Author of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home
In 2009, her daughter away at school and husband traveling the world for work, Sue Halpern found herself in a quiet home, and restless. Pransky, her seven-year-old dog, was bored. Both were ready for a new engagement. Halpern wondered: could Pransky call on her Labrador and Poodle roots and become a service dog? Could they work together to bring joy to some new corner of their world?
Author of five books and dozens of articles for leading publications, Halpern turned to an expansive library, delving into everything from Aristotle to Temple Grandin. After a rigorous—and occasionally hilarious—training regimen, the two became a certified therapy team and soon were making weekly rounds at a local nursing home. Halpern recounts the story in her new book, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. She spoke to Annik La Farge about their adventure.
Annik La Farge: Your book left me interested in putting my own dog to work as a therapy dog. What advice would you give us? How does a person know if she and her dog will make a good team?
Sue Halpern: For years, I thought Pransky would make an excellent therapy dog because she was smart, attentive, open and loving, which are necessary attributes, but I also knew that she was a bit too playful. I had to wait until I knew I could absolutely count on her to do the right thing— to not go frolicking down the hall if I accidentally dropped her leash, for instance. She always had the right temperament, she just had to grow into it completely, which seemed to happen when she was around five. I think you’ll know, instinctively, if your dog will do well in a therapeutic setting because you’ve watched him or her interact with people of all ages, sizes and conditions. Pransky has always been one of those dogs who sits patiently while small children pull her tail. And she never jumps up on people. Jumping is a therapy-dog sin.
La Farge: At the heart of this book is the idea that dogs love—and even need—to work, just as humans do. Pransky was a bit bored before she found her calling as a therapy dog; how did working change things for her, and what turned out to be her special gift?
Halpern: Pransky is a social animal, like most dogs. She loves to be around people and she loves to be around dogs, but most of the time, she just gets to be around me, which is not so interesting. When I say, “Today is a work day!” or “Do you want to get dressed for work?” she perks up and gets quite excited. Tuesday, the day we go to the nursing home, orients her week. I don’t know if it would be too anthropomorphic to say that she looks forward to it, but it sure seems so. Her special gift—and I’d argue that this is not really special to her, but to all therapy dogs, which doesn’t make it any less special—is the joy she brings with her and spreads around. Pransky is an enthusiast. She’s always happy to see you. Her (self-controlled) exuberance is infectious.
La Farge: Death is a constant presence in a nursing home, and you write about it with real poignancy. How does it affect Pransky?
Halpern: On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think it does affect her. But when someone is actively dying— a situation we’ve only encountered three times in four years—her compassion is visible. It’s something I write about in the book, and something I’ve found quite moving. Most of the time, though, she’s unconcerned by people’s infirmities, which is a gift. She lets people be their essential selves, which has nothing to do with being sick or being old. When they’re with her, they can forget that they had a stroke or have diabetes or a heart condition.
La Farge: I loaned your book to a friend who works with dogs for a living. Interestingly, what most captivated her was your description of life in a nursing home; she was relieved to see this institution, which fills most of us with dread, humanized— and by a dog, no less. What’s the takeaway here for institutions, and for professionals who care for the sick and aging?
Halpern: I entered the nursing home with a certain amount of trepidation and was shocked to find out how much fun it was to be there with my dog. By the end of our first day, most of my preconceptions were blown to bits, which was a very good thing, since most of my preconceptions were not only wrong, they were grim. The literature on the positive effects that dogs (and other animals) have in hospitals and nursing homes is getting more robust every year. Dogs lighten the mood for everyone, staff included. Pransky dispenses the best medicine there is, indiscriminately and without a co-pay.
La Farge: The first part of the book is about what you teach Pransky—the complex matrix of training and behaviors required for a professional therapy dog. What did she end up teaching you?
Halpern: My dog has taught me that with her by my side, I can do things that my normally reticent self would never be able to do, like spend time with infirm strangers. But more importantly, and somewhat paradoxically, she’s taught me that by following her lead and being more like her—which is to say, not seeing people as a collection of disabilities, but simply as potential friends—I become a better human.
Is he up for it?
For the next three months John Oliver will be temp hosting “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” while Stewart is off making a movie. Last year when I had the good fortune to be invited to do a behind-the-scenes feature about The Daily Show’s dogs, I talked with Oliver about his Golden Retriever pup Hoagie, his first-ever dog. I asked him about imagining having her on the show with him, perhaps playing the “straight woman” to his more biting, take-down persona that he assumes as a “news correspondent” on the show. He replied that just wouldn’t work because “fundamentally” she would “humanize” him. And that Hoagie wouldn’t let him “do my job, it would bring up too much compassion whenever she is around.”
We were reminded of that seeing a recent interview with the New York Times when Oliver noted that “all of my interview training is built around trying to take someone down.” But he recognizes that has to change now that he is sitting in Stewart’s chair, and he goes on to say that “When you have, say, Seth Rogen in front of you, the point is not to destroy him and the construct of beliefs he’s built up over his lifetime. It’s going to be talking to him about his new movie. It will be nice just to have a broader conversation where jokes can occur, but the primary focus is to have an interesting interview. It’ll be nice to be nicer to people.”
So can we suggest to Oliver that if he finds it challenging making the leap into jocular “nice host” affability that he look dogward to his Hoagie who can “assist” him to play the part. Or as Jon Stewart told us “there is nothing better than dogs, and they bring on the best in us too, nothing better.” Being a Golden, she definitely would be a natural and have the guests eating out of her hand, or vice versa.
Either way, we’ll be rooting for Oliver. He really is a hilarious guy who kept us in stitches and howling throughout our chat.
In Conversation: Lance Weller and Katherine Griffin
First things first: tell us about your dogs.
Who was your first dog?
The book is many things, but at heart, it’s a story of woundedness and healing. How do you see dogs as a part of that?
But I had my dogs. And they didn’t care what I looked like, and they licked my face. (Not to say that my wife wasn’t the same way, except for the face-licking.) But I could always count on throwing an arm around my dog, or my dogs, and feeling a lot better. People have said that Abel suffers from PTSD. I don’t know about that, but I do know that dogs will heal you.
How do your dogs help you write?
Dog's Life: Humane
People Who Matter: Emelinda Narvaez, founder of NYC’s Earth Angels
Emelinda Narvaez, an animal rescue advocate working in both Manhattan and the Bronx, has become a familiar face to people visiting the city’s pet stores. She calls her rescues “earth angels,” and fittingly, that is also the name of her animal-rescue group. Narvaez Emelinda, who says she’s rescued over more than 10,000 animals over a span of 45 + years, was a nurse in a Bronx hospital. Until she retired about 15 years ago, she (and her late husband, who helped her) devoted evenings and weekends to animal rescue. Since then, it’s become her fulltime occupation.
