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Dog's Life: Humane
A Canine Refugee’s Journey from Syria to Belgium
War & Peace
Bassel and Stella

Stella is six years old, but she’s wagging her tail and jumping around with the enthusiasm of a pup. In the Brussels apartment of her owner, Bassel Abu Fakher, there’s a spacious balcony where she can run around a bit, but it can’t compete with the freedom of the city’s parks outside the door. The sun is shining and there are other dogs racing around on the grass of the botanical garden in the city center. Stella rushes from one encounter to the next. It’s a carefree scene, until a plane flies over. Then, Stella cowers abruptly and makes a heart-wrenching, frightening sound.

Bassel’s face tightens as he hugs his dog and tries to comfort her. “Stella is traumatized,” he says sadly. “It’s just like with humans: a dog that grows up with war and bombs exploding everywhere carries that stuff around for the rest of her life.”

The story of Bassel and Stella reads like a scenario for a Hollywood movie. A year ago, they were living in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Bassel, who began playing the cello at an early age, was in the Damascus Conservatory, one of the country’s most prestigious music education institutes; he also co-founded the Qotob Project to bring musicians together. Because of the war, their neighborhood became the target of bombs and fighting. Bassel tried to keep living his life in a normal way; he didn’t want to leave Stella and his parents behind. “I kept walking Stella around the block, even though that was very dangerous,” he says.

In 2011, the war started in Syria. Millions of people fled and ended up in Turkey, Lebanon and Europe. We don’t know much about the consequences for their pets; those stories are rarely told. Dogs have an even harder time than people comprehending the concept of war. But for Stella, life had suddenly become a living hell.

One day, a big bomb exploded only a few blocks from Bassel’s home. All the windows in the neighborhood were shattered. “Since that day, Stella is scared of airplanes,” Bassel explains. She had heard the fighter jet and now associates the sound of flight engines with the fears she had that day.

For Bassel, the situation in his country finally became too dangerous. “I witnessed multiple explosions from close by,” he says. He had to flee for his own safety, but that meant he had to leave his dear dog behind. “My heart broke. I knew I couldn’t take Stella along with me.” So they said goodbye and Bassel asked his mother to take good care of her. He fled via Turkey across the treacherous Mediterranean, which has become a sea grave for thousands of Syrian refugees like Bassel. The rubber dinghy was fully loaded with people, and Bassel got really scared, but he reached Europe safely. “Stella could have never survived that trip,” he says.

Bassel had good contacts in Belgium. He could walk directly from the Brussels-South railway station to his temporary home, where he was sheltered by Joannes Vandermeulen, a Belgian who is concerned with the fate of refugees. “We took in a couple of refugees, but Stella wasn’t with them at that time,” says Vandermeulen.

After a couple of weeks, Bassel heard troubling news about Stella. “She was languishing; she already had a bad relationship with my father, and it got worse,” says Bassel. “My father didn’t walk her, and she got the leftovers of his greasy food.”

When Vandermeulen heard about Stella, he offered to help. “I’m kind of an adventurer; I proposed to bring Stella to Belgium.” What sounded like a crazy idea quickly became serious. Bassel would organize the first part of Stella’s trip, from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon; then, Vandermeulen would bring her from Beirut to Brussels.

A friend of Bassel took Stella with him in his car past tens of checkpoints; Stella was scared to death in the trunk of the car. They drove on a road less than two miles from the front line with the Islamic State. The road was dangerous, but eventually, they reached the airport, and Vandermeulen picked her up.

“So many things went wrong,” says Vandermeulen with a smile. “I thought it wouldn’t work out more than once.” When he met Stella, she was very upset. She needed a sleeping pill before being loaded into the plane’s cargo area, but she didn’t want to eat anything. “We had to force her to take the pill, but she threw up. It’s a miracle she didn’t go mad,” says Vandermeulen.

