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Culture: The Daily Show
John Oliver of The Daily Show Talks Dogs
Oliver & Hoagie

In 2012, we talk dogs with John Oliver, the British comedian who has been a writer and correspondent on Comedy Central’s multi-Emmy-winning program, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Our interview with him appeared in our exclusive behind-the-scene coverage of the dogs who grace, enliven and patrol the show’s offices. Oliver tells us about the newest family member, a first for him.

BK: Tell us why you got your dog, Hoagie. Has she been good for you?

JO: I got her so I could have a piece of uncomplicated joy in my life. Yeah, it’s been fantastic; she really doesn’t give a shit about the “Daily Show” or working in an office, which I find enormously helpful at the end of the day.

BK: Your former colleague, Jim Margolis, told us the real reason you got her was to humanize yourself.

JO: Yeah, that’s true.

BK: Has she come to the office yet?

JO: She came here for one day; she’s a puppy and struggled to understand that this is not a dog run, but a place to work. I made her sit and give me a paw, and told her this is a place of work. I thought she surely would understand. She did the first two things but didn’t get the third one.

BK: How’s her training coming along, in general?

JO: She’s been great. The one thing she hasn’t been able to do is to be in a large office with other dogs at the moment. Maybe at some point, once she’s calmed down, she’ll join the rotation of dogs. But she got so excited, she just wanted to run around all the time, and I can’t cope with that when I have deadlines.

BK: How old is she now?

JO: She is nine months

BK: Well, you have a few more months of puppyhood. Goldens are puppies until they’re two, or even older. Is she your first dog?

JO: Yeah, my first ever. I had one pet before and that was a goldfish when I was seven years old.

BK: Is that why you got another Golden?

JO: Yeah, I never thought of that, but yeah.

BK: Has puppy-raising had any surprises for you?

JO: No, not really. My wife has been doing most of the work, so I can’t take credit for the way she’s progressing. But it is lot of work, and certainly a lot more rewarding.

BK: Do you baby talk to Hoagie?

JO: I talk to her as if she were a 45-year-old adult. She seems to enjoy that.

BK: Do you get your kicks watching the other Daily Show dogs do their thing?

JO: I don’t know what we would do without these dogs. There was one day when they weren’t allowed in the office because the then-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, was the guest and we had to have bomb dogs sniffing around. You can really feel the difference when they aren’t here. It would be a very different place if there weren’t dogs walking around.

BK: Is that one of the reasons you signed up?

JO: That was instantly one of the best things. For the first time, it made me want to have a dog. So it probably contributed to me getting Hoagie in the long run.

BK: I thought Hoagie was a male name, but your pup is a girl.

JO: I don’t think Hoagie is a name at all. It’s a description of something, like a sandwich. I don’t think it’s masculine or feminine.

BK: How about Hoagy Carmichael? Ole Buttermilk Sky and all.

JO: Yeah, I wanted to name my dog after someone who was reportedly anti-Semitic! My wife loves hoagies.

BK: So, is she mostly with your wife?
Do you call home to find out what Hoagie’s up to?

JO: Yeah, I just spoke with my wife this morning. Hoagie was eating Reza Aslan’s most recent book, which is about, I believe, America’s war on terrorism; she’s very interested in that.

BK: Do you have a career path charted out for her?

JO: I would like her to eat a spectrum of different books, ingest information from different sources. Reza Aslan is great author, but there are others out there. Maybe she can start eating novels as well, moving into literature as well as nonfiction.

BK: Do you see her playing straight “woman” to you—can you imagine having her with you on interviews and in skits?

JO: No, I don’t think I would do that. The problem is, Jim is kinda right: she would fundamentally humanize me. So I can’t really do my job when she’s around. It would bring up too much compassion whenever she is around. I can’t have that. When I interview someone, I can’t have any kind of humanity inside of me.

BK: Did adding a dog make for a perfect family unit, or is it practice for having children one day?

JO: It’s been amazing, and nice, to come home after a stressful day at work and have someone just be there. Not that she isn’t interested in what I do for a living, she just can’t really comprehend it. So I can truly trust she isn’t interested in how my day was. She’s interested in going for a walk. I find that more relaxing than anything I have ever found as a way to de-stress. She doesn’t like the Daily Show because there are no dogs on the screen.

BK: Does she watch TV at all?

JO: She likes sports that are played on grass — she likes watching all that green. She is quite hypnotized by green. She thinks that the Daily Show should be on grass.

BK: Does she fetch?

JO: She calls it retrieving.

BK: How about tug-of-war; do you play it with her and let her win? That’s the important thing, you know.

JO: That’s something I need to work on. I’m a pretty sore loser. One of us is going to be disappointed.

BK: You have to let the dog win occasionally.

JO: Oh no no! I am working on that.

BK: When you’re stopped on the street, is it because of the show or the dog?

JO: The dog, especially when she was a puppy. People would come up to talk to her, then look at me and say, “I know you,” but then they’d look straight down at her and start talking again. I know exactly where I stand in that hierarchy.

Culture: The Daily Show
Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show Talks Dogs
Parker licking Wyatt

BK: You’re a dog lover, right? You must appreciate having the dogs at the office.

WC: I like all dogs — I make friends with dogs on the street. Having dogs in the office is probably the best thing. I don’t have to wander the streets to make friends; I can do it from the comfort of my desk.

BK: What do you say to the dogs?

WC: When I’m in the office, I definitely know my voice changes when I talk to the dogs. I’m not talking baby talk, but even that it is interesting — to see a person who might have a really gruff exterior start talking to a dog, like, “Who’s my big boy?” There’s something about pets that brings that out in people. At the Daily Show, you have animals around to help you relax a little, reminders that you shouldn’t take life too seriously.

BK: Yes, others have mentioned how the dogs help relieve stress … how they cool it down a little.

WC: I think the dogs know it, too —they get a sense when people are a little bummed out. Jen’s dog, Parker, is really good about that; she’ll make her way toward you, wag her tail and start pawing at your chair and you think, Yeah! I’m going to take a few moments and just hang out with Parker. And forget anything that was bugging me a moment ago.