A long-time admirer, I always dropped something in the donation box when I saw her in front of one of lower Manhattan’s pet stores. Then one day, I sat down and asked her to tell me more about herself and her work. That particular day, she had a terrier-mix puppy and an adult Poodle, as well as an elderly Chihuahua and a Shih Tzu who were not available for adoption; she felt the two seniors were too fragile to weather a big change, so she was caring for them herself. As we talked, she continued to work, answering my questions as well as those asked by passersby interested in her “angels.”
Catherine Johnson: I understand that you were born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and raised in the South Bronx. Where did you get your gift?
CJ: Did you have any favorite animals growing up?
We lived across from St. Ignatius church in the Bronx, and every Sunday at the end of the mass, the priest would recognize my family’s work with animals. He would also let the congregation know they could adopt one from us, which is how we found homes for many of our animals.
When I was around 15, I realized that we needed to be more formal about these adoptions. So we started having the person adopting fill out an application. We developed a screening process—that was my idea.
CJ: What were your early years working in rescue like?
CJ: What do you consider to have been the worst crisis period in the city’s history?
[In 2009, the public housing authority prohibited residents from keeping purebred or mixed-breed Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers, as well as any dog (with the exception of service dogs) expected to weigh more than 25 pounds when full grown. This ban affected residents of approximately 178,000 public-housing units.]
Dogs should be fairly assessed. Behavior has nothing to do with a dog’s weight. Of course, there is no place for a vicious dog in any apartment situation. But a policy for evaluation on a case-by-case basis needs to be put into place.
CJ: How could our state government help city shelters?
I also think they should be more proactive in letting people know they can foster an animal. Most people don’t know that’s an option.
The best thing the government has done within the last 10 years for the rights of people and their pets was the law that allowed owners to keep their pets after three months, regardless of what the lease states.
[Section 27-2009.1 of the NYC Housing Maintenance Code essentially says that if the owner of a multiunit rental has a lease prohibiting pets but doesn’t object to the presence of a tenant’s pet within three months, the lease provision is considered to have been waived.]
CJ: Where do Earth Angels’ animals come from?
I have cancer, which is in remission, and lupus, but I think my work heals me and gives my life meaning and purpose. I truly believe that. And I have a son and a godson whom I adopted and raised. They are both homicide detectives and I am so proud of them. My family of animals and my sons keep me going.
CJ: Do you have one particularly memorable story from your rescue work?
CJ: What keeps you going?
Also, the angels that I have had in my life: my mother, father, sister, brother and husband. I had a strong family. And I could not have done this work without a woman who helps me, Judy Ross. When I am no longer alive, I hope to still be of help; my will states that my house will be given to an animal rescue group working in the Bronx.
CJ: How would you describe the bond between a rescued animal and the person who takes that animal in?
Editor's Note: There is going to be an adoption event and fundraiser for Emelinda this Sunday, June 2 from noon to 3 pm at one of NYC's finest dog parks, Stuyvesant Square Park. Her friends and admirers are hoping to raise enough money to buy her a new van to replace the very old one she uses to transport the animals. If you are in NYC, do try to attend. See their flyer for this event.
Culture: Science & History
Village dogs’ genetic code may hold clues to canine evolution and health
Like classic twin studies that investigate the interplay of nature and nurture, comparing the genome of village dogs to modern dogs may help disentangle the long-term evolutionary effects of genetic and environmental influences.
Mastiff to Min-Pin, Corgi to street cur: all dogs share the same set of roughly 20,000 genes. What makes one dog different from another—or, in the case of purebreds, almost the same— is how the genes are expressed and restricted from being expressed, and how they communicate with one another. Therefore, it may be safe to say that each of the world’s 800 to 900 million dogs is a distinct combination of different versions of the same genes. Or maybe not. At least, that’s what some scientists suspect, and they think they’ll find answers in the DNA of the ubiquitous, free-ranging canine outcasts that populate developing countries throughout the world.
While village dogs were being socially shunned, modern dogs—a subpopulation that likely split off from village dogs thousands of years ago—were serving society. So tightly woven into the fabric of our lives that we rarely think of them as human-engineered, dogs have been refined for increasingly specialized tasks such as hunting, transportation, protection, warfare, ornament and companionship. As a result of rigorous artificial selection over a long period of time, many of their ancestral gene variants are suppressed. Some have disappeared altogether, creating a fragile homozygous genome that has little diversity.
In contrast, village dogs are barely tolerated by society. Although considered a domestic species, they are the products of thousands of years of natural selection. Consequently, their heterozygous genomes are robust and extremely diverse. In addition, it’s possible that long after modern dogs branched off from the family tree, some village dog populations may have developed new gene variants that protect their immune systems.
Evolutionary biologist Adam Boyko, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, is confident that comparing and contrasting the two branches of the domestic canine family tree will provide answers to some of the mysteries that continue to surround the evolution of the domestic dog: When and where were dogs domesticated? What were the global migration paths of humans and dogs? What genetic changes occurred when wolves became dogs? Which genes are responsible for extreme size, shape and behavior differences? What are the underlying causes of genetic diseases? And how do parasites have an impact on canine well-being?
As a postdoctoral student at Cornell, Boyko worked under the tutelage of Carlos Bustamante, now professor of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine. Curious about how the underappreciated and even less-studied village dog genome might reframe our current understanding of canine evolution and domestication, Boyko and Bustamante persuaded Ryan and Cori Boyko (Boyko’s brother and sister-in-law, who were then both graduate students in anthropology at the University of California, Davis) to add a few side trips to their otherwise romantic African honeymoon. Their instructions were to catch semi-feral, uncooperative village dogs and draw blood samples, then ship the samples back to the lab for analysis. Information from the preliminary DNA samples indicate that the researchers are on the right track. I asked Dr. Boyko about his research, and if it has future application to invigorating the health of our companion dogs.
Jane Brackman: How will mapping the genome of the village dog help us understand the mechanisms of traits in modern dog breeds?
Adam Boyko: Geneticists have spent a lot of time looking at purebred dogs. When something is selected for, either by natural or artificial selection in a population, geneticists can tell because of the patterns that are left in the genomes of individuals in those populations. In humans, for example, we can clearly see that lactase persistence, the ability to digest milk into adulthood, was selected for in some populations.
