Why comedian Carol Leifer loves shelter dogs
Maybe you know Carol Leifer from her guest appearances on Oprah, Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. Or perhaps you recognize her as the comedic writer and producer of television classics such as The Larry Sanders Show, Saturday Night Live and, most famously, Seinfeld.
How about Carol Leifer, dog lover and animal activist? In her new memoir, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, Leifer talks about her love for rescue dogs, and the place her five Chihuahuas and two Terrier mixes hold in her heart.
“Every adoption is a miracle, because you’re taking something dark and horrible and making it light again,” Leifer says in a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica. She first saw her two older Chihuahuas, Cagney and Lacey, both 15, at a shelter, where she learned they were scheduled to be euthanized the next day. “When I called my partner, Lori Wolf, she said, ‘Absolutely not, we already have five dogs!’” But Leifer used her approaching birthday as a way to convince Wolf to agree to fostering the dogs until they could deliver them to Best Friends’ Utah animal sanctuary. “The dogs were jaded from having been in a shelter for so long—they had this “whatever” attitude,” Leifer recalled.
Once in Leifer’s home, though, the dogs morphed into frisky little puppies, and it wasn’t long before Leifer and Wolf failed Fostering 101. “We had to keep them,” she sighs. “I especially love the fact that they didn’t die as seniors in that shelter and are having a happy life, however brief it may be.”
Does Leifer subscribe to the theory that rescue dogs know they’ve been saved and are therefore grateful? “Completely!” she agrees. “You get any shelter dog or cat in your car and you can immediately see the change—they know something really good just happened.”
Another one of her passions is the fight to stop puppy mills. During protests, she often brings Albert, one of her adopted strays, to illustrate that potential dog owners don’t have to rely on pet stores for an adorable dog. “People think Albert is a designer dog because he’s very chichi and so damned cute, but he’s just a Terrier mix,” Leifer says, clearly amused. “When people see that you can get a dog like Albert at a shelter, they’re more likely to adopt.”
And it must be asked: Which does the comedian find funnier, humans or canines? “Oh, dogs!” she quips without missing a beat. “Only a dog can lick his privates and not feel the need to post it on YouTube.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bloodhound fan and trainer Larry Allen reflects on the delicate bond between dog and handler.
We recently spoke with Larry Allen, dog trainer and working-dog handler extraordinaire. He took time out from his busy day as the emergency management director for a West Virginia county to have a phone chat with us about one of his favorite subjects, training working Bloodhounds. Allen and the rescue Bloodhound, Holly, were featured on “Underdogs,” an episode in the PBS Nature series. In 12 short weeks, Allen turned the “hyperactive” Holly into a working dog who is now a member of the Massachusetts State Police team.
Q. Holly didn’t seem like the typical pet dog. Do you often find “talented” dogs in shelters and rescue situations?
Q. Do Bloodhounds only work with a lead attached to a harness? Are there ever opportunities for them to run off-lead ahead of the handler?
Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
Q. How are the signals transmitted? How can you sense, through the lead or other mechanisms, that the dog is actually getting close to the subject—what is that connection? And do you help her?
So when her head starts to come out of the bag, the starting command is given to her. That is the only time that word is given during the entire trail, whether it is 100 feet or 10 miles. And from that point, depending on the tension, on how hard she is pulling on the leash—because if she is not really sure, she will start slowing down—you will pick up slack in the leash. Sometimes it may be an environmental thing she has never encountered before, maybe it is a smell of a particular plant or flower. So then it is the human praise, the “Good girl, you can do it, come on, baby let’s go, let’s go to work,” that reminds the dog that I’m okay here …
So that is what we were doing on Holly’s evaluation trail up in Massachusetts. As she is getting close to the subject (I had no real idea where the guy was other than when we started, they said, “He is out that way.”), as she is coming up, literally from 10 feet away, I see this wiggle starting from the nose and going all the way back. She is trying to run at a full speed and trying to wiggle from one end to the other. She comes flying around this six-foot-high bush, and there is her “runner,” tucked up, sitting on the ground, against this bush. She kind of leans back and takes one of her big front paws and smacks him, jumps back, and goes Woof! Woof! I knew with the tension that she was pulling and her body language—with the Bloodhounds, body language is 90 percent of it—that she found him.
