Dog's Life: Humane
Our dog law expert offers counsel on first bites, “free” bites, and laws with bite
Q: We recently moved to a wonderful new neighborhood and in honor of the occasion, our dog decided to nip our new neighbor—and her dog. My husband says not to worry since it “was the first time that’s ever happened and the first bite is free,” but I plan on entertaining a few worries anyway. Tonight’s guest list includes: Does the “one free bite” rule apply to a single bite or to a single incident? To bites to animals as well? Is it one per year, or one per location? Actually, come to think of it, is there such a thing as a “one free bite” rule and is it going to help us at all?
A: First, I’m with you in worrying in general. I believe for a responsible dog owner, a modest amount of anxiety is a much healthier response than blithe disdain. Part of dog ownership is to be aware that everything your dog does affects those around you, and to be conscientious therefore requires vigilance— and sometimes a little fretting. Second, your specific concerns have the added benefit of being well-founded.
Among its fellow urban legends, the belief that “every dog is entitled to one free bite” seems to be a gold standard— just ask anyone you know and you’ll hear that the first time your dog bites someone, you’re off the hook because you simply cannot be held legally responsible.
The truth is that the majority of state laws are to the contrary. Nearly every jurisdiction holds fast to the premise that known dangers cannot be ignored or excused. If a reasonable dog owner should have been aware that the dog was likely to bite, that owner is liable for even the first nip. The core rules revolve not around specific types of locations, types of animals or time periods, but around the general concept of “propensity”: the likely inclination of the dog to engage in any harmful act to anyone anywhere. While it is true that a dog’s history can sometimes be informative in that regard, the lack of a previous bite is not the only factor; if certain personality or behavioral aspects of a “never-having-bit-before” dog reveal the propensity to harm, then any harm that results is still actionable.
Note that the test is objective, not subjective—that is, the question is would a reasonable owner have known or been aware of that dog’s propensity, not would the dog’s actual owner have known or been aware. The law does not reward people for keeping themselves ignorant of potential risks, for irrationally discounting risks that others pay attention to, or for holding themselves to a special standard available only to them simply because they happen to know the dog better than others.
Unfortunately, I must actually add a little bit to your worry guest list. If carelessness can be shown in the manner in which the dog was being physically kept or controlled, the dog owner can sometimes be held responsible, even if the dog had no propensity at all. That means that if the way in which your dog was able to get to the neighbor in the first place was by virtue of a broken gate or fence, failure to use a leash when you were supposed to use one, or neglecting to keep an eye on where the dog was and what he was doing, then evidence of lack of propensity won’t affect the final outcome. The improper confinement or supervision exposes you to legal trouble anyway.
Finally, be aware that all of those principles apply to “damage” or “injuries,” not just to “bites” alone. Rules on liability do not particularly distinguish between different results of the dog’s misconduct; owners can be liable for a scrape to a person’s leg, a puncture in another dog’s ear, knocking a kid off a bicycle, or a break in a neighbor’s fence. The different measure and amount of damages in those varying situations, on the other hand, can be stark.
As Freud has pointed out much more poetically than I ever could, anxiety— though an initial source for positive action—can become harmful at the point that it paralyzes you from taking any action at all. If your spouse is no real help in allaying or addressing legal concerns, and if you have had enough of looking deeply into your dog’s eyes to try to decipher what he was really thinking when he did that, then perhaps you may wish to direct your worry-energy in a productive direction: toward chatting with a lawyer instead.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Profiling notable second acts: Heidi Hill
When Heidi Hill was growing up, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. As so often happens, that dream was put aside; instead of going to vet school, she earned a degree in accounting and embarked on a successful career in corporate finance and human resources.
Then one day, as she was casually leafing through a magazine, she read an article on homeopathy. Intrigued, she began to explore the topic, which eventually led her not only to formal study at San Francisco’s Pacific Academy of Homeopathy, but also permanently changed the way she viewed health, illness and life in general. Opening Holistic Hound—a “health food” store for dogs and cats—in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003 allowed her to combine her two passions, animals and holistic health care, and realize her earlier dream in a new form.
