Kansas City couple honors their dog’s memory by inviting strangers to dinner.
When Tricia and Mike Smith put their dog Molly to sleep earlier this year it left a big hole in their lives. They missed their Boston Terrier’s zest for life but weren’t ready to adopt a new pup. So they decided to pay tribute to Molly’s love for parties and socializing by entertaining—with a twist.
Tricia, a 35-year-old deputy in the office of the Platte County Recorder of Deeds, and Mike, a 40-year-old business analyst for a local telecommunications company, created Thursday Night Suppers, which is essentially an invitation to bon vivants in the Kansas City area to dine chez Smith. There is no fee.
Of course, a Thursday Night Suppers website (with a blog) outlines the details and how to make reservations, but the Smiths’ ambitions are not about building virtual connections. They’d like to be hosting sit-down suppers for six once a week.
Tricia Smith talked to The Bark about opening her heart and her house--and the dog who inspired it all.
How did Molly come into your life?
Molly started her life as a pet store puppy. When the pet store let all the animals get ill a rescue group from Conway, Mo., stepped in and rescued them. The people at the rescue group affectionately named her Phat Girl. From there, a couple adopted her and renamed her Molly. Later, they wanted to get rid of her because they were moving. From my point view, they obviously never understood what a wonderful creature they were living with because if they did, they never would have let her go. I found a posting for Molly on my company’s intranet site and we bought her for $90—the best money we ever spent!
Why did you have to put her to sleep?
Molly was diagnosed with Glomerular Kidney Disease. It hit her really fast. One week she was fine, the next week she started throwing up. It took about a week to determine her immune system was mistakenly attacking her kidneys. We tried a couple of medicines to slow down and halt her immune system, hoping it would give her kidneys a chance to recover enough to function, but the medicine failed. Our veterinarian then had to tell us there was no cure and Molly would only get worse. By the time we decided to put her to sleep she had stopped eating and we were carrying her outside to go to potty. From the time she got sick to the time we put her to sleep, it was only about a five-week period. We knew the kindest thing to do, no matter how difficult, was to put Molly to sleep before she suffered. I’m positive that we made the right decision, but not a day goes by that I don’t wish we could have had more time with her.
Why host dinners in Molly’s honor?
Before our veterinarian came into the room to put Molly to sleep, Mike and I promised her that we would live a life that would make her proud. I believe that the most important thing a person can do in life is make a difference in another person’s life so if through Molly’s death and because of our tribute to her—the website, the blog, the dinners—two people become friends or if one person is comforted then Mike and I will have accomplished everything we hoped.
If you hope for a little grief-relief from your guests, what do you hope they will get out of the experience?
It’s funny you asked this question. My next blog entry is going to describe what my dream is for Thursday Night Suppers. I’m hoping that through the Thursday Night Suppers people will connect with one another and friendships will develop, maybe someone who’s lonely will take a chance and come to a dinner and find a friend.
How many dinners have you hosted?
So far we’ve hosted two dinners. For the first dinner it was just Mike and I, but somehow we found it fitting that it was just us. Our second dinner attendance increased by 200 percent. A couple that we had met at the park came to dinner and they brought their Pug, Stanley. Molly had loved playing with Stanley at the park. After I told my mother about the second dinner, she said Molly would have had a wonderful time. I think the nicest thing about our second dinner was that we got to spend more than 10 or 15 minutes together with these people. We had the opportunity to sit down and have real conversations about our dogs, our families, our experiences. We were able to connect not just as dog owners, but as friends.
Are you ever worried about inviting strangers into your home?
When I told my dad what we were doing he said, “You’re crazy. You’ll have every nut at your house. You’re going to get knocked over the head and robbed.” Seriously though, yes, we do worry about inviting strangers into our house, but we don’t want to live our life afraid of doing something good because something bad might happen.
What has been the biggest challenge?
So far the biggest challenge has been getting people to come to dinner. We’ve gotten quite a few e-mails telling us what a great idea this is, but not many reservations to dinner. I understand how scary it would be to go to a total stranger’s house for dinner, but I tell people to put themselves in our shoes, we’re inviting six strangers into our home—we’re outnumbered six to two. We are starting to get a few reservations for the fall dinners. Hopefully, Thursday Night Suppers will continue to grow.
What has been the biggest gift?
It has been a great way for us to work through our grief.
Is there another dog in your future?
We’ve talked about it and we’ve come close a couple of times, but we’re just not ready. I don’t think we can put a timeframe on when we’ll be ready for another dog, but I know someday we will.
Who’s the cook?
That would be me. I love to cook, but I can’t bake to save my soul. I make a great roasted chicken, a pork lion with plum sauce and a baked salmon topped with macadamia nuts and fresh herbs.
We’ll be right over.
Q & A with Dawn Painter, who lets her fingers do the saving.
“The email that started us on this journey arrived in my in-box on December 23, with the subject line: Black Wednesday of Death in Harrodsburg, KY—Please, Help! … How could I ignore that plea?” writes Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska in her story about Kit and Holly—puppies she adopted from a Kentucky rescue last December.
For those of us who volunteer or work for or support shelters and rescues, this sort of e-missive is familiar. When we receive these dog-needs-home notices we become possible links in a chain that may connect a stray in Georgia with a loving home in Maine, or a puppy mill refugee in Kansas with a family in California. The email from “James Painter” that caught Claudia’s eye, actually came from his daughter, Dawn, who uses her parents’ email as part of her effort to help southern shelters and rescues find homes for homeless dogs often in far away locations.
We catch up with the Dawn Painter in the second part of our online series on the people behind animal transport—the grassroots network that moves dogs from shelters in the South or the Midwest to communities where they have a better chance of finding a good adoptive home. (In the first part, we talked to the founders of C.A.R.E., who transport homeless dogs and cats via van convoy from shelters in the Midwest to rescues in Colorado.)
Painter, 38, is a classic animal welfare advocate, making time to help in addition to a full-time job—in her case, in the planning department at UPS. She lives with four rescue cats in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. She has not website, and relies exclusively on email. As you might expect, we communicated with Painter via email and she responded in that efficient, spare text language that allows her to get more from each keystroke. (We have “translated” her answers into pre-texting English.)