BK: Dogs sometimes make their way into your material, like your piece, “SeaWorld of Pain,” on PETA’s lawsuit to free killer whales.

WC: We were in no way saying that it is OK to abuse animals; if there’s animal abuse out there, we need to hear about it. I think in the conversation with the woman from PETA, she was asking humans to have empathy for the plight of killer whales, but doing it in a way that lacked empathy for some humans. It seemed like an odd double standard. [Editor’s note: PETA was equating the condition of captive killer whales with human slavery.]

BK: Is the Daily Show planning any canine political coverage?

WC: Maybe another dog political debate. A while ago, Anderson Cooper moderated a dog debate for us, and we used the office dogs. Some people thought it was real. What that showed me was that people really do want to see a dog political debate.

BK: There’s been a real surge in the popularity of small dogs; what do you think about this trend?

WC: I think that a lot of people are embracing dogs in general, and small dogs, too. In the south, you wanted a big dog to protect you, or to hunt with. I live in a New York apartment, and for me to have a 60-pound dog would be hard. But a little dog … I can put him in a little bag that doesn’t look like a purse and carry him and go where I have to go. It’s kind of weird, but I’ve seen more macho tough dudes with little dogs, and I think Oh, wow! If I met you 15 years ago, you would probably be saying “Why are you carrying that little dog?” A lot of it is economics. It would be interesting to match up the economy and the popular dog sizes. But the love a dog has to give doesn’t depend on the size of the dog — the size of the heart is the same. 

Culture: The Daily Show
Meet the Dogs of The Daily Show
Parker & Jen
Parker & Jen

Parker: Lab mix, seven years old
Jen Flanz: Co-Executive Producer
CK: What’s your favorite Parker-at-the-office story?
Jen: Parker knocks on the door of the post-mortem (the meeting to discuss the show we’ve just wrapped and prep for the following day)—she knocks and it sounds like a human. On several occasions, the person opening the door didn’t realize it was going to be her and were shocked to see a dog.
CK: Tips on a dog-friendly workplace?
Jen: I think it is amazing for morale, but you need to be clear with the owners that they are responsible for their dog; the dogs need to be housebroken and good with people. I also suggest letting people know during their initial interview that it is a dog-friendly office, in case they have a paralyzing fear of dogs.
CK: What does it mean to share your life with Parker?
Jen: I love it — she makes me smile every single day. I also love that all of my co-workers know and (most) love her. It makes it a little harder when you actually want to have a social life, since she pretty much goes everywhere with me. When I go out for dinner or something, she gives me that look … ugh!

Ally & Tim

Ally: Pointer mix, three-and-a-half years old
Tim Greenberg: Supervising Producer
CK: What is your favorite Ally-at-the-office story?
Tim: Ally gets very excited if we’re out on the street and run into any of the 100+ people who work here. It’s like she has a huge second family. She also has her own social life here. She’s often visiting her various friends throughout the building, crashing on the most comfortable couches, and she seems to meet an inordinate number of our celebrity guests. I only know any of this because people show me pictures later. She met Betty White and I found out about it when I saw the video on YouTube.
CK: Tips on a dog-friendly workplace?
Tim: Know that the dogs should be introduced carefully and gradually. Don’t want to mess up a good thing with a fight between dogs who’ve been pushed together too quickly.
CK: What does it mean to share your life with Ally?
Tim: They remind you to take joy in simple things. It’s great to have a permanent buddy. And given how gratifying it is to make them happy, it reminds you how rewarding it can be to take care of others (even the fur-less).
 

Kweli & Justin

Kweli: Golden Retriever, eight years old
Justin Chabot: Artistic Coordinator/DV Shooter
CK: What is your favorite Kweli-at-the-office story?
Justin: We had both only been here about a year, and one day, during Jon’s Q&A with the audience right before the taping, Kweli ran into the studio and directly to one audience member’s feet, then sniffed and sat down. Everyone behind the scenes (including me, of course) was freaking out, because this was a clear lapse in discipline on the part of both owner and dog. As I was going to get him, Jon asked the guy, “What, are your pants made of liverwurst?” and the guy replied, “No, but I do have one Snausage treat in my pocket. Can he have it?” This one tiny Snausage is apparently what caught Kweli’s attention from 70 feet away, through a couple of hallways behind the studio. To much applause, Kweli was awarded the object of his sensory desire.
CK: Tips on a dog-friendly workplace?
Justin: Do it! Your employees will work longer hours, be happier and amazingly, despite all the dog-petting and such, be more productive. I mean, with dogs here, we’ve won “Best Show” Emmys nine years straight. (Well-behaved, adorable dogs only, of course.)
CK: What does it mean to share your life with Kweli?
Justin: Ha! “Share my life” with Kweli? He is my life. Ask my girlfriend.

 

Culture: Science & History
Alexandra Horowitz, The Canine Mindseeker
What do dogs know and how do they know it?

We talk with Alexandra Horowitz, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, about her new book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. This engrossing work is inspired by Horowitz’s experiences with her dog, Pumpernickel, and draws upon her own and others’ research in the field of canine cognition. This book expands our understanding of the nature of dogs and provides a channel to seeing and “smelling” the world from a dog’s point of view.

Bark: Your fascinating new book, Inside of a Dog, begins with a discussion of canine “umwelt.” Can you tell us more about umwelt and how it might affect our understanding of our dogs?

Alexandra Horowitz: The idea of umwelt, which originated with the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, is that the world of each animal is defined by how he/she perceives and acts on the world. Thus, the umwelt of humans does not include infrared light, since we have no perception of these wavelengths and cannot act based on seeing it. However, for bees, who can see infrared light, it is part of their umwelt, and they use the reflected infrared from the center of some flowers to locate nectar. The scale of objects, and their salience, also matters. In our ordinary life, we humans don’t deal on [what we call] the microscopic scale of bacteria: thus, objects that small aren’t part of our impression of “what is out there” at all. A dog’s umwelt is determined by what he can perceive, by his history, by what matters in the world to him. Humans are clearly a big part of the umwelten of dogs, but we don’t register much in the fly’s umwelt (at least, not as anything distinct from other mammals).