When we look for these patterns in purebred dogs, we find that things like ear f loppiness and tail curliness are driving these patterns, or short legs or small/big size. Basically, we find the effects of artificial selection by humans for breed standards. If we did a similar scan for selection in village dogs, perhaps some of those same genes would show patterns of selection, but I think we’d also see a new class of genes showing patterns due to natural selection.
For example, maybe there was a lot of selection in early dogs for genes in certain metabolic pathways because there was such an extreme dietary shift from wolves to dogs. Or maybe new parasites and pathogens caused selection at genes influencing the immune system. Or maybe we’ll see selection around genes that influence behavior and temperament.
Basically, there are all sorts of theories about how dogs became domesticated and what makes a dog a dog. When we look at purebred dogs, the main thing we are able to see is what makes certain dog breeds look and behave one way versus another. Maybe by looking at village dogs, which are much less influenced by the strong and recent artificial selection taking place in breed dogs, we’ll be able to see patterns of selection that occurred earlier in dog history.
JB: Might your findings have application for the future? For example, if you were to come across genes influencing the immune system, would breeders be able to use that information to revitalize the pedigreed-dog immune system?
AB: It is certainly true that my research may find a new MHC-type immunity gene [the major histocompatibility complex mediates the immune system’s white blood cells] that has been lost in many purebred dogs and which could reinvigorate their immune diversity. Or perhaps it will find variants associated with diet, and make us start considering a dog’s genetic makeup when making dietary recommendations. But I’m really not comfortable speculating, since I’m likely to be quite wrong in these predictions.
For example, I would have never guessed that deliberately infecting patients with intestinal parasites [Helminthic therapy] would cure ulcerative colitis, but that seems to be the case, and signatures of selection in the human genome help explain why.
But having said that, I think looking at the genomes of village dogs will be extremely useful. For example, we could get a better picture of the kinds of traits that were selected for in natural dog populations, including disease resistance, which might give us useful insights into diseases we diagnose in our pet dogs.
Conversely, as veterinarians and geneticists find more mutations that cause disease or unique traits in dogs, we can look at the genomes of diverse village dogs to see when and where these mutations arose, and whether they are also found in any other village or purebred dog populations.
It’s a really exciting time to be a canine geneticist, as we have all these new genetic tools at our disposal and many, many purebred and free-ranging populations that have yet to be characterized genetically.
JB: Some populations of village dogs, such as those you’re studying, have been isolated for many thousands of years, evolving under pressures that the stem parents of modern breeds were never exposed to. Is it possible that these dogs have “new” gene variants that don’t exist in the genome of modern breeds?
AB: It’s certainly possible, and it’s something I’m very interested in. For example, my lab is looking at free-ranging dogs in the highlands of Peru to see if they have any genetic adaptations for high altitude. Perhaps more importantly, some village-dog populations might harbor disease-resistant variants for parasites or pathogens that are prevalent in their area, but these variants might not have made it into modern purebred dogs, since those breeds were mostly founded elsewhere.
JB: How urgent is it that we learn more about these ancient dog genomes?
AB: We know how quickly pre-Columbian Native American breeds were lost when Europeans brought dogs with them to the New World, and we see that it will happen like that very soon in other remote parts of the world. So we’re working as fast as we can to get the data before the dogs are gone.
JB: What’s going on in your lab now?
AB: We’re collecting DNA samples and the genetic information we need so we can start piecing together what’s going on in these interesting but largely neglected free-ranging dog populations. We are seeking insights into dog population history to discover patterns of selection around certain genes that can then become the basis of further study. Our work is very hypothesis-driven. We have certain hypotheses about how dogs evolved, and we try to collect the right samples to test these hypotheses.
As geneticists learn more about how genetic variation controls complex traits in purebred dogs, we find it’s quite different than what we see in humans. Why? There are at least two competing hypotheses, and by gathering data from free-ranging dogs, we can start testing them to figure it out. Some of this gets into technical discussion about genetic architecture, recombination, epistasis and pleiotropy and such, so I’ve avoided getting too academic. But I also don’t want to be dismissive of it since those technical, hypothesis-driven aspects of the project are the bread and butter of my lab in terms of student training.
JB: In longitudinal studies such as the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, researchers gather information from participants’ DNA and then match what they find to traits the test dogs may display over a lifetime. Will you have an opportunity to see how, for example, an immunesystem mutation affects a village dog’s health as it ages?
AB: Our project is a huge undertaking, and there’s a ton of data we’d love to gather on each dog but just simply aren’t able to since, at this point, we’re focused on sampling as many dogs from as many populations as possible to maximize the amount of diversity we can analyze. I really don’t want to overstate what we’re able to do in one visit to check out a dog and draw blood, which is limited to looking for genetic signatures in the genome of these dogs showing signs of selection and/or local adaptation.
But, since we have a fairly good idea of what genes do in modern dogs, at least in a rough sense, if we see a genetic signature in village dogs for positive selection around a gene we know is involved in immune function (for example), that’s a big discovery.
JB: At the risk of oversimplifying, say you’re looking at a region that you know to be linked to a negative trait and you see that the switch is turned off in the village dog DNA and turned on in modern dog DNA—would you feel that you’d found a “smoking gun”?
AB: It’s possible. Then, of course, as you allude, we would want to go back, look at dogs carrying that mutation versus other dogs, and see if there are different health outcomes. Perhaps [dogs with the mutation] are more resistant to intestinal parasites or perhaps they are more prone to autoimmune disease or something. Until we find the mutations, it’s a bit speculative to make predications about what exactly the findings will mean to owners. This is certainly “basic research” in the purest sense.
JB: In people, size is determined by hundreds of genes, each with a small effect. In purebred dogs, body size can be regulated by a single gene. Is this unique to dogs?
AB: It depends. There are other traits in other species controlled by a couple of loci [location of a gene on a chromosome]. I would argue that yes, it’s pretty unique. Whether or not dogs are special in that there is something about their genome that predisposes them to this type of diversity, or perhaps because humans worked so hard at creating them, we don’t know. This debate is still raging in the literature. It is definitely the case that genes have many, many effects. Rather than being a blueprint in which each gene is responsible for just one part of building the whole organism, the genome is more complicated, with each gene taking on different roles at different times or in different tissues.
JB: Do multiple-trait relationships also show up in village dogs?
AB: I think this would also occur in village dogs if the mutations were in those populations. The difference is that selective breeding has actively promoted these large-effect, diversifying mutations in dog breeds, making them relatively more common. Natural selection usually selects against such large-effect mutations in natural populations. You won’t see a short-legged wolf because it couldn’t hunt.