As a retailer, Hill has been on the front lines—the connection between the marketplace and the manufacturers. Recently, Bark quizzed her on what she observed during the spring 2007 recall and during the months that followed.
Bark:When the recall was in full swing, what did you notice as far as your customers were concerned?
Heidi Hill: I think that, for many reasons, people didn’t pay a lot of attention to pet food before the recall. Afterward, they certainly did. As the recall developed, people understandably became very nervous, and changed their animal’s food to higher-quality brands. Some started feeding raw foods, and others started cooking for their dogs.They also worked to educate themselves.Web sites made a great deal of information available.
B:What, if any, changes have you seen in the amount and type of information manufacturers are sharing now, as opposed to pre-recall?
HH: Many are disclosing more, though they still don’t disclose much (they didn’t disclose anything before).But for the most part, they still seem to be reluctant to identify their sources. From what I can gather, the reason they don’t is competition— for competitive advantage.
B: Are manufacturers now operating differently in any other ways?
HH: Yes, I think so. Some of them have very sophisticated and elaborate testing facilities in place, and in some cases, you can go to a manufacturer’s site and see what the food’s been tested for. On one of them, you can even look up your own batch. I wasn’t aware of anything like that before the recall.
B: What’s your take on the long-term consequences of the recall?
HH: For the companion animals whose health was affected, or who died, the results were obviously tragic; in that way, it was an awful situation. In other ways, it has had a positive outcome—the pet food industry will never be the same. Consumers are demanding more, and are more discriminating. They ask more questions and want to know that they can rely on what a company tells them. The recall definitely raised people’s consciousness, and they know they need to do their homework. I think it’s safe to say that we all want to do the right thing in terms of providing for our pets’ nutritional needs, and we now know that we can’t take marketing claims at face value.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Q&A with musician Moby
For the past decade, multiplatinum-selling composer Moby has been showing his affinity for dogs, cats and other critters by partnering with HSUS to raise money and awareness for animal rights programs. Among these endeavors is mobygratis, a generous trove of instrumental film music he’s written “for anyone in need of free music for their independent, nonprofit film, video, or short.” The music on mobygratis remains gratis as long as it’s used in a noncommercial, nonprofit way; if it’s licensed for a commercial film, all money generated goes to HSUS.
Bark: Why mobygratis?
Moby: Friends who are into experimental filmmaking said that one of the most difficult things is licensing music for their work. So I set up mobygratis as a way of helping students and others making these types of independent films.
B: Tell us about the music—is it mostly extra tracks?
M: In some cases, they’re extra tracks, and others, they’re pieces that I wrote specifically for the site. There’s a pretty wide range of music up there.
B: How has the response been so far?
M: Good! I haven’t really publicized it, but the music has already been used in about 3,000 different films. A few features, but for the most part, they’ve been short pieces—five to ten minutes long.
B: Why did you select HSUS?
M: I’ve worked with them quite a lot over the years. One of the things that impresses me most about them is their diligence and their persistence. And also, because they’re such a big organization, they’re actually able to accomplish a lot on a legislative level.
B: On your site, to promote your new album, you made an animated video of yourself being interviewed by a dog. Why?
M: I don’t know how to draw cats!
B: Beyond companionship, what do you think dogs teach us?
M: I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but they teach the idea of loyalty, and the capacity to find joy in just the simplest things—to be uninhibited in our emotions.
Find out more at moby.com.
Interview with the actor, writer, and director.
Alan Cumming is best known for his appearances in movies such as X2: X-Men United, Son of the Mask and Nicholas Nickleby. This winter on the Sci Fi Channel, he stars alongside Richard Dreyfuss in Tin Man, a miniseries based on The Wizard of Oz.