For dogs, we can imagine that their world is defined by their perception and action. Their perception includes being able to smell much more acutely than we can (including detecting changes in others’ hormones) and hearing within a greater range than we can. Thus, they will be able to respond to stimuli we don’t even notice. At another level, their umwelt is defined by the things they can bodily act on: They handle the world with their mouths, so the world gets divided into things-that-fit-in-the-mouth and things-that-don’t-fit-in-the-mouth—a way of seeing the world that is quite different than our own.

If we begin to understand what dogs think about, what they can see and smell (and what they can’t), I think we’ll have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a dog—the dog’s perspective, if you will. Appreciating his perspective goes a long way toward making a closer relationship (as it does between people!).

B: The dog’s amazing olfactory powers make their worldview different than ours. Can you explain why?

AH: As we go about our day, we see the world first, using vision to help make sense of the sounds (conversation, sudden honking, a nearby thud) and the smells (something rancid or sweet wafting on the air) around us. Dogs smell the world first, using olfaction to organize and make sense of what they see and hear. The richness of our visual world is matched, if not surpassed, by the richness of their olfactory world.

This leads to some profound differences in the way the world looks, which I describe at length in the book. For instance, smells deteriorate over long distances, and are carried hither and thither by currents of air. The visual scene does not change with the breeze, and with distance, only looks “more distant.” The result is that the world is mapped differently for the creature who primarily “sees” it via his nose rather than his eyes.

B: You note that dogs couldn’t really see TV in the pre-digital conversion days; the physiological reason behind this is significant—can you explain it?

AH: It has to do with how we process light. Specialized cells in the eyes of mammals translate light waves into neural activity by changing the pigment in the cells. In the milliseconds that the pigment is changing, the cell can’t receive any more light. This leads to what is called the “flicker-fusion” rate: essentially, the number of snapshots of the world that the eyes can process each second. Our flicker-fusion rate is about 60 images per second.

The image on old TVs and film is really a sequence of still shots sent quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing a continuous stream. Given our flicker-fusion rate, the film needs to be only slightly faster than 60 still images a second to trick our eyes into seeing motion. Dogs, though, have a faster flicker-fusion rate—about 70 or 80 stills per second. When watching film, they can actually detect the individual frames as well as the dark spaces between them. With the recent conversion to entirely digital television broadcasts, though, the flicker-fusion rate is no longer relevant, since digital TV works differently. So dogs can, in theory, watch TV—though it still is not very olfactorily interesting!

B: Why do you think it took researchers so long to truly study the dog?

AH: I think it took scientists a long time to see dogs as cognitively interesting because they reasoned that animals who are closely related to us—like apes and monkeys—were more likely to display behaviors similar to those of humans. As it turns out, in social cognitive tasks such as interpreting others’ gestures, dogs often surpass chimpanzees in performance! Additionally, I suspect that it was felt that dogs were already “known,” because they are so common and familiar to us as pets. What we are discovering is that in some cases, we are correct about what dogs know and understand, and in many cases, our common-sense understanding of dogs is not quite right.

B: A lot of your research involves dog play. Why is play so important?

AH: Play is a terrific venue in which to see dogs’ fast-paced, coordinated behavior; they are highly skilled players. As many dog owners may know, most bouts of play begin with a play signal, such as the familiar “play bow,” in which one dog bends down on his front legs, holding his rump high and his tail up and wagging. Another signal is the “exaggerated approach,” in which one dog lopes toward another dog, often with an extra-bouncy stride. These signals are considered requests to play, or announcements of an interest in playing. It appears to be important to play signal before starting to play, since play involves behavior that would be considered aggressive—biting, mounting, bumping—in another context.

When I looked at play sequences in very slow motion, what I was able to see was that dogs were very good at getting the attention of their hoped-for playmates before play signaling. And they seemed to know what kind of attention-getter would work in different situations: a more forceful attention-getter when the other dog is distracted, a mild one when the dog is standing idly. With humans, a person might need to shout to get the attention of someone talking to someone else; similarly, we don’t need to barge into someone standing right in front of us in order to get his attention. Dogs seem to know that. And then, only after getting the other dogs’ attention, did they signal an interest in playing.

B: Dogs of the same “breed type,” like herders, seem to enjoy playing together and appear to have different styles of play than other breed types. For instance, they use the “eye,” and play “who winks first gets to be chased.” Have you studied behavioral traits in breeds and how they are expressed during play?

AH: I find it extremely interesting that breeds often gravitate to other members of their breed to play. Indeed, it seems that even similar-looking mixed-breeds often play together. Some of that could be explained by their owners’ interest in the familiar-looking or -acting dog (if owners loiter together, it gives the dogs more time to get acquainted). But most of it presumably comes from the dogs’ mutual recognition of characteristic behaviors in one another: the way the other dog solicits play, how he uses his tail and, as you suggest, even showing “eye” or other breed-typical behaviors. My own research did not control for breed, and I don’t know of any other studies that have specifically identified whether or not certain behaviors are more likely during play among members of one breed than play among members of another. It’s ripe for the investigating!

B: It was interesting that you said that long-time or close playmates can exchange shorthand signals with each other. How can we learn to read our dog’s shorthand?

AH: The shorthand is usually a component of the play signal. The play bow involves bringing the forelegs down and the rump up—so, a shorthand version of that is what I call a “play slap”: just bending down on the front legs, usually with an audible slap. Similarly, many signals involve an open, almost grinning-looking mouth; as shorthand, a dog can do a very short open-mouth display with another dog. If you know the components of the signals, you can see how dogs break them up to use with their regular playmates.

B: In regard to your statement that dogs don’t hunt cooperatively—since dogs evolved from wolves, who do hunt cooperatively, it would seem that dogs would, too.

AH: You make a great point. Some dogs may hunt together—and dogs definitely act cooperatively with each other in many settings, including play. My point is a little different, however. What I wanted to emphasize was that typical dog behavior has changed considerably from typical wolf behavior in numerous ways. The studies on which I base my statement were on free-ranging (stray) dogs who need to hunt or scavenge to eat; researchers found that the dogs did not hunt together cooperatively, as we see in wolves. These groups are perhaps the closest model that we have of what is natural social behavior for dogs unmodified by the immediate presence of humans. Dogs bred for hunting may also act very differently, of course, than mixed breeds.