Learning how to read the dog’s language, interpret her clues, is critical. If she was going to make a turn to the left, you would see her head cast off to the left, and then back on the track. If you see her look the second time, you had better be prepared, because the third time she looks, she will be making a turn.
And the helping part—in the training trails, virtually every one of them, you know the solution to the problem before you run the dog on it. That way, you can help the dog rather than just wander aimlessly. But coming up to a decision point, whether it’s a turn or a T-intersection, you basically just start slowing your pace down a little so it allows the dog time to think about what she is doing rather that just charging through. Then, when she makes the correct turn, it is just that quick one or two words of praise, and boom! You’re off and going again.
Q. At the beginning of her training, Holly had a fear of thunder and loud noises. Have you heard about the recent study out of Penn State that measured cortisol levels (as a stress indicator) in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? They found that the dogs’ human had no affect on their stress level, while living with other dogs decreased the levels. Have you seen this effect with your dogs?
It is ironic we have three dogs who are each trained for a different type of work. When the pager goes off or the phone rings, they instantly cue in on my behavior. If they see me putting on a certain type of clothing, or pulling out certain types of equipment, they know which one will be working that day. For instance, if I start pulling out life jackets, my human remains dog goes nuts, because she knows that when she sees that PFD, we are going somewhere. The Bloodhound seems to be thinking, It’s her and not me. I jokingly tell people that with the working dogs, my job is to drive the car, carry the radio and have water. I am firmly convinced that if the dogs had opposable digits, they wouldn’t need me at all.
Q. Why did you start Holly with sight training before scent?
Q. Like clicker training, marking each and all of those little things adds up, and then needs to be reinforced. Training is needed throughout their life, isn’t it? Is Holly still being trained?
Q. Some people say that a human can actually “break” a dog. In other words, the dog has to trust you, and if you give the dog the wrong cues, the wrong direction—and the dog invariably knows better—that confidence between the two of you can be broken. Have you seen this with Bloodhounds?
Each time a dog taps a leather Poochie-Bells doggie doorbell, she’s helping people in southern Africa improve their lives. On a visit to Botswana a few years ago, Poochie-Bells’ owner Cheryl Pedersen made friends with the folks at the Tsienyane Leathercraft Village. Today, village workers hand-cut and dye leather straps exclusively for Poochie-Bells, and in return, receive much-needed income to support their community.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Major League Baseball’s first female head groundskeeper recruits her big working dog
From April through October, Talli, a 95-pound Bullmastiff, can be found doing what her canine ancestors did more than 100 years ago: guarding her turf against intruders. Talli’s domain, however, is not the estate of a 19th-century gamekeeper, but rather a 21st-century major league park. Each day during baseball season, Talli accompanies her owner, head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny to Comerica Park, home of the 2006 American League Champion Detroit Tigers. And while she sometimes helps with chores around the park, Talli believes her most important job is to alert Nabozny to any suspicious characters lurking around the stadium.
While we think of dogs primarily as companions, most were bred with a specific purpose in mind. Many such jobs have gone by the wayside in contemporary society, but some dogs, like Talli, creatively adapt. Nabozny first started bringing Talli to Comerica Park when she was a puppy so the young dog wouldn’t have to spend long days at home alone. Then, as Talli grew into adulthood, her breed instincts began to emerge—Talli understood that her role in life was to serve as Nabozny’s guardian.
This particular characteristic became evident one morning as Nabozny and the grounds crew were in the empty stadium, working on the field. As she recalls, “I have a crew of six people who work on a daily basis, and Talli knows who belongs on the field and who doesn’t. And she keeps an eye out; she’ll lie in the middle of center field or near where we are working. And she saw people walking down the stands. We don’t generally watch the stands because we’re watching what we’re doing on the field. But she keeps an eye on everything. She saw a group of about four kids, probably college students, that wanted to leap over the fence and get on the field. So she went over, started barking at them and just sat there.” While Talli held the boys at bay, Nabozny walked over and politely asked them to leave. Not surprisingly, they did so without protest.