In most of his films, Cumming takes the roles of creeps, geeks or crazies. “Subtlety’s not my forte,” he says. “I think you can be as big as you like as long as you mean it.” But in real life, he is a glamorous and charming figure. Even though he’s in his 40s, a boyish enthusiasm infects everything he does—and he does a lot. A native of Scotland, he now splits his time between Manhattan and upstate New York; in between acting jobs, he oversees his various other projects. His latest, Suffering Man’s Charity (which he directs and stars in), is making the rounds of the film festival circuit. He’s also a well-known campaigner in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and a novelist. His book, Tommy’s Tale, was published in 2003, and he’s currently at work on the screenplay.
All in all, perhaps, not the sort of celebrity who would have a lot of time for a dog, you might think. But in fact, Alan is crazy about canines, and it’s all thanks to his dog Honey. To find out more, Bark caught up with him on a recent visit to the UK to ask him a few questions about life with his beloved doggie companion.
Bark: Did you have any dogs before Honey?
Alan Cumming: As as child, I had two West Highland Terriers. They were my constant companions growing up. But no dogs as an adult, which seems crazy to me now. I can’t imagine life without one.
B: How did you come by Honey?
AC: A friend was working at Cause for Paws, a charity in New York that rescues dogs from dog pounds on the day they would have been put down. They foster them out, and Honey was fostered with my friend. The weirdest thing was, I had no intention of getting a dog. But Honey was so amazing, I had to have her.
B: What do you think her background was?
AC: I think it was pretty difficult. At first,Honey was quite freaked out—she had paint all down her side and she slept the whole time. She was scared of bin bags [garbage bags] and skips [Dumpsters] —and she loved homeless people! My theory is that she was thrown in a skip and homeless people looked after her.
B: What does having a dog bring to your life?
AC: Obviously a huge great amount of love. And also, there’s a new kind of responsibility. I really enjoy having to make time to walk her—it’s not only about me anymore. And when I’m on walks, I see parts of the city I never would have seen otherwise, and talk to different people. A new world of camaraderie has been unlocked that I just didn’t notice as a non-dog-owner. But I can find myself getting judgmental too: I’ll see someone being rough with their dog or something and think, There’s no need to talk to him like that!
B: Honey has been forging her own show biz career recently.Can you tell us about it?
AC: Well, she helped me with my makeup on X2—it took four hours every morning to get that blue face! (Cumming played the role of Nightcrawler). Honey had her own chair, although she hated sitting on it. Last year, she played herself in a film called Sweet Land, about rural Minnesota in the 1920s. I play a farmer, she plays my dog. I got her a part in another film but she was cut out of it, so I was determined that it wouldn’t happen in Sweet Land. I made sure she was in the film’s biggest scene, which happened to be everyone running towards the camera, so it suited her quite well.
Honey also has her own show on the Sundance Channel, Midnight Snack. She and her stepbrother Leon (Cumming married his boyfriend—Leon’s dad— last winter in London) review all the new DVD releases. Honey puts her paws up or down, depending whether she likes the film or not. Leon (he’s a Chihuahua) howls if the films meet his approval. To get Leon to sing, we had to record the sound of a fire engine. It’s so funny! When we press play, he starts looking interested in the tape player, then he just goes crazy.
B: What do Honey and Leon request backstage? I know some celebrities can be quite demanding.
AC: They have their own dressing rooms, with their own beds in them. They have their own rider: dog food. There are special rules too. For example, you can’t leave tape in Honey’s dressing room because she’ll eat it. And she doesn’t like noise either.
B: Does Honey travel with you when you are on location?
AC: Quite a lot. She has her own passport and chip and her own account with Virgin—you can get doggie air miles. At first she was frightened about traveling in the hold in a cage, but now she’s a seasoned traveler; she knows it’s going to end. Sometimes, if I’m working in Vancouver, I travel with her across the U.S. in my campervan. It’s a great way to see the country.
B: Describe a typical day in Honey’s life when she’s not on the set.