B: Pointers can “honor” the point of another dog while hunting—a truly amazing thing to see. Mark Neff at UC Davis is collecting evidence of the genetic basis of this behavior. Are you familiar with this behavior?

AH: Following another dog’s hunting point is very consistent with all the recent experimental research showing that dogs are quite good at following dogs and humans who indicate (by pointing or looking) where a hidden toy or food is. This may seem obvious to some dog owners, but to psychologists, it is quite meaningful that dogs follow points; most non-human animals don’t seem to use pointing as an informational cue. It is also a testament to the quality of the experiments that we see this ability in the dogs’ natural lives as well.

B: I was happy that you discussed dogs’ fascination for novel objects (neophilia). But have there been any studies that actually showed this to be true?

AH: Yes. In 2008, Kaulfuss and Mills published a study showing neophilia in dogs. The dogs in their study were given the choice of new or familiar toys, and most preferred the new toys. This doesn’t mean they will always be interested in a new toy; rather, it indicates that dogs have a sense of what is familiar and what is novel, and are curious enough to investigate the novel.

B: How can you tell if your dog feels or is expressing guilt?

AH: It is an open question whether dogs feel guilt, one that we all have our hunches about but that is very hard to confirm empirically. I recently published a study testing whether the “guilty look” that dogs show—ears back, tail down, slinking off or avoiding eye contact—actually indicates that the dog has disobeyed and possibly feels guilty. I found that dogs showed the most guilty look not when they had actually disobeyed, but rather, when they were scolded or confronted by a suspicious owner, even if they had done nothing wrong.

What most dogs do seem to know is that some actions—those that have provoked punishment in the past—are “wrong,” off-limits or at least likely to provoke punishment again. This is not the same as feeling guilt. They may do the guilty look as an entreaty not to be punished.

B: How can you tell if your dog is bored? I know that is one of the biggest concerns of dog lovers.

AH: Boredom in dogs looks remarkably similar, in broad strokes, to what it looks like in humans: flagging energy, reduced activity, poor attention, sleeping too much. Dogs may pace (similar to zoo animals kept in too-small enclosures with nothing to engage them) or do repetitive actions, such as licking or chewing themselves obsessively. If you come home to find your house in disarray, socks mauled, pillows disemboweled, it’s likely that your dog was bored—at least until he found those socks and pillows with which to occupy his time. Boredom can be sated by giving the dog something to do: play with him, give him plenty of social time with other dogs, or hide safe toys or treats for him to find when you’re away.

B: You said that “in many ways, dogs act as if they think about their memories as the personal story of their life.” What do you mean by this?

AH: It is an intriguing question whether dogs think about themselves—that is, whether they have a sense of their own life story, their autobiography. It is also a very difficult question to address scientifically. I am proposing, however, that much of dogs’ behavior, such as what they remember—where they buried that bone last summer, the dog who was hostile the last time they met, a shortcut home—indicates that they are in fact thinking about their life in an autobiographical way.

B: A final question. Is there a possibility that dogs co-evolved with us, especially since the dog genome dates the wolf/dog split to almost 100,000 years ago, about the same period during which Homo sapiens was developing? Also, the change “out of wolf” began so long ago that it would seem to predate human settlements. So perhaps the theory of dogs “taming” themselves as scavengers around our “settlements” might not be right.

AH: I think it is quite appropriate, based on the evidence we have, to say that dogs and humans co-evolved. As I discuss in the book, there is archeological evidence that dates the intertwining of our lives to 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, though most researchers believe that we lived together for perhaps thousands of years before that time. The interesting and more recent finding (using mitochondrial DNA)—that wolves split into two different groups, one of which was to become what we now know as the domestic dog—is suggestive that the connection between humans and dogs may have been quite long ago. It is also possible that these “proto-dogs” were well suited to later domestication, but weren’t yet associating with humans (or our forebears). The evidence simply isn’t all in yet.

 

To listen to an interview with Alexandra Horowitz on NPR, click here.

Culture: DogPatch
Inspired by Dogs: Majora Carter

Environmental justice advocate, MacArthur Fellow, president of her eponymous green economic consulting firm: by anybody’s definition, Majora Carter is a dynamo. Born, raised and still living in New York’s South Bronx, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, and by 2003, had implemented the highly successful Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program—a pioneering job training and placement system that seeds communities with a skilled workforce that has both a personal and an economic stake in its urban environment.Among her landmark projects is the conversion of a stretch of debris-strewn riverside to a vibrant neighborhood park and the beginning of an 11-mile greenway. And she might never have discovered the place or its potential had it not been for her dog, Xena.

Bark: Tell us how Xena came into your life.
Majora Carter: Early one rainy evening in 1998, I was going to see a film at a local cultural center in my neighborhood. Outside the gate, a big-pawed puppy with a huge head was sitting in a cardboard box, tied to a no-parking sign. When I came out of the movie, the puppy was still there. I wasn’t looking for a dog at the time and didn’t really need any extra responsibilities, as I was already helping take care of my elderly father, and not making much money either.

The puppy and I looked at each other, but I didn’t really have any huge emotional moment where I felt I had to save this animal. I was working to save humans from noxious environmental planning by the City of New York at the time. But something attracted me to her, so I took her home, dried her off, found some food in the fridge—which she devoured—and spent the next year trying to recover chewed shoes, books, furniture and other household objects that fell before the wrath of this energetic and fast-growing pup. The vet who checked her out (and continues to do so) said she was four months old when I found her. I named her Xena.

B: We understand that Xena had a paw in the revitalization of the illegal dumping area that became Hunt’s Point Riverside Park. How did that happen?
MC: One of the benefits of having a large German Shepherd-mix mutt on the end of a leash is that it allows a single woman to go places with a greater sense of confidence and safety. When Xena was about a year old, we were on a daily jog through one of the many industrial-zoned sections of the South Bronx. It was just after dawn, and Xena caught the scent of something in the weeds. Behind the weeds were piles of garbage—mostly construction and demolition debris (dumps like this exist in cities and towns across America).