While Vandermeulen was dealing with the formalities of the flight. Bassel’s friend waited outside. He wouldn’t go back until he was certain Stella had boarded and nothing had gone wrong. The Lebanese police thought his presence was suspicious and didn’t believe his story. “Bringing a Syrian dog to Belgium—who believes that?” Vandermeulen jokes. The friend stayed in a cell for a night, but was then let go and sent back to Syria.

When Stella finally arrived in Belgium, she was completely dizzy and confused. She didn’t recognize Bassel.

“It was a strange moment; I thought she lost her mind,” Bassel says. “The first days, she didn’t remember who I was. It took her a week to recognize my voice.”

Then the work could begin. Stella was completely out of shape, fat and unable to run properly. “She didn’t want to eat normal dog food. She didn’t care for anything less than a chicken breast with a pepper sauce,” Bassel jokes. Vandermeulen took her along when he went jogging, but she couldn’t keep up.

But slowly, the playful energy of the Husky came back. The patter of dog paws on the wooden floor of the Vandermeulen house became a familiar sound. She also started eating normally again. “Today, she easily keeps up when I go running,” Vandermeulen says.

Bassel is very happy that she’s here with him. Every other day, he puts pictures of Stella on his Facebook and Instagram pages. Stella is happy too. “She’s in love with him,” shouts Vandermeulen’s daughter.

In the parks of Brussels, Stella runs into another dog. They sniff each other. There are no airplanes around. Slowly, Stella is beginning to feel at ease in her new country. Her Belgian friends are getting to know her.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Letter to Brigit
Brigit by Viggo Mortensen

I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.

----

The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to. 

“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see…  The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly. 

“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.  

“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.

“Her insides?” 

“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”

“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.

“Not at all pretty.”  

He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.

“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”

I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.

“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”

“I understand,” I’d said.

“Very difficult.”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.  

“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.  

“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?” 

He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”  

“Oh. Yeah.”  

“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”  

“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”  

“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”

“I’ll wait here then.”

“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”

After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”  

“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if…  see that… ”  

“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”

----

A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.

“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.

“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”

“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”

I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.

Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.

“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.

“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”

“Sure …” 

----

“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.

“Used to.” 

“Nice-looking book you got there.” 

“Thanks. Yes, it is.”  

I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”  

“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”  

As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.

The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.

----

I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative. 

I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.

The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree. 

I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.

----

Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing. 

“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ” 

“Yes.” 

“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.” 

“That’s ok, I can do it.”  

Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.  

“Ok, sir. As you prefer.” 

I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp. 

“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.” 

“Oh. Well … thank you …” 

A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me.  “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.” 

I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant. 

“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?” 

I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer. 

“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.  

“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?” 

“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.” 

“Would you like to replace the cedar?”  

“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.” 

“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”  

“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.” 

“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ” 

(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.” 

----

“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”

“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English. 

“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”

She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”

“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate…  y cebolla, si hay.” 

“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?” 

Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.

“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.  

“Sí…  y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.” 

She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order. 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How To Get Your Dog’s Attention

Having your dog’s attention is one of the most important and underrated aspects of positive dog training. It’s obvious when you think about it – how can you train your dog, if your dog doesn’t pay attention to you? Luckily, we’ve come up with three simple and fun exercises designed to help get your dog’s attention, making training your dog a little easier.

 

TEACHING YOUR DOG TO BE A GOOD STUDENT

Training your dog to pay attention teaches them to be a good student, ensuring that they will sit quietly and wait for instructions – once these foundations are in place, training your dog will become a great deal easier. Later on, we will cover two of the best attention exercises available, which are centred on being a good student, paying attention and awaiting instructions.

Although it is often underemphasised by dog training experts, ensuring your dog is capable of paying attention is one of the core principles in positive reinforcement training, and an absolutely necessity if you are to ensure your training is a success. This post aims to rectify this issue, by providing you with the mind-set and training exercises required to train your dog to be pay attention – eventually leaving you with a happy, well-trained and trusting member of the family! 

 

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION?