In fact, most of these large-effect mutations probably first arose in village dogs. The difference is that these mutations aren’t usually beneficial to village dogs, but the ones that aren’t too detrimental might persist at low frequency long enough for humans to start trying to promote breeding of that trait. Take achondrodysplasia [a type of dwarfism]. It almost certainly arose in village dogs, but to a free-ranging dog, super-short legs and all that comes with them probably aren’t much of a selective advantage. But once folks started looking for dogs to turn their spits, they found these super-short dogs to be useful, and eventually that genetic variant made its way into a whole host of modern breeds.
For the specific achondrodysplasia mutation, I don’t know if that is the exact story, but I do think this is likely to be the case for many large-effect mutations. Depending on how early in dog evolutionary history the mutation arose, it could be found in most regional village dog populations, or it could be restricted to certain populations that are close to where it first arose. Lots of research still left to be done!
JB: As a lifelong dog lover, you must find it difficult to see the deplorable conditions in which some of these dogs live.
AB: There’s so much disease in these high-density populations. As these communities become more urbanized, dogs are living like rats and pigeons. Getting DNA on these populations is not enough of a reason to allow the animals to exist like this. Life on an urban street is rough existence.
JB: If you adopt a village-dog puppy and raise it in a typical Western environment, what kind of dog will you have?
AB: Adopting the dogs is not part of our project, but we know people who have done this. They can be great dogs. They don’t have some of the aggression issues you might see in some of our dogs, because they are culled for aggression, or for eating a chicken. There are some things that aren’t tolerated. So you might say that people in the villages impose a form of selection. The dogs are smart and resourceful. They seem to adapt.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Perfect Family Dog Training
Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, who trained dogs for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and trained first dog Bo (known to her as Charlie) before he went to live in the White House, died Jan. 12 in Virginia. According to The Washington Post, she had been leading dog training classes days before her death. After being admitted to the hospital, for reasons that were not stated in the obituary, she went into a coma and died of respiratory distress.
A champion of positive-reinforcement training methods, many of which she detailed in her book, The Love That Dog Training Program, Sylvia-Stasiewicz will be missed by all of those who have been touched by her message of loving and respecting dogs, and teaching them as we would our children.
Bark interviewed Sylvia-Stasiewicz shortly before she died. That interview, which appears below and will appear in shorter form in our February issue, was apparently her last. Dawn’s family has requested that tax-deductible contributions be made to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Foundation to further her work in researching, developing and promoting best practices in positive reinforcement dog training. Dawn’s mentor and APDT Founder, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is presiding over the fund.
Details on a memorial and opportunities to pay tribute can be found at lovethatdogbook.com.
We spoke with Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz in December to talk about her book, The Love That Dog Training Program (written with Larry Kay), which was also one of our best picks in 2010. She has trained—employing positive reinforcement techniques—many dogs in the Virginia/DC area, including those of the late Senator Kennedy, as well as preparing Bo for his White House posting.
One thing I notice by reading the very many dog memoirs that have become so popular is that few people who write those books train their dogs, which is shocking to me. So could you tell us why it is important to train your dog?
Since most of The Bark’s readers already care well for their dogs, I’m probably singing (or howling) to the choir, so my thoughts will reinforce your readers’ own. Training opens up communication; it’s a language that helps our dog understand us, and vice versa. With any valued companion, good communication bonds us, helps us socialize in the world together, opens up a lifetime of experiences and possibilities. The danger of not communicating includes safety to others and to our dog. If (God forbid) we become physically unable to care for our dog and our dog needs to be rehomed, untrained dogs have a much higher rate of being euthanized. I believe we have a moral obligation to train our dogs.
Why doesn’t aversive training (like Cesar Millan’s methods) work? Could you make a case for positive reinforcement? Why does it take more time than traditional methods?
Both methods will train a dog, but there are dangers and disadvantages in using aversive techniques that outweigh its benefits. Focusing on a dog’s mistakes means he must figure out by trial and error what behaviors won’t get him punished—dogs aren’t good at that kind of reasoning. Failure-oriented training also diminishes a dog’s spirit, typically leaving him fearful. Aversive methods are dangerous because they suppress problems that can flare up without warning—often triggered by an exuberant child, innocent dog or helpful friend. Children should never copy a grownup’s aversive methods, because there is no guarantee that the dog will regard the child with the same authority as an adult. Aversive methods grew out of unscientific, trial and error attempts to dominate, control and coerce a dog, and were based on the naïve and mistaken myth that dog pack psychology required an alpha bully boss—my, how far we’ve come. My book discusses the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior’s position paper against aversive methods and the Michael Vick dog-fighting case (the 47 dogs that a federal court ruled were beyond redemption and were scheduled to be euthanized, but are now being rehabilitated only with positive reinforcement methods by Best Friends Animal Society).
Positive reinforcement methods take longer in the beginning. But once your dog catches on that training is a fun time to be with you—a pack leader that directs play and gives good rewards, while ignoring most mistakes—he will be motivated to learn and feel like a spirited genius.
Could you explain the concepts of positive versus negative?
In behavioral psychology, positive means to give something (a reward or a punishment) and negative means to take away something (not give a reward or punishment). It’s like the carrot and the stick: giving a carrot is a positive reward; hitting with a stick is positive punishment; not giving a carrot is a negative reward; not giving a stick is negative punishment. These charts will help explain it.
As you noted, “good leaders don’t have to act like bullies to command respect.” How difficult is this concept to teach to your clients?
Most people get it, especially when they’re given a choice and see demonstrations. Dogs love to follow leaders who provide food, shelter and safety; leaders they see as benevolent and fair. Good pack leaders provide social experiences and lots of fun.
What are your top three goals in training the perfect family dog?
My top three are socialization, real-life rewards and hand-feeding.
Socialization starts by introducing the human world to your dog in a way that she can understand. Your dog needs to have the secure feeling that being around people and other dogs is a pleasant and safe experience that can also be fun and rewarding. When a dog believes that that is life’s reality, everything else falls into place.
Real Life Rewards means that your dog sits for everything. She sits before eating, getting a treat or playing with a toy, before walking through a door, greeting another dog, to get in and out of places and distracting situations. She learns that “sit” happens before something good, so “sit” becomes her way of asking “please.” For the real life rewards system to gain consistency, all family members need to be involved.
Hand-feeding teaches your dog that all good things come from you. Start hand-feeding on day one (unless your adopted dog has food aggression and may bite you). Hand-feeding will teach your dog to be calm when someone reaches into his bowl. Hand-feed in different parts of your house and your dog will learn that your rules apply everywhere. Hand-feeding also helps diminish guarding of food, toys and contraband; it also teaches bite inhibition.