TheBark.com: How did you get involved in this work?
Dawn Painter: I began by helping local shelters by going to yard sales and buying pet supplies then donating them. Seeing the shelters made me realize how Kentucky is in dire need of financial support for its homeless animals. I love going to yard sales, thrift stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Craigslist, and even dumpster diving for pet supplies. Through the years, I have adopted through Animal Protection Association and Shamrock.
Bark: Are you connected to any organization or are you simply a one-woman advocate?
Painter: I just try to take turns with the different shelters and rescue groups. I do not officially work for any of them; I just do what I can.
Bark: As we understand it, you pull together and send out urgent calls for adoption or shelter help from around the country. Can you explain your role: How do you learn about dogs in need, and how you try to connect dogs in need with people who can help?
Painter: The people that head the shelters and rescue groups started adding me to their address books and thus the rescue, support and funding emails started. I forward them along to whomever I think can help. When my parents got a computer, I decided to make a breed-specific address book so that I can send the information directly to those who can help out that cat/dog. I also have a support group, so whenever there is an email regarding that I forward it there.
Any type of abuse cases, I have a contact who is a prosecutor. Of course, I have a cat group so a lot of my emails go to those no-kill sanctuaries. Shelters that are in dire need get forwarded to my animal welfare organizations (Best Friends, IDA, ASPCA, etc.). I also have a rehab and rescue group, and all the dogs that are good therapy dogs I send their information to them.
I love to get news clippings about how dog/cats help inmates or residents at nursing homes. I forward these to shelters in the hopes that they will contact their local facilities. I also have media-type contacts where I forward any emails regarding abuse, special events by animal organizations, puppy mills, etc.
Bark: Do you know what happens after you send out emails?
Painter: I usually find out when dogs have found a forever home and I just praise God and St. Francis.
Bark: Do you worry that there will be too many email alerts going out and that people will start to tune you out?
Painter: I try not to worry about sending out too much. If someone wants me to remove them from the list I always do so.
Bark: Are you ever overwhelmed?
Painter: It is very sad how many dogs/cats are put down each year. Every night, I say a prayer to St. Francis in the hopes that people will bring love, care, funding to all animal-related issues. I pray people become more responsible regarding spay/neutering. I pray that those four-legged babies who were put down are now in pet heaven and are playfully running through the fields and soaking up the sun with not a care in the world.
Q & A with the women behind C.A.R.E.
It’s a simple truth that a homeless dog in the South or the Midwest may have a better chance of finding a good adoptive home in the Northeast or cities in the West. For these dogs in overcrowded, under-funded shelters, transportation can mean the difference between life and death.
When Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska adopted Kit and Holly from a rescue in Kentucky over Christmas, she learned the shelter had a program for sending dogs to new homes in the North but not out West where she lives. A little more digging to find a ride for the puppies revealed a formal and informal network of individuals and organizations with planes, trucks and automobiles working together—supported by countless Internet posters and email blasters—to get dogs to places where their future is brighter.
Inspired and intrigued by this grassroots cooperative effort, TheBark.com will be talking to folks who are part of this underdog railroad. We begin with Linda Fox, transport coordinator, and Lisa Mendelsberg, program administrator, for Colorado Animal Rescue Express (C.A.R.E.), a 501c3 public charity.
At least once a week, C.A.R.E. drivers provide safe transport for homeless dogs and cats in the Midwest to Colorado, where rescue organizations have promised to find them new homes or where adoptive families are already waiting. Through Jake’s Fund, C.A.R.E. also provides help, when possible, with veterinary expenses and spay/neuter procedures. C.A.R.E also collects donations of food and supplies and delivers them to shelters and rescues. In the two years since C.A.R.E. began, Fox, Mendelsberg and an army of dedicated volunteers have logged more than 245,000 miles to bring 3,993 dogs and 345 cats to 96 rescues.
In May, we talked with Linda Fox, while she drove in a three-van convoy through a rainstorm more than 300 miles to Hays, Kansas. She was on the pick-up leg of what would be C.A.R.E.'s biggest transport to date—73 dogs from Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. In early June, we caught up with Lisa Mendelsberg, who was working on grant requests to cover the costs of the transports. They talked to us about the logistics, challenges and joys of transport.
TheBark.com: How did you get started?
Lisa Mendelsberg: We both volunteered for Golden Retriever Freedom Rescue in Colorado and met at a holiday party in December 2004. At that time, Linda was arranging intake and providing the transport for Golden Retrievers coming in from out of state. I started driving with her and it was evident that we felt our transports could help all breeds of dogs. We formed C.A.R.E. in June 2007 to provide lifesaving transport to all dogs and cats with rescue commitments.
Bark: How do dogs get onto a transport?
Linda Fox: Most of the dogs come on our transports because rescuers network the dogs on the Internet. For example, pictures and bios of dogs needing homes in Holton, Kansas, would be sent to me and to the other rescuers and we post them on our rescue network. Once rescuers in Colorado say they’ll accept a dog in their program, the shelter or rescue group sends me all the pertinent travel information, assurance that a Health Certificate will be obtained, and then transport is arranged as soon as possible.
Bark: Who pays for transportation?
Fox: C.A.R.E. runs on individual and rescue donations, grants and fundraisers. It costs an average of $26 to transport each dog to safety. We continuously need to fundraise.
The transports are expensive. We pay for rental vans in multiple cities, insurance, gasoline and we cover our drivers’ out-of-pocket expenses. This transport today to move the 73 dogs will be more than $1,300.
Bark: Where do the vans come from?
Fox: We rent cargo vans from Enterprise. We analyzed buying a van, but for safety reasons, it is better to rent with inspections and cleanings before each trip. Also, if we were to break down, Enterprise would respond with delivery of a similar vehicle. If we owned our own van, can you imagine trying to check into a hotel with 30 dogs while it was being repaired?!
Bark: Who are your passengers?