The easiest way to see if your dog is paying attention to you is to observe whether or not he is looking at you and following everything you do closely. Once you have an attentive dog, this will be very obvious, especially to other family members or friends, who will note that your dog seems to follow you around and work for your attention – particularly at feeding time!

However, it is worth remembering that some dogs are discrete – they might not seem interested in where you are or what you’re up to, but the moment you disappear, they’ll appear right next to you – my dog can even be upstairs while I’m working downstairs, but the moment he can no longer hear the sound of me typing on my computer, he’ll come down to check that I haven’t nipped out without him. This is attention in a nutshell - when your dog is aware of your movements and what you are doing at any time of day.

 

IS HAVING YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION REALLY NECESSARY?

You might wonder if all this talk about attention is overrated – this outlook is typical of more traditional or ‘old school’ trainers, who believe you can get better results by forcing your dog to pay attention when you demand it. In my experience, though, this approach doesn’t work anywhere near as well – there’s a notable difference between a dog who focuses on you because he has to, and one who focuses on you because he wants to please you. The goal of this post is to help you reach a point where your dog is focused on pleasing you, as this is the easiest way of training him successfully.

 

 

DON'T TAKE YOUR DOG'S ATTENTION FOR GRANTED

In my experience, dog owners take a lot of things for granted – too many, in fact. When a dog first comes into the home, he relies on us completely, and we have his full attention at all times. After a few weeks, however, your dog will relax into the environment and encounter new, fresh and exciting experiences which are more interesting than you – and that’s not good news for your relationship, particularly where training is concerned. By remaining at the centre of your dog’s world, you’ll not only enjoy a stronger bond with your dog, but stand a much better chance of being able to train him successfully.

So how do we accomplish this? With consistent training – every day, all year. By making training a habit, you’ll make it second nature for both you and your dog, ensuring you’ll have the basics – sit, come here, down etc. - covered quickly and efficiently, allowing you to move onto more complicated routines.

Now that we understand what it means to have your dog’s attention and why having your dog’s attention is so important, we can move onto the frameworks we use for teaching attention, along with a few simple exercises you can undertake to ensure your dog is always paying attention to you.

 

YOUR DOG KNOW WHEN YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION

First things first - when training your dog to pay attention to you, you have to really be present with your dog, not just physically but mentally; remember, your dog can feel you! He knows when you’re sad and when you’re happy, and certainly knows when you are lying and when you are not. By taking an active role in training your dog, you can make the framework very simple, rewarding your dog not only with treats but praise and happiness. Here are three of my favourite ways to train your dog to pay attention to you:

 

DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #1 – EYE CONTACT

The first exercise is based around eye contact, and is the exercise that teaches your dog to sit quietly and pay attention to the teacher. Grab some treats and then sit beside your dog, waiting for them to look at you. This requires a bit of patience the first time you train this, but hang in there – it’s worth the wait! Once your dog lifts its eyes to meet yours, praise them warmly (or use your clicker) and reward your dog with his favorite treat. Then simply keep still and wait for them to meet your gaze again - keep doing this until your dog understands that he will be rewarded for looking into your eyes, and he will be more than happy to do it whenever necessary.

 

 DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #2 – HAND TARGETING

Sometimes, you’ll need get your dog’s attention in order to protect them from something that might harm, scare or upset them. Occasionally dogs will become fearful and, naturally, will look to either run away or attack – neither of which are desirable outcomes. However, it is possible to interrupt this natural response by training your dog to keep attention on you even in stressful situations. Try putting your hand in front of your dog’s face, the palm of your hand right in front his nose. Say nothing, as it is important that your dog learns to make these associations for himself. Once your dog touches the palm of your hand, give him a reward in the form of praise or a treat. Repeat this exercise, and eventually your dog will come to understand that when your hand is down, he can receive a reward by touching it – and while he’s focused on you, he will be unable to focus on whatever might be scaring him, allowing you to avoid conflict with others and protecting him from harm!

See the below video for an example of how to do this.