In training Bo Obama, how did you also train the President and his family in the proper ways to keep the training up? Do you still do any brush-up training with Bo?
In training any family, we always work with the whole family, including the extended family, so that everyone learns the same language to communicate with the dog. There’s always brushing up and fine-tuning to do. Training never ends, it just gets easier.
What was the hardest thing you had to train Bo Obama to do? I would think that a “substitution trade” was extremely difficult.
Actually, substitution trades with Bo were a piece of cake (not literally). With most dogs, substitution trades are easy if you anticipate and have valuable things to trade ready (I like stuffed Kongs). Be prepared—not a day goes by when I have a dog in for training and I’m preparing for situations that may come up.
Why do you recommend a five-week training program?
Five weeks give you the basics for everything you’ll need to know without being too overwhelming for dog owners. Since positive reinforcement makes training fun and playful, most dogs aren’t overwhelmed with learning new skills—it’s dog owners’ follow-through that I’ve designed the program to help. It takes about 30 days to make a new habit or undo an old habit, and five weeks is just over that threshold. In those five weeks you will get to know your dog, “read” his posture and learn to anticipate his next moves. Some owners and dogs may learn a little slower, while others a little faster.
Why and when do you advocate hand-feeding a dog?
As I discussed before, start hand-feeding on Day One. Hand-feeding is powerful because it puts you in charge of a resource (food) that the dog can’t live without, and since you “own” the food, your dog will view the relationship with you as the dominant and benevolent force. We’re reaching inside the dog’s primal survival mind to teach her that it’s okay for hands to be in her dog bowl and she appreciates what you provide. If a dog bites during hand-feeding, then be cautious; my book’s chapter on behavior problems will help. Be aware that given the wrong circumstances any dog will bite, so hand-feeding gives you an advantage in preventing and correcting this safety issue.
And what about tethering—when your dog is tied to you? Why do you think this is effective strategy? Can it work with older dogs, not just puppies?
Tethering brings you and your dog together. You become deeply aware of each other as you share each other’s world. It’s a bonding experience; you both take responsibility for anticipating each other’s moves. It’s almost like you become your dog’s muse: you inspire him. On my recent talk in Seattle, I had the hotel dog tethered to me during the whole presentation, and the dog volunteered all kinds of behaviors: sits, giving attention, looking for what’s next—he got lots of praise and some rewards.
In formal heel work, what is the best way to train a dog who is a forward-motion, pull-at-all-cost dog—like our German Wirehaired Pointer—to walk somewhat at your side? I noticed that Bo still hasn’t seemed to master this, at least in the press video I have seen.
In the Barbara Walters Thanksgiving TV Special with President and Mrs. Obama, it was apparent that Bo was well-behaved and prepared for the event, as we should all be with our dogs when meeting visitors. Perhaps your German Wirehaired Pointer needs to walk more often to help [her] understand how to walk on a leash. If we’re training only while we need to take a walk, we’re not going to teach effectively. Tethering and leash walk training can include many turns, stops and starts, variable pace and standing as still as a tree to keep your dog focused on you. Most dogs get excited in moments, and that’s part of their beauty and joy, so we need to prepare.
What’s the Slot Machine and Jackpot psychology in training?
Dogs love gambling as much as humans love casinos. Guessing and working for an uncertain payoff is a game. Positive reinforcement’s beauty is about working to win the game. Once your dog learns a skill, begin withdrawing treats for doing that skill correctly—that’s the slot machine—and now your dog will try harder to win the game he used to win all the time. When his skill improves, such as lying down more quickly on cue, then reward him with extra treats—that’s the jackpot. But don’t start using gambling psychology when teaching a new skill until your dog performs consistently what you’re asking; otherwise the rewards will just seem too random and frustrating.
What do you think are the hardest things for people to learn about dog training?
Dog training doesn’t have to be mean, ugly or painful. Patience and positive reinforcement should be enough to get training started successfully.
Most behavior problems are created by humans. For example, since dogs don’t generalize well, we need to be consistent when showing a hand signal. We need to gradually generalize our cues to new locations—starting by simply taking one step to the side, then gradually building up variety. We reward our dog for “bad” behavior by rewarding it accidentally, such as petting a dog when we want her to stop barking.
Comparing our dog’s progress against other dogs’ abilities will make our dog lose an unfair game. Every dog learns at his own rate. My program gives building blocks and suggested time frames. If your dog goes faster or slower, that’s all good. Patience is a virtue. Slow and steady wins the race.
Q&A with Miki Chan of SpaGo Dog
From a corporate office to a mobile dog-grooming van may seem like a demotion, but for Miki Chan, San Francisco Bay Area owner/operator of SpaGo Dog and former insuranceindustry underwriter, it was a huge step up. For 15+ years, Chan devoted her time to the demands of her job. Then one day, her supervisor, who previously had worked for AIG for 25 years and lost most of his net worth when it collapsed, advised her to do what she loved. Taking his advice to heart, she began to plan a way to return to her dog-grooming roots.
Chan had grown up with dogs, and when she was in college earning a degree in computer science with a minor in business, had a part-time job with a groomer, and loved it. So she went back to grooming school, got certified and worked for others to update her skills. Her financial background and marketing insights led her to believe that people would support a grooming salon that came to them. Plus, she didn’t like putting dogs in cages, as happens in most brick-andmortar operations. A mobile set-up would be quiet, personal, relaxing and clean—spa-like, you might say.
Chan finds working with dogs to be joyful, and is gratified that she’s been able to help them by sharing information with their owners on brushing, dental care, and health issues that the grooming process can reveal, such as lumps, skin tags, ear infections and so on.
Besides the sheer pleasure of working with dogs, she’s also glad that she no longer has to deal with office politics, plead for time off or spend endless hours for the benefit of corporate shareholders. We asked if she had any tips for others considering a career change, particularly self-employment, and she shared a few with us. Before jumping, Chan recommends that people be sure they can support their preferred lifestyle (whatever that might be) without their previous paycheck. She also points out that knowing your target audience is crucial, as are time-management and customer-service skills. And being knowledgeable about what you’re doing is key to building trust.
The insurance world’s loss has been the dog world’s gain, and we’d bet the planet’s happiness quotient has gone up a few points as well.
Do you find that people are comfortable with the concept of a mobile groomer?
What’s a typical grooming session like?
When it comes to nail trimming, black nails can be really difficult. What do you advise?
What kinds of things do you see most often?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
An interview with Jeffrey Masson
This is one of the first interviews (if not the very first interview) ever to appear in the pages of Bark. It was originally published in Bark’s third issue in fall 1997—back when Bark was still printed in black-and-white on newsprint—when Jeffrey Masson first released his book Dogs Never Lie About Love.