Mendelsberg: Dogs and cats come primarily from high-kill shelters, owner surrenders and from other rescue organizations. We are also fortunate to be able to transport dogs being released from puppy mills. This year because the economy has been so challenging, we’re transporting a lot of dogs that have been abandoned when people move, the ones that are the silent victims of the economy.
Bark: What does it mean for the dogs in Colorado when you bring dogs in from out of state? Or put another way, why shouldn’t regions take care of their own dogs?
Fox: I do think there will always be the need to transport some animals to safety. In the second half of 2009, Lisa and I will be working with our strong Midwest contacts to help them utilize the existing resources in their own communities. We will work with them to educate their local citizens on the benefits of sterilizing their pets, thereby reducing the number of unwanted litters and animals that will be euthanized in shelters.
What does it mean for the dogs in Colorado? The rescues that I talk to say shelters in Colorado are doing a good job of getting the dogs adopted. In the rural and remote areas, options for rescue and adoption are not very easy. If some dogs need transport instate from a rural area to a metro area, C.A.R.E. will help cover the cost of transport. Sadly, there are still dogs being euthanized in Colorado and Midwest shelters.
Mendelsberg: Each dog that we transport has a rescue commitment. Our network has dedicated individuals and organizations in Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas that work diligently to save the homeless animals in their area. The purpose of C.A.R.E. is taking a dog from a place where they have virtually no chance of being adopted and moving them to areas where they will go into rescues and have visibility and be placed correctly and hopefully permanently. We are just fortunate to have the resources in Colorado to help our neighboring states with their pet overpopulation.
Bark: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the fact that there is this constant supply of dogs needing new homes?
Fox: I do feel that every day. You try to look at the good side rather than dwell on the bad. You think about the success stories and the wonderful new homes for these dogs that have come to Colorado rescues. Of course, you think about the ones you could not save, and then you start over working on obtaining rescue commitments for more homeless dogs.
Mendelsberg: Absolutely, I feel that we’re making a difference for the dogs we are able to save through our C.A.R.E. transports and Jake’s Fund distributions. However, basically what we are doing is just a Band-Aid for the overpopulation dilemma. We have learned that people must be educated on the necessity for sterilization and we are hoping our new C.A.R.E. brochure on spay/neuter will have some impact. We also are raising the awareness that people should adopt from shelters and rescues instead of buying from the pet stores.
Bark: What other goals do you have for C.A.R.E.?
Fox & Mendelsberg: Our key focus besides transport and Jake’s Fund is to really work with our excellent rescue contacts in the Midwest and help them help themselves more than just relying on C.A.R.E. to move the homeless animals to Colorado. We will be working on setting up and helping to fund spay/neuter events. We will work with veterinarians in these areas to offer their local population affordable spay and neuter procedures. Last, we’re hoping our new spay/neuter brochure will debunk some of the myths on sterilization and make people realize the best thing they can do for their pets is to get them sterilized.
Bark: Does your work for C.A.R.E. take a lot of time?
Fox & Mendelsberg: C.A.R.E. is a team success. We’re the engines but we rely so much on good assessments of the dogs, our tireless drivers, and all the rescuers who take these dogs into their programs. Everybody is a hard worker and makes such a special effort to assure the safety and comfort of those travelling. It takes a community to save one of these dogs. To make this work, we need an army of people committed. It’s total cooperation among so many people who put the dog’s best interest and well being first. Surely the Internet, digital cameras and cell phones have contributed to the rescue of countless animals from places where it would be hard for them to find a second chance at a real family life.
Why do we do this? We all love the dogs. It's not the dogs that are lucky; it’s the people who are getting the dogs that are lucky to have their lives so enriched. These animals have been through so much but they are so forgiving and so resilient. There is so much that can be learned from these wonderful rescue animals.
C.A.R.E. is always looking for volunteers to help with driving, fundraising, and educating the public on the necessity for spay/neuter.
To learn more about C.A.R.E., see photos of dogs saved through transport, and find out how you can support them, visit www.caretransport.org. Donations can be made online at or by mail to C.A.R.E., 5276 South Hanover Way, Englewood, CO 80111.
Question: Shiloh is a six-month-old terrier mix female from the rescue shelter that we brought home February 2. She is terrific and has taken well to our household including our five-year-old terrier mix male. My concern is that no matter when my husband enters a room she barks at him like she has never seen him before even though he talks to her using her name first. The barking is continuous, not just a short bark. He plays with her, even hand-feeds her at times, pets her and does all he can to help her bond with him and she seems willing to let him do this. She seems to be “easy” around females and shies away from most males. Shiloh bonded with me right away.
Please, any suggestions would be appreciated as it is making my husband increasingly uncomfortable. Thank you.
--Audrey Silberman, Durham, N.C.
Answer: Shiloh seems afraid. Often the scariest situation for dogs is the appearance or approach of a person with whom they are not yet comfortable. Many fearful dogs react more to men than to women, especially men who are tall, have deep voices, broad shoulders, a strong jaw, or facial hair.
To help Shiloh exhibit better behavior when your husband enters the room, it is essential to change the way she feels in that situation. Focus on changing her emotions so the behavior will stop rather than trying to stop the barking directly.
There are two ways your husband can help Shiloh overcome her fear so that she does not bark at him in this context. One technique is to present himself in the least threatening way possible. When he enters a room, he should turn slightly to the side, lean ever so slightly away from the dog, and squat.
The second technique is to teach Shiloh to associate the appearance of your husband with feeling good. The basic idea is to consistently pair up what Shiloh loves best with your husband entering the room. For most dogs, this means steak, chicken or freeze-dried liver (no dry biscuits!), but some dogs adore balls or squeaky toys. Instead of her thinking, in some canine sort of way, “Yikes! He’s here and he’s so imposing!” we want her to think, “Here he is again! Oh boy oh boy oh boy, where are those super treats (or toys)? I’m so happy he’s here with that magical stuff!”
To make the combination of these two techniques most effective, every time your husband enters the room, he should do so calmly, position himself in the non-imposing stance, and immediately (within a second) throw the treats or toys to her. Ideally, he will toss them to her before she reacts, but he should toss them anyway, even if she’s already starting barking. It’s better to toss them as opposed to handing them directly to her. That way, he does not have to approach her, which could set her off. Her special favorite item should be reserved for this situation only to make the pairing with your husband as tight as possible in her mind.