 

DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #3 – IMPULSE CONTROL

This exercise is called impulse control, and is really more of a concept that an exercise, because there are so many variations to work with.

Once your dog knows that he should be looking at you (see exercise #1) you can use this when training him. For example, you can ‘drop’ something from the kitchen table and if your dog tries to grab it, simply cover it with your foot. When your dog then sits and eventually looks at you, make sure to praise him and then allow him to eat the dropped food. Once more, your dog will learn to associate looking at you with praise and a reward – and over time will begin to realise that everything he wants can be channelled through you. As far as your dog is concerned, you are the origin of everything that is good in life. Clever, right?  See the following video for more information.

 

As you can see from the video above, treats are often used as a reward for behaviour we wish to encourage. With this in mind, I usually retain around half of my dog’s rations, which I distribute throughout the day during training sessions. If treats are not withheld, your dog will either lose motivation to be rewarded or simply end up overweight – by rationing them and associating them with good behaviour, you can ensure your dog is healthy and well-behaved.

In summary, the most important, fundamental principle of dog training is attention – both your dog’s and your own. This element of training is sadly underutilised by most dog training experts, so make sure you don’t make the same mistake – ensure your dog associates paying you attention with rewards and praise, and you can ensure your training exercises are easy and successful. Good luck with your training!

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Kids Feel Closer to Dogs Than to Siblings
More satisfaction, less conflict characterize relationship

Long before people began to consider dogs members of the family, many kids were wishing that instead of brothers and sisters, they could just have more dogs. Dogs (and other pets) fulfill all of the roles that researchers consider important in an attachment figure. Kids find them enjoyable, comforting, they miss them when they are not around and they seek them out when they are upset. That may make them especially important for adolescents, who are learning to rely less on their parents and more on relationships with other individuals. The non-judgmental feeling people experience with their dogs may contribute to enhancing young people’s self-esteem.

We know that pets are important to kids, but scientific studies quantifying the value of their relationships are sparse. The recent study “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings” demonstrates the true value that kids place on their pets. The research involved surveys of 77 people who were 12 years old. It made some interesting, if hardly surprising conclusions:

  • Kids with pet dogs had the highest level of satisfaction and received more companionship from their pets compared with kids who had other types of animals.
  • Kids were more satisfied with their pets and had less conflict with them compared to the relationships they had with their brothers and sisters.
  • Girls reported more willingness to share secrets with their pets and felt a closer companionship with them compared to what boys reported, but they also reported more conflict with their pets than boys did.
  • Both boys and girls had more conflict with their siblings than with their pets.

If many adults consider their relationships with dogs to be like those they share with children, it’s no wonder that many kids relate to their dogs much like they relate to their brothers and sisters—only better!

News: Guest Posts
Smiling Dogs: Addie the Workday Companion

Meet Addie, a pup who loves to help her owner on the job. It’s not all work; Addie has plenty of fun.

Pet at a Glance
Pet: Addie, an American cocker spaniel
Age: 2
Location: Apple Valley, Minnesota
Owner: Tiffani Sluppick, interior designer for Ethan Allen

On the job: Addie’s owner works from home and out of the Ethan Allen showroom, so her day looks different depending on what’s on Sluppick’s schedule. At home, Addie sits right next to her owner as she works on floor plans or emails clients. She’s also known for getting into fabric samples from time to time. At the showroom, Addie gravitates toward all the new faces. She likes to walk right up to clients, tail wagging. She loves clients, Sluppick says, and the clients love her back. A few have even brought Addie treats, toys and a doggy Christmas ornament.

Favorite part of the workday: Before each workday begins, Addie likes to join her owner as she has her morning coffee. 

 

Break time: When Sluppick needs a mental break, she takes Addie on a walk in the neighborhood. Addie also enjoys watching the squirrels run around outside, Sluppick says.

Payment method: Treats! If Sluppick is on the road, Addie loves when they stop by Dairy Queen for a Pup Cup.