Xena used all of her 80 pounds of young dog energy to drag me deeper into the abandoned lot. Past refrigerators, needles, stacks of tires, oil drums, old tar roofing, thistles, dead things and a bunch of other items I was thankful were not on her list of things to roll in that day.

Just as we began to get too far out of sight of the road for my comfort level, I caught an unfamiliar glint of light out of the corner of my eye. Xena pushed through the last patch of tall weeds as she bounded forward to her goal, and right there in the morning light, the Bronx River flowed, with ducks landing and butterflies dancing.

Except when I went to Connecticut for college, I had lived in that part of the South Bronx—called Hunts Point—all my life. I could see on the subway maps that we were surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers, but I never actually saw the water because their banks were crowded with waste and sewage treatment facilities, truck lots, power plants, and illegal dumps like the one we discovered that day.

It was so beautiful to see the river there that morning. I knew I could play a role in turning that land into a park, where families could get connected with nature and each other in a positive, healthy atmosphere.

B: How is the neighborhood using the park? Does your schedule allow you time to go there with Xena?
MC: It’s great! An organization called Rocking the Boat moved into the lot next to the park. They teach local high school-age students to build traditional wooden boats for rowing and sailing—most of the boats are about 16 feet long, I think—and then they use them to study river ecology; on Saturdays, the boats are made available to the public and maintained by people who graduated from their program. On weekends, the barbecues are all full and people use the park to celebrate with large and small gatherings.

Aside from the obvious recreational benefits, members of the community are employed maintaining the riverfront, and are using it to train other workers for future waterfront restoration projects. I don’t get to the park nearly as often as I’d like—especially when you consider how much time I spent working to make it happen. But I did have my wedding there on the first day it was opened. Xena was my flower girl!

B: Environmental justice is a large concept; can you scale it to a one person/one dog level?
MC: It’s actually simple: no community should have to suffer more environmental burdens than any other. Clean air and clean water are a minimum standard we should be able to maintain for everyone. When we don’t, public health costs go up, but it goes deeper than that. Proximity to concentrations of fossil fuel exhaust sources has been shown to cause learning disabilities in young children. It’s usually poor kids who live in these areas, and in the U.S., if you’re poor and do badly in school, your chances of going to jail skyrocket. The deeper we look into how our environment affects us, the more clearly we see how costs add up if we conduct planning as though some people’s environmental rights are not as important as others’. If we had placed as many of our waste, energy, chemical, agribusiness and transport infrastructure near wealthy people as we have near poor communities, our infrastructure would have been green and clean decades ago.

B: Environmentalists and dog lovers have a number of intersecting interests. One of the more obvious is that in densely populated urban areas, both people and dogs appreciate and need environmentally healthy open spaces in which to walk. What can dog people do to improve their local environments?
MC: Well, for starters, keep their dogs from peeing on the trees. Street trees have a hard life in a densely populated area. The faster new trees can get to full canopy, the sooner we can benefit from the environmental services they provide.

B: What channels do you recommend following to address local environmental issues?
MC: Start by talking to your neighbors. Chances are, the same things you are concerned about are affecting others. Your ideas about solutions might start out being different, but will come together as you imagine the possibilities. Local politicians are often much more responsive than you’d guess, too. Most people don’t even bother talking to their elected officials, but they should. They can’t act unless they know there is organized support for their position, and organizing has never been easier than it is today.

B: Are there tools individuals can use to make a case for attention? Taking along a videocam (or using a cell phone) to document problems encountered while out walking with our dogs, for example?
MC: That’s a great start, but it’s smart to document the good stuff, too. When we had cleared the debris off the land that Xena had explored with me, it still wasn’t a “park,” but we planned community events there and demonstrated public use before we went to the City for money to develop it further. So whether it’s something you like or don’t like, giving yourself visual tools with which to communicate pros and cons is always valuable.

B: We also understand that you have a degree in film, and an MFA. Do you have occasion to use this training in your current work?
MC: I have a pretty grueling speaking schedule, and every event embodies a certain amount of performance. Plus, I do a television show on Sundance Channel and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting radio series called The Promised Land. Communicating complex issues is so important to getting things done, and creatively visualizing new solutions for familiar problems is crucial. Those were both things I have carried over from my studies. The important thing to remember is that I learned about my environmental work on the job, starting at the age of 30—so no matter where you are in life, you can always embrace something new.

 

 

Culture: DogPatch
Martha Speaks Now on PBS
Q&A with the creators of the new series

Guess who’s coming to PBS? It’s Martha, the unassuming, loquacious and forthright mutt whose ingestion of alphabet soup turns her into, as one reviewer noted, the “Mr. Ed of the canine world.” Bark recently connected with Susan Meddaugh, Martha’s creator, and Carol Greenwald, WGBH Senior Executive Producer, to learn more about this milestone event.

Bark: Who is Martha? How did you develop this remarkable dog—was there a “bulb going off” moment? Did you immediately run your studio and start sketching?

 

Susan Meddaugh: Martha was our first dog. She was a stray, a real combo package of breeds. She had been on the street for a while when a friend of ours found her. Actually she found our friend, who was working in her front yard. Martha sat down beside her and refused to move, thereby cleverly forcing her to help her. After all her attempts to find Martha’s home failed (and since she had several cats and no room for a dog), our friend called us.

 

Martha was so skinny we could see her ribs, plus she had the whole flea population of eastern Massachusetts on her back. We were soon to discover that she wasn’t housebroken, and had a habit of eating the furniture. We wondered whether it had been a good idea to take her home. We named her after our friend Martha, who had been the one to call us, and was therefore responsible for our new addition to the family, however it might work out.

 

Fortunately, after a while, the essential Martha began to emerge. She was smart, interesting, expressive, opinionated and very drawable. I was writing and illustrating children’s books, and it was obvious that Martha needed a book of her own.