Hopefully, your husband will soon have a special place in Shiloh’s heart. Best wishes and paws crossed for all of you.
Q&A with Meg Daley Olmert, author of Made for Each Other
Forget about feeling self-conscious over your relationship with your dog. According to author Meg Daley Olmert (in a Salon Q&A and podcast) this connection yields a boatload of physical and therapeutic benefits. It all comes down to the fact that companion animals can double the flow of oxytocin—the powerful social bonding and anti-stress hormone—in our bodies. According to Daley Olmert, a recent Japanese study found that mere eye contact with a dog (!) releases a healthful surge.
She explores many aspects of the animal-human bond including why dogs appear to be such great mind readers. Apparently, it’s not about tracking brain waves but body language. Dogs "read" the micro-movements that accompany our thoughts of W-A-L-K and T-R-E-A-T-S.
I’m fascinated but a little reluctant to wade into Daley Olmert’s take on the research. I love the central argument—that the attraction-attachment between humans and animals is real and good and true—but I do sort of worry about reducing my relationships with Renzo and Lulu to ideomotor actions and pituitary hormones.
We'll have to see what Sacha Zimmerman says in her review Of Made For Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond in the upcoming issue of Bark (March/April 2009). In the meantime, now that you know dog love is essentially a biological imperative, why not tell us your wonderful love story.
Neil Abramson’s engaging debut novel has everyone talking. Narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to the creatures she left behind—including her devastated widower David, her menagerie of heartbroken pets, her colleagues and friends—Unsaid places the lives and love of animals at the story’s center. As David struggles to restructure his personal life without his wife in the picture, he finds his professional life as an attorney pulling him into realms of Helena’s world that he didn’t even know existed. Stepping outside of his own grief, he is asked to take up the cause of Cindy—a chimpanzee Helena worked with whose intelligence promises to expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and whose passion reorients the lives of every last person Abramson introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent the real, current matters central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. As an animal lover, the husband of a veterinarian and an attorney himself whose pro bono work centers on the rights of animals, Abramson brings a deep appreciation for the subtleties of animal personality. He talked with us shortly following the release of Unsaid.
The Bark: When writing Unsaid, did you think about characterization for the animals in the same way as you did for the human characters?
Neil Abramson: Actually, because the central animals in the story were based on real life animals with whom I have been privileged to share my life, they came to the novel almost fully formed. The reality is that they are as complex in personality as the humans who love them (at least in my house).
Could you tell us a little bit about these animals and what made them special to you?
When I hear this question, my thoughts turn to Skippy. Skippy is one of the animals in the novel—a dog with a heart defect. But Skippy was a real dog—a small, black bundle of fur with a wise and handsome, fox-like face. Skippy had been born with a badly malformed heart. He showed up at my wife’s veterinary practice one day and she operated on Skippy, but she couldn’t fix him. She could only give him some additional time. We believed that Skippy likely would be dead within the year. No one wants a dog with that kind of life span, so he came home to us. That turned out to be a very good day.
We were blessed to have Skippy in our lives for three years. He used his time well—unafraid, present, loving, funny, loyal. He was a small dog, but he didn’t live a small life. Skippy died right in my arms. I depressed the syringe that released the pink fluid that finally put his heart at rest. I needed to do that for him. I wanted to spare my wife the burden of one more soul. When it was over, I was surprised at the depth of the loss I felt. The only way I can explain it is to tell you that something deep within me shifted. I realized I was so grateful for every minute with Skippy and wouldn’t have traded the time with him for anything in the world, even though that time ended too soon. Then I understood that this was Skippy’s last gift to me. By taking his life, I learned from him how important the act of living really is.
What’s your response to critics who claim our recognition of the emotional presence of dogs like Skippy, their sensitivity and sentience, are example of anthropomorphization on our part?
First, I tell them ‘so what.’ I think much of the fear of anthropomophism is BS. I am a human being, right? So is it any surprise that I will attribute human characteristics to those animals I value and share my life with? A chimpanzee is not a human—never was and will never evolve into one, but that doesn't mean that my feelings for him or her should be limited by that fact.
Second, I tell them they are wrong as a matter of science. I am not a scientist, but I did a great deal of research for the book and also had a wonderful science advisor. We have finally gotten to the point where the science has caught up with what we have always really known—the overwhelming majority of animals, and certainly the close primates, have many of the characteristics that we so jealously guard as ‘human.’ Of course there are differences, but do those differences justify the profound, destructive disparities in the way the law treats humans and animals? No way.
Let’s talk about those disparities. In legal terms today, are animals subject to animal testing still seen no differently than inanimate objects? Any developments on the horizon that might offer hope of change? What can concerned people do to help bring about change?
Lots of different questions here. The short answer is that in many areas, and particularly when it comes to the ability to be free from bodily injury, the law treats nonhuman testing subjects very much like inanimate objects. Those animals are just ‘things’ and have absolutely no personal rights of autonomy. The welfare of those animals may be regulated in many respects—cage size, clean and sufficient food and water—but that is a far cry from recognizing that those animals have rights as animals (not as ‘almost humans’) to be free from unnecessary injury and harm.
Is there hope for change? Yes, there is. There are a number of wonderful organizations that are working to change the law so that chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, will one day be recognized as having certain basic legal rights, like the right to be free from intentional harm. In addition to supporting those organizations, people can help by raising awareness of the issue through social media. The law will change when people insist that it is time for change.
How actor Ewan McGregor found his co-pilot dog
With the new film Beginners, director Mike Mills creates a delightful and very personal love story. Ewan
McGregor stars as Oliver, who navigates not only his father’s final years (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer)
but also a burgeoning love affair (with the effervescent Mélanie Laurent) in the company of his father’s Jack
Russell Terrier, Arthur—portrayed by the charming Cosmo. You’ve heard of on-set romances where the stars
fall madly in love … well, such was the case with McGregor and Cosmo. Though Cosmo was destined to return
to his companion, animal trainer and guardian Mathilde De Cagny, this story has a happy ending: McGregor
finds his own canine soul mate.