While Talli understands that her most important job is to watch over Nabozny and the crew, she also enjoys helping them work on the field. One of her favorite chores is to assist the grounds crew in pulling the tarp over the infield in inclement weather. “Oh, she loves to help with the tarp,” Nabozny says. “When she’s in a rambunctious mood, Talli will grab the big rope and pull on it with us. And she’s actually grabbed a handle, too, and after we roll the tarp out, she’ll help us unfold it. Of course, she also runs across it as we’re trying to drag it, and then I have to tell her to sit.” Talli also likes to gather up the flags the crew puts into the turf to mark areas that need fixing. Which means, says Nabozny, “we have to go back and do it again.”
Talli also shows off her considerable groundskeeping skills during the stadium’s annual “Bark in the Park” event. As dogs and their owners gather in the stands to watch the game, Talli joins the grounds crew to help groom the infield. Nabozny decided to include Talli back when “Bark in the Park” was first announced: “I thought it would be cool to have Talli drag the field. So we made her a tiny little drag screen, not very heavy or anything. And I attached it to her collar with the leash attached to it as well so we were both kind of pulling it at the same time. And I trotted her around the field during the seventh-inning stretch.” Not only did Talli receive a round of applause from delighted fans, but Fox Sports also featured Talli demonstrating the “infield drag” on its show that evening.
As the first woman to serve as head groundskeeper at a major-league baseball park, Nabozny finds Talli’s presence, whether on the field or in her lap, to be a source of comfort, as well as a welcome relief from job-related stress —“Just having her around eases me a bit.” Talli is also a great conversation starter, as she “helps break the ice” when vendors come to call. While being able to accompany her person to work makes Talli a lucky dog, as far as Nabozny is concerned, she’s the fortunate one. “It’s a lot better for me. Because I get to see her, I feel like I’m being good to her, as good as I can be. Talli brings me so much joy—I just love her like crazy.”
At the end of the day, Talli makes one last inspection of the field, jumps on the golf cart with Nabozny and takes the elevator up to the stadium parking garage. She snoozes on the way home —dreaming perhaps of hot dogs, bubble gum left by players in the outfield, and the woman seated next to her, stroking her head. Talli needs her rest, because tomorrow, like the Bullmastiffs of a century ago, she has work to do.
Author of Tell Me Where It Hurts discusses books, the writing process and the challenges of being a vet
One sunny afternoon, author and Bark contributing editor Lee Harrington met Nick Trout, UK-born and -trained staff surgeon at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center, at a crowded café in Cape Cod, Mass., to discuss dogs, writing and the incredible success of Dr. Trout’s debut book, Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon.
Bark: In almost every review of Tell Me Where It Hurts, the reviewer compares you to James Herriot. Do you consider yourself a modern Herriot?
B: How did you come to write this book?
B: In your book, you talk about the guilt of euthanasia—both your own and that felt by clients once a decision is made to put a beloved dog “to sleep.”
B: Now that you’re a vet, how do you approach the situation?
These days, veterinarians can come back with all sorts of medical and surgical options, forcing the owner to ponder two difficult, interrelated questions: How far should we go, and how far can we afford to go? We are making owners face tougher and tougher decisions about beloved family members all the time.
B: Not only do you show a great affinity for animals, you have a good read on people—your colleagues and clients. I fully confess that I am one of those wacko clients who is a complete hypochondriac, not for myself, but for my dog.
B: So, note to Bark readers: Talk to your vet. Hold nothing back!
B: What do you hear about the book from your fellow vets?
Broadway’s premier animal advocate and trainer tells all
For Bill Berloni, every year is the year of the dog—and the rat and the lamb and the cat and the pig. Beginning in 1976 with the extraordinary musical, Annie, for which, as a young aspiring actor, he found and trained a shelter dog to play Sandy, Berloni has spent more than 30 years working with some of the best in the business. When it comes to show-stopping animal actors, he’s likely to have trained them. In his new book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars, he shares his passion for animals, especially those of the pup persuasion. He spoke to Bark recently after a rehearsal for the upcoming Legally Blonde road tour, for which he’s training four brand-new dogs to make their stage debuts.