On the day of our interview, Jeffrey Masson’s lovely Berkeley home was a bustle of activity, with friends and family popping in and out, the baby, the three dogs and the cats. There had been a wedding only days earlier and Masson was preparing for a major book tour. We were very grateful that he’d found time to squeeze us in. As we settled in for our talk, the phone rang——his agent calling to talk about Masson’s appearance on Dateline the previous night. “I’ve got to go, I’m being interviewed by the Berkeley Bark,” Masson said, cutting short talk of national TV to give this interview.
Your title is Dogs Never Lie About Love. It reminds me of a Fats Waller song, “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you, it’s a sin to tell a lie.” To me it has always been an odd lyric, because how do you lie about love, or how do you not lie about love——our emotions are so complex. What exactly do you mean by this title?
It was suggested to me by my trainer, a wonderful guy at Guide Dogs for the Blind——Mike Delosi. He said you’re gonna laugh, but I just thought of the best title your book——Dogs Never Lie About Love. Laugh!, it’s perfect! And it really is the thesis of the book, that dogs are incapable of any kid of deceit when it comes to their emotions. They don’t hide them from others and don’t hide them from themselves. We sometimes don’t know what we’re thinking and feeling and certainly often attempt to prevent others from knowing what we’re feeling. Nobody doubts this. But dogs are so upfront about their feelings. They can’t, they just can’t...
They don’t mind being the fool.
That’s right. This is who they are. They don’t think, “If I’m showing my joie de vivre they’ll think I’m unsophisticated and naive. What they’re feeling is who they are. And I think that love is really the master emotion for dogs. They really seem to have an endless supply, an endless capacity to love that just astonishes me.
You say in your introduction that you were originally attracted to the observation of wild animals because you felt that somehow the domestic dog was contaminated by association with humans. Have you changed your mind about this?
Well, I don’t really know. It’s fascinating to me that dogs feel as much as they feel and that we can read them so easily. So the question is, why can we read dogs so easily, why are they so transparent to us and we to them? There’s no other animal like that. We don’t know what a bear is feeling. You know when they’re angry, but you don’t know when they’re sad and disappointed and nostalgic and homesick and all these things that we have in common with dogs. So the question arises, did canines learn it from us or is it just some miracle of parallelism. Or is it that all animals share these things and we just can’t read them. I haven’t discovered the answer to that. I suspect one could. If you were to live with wolves long enough you might be able to say it’s clear that wolves feel the same things that dogs feel, therefore they didn’t get it from us.
Didn’t some of your studies of the wild animals, for instance elephants in the zoo, show that they have a rapport with their people?
Not like dogs, possibly, but not even cats. I have two cats here and I love them but they really don’t have that same intimate constant interaction with us that dogs have. Horses don’t, parrots don’t, no animal does.
It begs the question … Was is there from the beginning, and that’s why we got together with them?
That is an interesting question. But it’d be awfully hard to answer. I think if you knew enough about wolves, if we discovered that wolves show the same emotions with other wolves, then we could say it’s the nature of the beast——it’s not us. But I suspect that it is us. Because dogs are so eager to please us and understand us. When I first got my three dogs, I thought——I can’t do this. It’s just too much, three big dogs walking around Berkeley, how am I going to get them out of the car and into this park without putting each one on a leash. I can’t do it. And lo and behold it was really easy after a while. They figured out what I want from them and they give it to me. It took time, and I didn’t train them. It’s just that they watched me and observed me long enough to figure that “Oh, he want us to do this! Ok, I get it, I can do that.” And that’s amazing! Cats don’t do that, they may know what you want, they just don’t care.
In fact, some part of them may know what you want and do …
...the opposite. And a dog will never do that. Very rarely will a dog do what he knows you don’t want him to do. Very rarely.
My dog is very willful. If he doesn’t want to do what I want him to do he won’t look at me. He pretends he can’t hear me.
Hysterical deafness in dogs.
I find your last book (When Elephants Weep) and this book almost radical because I think it’s been anathema for intellectuals to discuss emotional states in animals. Even though anyone who has ever lived with animals or worked with them in a lab could observe that.
The people who work with them in labs have a vested interest in denying that they feel. Because if you say that you think that a dog can feel pain and can suffer as much, if not more than we can, then what kind of person inflicts that pain? It’s hard. The honest ones will say yes, that animals do suffer but animal testing helps mankind. OK, I don’t agree, but you can live with that. What I don’t like is when they say animals don’t feel anything. I don’t see how they say that about a dog. I mean maybe with a rat, I don’t believe if for a minute, but I can understand someone saying he can’t see emotion in rats.
I think it’s easy for people to denigrate their own observations because of what experts say.
You have to look at what vested interest experts have. In the segment of Dateline I just did they had to have a critic talk about my book so they get Dr. Hart who’s the head of the behavioral clinic at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and he said, “Masson is totally wrong——everything a dog does is pure instinct.” And that is the cliché——that’s what they were taught and it’s very hard to get them to move away from that. You could say that about every human emotion. If a mother saves a child who’s drowning——is that instinct or love?
I expect that there are people who have those theories about humans.
I’m sure that there are. But most people who would say that about a dog would not say it about a human being. Why would a dog have an instinct to save a human being anyway? It can hardly be instinct, and there are literally thousands of stories of dogs that have saved people.
I like something you said in your introduction. You asked, “Why is a lab scientist a more reliable observer?” Most people take it for granted that scientific method is objective and that the scientist must necessarily be an objective observer.
We’ve been taught that. They say, well you’re telling us a story and that’s just an anecdote. Anecdotal evidence. What do they think they have when they’re in the laboratory? It’s just another story. And if you have enough of them, if you’ve collected a thousand similar stories, isn’t that data?
You go over how you selected your dogs and what you were looking for and I was struck that all three were females. Did that make a difference to you?
Well, my publisher was very annoyed about that. He wanted me to have a male dog. And it’s true, it would have been interesting to compare. It just so happened that all three of the ones I wanted turned out to be females. So I’m sorry, I’d like to know whether, for example, males are more aggressive than females. These three dogs are just not aggressive. They have never gotten into a fight with each other or another dog. They’re not perfect dogs by any means, little Simi gives this horrible Grrr to every dog she meets. But she’s never actually gotten into a fight, and I wonder if she were a he, would he get into fights?
They’re all so individual.
