog Park, one of the best.
Washington’s Yakima Valley has a slew of dog-friendly wineries. Lake Placid is heavenly for dogs all year long. A dog will never grow bored in Banff. And I was surprised to find what a terrific place Huntington Beach is for dogs.
Pick up or download a copy of Kelly’s new book, The Dog Lover’s Guide to Travel, for more places to explore. To learn more about Kelly visit kellyecarter.com or go to TheJetSetPets.com for a host of great travel tips and resources.
Behind the scenes with the artist, his family and the dogs.
If you’re a dog and you’re waiting for the Director of Fun to wake up, you’d best find a suitable distraction, because William Wegman is still in bed. Early on a morning shrouded by a dense Maine fog, two-year-old Flo and one-year-old Topper make their way to the kitchen to scarf down healthy servings of oatmeal, freshly cooked for them by the artist’s wife, Christine Burgin.
The dogs are Burgin’s regular breakfast companions, until the pair return to bed, to snuggle up to Wegman and the family’s two older dogs, Candy and Bobbin, 13, and 14, respectively. Before the day gets underway in earnest, these extra few minutes of sleep are a sweet luxury. The dogs had already awakened once before dawn, with Wegman corralling the whole pack for a quick pee and a sniff, then back up to bed.
How the commotion of four large dogs and one regular-sized human arranging themselves on the bed doesn’t wake Burgin is a bit of a mystery. But then, so much of what goes on at the Wegman household seems like some kind of unusual ballet. There’s a gentle flow to the movements here, and the lake’s broad, shimmering expanses of water and the sparkling light lend it all a distinctly idyllic feel.
It’s no wonder that Wegman and his family spend a considerable chunk of both summer and winter at their rustic retreat in the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine. Built in 1889 almost entirely of pine, the 10,000-square-foot lodge hosted overnight visitors until 1961. The place still exudes a kitschy charm, but the dominant feeling now is one of ease and warmth. It’s the perfect counterpoint to life back in New York City, which is home base for Wegman and Burgin, their daughter Lola, 16, and son Atlas, 19 (when he’s home on break from college), as well as the dogs and Wegman’s city-studio and office.
In Maine, every day starts fresh, with opportunities for offleash dashes through the woods; endless stick-chasing and forest-sniffing; dips in the lake; meandering bike or canoe rides; napping (mostly by the dogs); reading; more napping; visits with nearby friends and family; jaunts into town to the library, barber or ice cream shop; and countless homecooked meals.
“It’s just easier with the dogs here than in New York,” says Wegman. “I don’t have to have them on a leash. It’s fun to see them being dogs. Really dogs. My kids like it here. My sister’s nearby. The air, the birds ... the whole thing is quite peaceful.”
With the array of amusements at Wegman’s disposal, you might wonder how he gets any work done at all. But it’s precisely this combination of play, fresh air, family and exploration that makes Maine appealing to this constantly evolving artist. “When I’m working outside of New York, I might do some really unusual, unexpected things, but when I get back to New York, I can put them up and compare them with some other work. It’s important to me to have that leveling.”
Born in 1943, in Holyoke, Mass., William Wegman certainly has nothing to prove, and yet he seems to be on an endless quest to find new forms of expression. Though he’s best known by the general public as the artist who photographs dogs, he is also recognized as one of the world’s most successful contemporary artists, masterfully mixing high art with pop culture.Still from Spelling Lesson, 1974, video
Wegman’s films, videos, paintings, drawings and photographs have appeared in exhibits and retrospectives mounted at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Minneapolis’ Walker Arts Center, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Coming of age in the late ’60s in Los Angeles, Wegman quickly established himself as a leader in the conceptual art movement. Droll, original and offbeat, his videos made him a star before he turned 30.
By 1973, he had moved to New York City with his beloved Weimaraner Man Ray, where their iconic video and photo collaborations further burnished Wegman’s status as an influential and original artist. His popularity soared in America and abroad. Man Ray, with his intelligent looks and astonishing self-possession, provided both a perfect foil and partner for Wegman’s imagination and unique sense of humor.
“The first time I met him was when he was six weeks. He really looked like a little man, and he was standing in a ray of light, and that’s why I named him Man Ray,” says Wegman. It still amuses him to think that their work together was the result of a happy accident. “I was just starting to take photographs. I was photographing the things that I would be setting up, and Man Ray would always get in the way and start chewing on [them]. He was interested in what I was doing. He became different when I pointed the camera at him, and what I noticed was how non-cute he looked, but more strange and intense. I was really interested in how he kind of modulated the space around me. Not just the space he was in.”
After 12 years of living and working together, Man Ray left an indelible mark on Wegman. When his beloved friend and constant companion developed cancer and died, it didn’t seem possible that another dog could, or should, become a focus of Wegman’s work.