AC: She’s up late, forced out of bed by Dad. Then off to Tompkins Square dog run [in Manhattan] to see her friends. Leon goes to the little dog park—they’re quite strict; no dog over 23 pounds is allowed in the little dog park. So if I have both, I have to position myself where both dogs can see me.
Also, non-dog-owners are frowned upon, but a few come in just to look. I see Moby there sometimes and I think to myself, I’m sure you haven’t got a dog! At the weekend, everyone hangs over the fence to ogle the dogs. It’s great, it’s very sociable. I often see the same dogowners and we chat.
After the dog park, Honey takes a walk around the East Village. Then she goes into the office to hang out with my assistant and deal with her correspondence. Then she’ll probably take another walk before dinner.
B: What’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought for Honey?
AC: Swimming pool steps. I was so worried about her drowning that I installed these special steps she can climb up to get out. She goes swimming with me a lot; she’s quite trepidatious at first, but she gets into it.
B: What are Honey’s best traits?
AC: She’s aloof. She’s not a dog who seeks love from everyone—she doesn’t need affirmation all the time. But when she sees someone she knows, she just goes nuts.
B: Her worst?
AC: She’s a scavenger. She’ll make a dive for something even though I’m trying to pull her away from it.
B: If Honey was a person, who would she be?
AC: A posh English actress. She sits in the window with paws crossed looking out like a character in a Bergman film. We joke that when Leon tries to hump her, she looks as though she’s calling for her agent to come and deal with him.
B: What kind of dog would you be if you had to come back as one?
AC: A Scottie. Happy all the time, but also feisty.
B: If you could be a dog for a day, what would you do?
AC: I would be in my house in upstate New York. It’s become Honey’s place— it’s great for dogs. There was a deer standing there the other day and Honey was furious, as though she was saying, “Get away from my house!” I’d love to know what she saw and what she smelt and heard. It would be great.
She’s been called a master of the English mystery, her books have been adapted by the BBC and, with the publication earlier this year of This Body of Death, she has 17 wildly popular “Inspector Lynley” novels to her credit. However, Elizabeth George is no British blueblood — rather, she’s an Ohio-born, California-raised former schoolteacher with a gift for crafting deliciously long and complex stories populated by strong, welldefined characters, some of whom are of the canine persuasion. Take, for example, Peach, a Longhaired Dachshund who lives with two of the series’ central characters, Simon and Deborah St. James: “Watch out for Peach … she’s wanting food. Fact, she’s always and only wanting food.” When it comes to the behavior of Dachshunds, George has her research subjects nearby — sometimes even underfoot. So, while everyone else was asking questions about her newest book, we thought we’d find out more about the dogs in Elizabeth George’s life.
Bark: In many British mysteries, the murder victim’s body is discovered by a dog. Why do you suppose that convention is so often used?
B: In your observation, is British “dog culture” similar to or different from our own?
B: Tell us about the dog(s) who inspired the fictional Peach, and about Lucy, your current dog.
B: It’s clear that Peach is an important part of the St. James household, and that both Simon and Deborah dote on her. What’s your take on dogs’ roles in our domestic lives?
B: In addition to Peach, you often incorporate dogs into the Lynley books. You not only give them wonderful names — Leo, Beans, Toast, Taboo, Frank, Tess — you also take time to develop them as characters (who fit their names perfectly!). How do you choose the names and, for that matter, the breed types? And what do you feel they add to the stories?
B: In This Body of Death, we learn a lot about one of the characters (Gordon Jossie) through the ways he interacts with his dog. What lay behind your decision to use this device?
B: Can you imagine Lynley with a dog? Or is he perhaps more of a cat person?
B: We’ve read that you didn’t have pets as a child. When and how did you acquire your first, and was it a dog?
B: Have you ever written anything for your dogs?
B: Has your dog ever accompanied you to a reading or book signing?