That’s true too. Certainly there are male dogs that we encounter that would never fight. And there are certain females that we meet that would. But no dog has ever fought with mine. My theory is that males will not fight with females unless they’re trained to fight. But if we’re just walking around and they do something offensive, males will forgive it right away. And females don’t seem to fight much between themselves.
My dog has a lot of propriety and he expects other dogs to be … dignified. He gives females a lot of slack, but not males.
I think that dogs can be very dignified and there’s a difference in a dog who is not and one who is. It’s an interesting quality. In a lot of the working dogs, I have the sense that they feel that there’s a way to do things and an improper way. I was hoping to get a Border Collie for that reason, but I also hear that they’re hyper. They’ve got to be doing stuff. I’m spending three, four hours a day out with my dogs, so they get plenty of things to do. I didn’t think I would spend quite that much time, but with a little baby it’s fun. I like being out anyway and since it turns out to be my research …
What a nice life. Are these your first dogs in a while?
The last dog I had was a long time ago, about six years ago. I had moved into someone’s house who left the dog behind. An old German Shepherd. And I really bonded with him, I was amazed, but it was in the last year of his life. And before that, in my previous marriage, we had a Standard Poodle for 15 years——I loved that dog! And before that it was as a child. So there haven’t been that many dogs in my life.
I haven’t really had a dog since childhood. My dog now, I feel very conscious of him and have a close bond. And I think that he’s taught me a great deal about human nature, too. I wonder what your dogs have taught you.
For me, that’s how the book came to have this thesis. I really do believe that dogs feel more intensely, more purely, more passionately with less ambivalence than I do. I can’t speak for you, or anyone else, but for me they definitely do. And I want to learn from them, and I do learn from them. How to live in the moment——dogs are very, very good at that. They’re really like little gurus. All these gurus claim to live in the moment, but don’t really do it. Dogs do it. They really live in the moment, and they don’t compare things. I still have a bad habit that I picked up from my parents of comparing one thing to another, one place to another, one person to another. Dogs never do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the landfill in Berkeley, that tacky little beach opposite where we always go. But it has the world’s ugliest beach! And I took my parents there once and they said, “Jeff how can you even walk on this beach, remember when we were in the South of France and Cannes and do you remember the Italian Riviera?” And I said yeah, this is really tacky …. My dogs——they love it! They’ve been to the most beautiful beaches in the world up in Oregon and here … they don’t care! For them, it’s the moment that counts, they’re with the person they love, they’re chasing sticks, they’re jumping in the water, they’re perfectly happy——they never make those comparisons. So, those are the things I’ve learned from them. Also, I haven’t learned it, but they’re very good at forgiving. That, I’m not so sure I want to learn, but they can do it. I mean you can, I never have, but people hit dogs and a minute later the dog will lick their hand, I mean a minute later! I guess some dogs less than others, some dogs probably will remember and hold a grudge. But most dogs don’t hold grudges, they really don’t.
There is an interesting story in your book about a police dog stopping his master who’s unjustly beating a guy.
It’s a Vicki Hearne story and I believe it. It’s utterly fascinating! I wish I had observed it, I’d love to know what was going through that dog’s mind.
That’s a very complex thing!
Very complex. If that’s true it shows an extraordinary … if it’s true you don’t see it very often, that’s for sure. I asked the police here, “Does a dog ever stop a thief or a shoplifter?” No, they wouldn’t do that, they don’t care, they don’t share our values. But obviously this person had overstepped some canine value. I think it’s an utterly fascinating concept. I’ve never observed that. That’s Vicki Hearne’s. She’s very unsentimental, that was one of the few sentimental stories in her book. She’s a big trainer and I’ve seen a lot of training now and I’m not into it, it’s not my thing.
I believe she’s written about circus animal training. I just saw a film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which featured a lion trainer, whose attitude toward the lions was adversarial, one of fear ….
Never turn your back, show who’s boss. A lot of dog training is like that too.
The interesting thing about the film is that the lion trainer had a protégé whose attitude was not adversarial, she built a rapport with the lions. The elder trainer had a very grudging respect for his young apprentice——well, it seems to work but someday she’s going to be sorry.
Right, it’s that way with dog training, also. I went to visit one of the legends of training, a guy named Sapir Weiss, have you heard of him? He’s an Israeli paratrooper and he’s trained dogs to carry dynamite. And he was amazing, I have to admit. I walked in and we started arguing right away. He doesn’t believe in emotion, nothing——it’s all training, it’s all conditioning. He says, “It’s all about who’s boss, and I’m the big boss and they know it and I have a way of letting them know this right away.” And I said I didn’t believe it. He said, “You know, I’ll prove it to you.” He said, “Are these three dogs very attached to you? I’m going to walk with them and you call them back to you and I guarantee you they won’t come.” I said no way. And they walked right by me and I called “Sasha, Simi, Rani,” and they looked at me like, “I’m sorry I can’t come”——they wouldn’t budge. I said, “What is this, is it a magic act?” He said, “I convey I’m the boss and they know it, I know how to communicate that to dogs. You don’t hear a single dog in my kennel of ninety dogs barking, do you? That’s because I let them know I won’t tolerate it.” It’s very impressive—I still don’t like it …. He had a dog, a fabulous Schutzhund but the dog seemed miserable, he never goes out, does everything Sapir says and looks at him in constant apprehension.
It’s hard to know how the dog feels about that, but for me, I don’t want to have that kind of relationship.
That’s a good point. I can’t say, but in my opinion, the dog would rather have a more equal kind of relationship. I can’t answer that. But I don’t want that with them, and I’m not going to train them to go blow up trains with dynamite so …. On the other hand I also went through Ian Dunbar’s training with the puppies and that didn’t work so well. I finally decided that the best training was no training—you hang out long enough with the dogs and they figure out what you want and they do it. My dogs come, they stop for traffic, they do the important things. I taught them the command “Leave It” when they’re eating horrible garbage. They do that.
My dog hasn’t got that one down.
Well, when I tell them stay they’re not going to do it, and I’m sure I could train them to do that but it would mean breaking their will to some extent, and I’m just not prepared to do that.
Yes, I don’t relish that authoritarian relationship, consequently my dog is not the perfect obedient dog.
But I think it allows them to be more of who they are. This is also the problem with guide dogs for the blind, I mean I’m very impressed with what they do and obviously it’s wonderful work and it’s wonderful for the blind people, I wonder how wonderful it is for the dog. You know this is not something the dogs would choose to do on their own, given the choice.
Well, you know I think there are some individual dogs who must want to.
Maybe, they take pride in it, yeah.
Like herding and working dogs, a lot of them really love to work and they do take pride, and that’s a big part of life.
