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Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training
Research validates positive reinforcement

There was a time when behavioral research focused primarily on primates, wolves and rodents. Today, our domestic canine companions are increasingly being considered as valid subjects for studies intended to improve quality of life for dogs and their humans. Some of these studies were presented at the Sixth International Veterinary Behavior Meeting in Riccione, Italy, in June 2007, and reported in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior no. 2, issue 3. Of particular note are two that address the relationship between training methods and problem behaviors.

The first, “The Importance of Consistency in the Training of Dogs,” was conducted by scientists at the University of Southampton in the UK and the University of Life Sciences in Norway. This study evaluated punishment as a contributor to behavior problems, and the effects of reward, punishment and rule structure (permissiveness/strictness and consistency) on training and behavior problems. Information was collected via questionnaires from 217 dog guardians. Those who used strong and/or frequent punishment had a significantly higher level of training problems and lower obedience in their dogs. The study found that rule structure was important in achieving a well-behaved dog, but appears to be dependent on a low level of punishment in the training program.

A similar study, “The Relationship Between Training Methods and the Occurrence of Behavior Problems in a Population of Domestic Dogs,” was conducted at the University of Bristol in the UK. This study was designed to investigate the relationship between the occurrence of behavior problems and the type of training class attended and methods used. While the results suggested that attendance at any form of training class was likely to reduce the number of behavior problems in dogs, the study also found that dogs trained only with positive reinforcement exhibited fewer problem behaviors. Dogs whose owners used punishment in training were also significantly more likely to show a fear response to other dogs.

These findings are no surprise to positive trainers around the world, but it’s always good to have our personal and professional experiences and training philosophies confirmed by science.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Behavior: Dog Park Tips
A to-do list for a great dog park visit

Question: I'd like to take my dog to the dog park, but I'm a little nervous about how he'll behave. Any suggestions on how to improve the odds that his visit will be an enjoyable one?

 

Answer: Teaching your dog key skills so that he will have a good dog park experience is important. At a minimum, be sure that you can call your dog to you and ask him to settle down. You will feel (and be) more in control of a visit to the park. But what about you? Here’s a rundown of things to remember when using the park.

• Take off the leash. What’s the point of going to the dog park if you’re going to put a leash on your dog? If you’ve done the recommended training, checked out the safety and design of the park, and observed the other dogs before entering, you’ve done what you can to give your dog a fun and safe experience. Leashes interfere with the natural body language of the dog, dogs can get tangled up in them and dogs who become stressed by constant pulling against a leash can act in undesirable ways. Besides, most parks require that your dog be off-leash.

• Small dogs need special consideration. Try to find a dog park with a small dog section, or specific small-dog playtimes. It’s so easy for a little guy to get overwhelmed—not to mention bowled over—by larger dogs. Keep your small dog on the ground rather than toting him around with you in the park. Being elevated can either give a dog a false sense of control because of the elevated position and close human backup, or entice other dogs to jump up at the dog being held to get a closer sniff.

• Stay only as long as your dog is having fun. Visits to the dog park need to be fluid. If your dog isn’t enjoying the experience, or other dogs are getting out of control, you need to leave, whether or not you’re ready to go. On the other hand, if your dog is having a spectacularly good time, you might want to stay a little longer.

• Be vigilant. Keep your focus on your dog no matter how enjoyable your human companions are. Don’t allow yourself to be part of stationary human clumps, because that will result in too many dogs gathering in one place. It is the humans’ responsibility to keep the park a safe and fun experience.

• Stay calm, talk quietly. Loud (and probably ineffective) commands as well as boisterous human chatter can raise the excitement level in the whole park and risk inciting some sort of bad behavior.

• Save treats (and toys) for later. There’s just too much potential for dogs to engage in guarding or stealing behavior that can lead to aggression and fights.

• Provide your dog with many different forms of entertainment. If visiting the park is the only exciting event in your dog’s life, he’s likely to be overexcited upon arrival.

• Stay connected with your dog at the dog park. Not via a leash, but through a mental connection. Call your dog to you from time to time. Play a quick game, or just give him a scratch and send him back to play.