Which leads me to my son, Niko. I had the right occupation, the right child, the right dog and the perfect moment. I had already put Martha in some of my children’s books, usually just slipping her into the background. She had also found her first co-starring role with Helen in The Witches’ Supermarket. But she wasn’t yet talking. My son, seven years old at the time, was sitting at the table eating alphabet soup. Of course, Martha was right next to him, almost in his lap. It was his creative question—“Mom, if Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?”—that put all the pieces together. The personality of the dog, plus Niko’s question, immediately suggested a visual image of the soup letters going into Martha’s mouth and up to her brain. Of course, this required a novel approach to the way the brain is connected to the digestive system.

I did not rush to my studio and immediately sketch out the story. This idea was just the beginning of a story, which would go through a couple of versions before it fell into place. The main question after the initial idea was, what would Martha do or say if she had the gift of gab?

B: How much of this was informed by Martha herself?

SM: Obviously, the personality of Martha is completely inspired by the real dog, and the attitude was already there. Martha would let me know what to do with the story. So what would she do, being Martha? She would be opinionated, outspoken—she would speak for the dog, letting people know what dogs are really thinking. But being a dog, she wouldn’t necessarily know when not to say what was on her mind. In Martha’s world, she is still a dog. The only thing unusual about her is her ability to speak. She’s not a person, and she will always see the world through the eyes of a dog.

B: Have you ever heard of children feeding alphabet soup to their dogs, hoping that their dogs would talk too? 

SM: I have heard of that happening, but I’ve heard it from adults who mostly are happy that their children are so taken with a story that they would try that. As for the kids, I think it’s just a wonderful possibility, sort of like the children who ask me, “Did Martha really talk?” I can tell they don’t really believe she spoke, but still, they hold on to the sliver of hope that just maybe she did. Also, it’s quite clear in the books and in the TV series that Skits cannot speak, even after many bowls of alphabet soup. So they are forewarned that even the family’s other dog isn’t bilingual, and that so far, there’s only one Martha.

Carol Greenwald: We heard from a public television colleague that when her son was four and a half, he asked to have Martha Speaks read to him, over and over. When they went grocery shopping, he reminded her to get alphabet soup; she began finding unopened cans of soup on the counter, which she put away, thinking she’d left them out by mistake. And then one day she came into the kitchen and saw her son standing with their standard Poodle, his foot holding Martha Speaks open to the page that shows the cross-section of Martha’s brain filled with letters. With one hand, he held up the dog’s earflap, and with the other, he shone a flashlight into the dog’s ear. Then he looked at his mother and said, plaintively, “But how will I know?”

B: What role does Martha have within her family? And can you tell us why you chose to make her young companion a girl rather than a boy?

SM: As I mentioned, Martha and Helen had already been paired in The Witches’ Supermarket. But although Martha’s personality has been evident since the first book, Helen’s character had to be fleshed out for the TV series. Martha will continue to be Martha: Confident, honest, loving, talking and acting before thinking, sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt. She’s learning about the world (and learning some words along the way). Helen is somewhat shy and cautious, a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, an artist, and the more sensible part of the duo, who tries to pull Martha back when she goes too far. For her part, Martha will push Helen into new situations and adventures that Helen would ordinarily be reluctant to try. It’s a loving relationship of opposites that works for both of them … usually.

CG: WGBH was attracted to the property specifically because it has a female central character. The majority of cartoons and TV shows for young children have boys at the center. We were thrilled to have a girl.

B: The goal of this series is to expand the vocabulary of its audience. How did you go about doing that? How are the words introduced so that the young viewer will understand their meanings?

CG: Surprisingly, first-grade vocabulary knowledge predicts eleventh-grade reading comprehension. So achieving our educational goal is incredibly important to us. People often assume that when you’re talking about teaching young kids vocabulary, you’re talking about words they are learning to read, like “hot,” “cat” and “top.” However, we’re focused on helping kids learn the meanings of more sophisticated words, so that when they begin reading—and particularly when they move from learning to read to reading to learn—they will understand the meaning of what they are reading. It doesn’t matter if you can sound out “aggravate,” “plot” or “custom” if you don’t know what they mean.

We worked closely with a board of academic advisors to figure out how we could use television to build children’s vocabularies. Because the vocabulary gap between at-risk kids and their more advantaged peers is so great, our advisors encouraged us to incorporate as many words as possible. Thus, we are teaching 800 words the first season (through 40 shows). They also confirmed that the best way to teach vocabulary is by providing context, so we are integrating the words and the definitions into the dialog of the stories, supporting them visually whenever possible, not teaching them in isolation. Because repetition is key to learning vocabulary, each of our words is repeated at least five times in the story, and more than that in the paired story (each episode has two stories) and across the series. We work closely with our content director, Dr. Rebecca Silverman from the University of Maryland, to both choose appropriate words and provide age-appropriate definitions.

B: Besides vocabulary building, what other lessons do you hope your viewers come away with?

CG: We have worked hard throughout the series to depict pet ownership in a positive way, to model good owner behavior. We hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for the important role dogs and all pets play in our lives. We also hope, through the series and our national partnerships, to raise awareness for animal shelters and encourage more families to adopt.

B: In one show, Martha finds herself in an animal shelter and sets out to free the other animals. How did that episode come about?

CG: Susan and her late husband, Harry Foster, have always been very supportive of shelters and humane societies, so when we were brainstorming story ideas, we knew we wanted to do a story about a shelter. Our writers loved the idea of Martha finding herself in the pound because it offered a lot of possibilities—a dog’s-eye-view of the experience. And we were particularly sensitive to the idea of encouraging shelter adoptions once we began reading about the surge in shelter pets post-Hurricane Katrina, and now with mortgage foreclosures.

B: Tell us about new developments in the “Martha Speaks” world.

CG: Houghton Mifflin is re-releasing the “classic” Martha Speaks books this fall, with new editions (the hardcover version of the original Martha Speaks book includes an audio version, and the paperback includes stickers), and they will be publishing tie-in books based on some of the TV scripts beginning fall 2009, which will include tips for families on building vocabulary.

As with all PBS KIDS series, there is a wonderful website, pbskids.org/Martha, on which kids can play games and watch short videos of Martha and her friends, and parents, teachers and caregivers can find out more about the series and curriculum and get educational support materials. All of the games are designed to support the educational goal of the series. In addition, a selection of video clips and Martha episodes is available on PBS’s new broadband service (pbskidsgo.org), so kids can watch Martha online.