Bark editors sat down with the McGregor and Mills to talk about their new film, and dogs.
Bark: Ewan, we understand that after you finished filming, you got a dog. Was that something you’d been planning, or did the role create the desire for one?
Ewan McGregor: I grew up with dogs but hadn’t had one since I left home. On the set, I fell for Cosmo and so loved being around him and working with him that it was hard to know I’d have to say goodbye to him. My wife’s allergic to dogs and cats, but when she came to visit on set and saw us together, she could tell that there was something missing for me and that maybe it would be nice for me to have a dog. Toward the end of the shoot, she said, “If you can find one who won’t make me sneeze, then go for it.” And I did.
Mike Mills: I just remembered something that happened when we first met. You sent me an email saying, “Maybe we should rescue a Jack Russell, and I could keep him!” And I thought to myself, “I love this man!”
McGregor: Anyway, after my wife’s comment, I started thinking, Well, okay, hypoallergenic dogs. On one of the last mornings — it may have been the last morning of our shoot — I googled “dog rescue” near my post code and this little place came up, the Lange Foundation, on Sepulveda and Santa Monica. The first face I saw was Sid’s.
Bark: Did you name him?
McGregor: Yeah. He was called Ziggy in the rescue center, but they had no idea what his real name was. I like short British names — Bob and Fred, Will, Sid: short, British- sounding names. It’s Sidney when he’s naughty.
Bark: Mike, as the writer/director, what inspired you to include a dog in the film?
Mills: I inherited my dad’s 13-year-old Jack Russell, and he was there while I was writing [the screenplay]; it was very easy to start a conversation with that guy. I also have a Border Collie mutt, Zoë, and I talked to both of them a lot. I think that’s something from my family. I grew up with a Standard Poodle, and later, we got a Collie mutt at the shelter. We always talked or sang to them as a way of acknowledging them. When I’m talking to the dog, I’ll also do the dog’s reply, saying what I think the dog would say. So that was one of the reasons I decided to include a dog in the story.
Bark: Sometimes writers go too far with that approach, but you didn’t. How did you avoid it? You did have Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) talk with Arthur.
Mills: Well, personally, I hate talking dogs. It’s obviously an anthropomorphization that usually proves how little people understand animals; I feel it’s a kind of rude thing to do. But it was a good way to show Oliver’s loneliness — you know he’s projecting his own feelings onto Arthur. When you see the dog staring back at him, it’s easy to think that the dog’s saying to Oliver, “We’re in the same pack.” You know, “We are together.” That’s what I thought was happening, at least.
Bark: The dog-park scene gave us great insight into the other characters. How did you work out that one?
Mills: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I’m a very humble writer, and I think I’m lucky if anybody likes anything I’ve written, but in this case, I really felt like I nailed something and am glad I got to include it in the movie. Oliver’s very curious about Arthur, and he’s studied Arthur’s background and he learned his parentage. And I think what he’s trying to explain to the dog is what all the human characters are going through: they’re trying to find themselves in their history and their story, and trying to wake up from the unconscious story that’s guiding them or controlling them. So he’s trying to explain to him that “you’re basically designed to hunt foxes, but you don’t hunt foxes anymore. You’re basically cute and charming and you’re chasing tennis balls because that’s as close to a fox as you’re going to get.” I think all the humans in the story have a similar fate, and they’re trying to uncover their history and trying to figure out how they became the people they are and trying to negotiate a better version of themselves.
Bark: Did having a dog in the cast create any challenges?
Mike: It was pretty easy, actually. Mathilde and Cosmo are both so good, and Cosmo’s a really a loving guy; he’s very attentive and quick to engage. Everyone calls him the love bug because he jumps into laps and is very cuddly. I recall saying a couple of times, “My god, his eye line is perfect! How’s that happening?” Then I’d realize, oh, Mathilde was doing something that I didn’t see. On one or two occasions, I asked Cosmo to do something kind of complicated, but it wasn’t difficult; it just involved the trainer working it out. What the dog brought to the set was a kind of party atmosphere. Mathilde has this beautiful Collie named Lincoln, and some Chihuahuas and Cosmo’s stand-in, JR, were also there. There were three or four dogs around the set all the time, just hanging out. That made it feel much more loose and not like work. Dogs’ ambiance, the ambiance they help create, really shifts things in a positive way.
Bark: Ewan, tell us about your dog Sid.
McGregor: He’s two, maybe two-and-a-half. He’s Poodle, mainly, mixed with something — we don’t know what the something is. He travels with me all the time, unless I’m working somewhere that I can’t take him. He’s great company; I generally go on my own, without my wife and my kids. With Sid, I’m not on my own anymore.
Bark: Has Sid been to the UK?
McGregor: He’s there now, in fact, because I’m working in the UK at the moment. He’s microchipped and has a passport. Before we leave, he has to be treated for fleas and ticks and I need to provide proof that was done. Britain’s ridiculous, really. Like we don’t have fleas in Britain. But if it’s been done more than 48 hours or less than 24 hours before arrival, they’ll turn the dog back. They’re really insane.
Bark: Do you takes trips with Sid just for fun?
McGregor: I like riding motorcycles, and after I got Sid, I got a sidecar. I quite like to knock about with him, but I don’t want to be limited to just traveling in cars. He has doggles and a two-point harness, so he can’t jump out. It’s the ultimate head-out-the- window experience for dogs. He’s literally outside. He’s just in heaven.
Bark: How about when you guys are at home. Does having another male in the house change the dynamic?
McGregor: Well, when I’m not there, he steps up and becomes the male of the house, and is apparently much more protective — more barking at strangers and patrolling the perimeter of the house. He’s a good lad. Mainly, his work consists of making sure the squirrel is not in the trees. We have a squirrel that lives down in the garden, and he hates the squirrel.
Mike: Zoë too. I wake up every morning to a squirrel in a tree looking in my window. He’ll make that sound — like keche-chech — and Zoë’s just [slaps hands] poof! Can’t help herself.