• Talk to friends. Just do it in small groups, and preferably while you’re walking rather than sitting.

• Watch the dogs. You will not only learn lots about canine body language, you will also learn lessons about how to relax and have a good time.

• Always pick up after your dog, and insist that others do the same. Pick up the occasional extra pile, if needed.

• Relax and enjoy the experience. If for some reason you can’t relax—if you’re too concerned about your dog’s behavior, say—then you shouldn’t be there. Take some dog training classes to get better behavior, then try the park again.

• Leave if you start to feel concerned about anything going on. Help to resolve the situation if you can, but your first responsibility is to keep your dog safe.

Adapted from Visiting the Dog Park: Having Fun, Staying Safe, by Cheryl S. Smith; © 2007 Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.

 

Culture: DogPatch
Whittling Dogs
Whittling / Painting

Whittling is a great pastime, and it’s easy to get started—all you need is a knife and a piece of wood. Follow these simple tips and you’ll be on your way to a satisfying summer project.

Materials
Soft woods are the best—white pine, sugar pine and basswood are good choices for beginners. Find a piece of wood with straight grain that can fit comfortably in your hand, avoid wood with lots of knots.

Your knife should have a sharp 1-1/2 to 3 inch blade, a standard pocket knife will do in most cases. Keep your knife sharp throughout your project. A dull knife is more dangerous because you will need to push harder to make a cut, with less predictable results—if you slip the added force can do some damage. You can also use a special woodcarving knife, specifically designed for whittling, available at most hobby stores.

Whittling Cuts
Here are some common whittling cuts: The pare cut or pull stroke, one of the simplest and most common, is like taking a paring knife and peeling vegetables. The push stroke is made by pushing the blade away from you, this technique can be used in roughing out your project’s general shape and, later, with smaller shaving cuts to achieve finer detail. The V-cut or channel is used to show detail in your carving in the form of hair or scales and uses the point of the knife.

Whittling Tips
- Take it slow and concentrate. Though whittling is a relaxing, meditative activity, it requires focused attention. Carelessness can cause accidents!
- Make small cuts that you can control. Remember, it’s easier to remove wood with a series of small cuts than to add it back once it’s removed.
- You generally want to cut with the grain of the wood, for ease and best results.
- Relax your grip, holding your knife too tightly will quickly tire your hand out, and may lead to stress injury.
- Consider wearing a glove to start in order to stave off cuts and injury. If this is too cumbersome, try using a thumb pad or protector—the thumb on your knife-holding hand tends to get the brunt of the nicks and glances. A little duct tape around your thumb will also do the trick.
- Be prepared, keep a first aid kit handy just in case you need it.

For some fun patterns of dogs, see these examples from the 1945 how-to manual Whittling Is Easy, made popular by generations of Boy Scouts. When you finish your project, we’d love to see it—take a photo and e-mail it to contests@thebark.com.

Check out the wonderful, miniature world of whittler, Steve Tomashek, in this video:

Culture: DogPatch
Max Miller’s Canine Kaleidoscope
Pictures in an Exhibition
Max Miller Art

Max Miller is known for abstract paintings that embrace color and line, as well as figurative works with human and animal subjects; dogs are among his favorites. On occasion, he employs both genres in a hybrid style perhaps best described as canine psychedelia. These oils and watercolors explode with color and shimmer with richly decorated backgrounds—it’s as though the dogs have leaped into the paintings and turned to gaze back at us, inviting us to join them. The combination of the two styles is at first disconcerting, but we quickly settle into Miller’s altered reality with its visual cornucopia— traces of Middle Eastern mosaics, bright tie-dye patterns and wild amoebic shapes delight the eye and bring to mind what was called “mind-tripping” back in the day. Careful—you may find yourself leaping into these paintings too…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Web Exclusives: Nov/Dec 2010
Web Extra

Welcome to our web exclusives. This is where you’ll find new and topical articles, instructions, links for taking action, multimedia bonuses and expanded versions of material in the print magazine. Enjoy!