B: In Write Away, you mentioned that a photo of your dog is one of the items you keep on your desk as inspiration and to cheer you up. What do you think of, or feel, when you look at that photo?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training Stilwell
Q: We recently added a puppy to our household, and our five-year-old Aussie is definitely not amused. He’s lived with another dog, albeit one who was older; when the older dog died, he became “big dog on campus,” and seems to like the position. Though he hasn’t hurt the puppy, he’ll pin her to the ground and won’t let her up, even when she squeals. How can we help our BDOC come to terms with his new packmate?
A: Introducing a new dog into a household with a resident dog can be problematic, and the resulting stress and tension can have serious consequences. Puppies have a lot of energy, and even highly social dogs may find them frustrating. However, I am concerned that the older dog does not appear to be responding appropriately to the puppy’s distress signals; the resulting conflict could cause both dogs to display more aggressive behavior in an effort to increase social distance. As you work with the older dog, it is important that all interactions between the two are supervised and that you intervene if things get out of hand.
Peaceful coexistence is the obvious goal and can be achieved in a number of ways, including monitoring the dogs’ interactions and reducing situational and environmental stress. Removing tension-inducing triggers, such as food, bones or toys, reduces their need to compete, and potential fights can be avoided by being vigilant about the location-guarding that commonly occurs in multidog households. Toys and chews should be given to the dogs only when they are separated, and they will also need to be fed separately if there is conflict at feeding time. Identifying triggers and minimizing stress for both dogs will help them develop a better relationship.
The adult dog needs to learn that the new puppy’s presence means good things for him. Stand in a room with your older dog and have a friend or family member walk in with the puppy. There should be no physical interaction between the dogs, but as the puppy is brought into the room, the adult dog should be praised and given high-value treats. The puppy should then be taken out of the room, at which point, treats are withdrawn. This exercise can be repeated until the older dog becomes more comfortable around the puppy. When you see relaxed, fluid body language and a willingness by the adult dog to engage in social contact with the puppy, you’ll know that the technique has been successful.
Walking the dogs together is another way to give them positive experiences in one another’s presence. The puppy will require less exercise than the older dog to begin with, but a small walk every day will help increase that bond. Also, start basic training with the pup while giving the adult dog a refresher course, so that when they are together, they know to focus on you and be guided by your cues.
Management is equally important to maintain calm; baby gates are a highly effective way to give the dogs their individual space. Occasionally, however, they can have the reverse effect and exacerbate tensions. In this case, the dogs should be put in separate rooms and only allowed to interact under active supervision. Other stress-relieving tools such as dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) can be used to stimulate a sense of calm when they are around each other.
As with humans, even the best of dog friends occasionally quarrel. What is essential, however, is that you do not subject either dog to any situation that could cause them to react negatively to one another. If tension continues to escalate, rehoming options may need to be explored, but this can be avoided if you are diligent in applying training and management procedures so that both dogs can live peacefully together in a stress-free environment.
Dog's Life: Humane
How Andrea Horikawa coaxed the wonder from a one tough mutt
Almost immediately after Andrea Horikawa adopted Vinny Love from a shelter in southern California, she had doubts. The Chihuahua mix with a dizzying tail challenged every dog to cross his path. She contemplated returning him to the pound, but realizing his days would be numbered if she did, she redoubled her commitment. As a result of three years of diligent, consistent and positive training, Vinny is now a well-mannered pup with an impressive arsenal of more than 20 tricks, including a handstand that would make a yogi jealous. (See the video at the end of this article)
We often hear stories about shelter and rescue dogs who shed serious baggage—neglect, abandonment, abuse—to rise above expectations. We decided to feature some of these special pups—and by extension their faithful people—as Bark Rescue Wonder Dogs because they make us rethink what’s possible. We begin with Vinny and Andrea. We asked the 22-year-old Laguna Hills resident how Vinny landed on his paws with such poise.
Bark: Are you a trainer?
How did you have this kind of success with Vinny?
What kinds of things were a good fit for you?
Do you use treats? A clicker?