In the wake of this loss, the artist retreated to Maine—as he had many times before with his canine buddy—to fish, hike and explore the woods. It was there, in 1985, that he rediscovered his passion for painting and drawing.
“I gave up painting in 1967 as a grad student and started again up here away from people. I didn’t really want people to know I was painting. I was kind of sheepish about it.” He began creating works based on imagery culled from encyclopedias and obsolete information—“faded culture,” as he calls it.
At the time, Wegman wasn’t actively seeking a new dog, but a chance encounter with an admirer of his work who also bred Weimaraners led to the discovery of Cinnamon Girl, a gorgeous puppy with round, yellow eyes whom he later renamed Fay Ray. “There was something about her look that really spoke to me. I was kind of obsessed. Almost like a man in love. It was like a boy and his dog with Man Ray, and then an artist and his model or muse with Fay.”
Wegman shot countless large-format photos of Fay using the unwieldy and complex 20 x 24 Polaroid camera, which he had employed earlier to great effect with Man Ray. Wholly different in her approach to the camera, Fay offered Wegman an electric energy and a willingness to take on what must have seemed, to a dog, like curious challenges. The unforgettable image of the Weimaraner standing tall on old-school roller-skates? That was the inimitable Fay. Her work ethic, combined with Wegman’s imagination, led to other unexpected and idiosyncratic works, such as his videos and films for “Sesame Street” and “Saturday Night Live.” Dog Baseball, shot for the latter on film in 1986 and featuring Wegman’s deadpan narration as well as Fay and a collection of canine friends, further expanded his devoted following.Dog Walker, 1990, color Polaroid
Fay and her offspring—Battina, Crooky and Chundo— and their progeny—Bobbin, Candy and Penny—starred in a number of books and videos, many of which were based on re-imagined classic children’s stories, among them Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Mother Goose. Those works, with their lush sets, ornate costumes and more than a few crewmembers, were complex affairs and yielded some of Wegman’s most popular and memorable images.
In recent years, Wegman has moved away from elaborate, production-heavy projects, gravitating toward more streamlined, painting-centric work. Though his approach to his artistic endeavors is mutable, he currently spends 75 percent of his time painting and the remainder behind the camera.
It’s quiet in Wegman’s studio, which you reach by making your way through the lodge’s living room, where Lola is stretched out on the couch, deeply immersed in a book. Go past the kitchen, where Burgin, a Yale-educated publisher and former gallery owner who produces books with artists and writers, sits editing at a small table. Then cross the rec-room, still adorned with the kids’ childhood drawings and art projects, and through the double doors of the studio.
When it storms, raindrops dance on the metal roof. Otherwise, as Wegman paints—which he does every day here—the only apparent noises are the occasional snurfle and steady breathing of the four dogs arrayed around him.
“As a kid, I always loved rainy days like this,” says Wegman. “I was painting and drawing and hanging out in the woods. It was probably the most dreamy, wonderful counterpoint to my life as a fisherman/athlete, which was the other thing I liked to do as a child … play hockey, baseball, go fishing, build huts, that kind of stuff. So that’s what I’ve been doing in Maine, kind of recreating my childhood in a way.”
Like a spirited marching band, the dogs follow Wegman wherever he goes, watching his face intently, looking for cues. They jockey for the closest position, happy to soak up his praise and nestle by his side while he reads, paints or sleeps. The feeling is clearly mutual. “Don’t they look beautiful when they’re sleeping? I could never keep them off the furniture. Why would I do that? I just love looking at them. Having them near, in close contact … it feels good.”
The dogs thrive on direction and novel activities, and are always eager to be part of the action. All it takes for Topper and Flo to perk up is for Wegman to restack some magazines or randomly reshuffle the stools; suddenly, the dogs are racing to find a perch and posing as though a shoot is about to begin. Referring to the breed’s active and sporting nature, Wegman says, “They’re working dogs. And they love to work!”
Wegman’s devotion to the dogs and their care is made obvious by how his life and that of the family’s is built around an awareness of the dogs’ needs. “It’d be hard for me to have one dog, because I like to just stand back and watch the show, like I do with my two kids: you watch them interact. So, now I have these two gray sets. I have Bobbin and Candy, who were mates. They had a litter, and then there’s Flo and Topper. I had to get Topper to give Flo a companion, somebody to play with.”
The dogs are most content when Wegman is around to keep them well exercised and entertained, so long trips away from home are rare. “I’ve spent my whole life watching and caring for them and trying to figure out what works for them. The reason I’m good at taking their picture is that I’m good at taking care of them, and I respect what they want. I’m always trying to learn what makes them individually happy.”
Wegman’s good-natured approach to raising dogs also reflects his child-raising philosophy. When Atlas and Lola were young, he recalls building towering cardboard structures together.