Bark: Did Cosmo change the way you approached the role?
McGregor: It’s the same as working with another human actor. Occasionally, it has to be manufactured — Mathilde would be behind me making him look for something, for example. But when things were happening naturally with him, and when I was speaking to him and he was looking at me, it was a really lovely feeling. And when he’s looking slightly behind your ear, because Mathilde’s there ... [laughs]
Bark: Do you talk to Sid?
McGregor: I do — I mean, I don’t question whether he understands me or not. That’s not really the point. I just talk to him because he’s there. Mike: Half the time when I’m talking to Zoë, I’m trying to speak in Czech, partly just for my wife’s benefit, so she doesn’t have to constantly listen to me rattling on. I feel like I can say whatever I need to.
Bark: Do either of you have a passion for dog rescue?
Mike: Yeah, but full disclosure: I got Zoë from a pet store in Santa Barbara. It was a weird place — they had mutts and the dogs were running around loose; they weren’t in cages. Zoë was from a farm in San Luis Obispo. My mom had just died and I went in to get some free puppy time. Zoë was on a shelf, back tucked in. I scooped her out and was just sort of overwhelmed. That was that. When I was growing up, one of my favorite family rituals was when we’d all go to the animal shelter and find a dog. There are so many dogs in really bad situations, and it’s out of their control. They’re living in our world. We have a very interconnected relationship with them — we’re their stewards, at least in the cities and suburbs. So anything I can do to help, I’m excited to do.
Bark: How about dogs in other films … who do you admire?
Mike: Well, I love dogs who don’t feel like professionals. But I loved Lassie, and he really was a canine actor, as was his son, who later played the Lassie [role]. I also admire the way Kelly Reichardt used her dog in Wendy and Lucy. It’s really just her dog cruising around with Michelle Williams. I think that’s real and honest, and I hope it feels like that in my movie; the dog’s part of the story. So many humans have relationships with animals; how can you exclude them in a movie?
Coaxing a Great Film Performance from Dogs
It’s a rare film that offers a realistic portrayal of the human-dog bond, but writer/director Mike Mills does just that in his new, very personal, movie, Beginners. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, who’s not only navigating his father’s final years (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) but also a burgeoning love affair in the company of his father’s Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur — portrayed by the incredibly charming Cosmo. Oliver and Arthur’s relationship is just one aspect of this understated tale of self-discovery, love and loss, which — with the help of trainer Mathilde De Cagny and enhanced by McGregor and Cosmo’s natural chemistry — shines as an honest view of our lives with dogs.
Animal trainer De Cagny, the force behind Moose, the Jack Russell who found fame as Eddie in “Frasier,” has a soft spot for dogs, especially JRTs. Many of her dogs — including Cosmo — have come from shelters and rescue groups. Born and raised in Paris, France, she began her U.S. career as a volunteer with Birds and Animals Unlimited after moving to Los Angeles. On the eve of the film’s premier, Bark spoke with De Cagny about training dogs for film and working on Beginners.
Bark: What’s Cosmo’s story?
Mathilde De Cagny: I got Cosmo from a Jack Russell rescue. He was really into prey drive, which is good and bad. He was very skittish, something you don’t want in an animal. But he’s a Terrier, and I have a lot of experience with Jack Russells; I know their quirks and that they’re far from perfect to begin with. I am able to put myself in a Jack Russell state of mind, and I know how to deal with them at different levels.
Cosmo is very different from Moose — always cuddly, even when I first went to pick him up, and I like that. He was lacking confidence, but that’s what I like to do: build up confidence by our relationship, by training, and by following [a dog’s] instincts and working with them. I had a feeling that he had good potential as a movie dog.
He is, indeed, very loving toward people and very playful, which we use a lot in the movie. And also, the nice thing about rescuing an animal — a dog — is that when I go to shelters and such, I have a sense of what the animal’s going to be like in general. That’s the advantage of getting a dog who’s older. You get to see that personality a little bit.
Bark: Was this Cosmo’s first movie?
De Cagny: No, he had already done “Hotel for Dogs,” which was really helpful. He had already been in front of the cameras and knew all the basics. The main thing for me was to see what Mike [Mills] had in mind for this movie. I just fell in love with the way he wanted the dogs to act, which was to behave naturally, no tricks; I like that the most, too. It also comes from the energy of your dog and the type of dog he is — his personality in general. Cosmo’s a very gregarious, outgoing little dog who loves people and loves to be a Terrier, which gives me a lot to work with. His preparation was to spend a lot of time with Ewan [McGregor] and Mélanie [Laurent]. Really, to spend a lot of time with Mike. It starts at the top.
Bark: What’s your ideal working relationship when it comes to the human actors?De Cagny: I was so fortunate that Ewan loves dogs, and therefore was willing to do whatever it took to work with Cosmo. When actors are willing to spend time and take over … that’s the way I like to work; I like to be away from the relationship, to become just a background for the dog instead of a primary trainer. I’ll end up carrying the food and the toys and all that stuff. With Ewan, I saw that the bond could be established pretty well, and I slowly but surely distanced myself from their relationship. Often, I wasn’t even in the shot with them — I didn’t want to be in the dog’s eye line.
Bark: Were there other dogs on the set?
De Cagny: I always take advantage of a set situation to train my other dogs, and that’s what I did this time as well. I had, among others, a Collie named Lincoln, and I let everyone take him for walks. He would hang out with Mike a lot. Again, I try to train so that the dog doesn’t panic when I’m out of the picture. First, I want them to have fun on the set because people are sweet and they get all kinds of attention, and second, to know that they’re safe and not be anxious when they don’t see their trainer.
Bark: How would you describe your approach to training?