So you’d be walking him on leash and he’d lunge and bark at other dogs?
Now when you see another dog, what happens?
How much time do you spend working with Vinny?
Does that include exercise time?
What have been the most challenging tricks to teach him?
How long did it take?
Have you considered a future in movies for Vinny?
Why did you post Vinny’s tricks on YouTube?
What do you think is ahead for him?
What would you say to any Bark readers who might be struggling with a dog’s behavior?
Culture: Readers Write
Unpublished writer sees ink as a finalist in Bark’s 1st Fiction Contest
“Street Dog,” about a homeless man and a stray dog, is Shawn Kobb’s first published story (Bark, Sep/Oct 2010). Kobb, 33, was one of three finalists in our first fiction contest earlier this year. In his non-writing hours, Kobb is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, currently living in The Bahamas with his wife and their adopted Doberman puppy, which they adopted during a two-year stint in Ukraine. Kobb recently shared with TheBark.com a little about the real man and dogs who inspired his story.TheBark.com: What inspired your story? Shawn Kobb: The story was inspired in part by a homeless man that lived in the neighborhood in Washington, DC that I stayed at last summer while training for my current assignment. I used to see this man almost daily, always sitting in the same spot on the same street as tourists and locals walked by him. He never asked for money, just watched people walk by. At the same time, we have just finished living for two years in Ukraine and stray dogs were a constant problem there. I decided to join up two groups that seemed like they could use each other. This is my first published piece of fiction and I’ve never entered any other contests. I’ve always been interested in writing and have written several pieces, but I’ve never published any of them before. Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, movie or painting? I would say one of my favorite dogs in literature is Laika from the graphic novel of the same name. It is the true story of a homeless dog taken from the streets of the former Soviet Union who later became the first dog in space. To be honest, I’ve only ever skimmed the piece, because although it is beautifully illustrated and written, it is too sad for me to make it through. My wife and I adopted a female Doberman puppy while living in Ukraine and she is named Laika in honor of this dog. Who is your favorite writer? Like many people, I have many favorite writers. Right now, I would go with Dan Simmons. He’s a terrific writer that refuses to stick to one genre. He has great books that are science fiction, historical fiction, horror, suspense, and even non-fiction. His historical fiction The Terror is one of my favorites.
Dog's Life: Humane
Q&A with documentary’s director Rebecca Ormond
On July 18, Gateway Guardians, a documentary about a handful of scrappy volunteers feeding and rescuing stray dogs in a blighted East St. Louis neighborhood, premieres. Filmed almost entirely by flipcam-wielding rescue and foster volunteers and Webster University film students, the documentary provides a moving, dog’s-eye-view of street packs and loners and their unorthodox saviors. We spoke with the film’s director, professor and independent filmmaker, Rebecca Ormond during the final days of editing to learn how this story reached the screen.► See details about the premiere and future screenings below. ► Look for our story about Gateway Pet Guardians in the September issue of Bark. ► Watch video trailer on page 2. TheBark.com: How did you sign on for the documentary? Rebecca Ormond: I am a film professor at Webster University and also an independent filmmaker. [The film’s producers Amie Simmons, Gateway Pet Guardians’ president, and Jamie Case, executive director] approached me not to make the film but to recommend cameras. In talking with them it was pretty clear that they really didn’t know what was involved so I thought it would be a really neat combination, since I’d volunteered [for about five years] with them anyway, to volunteer my services. My role was basically to handle all the technical stuff and just figure out how to use cinematic language to say what they wanted to say. [Another Webster University professor, Steve Schenkel, composed the score.] How did you make the documentary? We had a very loose plan. We bought these little high-definition flipcams. PJ Hightower [GPG’s founder and lead rescuer, who has been feeding the strays since 1995 and hasn’t missed a day since 2001] wore one and whoever rode with her carried one, and I gave them some basic instruction in how to film and not get in the way. The whole idea was to get a lot of footage with the animals the way they really act with PJ. The way we wouldn’t be able to get with a film crew. The basic idea was to see these animals the way she sees them, which is very personal. She has names for all of them. It’s like she has 200 pets. So the goal was to be as unobtrusive as possible. As fosters came forward, we