Bark: You started your animal-training career by finding Sandy at a shelter. Are you still working with shelter dogs?
B: What catches your eye when you’re looking for a dog?
B: What happens to “show dogs” after the show’s over?
B: Tell us about an average day for one of your working dogs.
The routine’s a little different during rehearsals. This is the time during which we’re desensitizing them to the noise and activity of the theater, teaching them to go onstage for the first time. We’re usually there eight hours a day. In my experience, dogs in this situation have about a 20-minute learning window, so the rest of the time is desensitization. Somewhere in that eight-hour day, we go through the training.
B: Do animal actors carry union cards?
B: Film or live—which is more of a challenge?
B: Is it hard to train the actors?
B: Speaking of Sarah Jessica Parker—do you think she took what she learned as one of the early “Annies” working with Sandy to her later role as a dog in Sylvia?
B: We know you use positive reinforcement in your training. Is applause reinforcing for dogs?
B: Over the years, have you had any improv moments onstage?
Another bit of improv involved the Bulldog in Legally Blonde. When Legally Blonde opened in San Francisco a couple of years ago, there was one scene for her in the first act, and it got a tremendous audience response. So before we went to New York, the creators of the show decided to write another scene for her in the second act—she’d go onstage and play with a toy. It came time for our first preview in New York, our first audience, and she was in the wings waiting to get her toy. She was so excited, she was almost vibrating. When she was cued, she ran out onstage, got her toy, sat down and threw up. In Bull breeds, this is a sign of happiness, so I knew she was looking forward to doing the new scene. After that, she never threw up again.
B: Of all the productions you’ve taken part in, does one stand out as more challenging than the rest?
B: Do you prefer to work with female or male dogs?
B: When the dogs aren’t working, do they seem to miss the routine?
They go back to being regular dogs. I think that’s very important. When news crews come to my house, I think they’re expecting an agility course, or trainers making them do tricks. When the dogs aren’t working, they interact with one another and with us. We don’t train them on a daily basis until we have a job for them. We interact with them, make sure they follow the rules, but they go back to being dogs.
B: What’s new on the horizon?
What’s even better is that the publicity around each show gives us the opportunity to do outreach on behalf of shelter and rescue dogs. Selling shows can be a hard thing, but it’s easy to sell human-interest stories, and I do it because it promotes animal welfare. The shows sell my book, and 20 percent of the proceeds from the book go to the Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York. Even the programs mention the source of the animal performers and encourage people to adopt. There are great animals at local shelters who need homes—adopt from a shelter or rescue group and you may find your own star.
In celebration of Earth Day, I spoke to two innovators, people who think green 365 days a year. Dave Colella of Earthdog and Spencer Williams of West Paw Design share their thoughts on a green world, dogs and the future.
On the power of choice:
On the future:
On dogs and the green movement:
West Paw Design
On our symbiotic relationship:
On the definition of “green”:
On going green step by step:
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PBS's Nature ponders furry soul mates, best friends and surrogate children
If you turn to Nature for images of hyenas glimpsed through night goggles and God's eye views of great wildebeest migrations, you might be surprised on Sunday night, when the featured animals will be dog and cat lovers. "Why We Love Cats and Dogs" provides a serious and moving glimpse of the remarkable bonds we forge with our companion animals. Curl up with your furry buddy and discover the lengths to which other folks will go for their best friends. (Premieres Sunday, 2/15/09, at 8/7 p.m. central on most PBS stations.)
Culture: Stories & Lit
Katrina puppy shows couple the way back.
My husband and I live in an exclusive gated community.
We’ve recently taken up residence here, but it’s not where I envisioned we’d be at this point of our lives, him just months into his 50th year and me hot on his heels. For our gated community is a 20-by-14 rectangle with a metal gate on one doorway, an uncooperative wooden gate on another, and an old Playskool plastic fence on the third. Inside is our eat-in kitchen, and our new puppy.