The series is also supported by educational outreach activities. Public television stations are hosting community events to celebrate the premiere of Martha. Some stations will be launching “reading buddy” programs, which will pair 4th- and 5th-graders with kindergarteners to share books and vocabulary-building activities in the classroom. WGBH is also working closely with the ASPCA, Intermountain Therapy Animals, humane societies, the American Library Association and other groups to encourage local partnerships with public television stations.

Martha Speaks premiered on PBS KIDS on Labor Day, Monday, September 1. Visit Martha online for more.

 

Culture: DogPatch
Mother-Daughter Vet Graduates
Sharon Hunt Gerardo realizes her original dream

A mid-life career change is not uncommon. Nor is going back to school to get a second degree. Going back for a fourth degree, however, is more of a rarity, and graduating side by side with your daughter—well, that’s downright extraordinary. This is Sharon Hunt Gerardo’s story. In June, at the age of 51, she received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from UC Davis alongside her 27-year-old daughter, Angelina.

Both women had harbored dreams of becoming veterinarians since childhood. Angelina Gerardo, for her part, never considered another profession. Her father, Mike Gerardo, was a vet with a small animal practice—pocket pets, as he called them—and Angelina grew up steeped in the everyday drama and routine of caring for animals. But Sharon, who in Mike married her high school sweetheart, wasn’t accepted to veterinary school back in the 1980s; instead, she embarked on a career in microbiology. Following her husband’s untimely death in 2000, she started thinking about switching vocations.

By the time Angelina applied to college in 2003, Sharon’s decision was made, and she, too, sent out applications. Angelina thought it was a terrific idea for her mother to become a vet … right up to the day it became clear they’d both been accepted to the prestigious, all-consuming veterinary program at UC Davis. “I was not thrilled at first,” says Angelina. “I didn’t look forward to having classes with my mom every day.” In practice, though, things worked out very well. The two agreed to cultivate different sets of friends, and made arrangements to be in different lab groups. Their similar work habits and pace of learning made them ideal study partners, and in the end, they wound up cramming for many exams together, often over glasses of wine.

Today, Angelina’s veterinary career is well on its way. After joining the Army Veterinary Corps and finishing basic training, she is stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she spends her days looking after hard-working military dogs and the pets of service members. Sharon, on the other hand, is back at UC Davis pursuing a master’s degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine (MPVM). A fifth degree, if anyone’s counting, may seem excessive until seen in the context of her past education—she holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Davis and a PhD in immunology from UCLA—and her years in medical research. Sharon’s career change was less an about-turn and more of a course correction. Sure, in her youthful fancies she was always the hands-on vet, rinsing ears, setting broken limbs, palpating claws and paws, and removing ingested chew toys, but for decades, her passion has been for big-picture stuff. Things like disease control and prevention in whole animal populations—large-scale projects for which the MPVM program is a direct ticket.

The MPVM program is to veterinary medicine what public health is to human medicine. Graduates might work with food safety, livestock health, or wildlife and disease ecology. One current student is investigating a mysterious neurological disease that kills horses and cattle on Easter Island, and a recent graduate has just returned to her native Uganda to work on wildlife conservation. Sharon wants to focus on epidemiology and infectious diseases. Computer modeling particularly appeals to her; this is a technique that allows scientists to calculate the impact of potential outbreaks on ecology and economy, and aids them in the preparation of a response should the worst happen.

What’s the worst? Take the looming specter of mad cow disease. Britain’s mid-1990s epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy devastated the country’s beef industry, from farmers to food manufacturers to restaurants. At least 140 people lost their lives to Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating infected beef, and 4.5 million cattle were destroyed—of those, less than 200,000 were confirmed as infected. The rest were simply old enough to possibly carry the disease agent.

Nothing quite so ruinous has yet befallen the U.S., but outbreaks of one kind or another happen more and more often. Think of recalls of hot dogs or beef patties or frozen chicken pizzas. Of “species jumpers” like bird flu and bovine tuberculosis, or the pet food recall of 2007, still fresh in our memories. As the world grows ever more interconnected, ever more interdependent, anything that ails another country may soon show up in our back yard. People and animals everywhere face the challenges presented by industrialized farming and food processing. So there could hardly a better time for a scientist and researcher like Sharon to return to her original career choice.

To others with dreams of new beginnings she says, “Find a way to make it happen. If it means going back to school, do it. It may not be easy, but it’ll be well worth the time and effort.” Of course, she also recommends enlisting your friends and family for support—as she did so fruitfully herself. Consider this: If one day, in the midst of Sharon’s world-saving efforts, her dogs Annie and Black-Jack or her cats Deco, Prissy and Gracie should need complicated surgery, she can simply call her daughter.

 

Dog's Life: Humane
A Team Player
An "ah-ha" moment led baseball manager Tony La Russa to establish the Animal Rescue Foundation

Tony La Russa, manager of this year’s World Series champs St. Louis Cardinals, is the only manager of any professional sport who is also a champion to rescue animals. Twenty years ago he and his wife started the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek, California, that had its start when a liittle kitty ran out onto a baseball field… A few years ago we published this profile of the man and his shelter:

A great moment in animal rescue history took place in an unlikely venue: the Oakland (California) Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. In May 1990, the A’s—managed at the time by Tony La Russa—were playing a home game against the New York Yankees when a feral cat ran onto the field. The game came to a halt until La Russa, a lifelong animal advocate, rescued the terrified feline.

After the game, he took her to a local shelter, only to learn she would be euthanized; not a single no-kill facility existed in the East Bay’s Contra Costa county. That discovery got the ball rolling, and it wasn’t long before La Russa and his wife, Elaine, founded Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). La Russa later said he couldn’t remember whether his team won or lost that night. (For the record, the A’s won, 5 to 1.)

ARF, the first privately funded animal shelter in Northern California, came into being in 1991. Since 2003, it has been housed in a state-of-the-art, 37,700-foot facility in Walnut Creek, California. From this lively and welcoming headquarters, ARF operates a variety of programs, including adoption, dog training and emergency veterinary assistance; it also functions as a national resource center.