  • The Mirror Method - One of the trainers behind Hungary’s viral dog videos, explains how they did it.
  • A Doggy Christmas Surprise - Hungary's viral dog video.
  • The Bark's iPhone & iPad app - Get more information!
  • Yum! Enter your photo to win -  One lucky reader’s dog will eat well — and FREE — for a year.
  • Pebble Pets - Lovable companions crafted from pebbles and paper.
  • Papier-Mâché Dogs - A fun project for the whole family.
Magazine: 2006-2008
Boog: Cover Dog
May/June 2008

 Is that a Setter, a Spaniel, a Dalmatian? Nope, he’s a Large Münsterländer (a German breed with Longhaired German Pointers and English Setters in the line) and Helene Rubinstein’s Boog. Named after the 1970s Baltimore Orioles first baseman, Boog Powell, the two-year-old pup has yet to meet a person or dog he doesn’t like; at the dog park, they call him the “ambassador,” because he’s the only one who’s never gotten into a tussle. Boog lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., with his big “sister” Georgie, a seven-year-old Border Collie mix who has done quite well in agility. Boog is also learning agility, and though his hunting nose sometimes distracts him from the jumps and tunnels, he can do some mean weaves! This Large Münsterländer is indeed large, but Rubinstein thinks he’s worth every inch. Boog rolled out his biggest grin for photographer Amanda Jones.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Open Space Program Makes Off-Leash Dogs Legal in Boulder
Tagged for success in Colorado

With its plentitude of open space (43,000 acres), trails (130 miles) and glorious mountains—plus its progressive humane perspective—Boulder seems like an ideal place to have a dog. Now, with the launch of its “Voice and Sight Dog Tag Program” (TAG), an off-leash registration and educational outreach effort administered by the department of Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), the city is taking steps to balance wise stewardship of open space with public/recreational usage.

To achieve this challenging balance, OSMP worked closely with the dog community, represented by FIDOS (Friends Interested in Dogs and Open Space), to design the program, which is intended to ensure the continuance of off-leash privileges. Under its terms, in order for dogs to be off-leash on trails and even in city dog parks, they must be registered. Compliance with the ordinance is signified by a tag (worn by the dogs) indicating that the human half of the pair has watched a short video on Boulder’s “voice and sight” control ordinance and basic dog/human etiquette and paid the $15 fee.

What seems to be the most difficult part of the regulation, the “come immediately” command, was part of a dog-related ordinance enacted in 1996, a spokesperson for FIDOS explained. The best way for programs like TAG to achieve success is for, as FIDOS hopes, “enforcement [to] focus on those that are clearly causing problems.”

When it comes to off-leash issues, it is often the case that the misdeeds of the minority color the way the majority is perceived. Let’s hope that Boulder’s proactive educational approach minimizes the number of misdeeds and prevents conflicts. For more information, visit osmp.org

 

Culture: DogPatch
A Canine All-Star Baseball Team

It’s time dog lovers had their own all-star baseball team. To qualify, one needs only a name or nickname dog-related. Each of the following players were major leaguers:

Manager: William “Ruff” Carrigan
Coaches: Bob “The Flea” Lillis, Joe “Poodles” Hutcheson
Umpires: Al Barker, Aaron Pointer
1B: Henry “Bow Wow” Arft
2B: Charles Bassett
SS: George Bone
3B: Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock
LF: Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner
CF: Clyde “Pooch” Barnhardt
RF: Eddie “Greyhound” Milner
C: Clint “Toy Bulldog” Courtney
P: Henry “Great Dane” Rasmussen

In the bullpen: Marcus “Fido” Baldwin; James “Collie” Colliflower; Orel “Bulldog” Hershiser; William “Bird Dog” Hopper.

On the bench: John “Scotty” Alcock; William “Spot” Bethea; James Bowser; Anton “Mutz” Ens; George “Doggie” Miller; Freddie “The Flea” Patek; George “Pooch” Puccinelli; Dino “Dingo” Restelli; John “Mutt” Riddle; Lewis “Old Dog” Ritter.

 

Culture: DogPatch
Inspired by Dogs: Majora Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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