From her owner: “Having Addie around on calm days or busy days makes for a better day overall. She loves to always be in the action and where I am. She’s a ‘momma’s girl,’ and I love it.”

SHARE YOUR SMILING DOG!
We LOVE them and we WANT yours! We pick 40 favorites to appear in each issue of The Bark magazine. 

Dog's Life: Home & Garden
How to Keep Pets Comfortable at Home
Comfy rooms for dogs

There’s a briskness in the air. That means it’s time to cozy up your home for the pets. Sure, the human household members are important, but we can’t deny our furry housemates those same creature comforts we enjoy. Here are some ideas for getting your pets’ hangouts and bedding ready for the cooler temperatures in ways that are attractive to humans.

Build them their own nook. Cutouts like this circular one make the pet part of the decor. While cats may split from the family fun, dogs usually prefer to lie right in the heart of it. Encourage Buddy to not be a tripping hazard, especially in the kitchen, where it can be a serious hazard. Instead, give him a safer hangout all his own from which he can monitor the action. Wherever you find the space for such a pet nook, fill it with plush materials that can be washed easily and often.

 

Photo by Busby Cabinets - Browse traditional laundry room ideas

 

Create a cave. Dogs generally crave a cave-like bed (when they aren't sprawled out in everyone's way). This undercounter crate provides that same atmosphere. A fitted cozy inside offers added warmth on frigid nights.

 

Photo by Brenda Olde - Browse eclectic living room photos

 

Instead of trying to hide the kennel, turn it into furniture. This dog's kennel acts as a table base that sits smack dab between his esteemed pack leaders' chairs.

 

Photo by Vanni Archive/Architectural Photography - Discover traditional living room design ideas

 

Give them matching furniture. Not into showing off the kennel? Create an elegant bed that resembles the rest of the room's decor. Find pet furniture or pillows that share similar properties with other facets of the room, such as color, finish, shape or texture. This dog bed blends in nicely with the living room, thanks to its library-like qualities.

 

Photo by Landing Design - Look for traditional living room design inspiration

 

This little Brussels Griffon gets to make himself at home on a loveseat under his portrait when he's not hanging out in his own room. With something like this, just make sure guests know not to sit in the no-human zone. If there is no delineation between pet and people furniture, lining furniture with stylish throws offers extra cush to cushions while keeping fur off them. Just make sure your throws (and any nearby pillows) are as washable as they are attractive.

 

Photo by A+B KASHA Designs - Search modern bedroom design ideas

 

Keeping Things Clean and Other Considerations Washability.

Washability is an important factor for any fabric that your pet sleeps on, especially during the rainy season, when muddy paws are a constant.

This guy's easy; he doesn't need his own bed. He'd much rather sleep in between his human companions. Good thing the comforter washes well.

Time apart at night. Just because your pets want to sleep next to you doesn't mean there's room for everybody. If you enjoy having your love bugs close to you at night, consider offering them a bench at the foot of the bed as their own. This way they can still see and hear you without sandbagging your feet.

Style. For larger breeds or multiple pets who enjoy one another's company at night, choose a bed that complements your own. There are no rules about what a pet's bed should look like. As long as the bed is comfortable for the animal, take liberties to make its design work with your room.

 

Photo by COOK ARCHITECTURAL Design Studio - Browse traditional kitchen ideas

 

Color. It's believed that animals can't see color like we humans can. But that doesn't mean their bedding can't offer color in abundance to please our tastes. Pet pillows and upholstered cushions can be opportunities to add shots of seasonal color or pull from the existing room palette.

 

Photo by Scheer & Co. Interior Design - More home design ideas

 

Outdoor shelter. Not all pets are allowed — or wish — to sleep indoors. It's especially important to make sure they're sheltered from the elements. This customized wine barrel is a stylish covered bed that doubles as a planter box.

Dog's Life: Humane
Helping a Senior Pooch Will Make You Happy
My Old Dog
Lori Fusaro / “My Old Dog”

Puppies are adorable. I’m talking seriously adorable. How could they not be? They have squishy bellies and too-big paws and goofy, clumsy gaits. And they have puppy breath … don’t forget the puppy breath!