would then hand a camera to the foster, and follow that dog through the foster system into their forever home. For almost a year, they would run these cameras. They’d turn in over six hours of footage to me a week. We just kept trimming it down, trimming it down, trimming it down. Very early on we followed Ghandi’s quote that you can tell a society by how it treats its animals as a really rough working guide. Beyond the foster folks and the volunteers is there anyone else in the film? In the longer film, there are people from East St. Louis—both who live there and who work there. My favorite person of all is a wonderful woman, Ethel May Taylor. She tells the story of her dog Tyler, who she was feeding as a stray, and PJ rescued and had neutered and then returned to Ethel. She talks about the joy that Tyler brings to her life. How were your students involved? We never sent them out on the streets of East St. Louis. We brought people from East St. Louis and the organization to my house to film. They filmed the interviews. They also logged footage. It was an enormous amount of logging, 10 solid months of six hours a pop with six different cameras running constantly. I would tell them… we want, at most, to log 10 percent of what comes in, so it’s your job to search through all six hours and decide what hour or even maybe what 10 minutes gets put in the log that I’ll eventually start editing. What did your students think of the group and making the documentary? Everybody is moved by the footage. Liz Pekunka (a graduating senior, film logger and second assistant editor) kept saying if I weren’t a student, I’d absolutely foster a dog now. From a technical perspective, this kind of shooting is quite novel right now because these little cameras are using a codec called H.264. It’s really amazing. We bought the pink cameras that went on sale on Mother’s Day for $99. They are just pinhole cameras; you can’t focus them or anything, which was important for the rescue workers because they’d just point and shoot. But these tiny cameras, the size of cell phones could hold six hours of high-definition 720p, 60 frames per second video. The quality is phenomenal. For my students this was one of the big things because filmmaking is so expensive … and here are these little cell phones generating a pretty amazing image. Sounds like a great thing for such a lean organization. Would they have been able to make the film otherwise? No. It was great because it was cheap and it was also great because it was so easy for them to do. The whole philosophy was if we go in there with a crew we’re not going to be able to get what happens. Only when PJ stands there by herself can she get this. After all your experience volunteering and fostering with Gateway Pet Guardians, did you learn anything new in putting the film together? Probably the thing that surprised me most is how much we were able to see in these packs of dogs the individual personalities of the dogs and how well PJ knew them. Even though I knew she had a really strong rapport with all the dogs it was shocking to see because she had the camera right on her hip. In the footage, the dog comes right up and bumps noses into the camera, and these are the stray, feral dogs that everyone’s afraid of. I can’t imagine that people aren’t going to be all over this film. As the director and someone who has been on it 16 hours a day for the past 6 weeks, I’m a little bleary. I don’t know. It might be great and it might be terrible. I can’t say. I heard a dog in the background. Is that a Gateway rescue? No. She is a rescue but I had her before I met PJ. I met PJ through her oddly enough. I had just bought my house and I was walking my dog. My dog was about a year old and she’s skittish with people she doesn’t know. So as PJ approached I started my whole spiel that I do with everybody, ‘She’s not aggressive, she won’t bite, but she’s probably going to hide behind me, she’s slow to warm up.’ PJ pulled one of her biscuits out of her pockets, and my dog took it out of her hand. When you started as a Gateway volunteer, did you ever think to yourself, this would make a great film? No, really I didn’t. The funny thing is, I’m not a documentary filmmaker. I’ve made a few and I’ve worked on a lot. But I’m principally a narrative filmmaker. It was one of those things where I’m the only filmmaker they knew.
Author of Marcus of Umbria
We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.
Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?
Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.
B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?
J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.
B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?
J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.
B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?
J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.
B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?
J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.
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