“When things fell apart, and failed, that’s when we had the most fun.” Exploration, not the pursuit of perfection, was the lesson, and watching Wegman paint, there’s little doubt that he adopted the same mindset regarding his own work long ago.Sandy Beach, 2007, oil and postcards on wood panel
Wegman is currently working on a new series of children’s books. The first, Flo & Wendell, debuted in September 2013 and tells the story of a sister and brother and their adventures. This new series—and the paintings that illustrate each book—hews closely to techniques the artist employs in his postcard paintings, which begin with vintage postcards selected from his vast collection. They provide a physical starting point for the larger work, which is painted around the postcard like a sprout that blooms into an exuberant forest. His book Hello Nature (2012) features many of these postcard paintings, along with drawings, collages and prose —paeans to his love of the outdoors.
Similarly, the illustrations for Flo & Wendell begin with photographs that Wegman shoots of the dogs in his NY C studio. He’ll begin with a simple image of a puppy’s head juxtaposed against a large, blank, white page. The germ of the idea for these new books was born out of a moment of experimentation.
“I started to make this hilarious character out of Flo’s baby photo when she was eight weeks old, when she looked like a sad, little naughty eight-year-old child, and it was so funny. And I think if I hadn’t been doing that with the postcards, I wouldn’t have thought of doing that with these paintings. So I knew that this character could be developed, and I made some more characters. And then I thought, well, maybe this should be about this little girl. And what if she had a younger brother? Interestingly, the younger puppies I photographed— younger than eight weeks—they look older. So I would turn the ‘older’ ones into parents.”
Most often, Wegman sits down to work without a specific idea of what will come together on the page. “I almost never lie awake at night thinking about what I’m going to paint or write. Usually [it happens] just in the act of doing it. That’s why I have to keep busy, because if I’m not, I don’t think of anything!”
Once he’s chosen a color with which to start, his brush touches the page, and a playful scene quickly emerges. He smiles while he paints, chuckling to himself at the silliness and bravado of these pups who have come alive through deft strokes of his brush. This lighthearted, lively tone is evident on every page of Flo & Wendell, both in the illustrations and in the text.
As Wegman works, the dogs hear a curious rustling outside and wake with a start. Sixteen legs go racing through the studio, then the rec room, through the living room, and out onto the porch. There is barking—lots of it—and then a dashing-about to see what might be lurking in the surrounding woods. With a stern word, Wegman calms the pack and the dogs slip back inside. Topper and Flo trot around, wondering what might happen next, while Candy and Bobbin resume their naps.
Peace restored, Wegman cuts a path to the kitchen, where Burgin has spread out for review galleys of the early-reader counting books to be released in the spring. Burgin keeps Wegman’s projects organized and on schedule, and he values her strong editorial eye. The two work easily and productively together, and the artist clearly adores his wife of 18 years. “I’m lucky she didn’t go for tall, dark and handsome types,” he says with a wry smile.
As the sun finally begins to break through the clouds, Burgin decides that it’s a perfect time to wind down from the workday with a late afternoon bike ride. In a flash, she and Wegman are cruising down the gravel path, the four dogs running ahead like the most intrepid woodland scouts. By the time night falls, the family has gathered for dinner, each dog choosing a lap to rest a heavy head upon. It’s the perfect time for telling stories and catching up on the day’s events.
Just beyond the veranda, a moose and her calf stand in a sliver of moonlight, licking salt from the gravel road. Unnoticed by the dogs inside, the two take their time meandering past the house and up the road, while laughter pours out of the kitchen and into the night, mixing with the calls of the lake’s resident loons.
If there is such a thing as a perfect day in the country, this must be it.Creative Collaboration
When Randy Rubin, co-founder of Crypton, launched the company’s line of pet products back in 2004, one name topped her list of potential collaborators … William Wegman. The laconic artist, renown for his photographic portraits of Weimaraners has had phenomenal success in a variety of mediums—photography, video, painting, children’s books but fabric design would be a new challenge.
Randy was a seasoned pro at collaborating on creative ventures, having co-founded Crypton fabrics with husband Craig Rubin in 1993 from the basement of their Michigan home. The company has since revolutionized commercial fabric with the introduction of a patented process that produces a virtually-indestructible, stain/odorresistant material appropriately named Crypton Super Fabric. Designing and manufacturing products for the home would be an exciting new endeavor, and the playful imagery of Wegman seemed a perfect match for the new pet line.
The creative collaboration between the innovative fabric manufacturer and the downtown visual artist has since proven to be hugely successful— producing a visual style that is once recognizable and inspired, combining the ultimate in function and aesthetics. The resulting beds, pillows, throws (christened Throvers) are elegant, bold and sturdy … fulfilling the must-have checklist for discriminating and stylish dog lovers. The essential components to good product design are exemplified in this union of art and science—and thanks to the unique partnership of William Wegman and Crypton—better living through imagination.
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