De Cagny: Basically, it reflects the type of person I am, which is loose and free. Of course, you follow rules, but it’s nice to be able to be spontaneous. Most people like to be prepared, and I have to be prepared with the training and foundation and all that. But I like the spontaneity of what’s going to happen and dealing with it in the moment. I’m self-taught — I learned by intuition and by being around dogs. I like to work with their personalities, and my personality, which, again, is not formal. Really, I learn from my animals. It’s kind of like cooking — you see what’s in the fridge and you make something out of it. I never quite know exactly how I’m going to get something done; I take my cues first from my animals and then from the director. [In some situations] I can’t do that, and it’s difficult for me to be robotic. I understand that sometimes, that’s the way it is, but it doesn’t match the type of training I like to do. On the other hand, you can’t go on set with a dog and just have fun. You have to have the foundation.
Bark: How did Cosmo get along with Christopher Plummer?
De Cagny: Oh, that was interesting. I had to finish another movie, so I got there a week or so after they started, and another trainer had already established a relationship with Christopher and the dog. I had never met him and at first I heard that he was a little standoffish. But, as I normally do, in our very first scene, I introduced myself.
It was a tricky scene — the reunion, when Hal comes back from the hospital and hasn’t seen his dog in a while. The dog is supposed to be ecstatic — loving and kissing him. That’s usually easier if the person’s on a couch or sitting on the ground, but Cosmo was up in the air, in Christopher’s arms. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I said, “Hi, I’m Mathilde. I’m the dog trainer. And in order to do this scene fast and good, I’m just going to slap a bunch of bacon oil on your face.” I didn’t really give him a chance to say no. I did it, the dog kissed him and I said, “Well, okay, we can go now.” And boom!
When someone’s not too crazy about something, it’s better to work them fast, just like the dog. I don’t do a million repetitions. So, I worked with Christopher the way I would work with a dog who lacks confidence … you don’t give him too much time to think about it.
Christopher’s Canadian, so we started speaking French and connected really well — we had a really nice relationship. People were surprised that he seemed to change his state of mind with the dog once I stepped in.
Bark: What other tools do you have in your training kit?
De Cagny: We always have a bag of tricks. Cosmo loves toys; a ball will get one type of reaction from him and a noise will get another. Again, it’s a little like cooking. It depends on the moment. It depends on how I feel, what’s going on, what we’re looking for.
I use a wand, a kind of a “look stick” [with a piece of cheese on one end], which helps the dog focus. On “Frasier,” that’s how I got Moose to do the stare. Mike was talking to me about it, and I said, “Oh! I’m the specialist! I’ve done it for 10 years! I can do the stare.” This was one of Moose’s trademarks, the stare, and I’ve got it down to a science.
Bark: We heard that another tool you use is a paper-towel tube. What do you do with that?
De Cagny: I use it as part of the noisemaking. I did a movie with Martin Scorsese, who wanted a dog to turn his head in a particular way. In addition to the paper-towel tube, I used my voice, an iPhone and every single toy I had. Sometimes I would make a sound like a kitten, or like an elephant. It depends how intense I wanted the dog to be.
B: Ewan got a dog after the movie wrapped, didn’t he?
De Cagny: Yeah, he was so cute. He said, “Mathilde, it revived a feeling in me that I realized has been missing for my entire life.” Cosmo couldn’t wait to see him in the morning. He would jump into his arms and kiss him. It made him feel like Cosmo was his dog. At first, he tried to steal him! I said, “Not even in your dreams, Mr. McGregor!” Once he realized there was no chance he would get Cosmo, we were on the Web looking at dogs who would work for his family. Then, on his own, he got [Sid]. I asked a lot of Ewan — he had a high degree of involvement. Actors usually are pretty good [about the dogs], but few devote their acting time and on-set time to be around an animal like he did. David Hyde Pierce [Niles, in “Frasier”] and Ewan are probably my two top-of- the-line [in that department].
Bark: Did Ewan ask for training tips?
De Cagny: Not so much training tips — it was more about how to acclimate Sid to his lifestyle and his household … you know, the crate. Also, Ewan has a duck! He’s had a duck for many years. So I went to his house a couple of times to make sure the dog and the duck would be good friends. He asked me to supervise so that when the duck ran, the dog wouldn’t go after him. Sid wanted to at first, but we stopped him. That dog is amazing. He’s so cute.
Bark: When we talked to Ewan, he told us that Sid joins him on his motorcycle.
De Cagny: I gave him absolutely no training tips for the motorcycle. Well, just a few — how to get Sid used to being in the sidecar without anything going on, then get used to the noise. They just took off one day; I wasn’t there, but he sent me a video of them together on their first ride. It was adorable. That’s how Ewan is. He shares some of his dog and his moments with me, and we stay in touch because of that. So I did help him a tiny bit. Bark: Ewan seems to have a genuine love of dogs.
De Cagny: I felt that, too. We could never have accomplished what we did [without it] because as well trained as a dog is, if he’s ignored by the actors, or if they don’t want to create that bond, then you can’t force one, as much as you try. I had nothing to do with it, really. It just came from his heart and soul.
Bark: Did you know Cosmo had such a cuddly personality when you got him?
De Cagny: Yes. Yeah, which is why I got him. He’s a dog that is, indeed, very loving towards people and very playful, which we use a lot in movies. And also, that’s the nice thing about rescuing an animal—a dog—is that when you go to pick them out in shelters and such, I have a sense of what the animal’s going to be like in general. So that gives you an advantage of getting a dog that’s older and rescued, because within an hour or so of spending time with them, I can sense whether he’s going to be good for—well, it’s hard to say; there’s always a two-week period because they could get skittish—but you get to see that first personality a little bit.
B: Did you do any kind of assessment on him when he was in the shelter? Were there any traits you were specifically looking for?
De Cagny: He was very skittish, which is something you don’t want in an animal. But, knowing he was a terrier, and I have a lot of experience with Jack Russells, because I did the dog on Frasier, and I know their quirks and I know that they’re far from being perfect to begin with and they never will be, ultimately. But I am able to put myself in a Terrier, Jack Russell state of mind, and I know how to deal with them in different levels. And so he was very different from Moose [who played Eddie] on Frasier, and I like that in him, and he was always cuddly, even on Day One when I first went to go pick him up, and I like that. But I could see that he was lacking confidence quite a bit. But that’s what I like to do: build up confidence by our relationship, by training, and by following their instincts and working with that. So I had a feeling that he had a very good potential to be a good movie dog.