But it’s not all of life … pleasure is also part. They’re not big on pleasure at Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs have a certain amount of time when they play but my dogs basically play all day. They don’t work and I think it makes them very happy. It’s very hard to judge. Who’s to say who’s a happier dog.
Your dogs have a good life.
They have a very good life.
What say you about leashes?
Berkeley must be the best city in the world to have a dog because we don’t have a leash law on the street. The police don’t always know it but I went to City Hall and got a little piece of paper with the ordinance that says if a dog is obedience trained and is under voice control then it shall be deemed to be upon a leash. The few times that the police have stopped me, I live across the street from the Berkeley Police Station, I’ve just shown it to them and they’ve been very nice about it. Most of the time I don’t get stopped, and I walk around Berkeley with my three dogs off leash, and I really like that. It’s just different, it really is different. It makes me feel that we are more equal. They can stop and sniff things, they can deviate a little bit. I mean, they still basically go where I want to go, it’s not equal in that way, but they’re free and I really like it.
On the other hand there is a leash law in the parks.
Yes there is, and I just don’t obey it. If a ranger tells me to leash them, I do. Most people don’t care. When we go to Inspiration Point for walks, most dogs are off-leash and people are very happy about it. But, at least once a walk, somebody will come to me and say, “Those dogs are supposed to be on a leash!” And the dogs aren’t doing anything, and I ask them, “Can you explain to me how they’re bothering you?” “It’s a law!” “Well you’re right, but they don’t seem to be harming anybody, and they’re getting so much pleasure, do you really want me to leash them? “Yes, I do!” You always get a few, but for research it was interesting to hear that.
Do you ever take your dogs on leash? Because it’s a very different experience.
I really don’t like to do it. Sometimes outside of Berkeley you have to. We went on a camping trip and they were very unpleasant sometimes if the dogs were off-leash so we took them on-leash in the camping grounds. I just hate it!
I think that dogs are more aggressive on-leash.
I’ve read lots of training books, and there are many different theories. Some feel that the dogs become more territorial on your behalf on lead.
I don’t understand it. Another thing I don’t get … my dogs go completely nuts when they’re in the car and we pass a car with another dog or pass another dog on the street. All three of them. Walking down the street they pay no attention.
Not even when the other dog is behind a fence?
Behind a fence, yes. Behind the fence they hate.
I once saw a baseball game when the pitcher hit the batter with a fast ball. The batter stormed the pitcher’s mound in an attitude of “Let me at ‘em.” But both players kept their arms at their sides, shoulders back. Not until teammates came to restrain them did they really start flailing. When they were safely restrained from hurting each other, the killer came out. I see this behavior in dogs behind fences. They can engage in a little aggression because they really can’t do anything.
Maybe you’re right. If they pass each other on the street they could hurt each other, but they can’t in the car or behind a fence. Interesting. But the car thing, I don’t like it and I’ve begged them to stop, but it doesn’t do the slightest good. Not the slightest good.
You were initially not interested in studying dogs—they were perhaps contaminated by their association with humans. Have you also found that you see the wildness in dogs?
Oh yes! That’s the miracle to me, that we are living on intimate terms with a wild animal. It really is, it’s a wolf. There not that much difference between wolves and dogs, and it’s a very humbling experience. Suddenly your dog does something or howls and you feel my God, this is a wild animal and it has accepted me and we are living together! And no other animal gives you that … well cats a bit too, because they really are tigers. But dogs even more, and it’s just such a miracle to me. I can’t get over it.
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.
Making lifelong love of animals an international success
Almost every neighborhood has one—a young girl or boy who’s constantly bringing home all sorts of stray animals. While the responsibilities of school, sports and jobs lead many kids to put aside this selfless kindness, others make it their life’s calling. Betsy Saul is one of the latter. As a child, Saul rescued kittens, puppies, birds, squirrels and even an ailing snake. Today, as founder of Petfinder.com, Saul’s rescue efforts have gained international recognition and praise.
As Petfinder.com celebrated its 10th anniversary, Saul recalled that her original intent had been to harness the power of the Internet to reduce euthanasia rates; her initial goal was to save a few animals each month. Fast-forward 10 years, and it’s clear that Saul has achieved more than she ever imagined. As of June 2006, Petfinder.com had helped facilitate over 10,000,000 adoptions.
Rising to the Occasion
In the midst of this natural disaster, Petfinder.com became an integral part of one of the largest animal rescue efforts ever undertaken in this country when the Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund and the ASPCA approached it for assistance. Already in the process of building a universal database, Petfinder.com—with input from these agencies—began one of the most successful collaborations in animal disaster-response history.
In just a few days, with Petfinder.com’s programmers working 20-hour shifts, the Animal Emergency Response Network (AERN) web-based system went live. Information from more than eight databases—including those of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and United Animal Nations (UAN)—was made available to people who were frantically searching for missing animals, or those who wanted to help rescue animals left homeless by the storms. Thanks to the AERN database, 3,200 companion animals and their owners were reunited.
Cause for Pride
Saul was also proud of Petfinder.com’s response to Hurricane Rita. “Before [Rita] hit," she said, "we trained a 24-hour call center to use AERN. We issued ongoing radio news releases as people were evacuating, urging listeners to call a toll-free number to find temporary lodging [foster homes] for their pets along their evacuation route.
“The response was awesome. This system allowed people to take care of their own pets rather than give them up to a shelter. Imagine driving up a highway in Texas, not knowing if you would find a hotel that accepted pets, and being able to find a caring family who would help out. It was very cool and I’m really proud of that.”
When I asked her for some final thoughts on the rescue efforts after both hurricanes, her response was clear: “With the help of shelter staff, the rescuers who responded and Stealth Volunteers [a grassroots group who worked tirelessly on reuniting animals]… what a dream! I couldn’t have conceived of a more inspirational response. I’m so proud of everyone. I think tragedies like Katrina might shake the foundation of one’s faith in some things ... but my faith in people after that response is huge.”
From the beginning, Petfinder.com has been both an industry leader and a maverick. Saul herself considers it a “social profit” organization. She believes that Petfinder.com’s success proves that companies can be both profitable and successful in making social change a reality. Corporate sponsors including Purina, PETCO, Merial, Bissell and the Animal Rescue Site support the business through advertising, which allows shelters and rescuers to participate at no cost.
Betsy Saul has come a long way from the young girl who rescued neighborhood strays. Today, she is a dedicated woman who skillfully combines technology, caring people and socially responsible business practices to help improve the lives of animals, day after day. Her faith, vision and commitment are an inspiration to animal-lovers everywhere.
For more information, contact Petfinder.com.
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