We have friends enjoying gated communities luxuriously designed to encourage couples’ recreational time together—on Kiawah Island, off the coast of Miami, in the Bahamas. They have golf courses, salty oceans and fresh breezes. Outside the sliding glass door of our gated community here in Massachusetts, we have the puppy’s potty spot, way too much rain and snow, and science-defying breezes that render our entire yard downwind from that aforementioned potty spot.
Are you nuts? friends wanted to know. You’ll be looking at colleges next year with your son; why are you tying yourselves down now with a dog?
I wondered that myself. My husband and I were in striking distance of the life I’d seen in those television ads—attractive smiling couples with silver hair, feeding each other strawberries on a picnic blanket, hitting the open road in new cars, kissing and embracing over sparkling jewelry. All that freedom, that space to do whatever we want; why toss it away in a furry brown-eyed moment?
Because we didn’t need more space. We needed less. Independent spirits, my husband and I had maintained perhaps too much space throughout our married life. We’d lost each other in it. While we were working and parenting, and generally “getting ahead,” that space had devoured our easy sense of camaraderie, our safe harbor in each other’s presence, our once very present desire to simply be together.
Our at-home conversations had been streamlined to alluring one-liners thrown out in passing: “You need to break down the boxes for recycling,” “Why haven’t you talked to the accountant?” and “When are you going to do that dark wash?” Not exactly Tracy-Hepburn material. Yet I didn’t question our undying love for each other. We’d just gotten into a rut, taking care of the business of life and not taking time for the fun of it.
Enter one yellow Lab “mixed with something small.” But not because I’d figured out I needed her yet. She arrived because I was still taking care of business, upholding my end of an old, off-handed agreement. My husband, for the first time in our 19 years of married life, would not be traveling regularly for work. In fact, he’d be working from home, and at some point over the years, he had gotten me to agree that if he was ever home to help take care of a dog—yeah, right—we could get one.
I was cornered, period.
Our puppy began, before we’d even met her, by bringing my husband and I together in social accord; we could offer this small help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She and her brother and mother had been picked up off the streets in Louisiana a few months after the destruction. Spending a couple of weeks in a shelter there, she and her brother then traveled on a transport truck making stops all along the way north, to finally be delivered at the very last stop—a foster mother with a Golden Retriever rescue group in Augusta, Maine. Here is where we met her, became instantly besotted, signed the papers and brought her home.
With the very first wag of her wand of a tail, Abby began to shrink the spaces between my husband and me. Into our production-oriented lives had exploded this antithesis of business, on four wobbly legs.
My husband and I suddenly discovered that we wanted to talk all the time—about her. There had never been a cuter puppy; her rambunctious silliness was, of course, irresistible. We began joining each other in the kitchen at odd moments throughout the day to sprawl out on the floor between the gates with our new four-legged family member. And every time we joined her, Abby would wiggle her little cuddly body back and forth so hard, eyes brown and liquid—and then, in ecstasy, collapse against our legs, shove her moist nose into our hands, give us licks, and as soon as we sat down, tumble into our laps. Anything just to be close. Crazy, wonderful animal love.
Animosities had to crumble in the face of such pure and joyful adoration as Abby offered. My husband and I found it impossible to maintain our pattern, not always happy, of space and distance. We began doing more and more together, the three of us, just for fun—taking walks in the nearby field, sitting back with lawn chairs and a tasty bone to watch our son’s baseball games, clambering over the rocks at a friend’s ocean-front home to enjoy a swim. Prancing and pouncing and dog-paddling, this canine Tinkerbelle began to magically guide us … back together? I think it’s forward, together.
In shelter vernacular, our little female is called, not a rescued pup, but a rescue pup. How appropriate. For my husband and I didn’t just rescue her; she clearly rescued us, and she continues to make sure we stay rescued, every single day. Our gated community won’t show up in any glossy brochures—the now-wrinkled curtains wrapped high over the rods so she can’t chew them; the plants removed to expose bare corners; the wooden floor displaying fresh scratches, dirt, dog hair and a smelly chew bone—but it’s the only one we want to come home to.
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