Outreach programs focused on students, at-risk youth and the elderly promote humane education and animal welfare. For those who need a breather from the cuddles of dogs and cats, there’s a condo with sports and entertainment memorabilia: a 1988 World Series trophy, autographed shoes from Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neill, a guitar autographed by the Eagles, a Jose Canseco bat signed by (of all people) Joe DiMaggio.

La Russa, a man of action and passion, also has a law degree; (La Russa did not co-author the book but is the main subject of the book) New York Times bestseller, Three Nights in August; and has taken his teams to three World Series. Thanks to the La Russa family’s energy and compassion, more than 20,000 dogs and cats have found loving homes through ARF. It’s about teamwork, La Russa says, which is something that baseball and animal rescue have in common.

La Russa lives in Alamo, California, with his wife, two daughters and 18 rescues—12 cats, 5 and 1 rabbit. He and his family, all of whom are vegetarians (even their dogs are on meat-reduced diets), live by the ARF slogan: People rescuing animals … Animals rescuing people.

For more information visit ARF.net.

Culture: DogPatch
The Author’s Nook with Bonnie Jo Campbell
Lee Harrington talks to novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell with her donkey, Don Quixote

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.

Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.

Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.

In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.

LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?

BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.

LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?

BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.

LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?

BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.

LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?

BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.

Culture: DogPatch
Q&A with Dog Sense Author John Bradshaw
Making sense of dogs

What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.

Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?

John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
A key difference between dogs and wolves is not their appearance but rather, how they behave. Dogs have the capacity to socialize to both species, ours and their own, and the unique ability to continue functioning as members of their own species while simultaneously establishing and maintaining relationships with ours.

B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?

JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
Dogs were, for a long time, a crucial part of our technology and their domestication marked a technological innovation that also provided the blueprint for the domestication of other animals; if we were able to domesticate dogs, why not pigs, sheep, cattle, goats? So if you are talking about evolution in the general sense of where humans are today, what we think about and how we see the world, then, yes, dogs dramatically affected that evolution. If you are talking about dogs affecting genetic evolution, we haven’t discovered that yet. I’m not saying we won’t, but we aren’t there yet.

B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?

JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”

B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?

JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
Confusion about how wolves actually behave comes from observations of wolves artificially grouped in zoos. A natural pack is based on a family, but those confined in zoos and so forth are not family units. So in a zoo their behavior looks like it is one of dominance hierarchy based on aggression. The whole basis of wolf behavior [in that context] is not natural. It’s like comparing all human behavior to the behavior of humans in refugee camps. In that kind of group, behavior is distorted.
The second reason is that proto-dogs, the wolves who became domesticated, were different than other wolves. The animal who was the common ancestor of wolves and protodogs has been extinct for at least 15,000 years. Wolves in the wild are getting wilder and wilder for at least 15,000 years, probably longer.
Recent interpretations of wolf behavior have emphasized cohesive, rather than aggressive, behavior as being essential to the stability of a pack. Wolves in different packs try to avoid one another, but dogs are extraordinarily outgoing. Dogs’ sociability is even more remarkable when compared to that of their ancestors.

B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?

JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
Research recently conducted in West Bengal (where feral dogs are more tolerated by the people) has found that feral dogs are a lot more tolerant of one another than wolves are. Family bonds form, but with less correlation. They do not hunt together, but rather, forage singly, and, unlike in a wolf pack, more than one female in a social group will breed at the same time. They aren’t a pack in the wolf sense; their “pack” structure is very loose and rarely involves cooperative behavior, either in raising young or obtaining food.
The studies of West Bengal feral dogs don’t offer the slightest shred of evidence that they are constantly motivated to assume leadership of the pack within which they live, as the old-fashioned wolf-pack theory would have it.

B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?

JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
There is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs, either in their relationship with other dogs or in those with their owners.
And if some trainers believe that dogs only perceive us as if we were other dogs (or wolves), there is no logical basis for assuming that dogs [instinctively] want to control us. Domestication should have favored exactly the opposite: dogs who passionately want us to control them.

B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?

JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
There is also an unfortunate loophole in the UK legislation, in a macabre sort of way: the law doesn’t apply to fetuses so if there is a hereditary defect, it can be legal!
Top breeders, those who show their dogs, practice selective breeding to meet the latest interpretation of the breed standard, which is based on the appearance of the dog. The whole basis of judging rests on how a dog looks and behaves in the show ring.
Some of breeds’ gene pools are too small, and the answer has to be to amalgamate breeds to increase genetic variation. A group of people in Australia are taking on the breeding of pet-quality dogs, [selecting for] calm personality, trainability, freedom from inheritable disease and discomfort, people-focused and so forth. Dr. Paul McGreevy and Pauline Bennett are part of this group. Genetics can only go so far, though. You have to mold a dog’s personality — it can’t be done through genetics alone.

B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?

JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
Young puppies try out different behavioral approaches; they change from one day to the next. It is more important to look at the litter’s environment — how is the female kept, for example? Puppy tests carried out at seven or eight weeks of age are being conducted when a puppy’s behavior is actually most malleable. Numerous scientific studies have failed to find any validity in puppy testing as a predicator of future character. The only personality trait that seems to be resistant to change after seven weeks is extreme fearfulness.

B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?

JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
We work closely with rehoming charities, instructing them on prevention and ways to train dogs so they won’t suffer when left alone. The key thing is to get new owners to train the dog to understand that they are coming back.
This is not a disorder at all, but rather, a perfectly natural behavior. We have selected dogs to be highly dependent on us. Research has shown that just a few minutes of friendly attention from one person on two consecutive days is enough to make some dogs in shelters desperate to stay with that person. Their attachment to humans is that strong.

B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?

JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
As I mentioned, attachment can happen quickly in shelters. Of course, when dogs are unhappy, they need to be appropriately cared for, but we find that it’s important to rotate their caregivers so they don’t form an attachment to any one person.
It is also important to assess dogs for separation anxiety, predict the behavior, and advise [shelter staff and prospective adopters] on how to train them to be left alone. That is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the welfare of the dog [in terms of his or her eventual placement] in a new home.

B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?

JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.

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