B: How do you keep Cosmo from becoming burned out? Does he work too many hours?
De Cagny: No, usually not, because they have the capability to sleep and rest quite a bit between setups. And they fall asleep right away, so in that regard, they actually do get quite a bit of rest. They do get tired too, not so much on that movie, but sometimes when you do night work, they get a little tired. But that’s why the crate is so important, and all of our animals are crate-trained, because as soon as you’re done, you cover that and let them sleep. And you always have half an hour, minimum. They’re able to get their sleep like that.
B: Do you worry about the “Eddie Effect”—that breeds in movies become overly popular, much like Jack Russell Terriers did because of Frasier?
De Cagny: Well, the movie’s not out yet. I think the Jack Russell trend is kind of over in that regard because of Moose, and already the damage is done. What I get really upset of is all those breeders that sell the dog to the wrong person. And I’ve had so many people calling me—and believe me—I’ve helped zillions of people, answered all their calls or letters of people that will say, “Well, how come he’s this and that?” And I’m like, “He’s a Jack Russell.” And breeders who sell those dogs—they sell them—to the wrong family is just unacceptable. I rescue the animals, and everyone knows the importance of training and what it takes to have a dog in your life, regardless of what it is. It’s a commitment. And the fact that so many breeders let those dogs go to whomever that are gone all day and it’s a disaster, is very inappropriate and unfair. I do my part by saying, first of all, rescue a dog. And second of all, really look into your lifestyle and the breed, because I really think those dogs are probably the most difficult ones to have. And they’re so smart and they’re so driven that to let them rot like that, or to leave so much impulsion not worked out and not used is really not good. Again, I feel like I’m doing my part, and there’s not one interview with Moose where I didn’t intimate the fact that they’re very difficult dogs, and blah blah blah. And he had three lives before me! And believe me, I learned so much from that dog and I’m grateful I had him, but boy, he was my hardest dog.
An interview with Byambasuren Davaa, director of "The Cave of the Yellow Dog"
Mongolian-born director Byambasuren Davaa’s films examine the lifeways of an older Mongolia, effortlessly blending natural and cultural themes. Travelling to Germany in 2000 to study at the Munich Academy of Television and Film, Davaa won international recognition when her student project, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Her new movie, The Cave of the Yellow Dog (which is part of her graduating thesis), has just been released in the U.S. This story focuses on a nomadic family and a stray dog who enters their lives.
You can read Edward Guthmann's review of The Cave of the Yellow Dog here.
Bark’s Cameron Woo recently had an opportunity to conduct a transoceanic conversation with Ms. Byambasuren.
Bark: Your film deals with cultural changes, traditional life versus modern life. Can you tell us about some of the changes that Mongolian people—particularly nomads—face?
Byambasuren Davaa: Like everyone else, they live in global times. There’s hardly a family who doesn’t own a television or other electronic device. As a result, instead of parents reading or telling their children stories during the long, lonely evenings, families are watching television or listening to CDs.
Bark: What is the meaning of the fable of the yellow dog?
Davaa: It’s about coming into the world and leaving it, essentially, about reincarnation.
Bark: Is there a spiritual relationship between dogs and humans in Mongolia?
Davaa: Mongolians believe in reincarnation, and that dogs are reborn as humans. That’s why there’s such a strong bond between people and dogs.
Bark: How much time did you spend with the Batchuluun family before you started shooting the film?
Davaa: I went to Mongolia in April 2004 and spent two weeks searching for a family for the film. When I found the Batchuluuns, we spent two days together, and it was clear to me that they were exactly the people I was looking for. Then I went back to Germany and returned with my crew in mid-June and spent another week with them prior to shooting.
Bark: Working from a script and filming a documentary seem to require two kinds of filmmaking techniques. In Cave of the Yellow Dog, what percentage of the scenes were scripted and what percentage were not?
Davaa: The ratio was about 50/50; we knew what sort of story we wanted to tell—basically, that of the dog and the children —but we didn’t know exactly how it would be executed. We started with an outline.
Bark: Did the family have to learn lines?
Davaa: No. The family is very traditional and it really wasn’t possible to tell them what to say.
Bark: Where did you find Zochor, the dog?
Davaa: She was a city dog, a mutt; we found her in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Dogs’ emotions show up in their eyes, so we needed a light-colored dog—dark fur on the face would make emotion harder to film. We also needed two identical dogs, in case something happened to one of them during filming. We found two three-month-old puppies who we were told had the same mother. One had a spot on its back, one didn’t. Worst-case scenario, we figured we could spray on a spot. As it turned out, one grew tall and the other grew long. Both dogs were given shots and cared for, but we used the same dog (the tall one) throughout the filming.
Bark: Did a professional trainer work with Zochor?
Davaa: No, no trainer. In the beginning, she was being fed by everyone; everyone was giving her little treats here and there. Then we realized that wasn’t such a good thing, and selected just one person to feed her and give her the daily attention she needed. She’s a very clever dog—it was sometimes a lot easier to work with her than with the kids.
Bark: Did the little girl, Nansal, have time to get to know Zochor? Was there time for them to develop a relationship before filming began?
Davaa: Nansal met Zochor for the first time when she found her in the cave as the movie was being filmed. We wanted to get the child’s natural reaction—would she like the puppy or would she be afraid of her? Actually, none of the family met Zochor until shooting was in progress.
Bark: Did Nansal and her family know that they were going to encounter a dog?
Davaa: Yes, they were told about it. But when Nansal went into the cave, I don’t believe she knew the dog was in there. Bark: What happened to Zochor when the film was completed?
Bark: What happened to Zochor when the film was completed?
Davaa: The family kept her; in fact, I spoke to them recently and learned that they are training Zochor to watch the sheep, which she’ll soon be doing on her own.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman on keeping your aging dog happy and healthy.
Couldn’t get enough of Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s senior dog tips in our last issue? We asked Dodman even more questions about his latest book, Good Old Dog, and what you can do to keep your aging dog as happy and healthy as ever.