As cute as they are, though, puppies aren’t always the best fit for people with busy lifestyles. That’s because puppies can be furry little hedonists with two big passions: indoor urination and property destruction. Bringing a puppy home is not unlike bringing a baby home—and in some ways, it’s even harder because puppies become mobile so much sooner than human infants.

What if you’d like to skip the chewed shoes and the challenging potty-training regimens and jump ahead to the very best part of enjoying life with a dog? These days, it’s easier than ever to do just that and to feel great about what you’ve done. A senior-dog-rescue movement is spreading across North America and catching on for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that dogs over the age of six or seven tend to be calm, mellow, sweet and loveable, and they’re usually already house-trained.

Yet, as wonderful as animals in this age bracket are, they need help. They often represent the highest-risk population at shelters across the United States, where nearly three million dogs and cats are put down each year.

How can this be? Why is it that the most snuggly, tranquil, ideal companions languish in shelters? For starters, this happens to most senior dogs through no fault of their own. Confronted with financial pressures, illness or another life upheaval, people suddenly may be unable to care for their pets. Then, once older animals land in shelters, they’re often overlooked because people think it will be too sad to bring them home.

But not so fast! In the process of researching and writing the book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, I saw firsthand that adopting a senior can be even more rewarding than choosing a younger dog. In fact, it’s likely to go down in history as one of the best things you’ve ever done.

Just ask Lori Fusaro, the photographer for My Old Dog. She once thought it would be too sad to adopt a senior— “I didn’t think my heart could take it,” she explained—until the day she welcomed a sweet-natured 16-year-old named Sunny into her family. Sunny transformed almost immediately from a sad shelter dog to a happy family member, and thrived for more than two and a half years in Lori’s care.

“Sunny showed her love for me every single time I came into the room,” Lori said. “It’s like she knew I rescued her. She freely gave kisses and followed me around everywhere. It’s like these dogs know, and they just want to let you know how grateful they are to you.”

Taking this step doesn’t have to cost as much as you might expect. While it’s true that many older shelter dogs need veterinary care, including dental work, people on a budget can take advantage of a variety of programs that address the issue.

My Old Dog includes a comprehensive resource guide with contact information for senior-dog rescue groups across North America and overseas. These groups spring older dogs from shelters and handle all major veterinary work before putting them up for adoption, allowing people to bring home a dog who is good to go.

What’s more, some organizations, such as Old Dog Haven in Washington and Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Tennessee, do something slightly different and quite amazing: They pull older dogs from shelters and take care of any urgent veterinary needs. Then, they place the dogs in permanent foster homes and continue to cover all veterinary costs for the rest of the dogs’ lives. In such situations, people who open their homes to these “final refuge” foster dogs never have to worry about a single vet bill.

“Seniors for Seniors” programs are another wonderful provision offered by many shelters and rescue organizations. These programs match mellow older dogs with older humans, and typically waive adoption fees and cover all initial veterinary and grooming expenses. Many also provide free welcome-home kits with dog bowls, leashes, harnesses, collars, food, medication, dog beds and more.

Even those who adopt senior dogs directly from shelters or rescues without taking advantage of any special program or assistance can keep this cost-saving detail in mind: with older dogs, it often doesn’t make sense to do high-dollar, heroic procedures such as lengthy cancer treatments. Instead, the focus is on helping dogs enjoy a good quality of life, minimizing discomfort and giving them lots of love.

Of course, even if they’re crazy about dogs, not everyone’s circumstances allow them to adopt or foster a senior dog. But that’s okay. There’s still so much you can do to help homeless senior dogs. Shelters and rescue groups always need volunteers for animal care-giving; professional grooming; high-quality photography; marketing; fundraising; and administrative assistance such as filing, paperwork and document design. If you have a special talent, why not throw one of these hardworking groups a bone?

These organizations are, of course, always grateful for financial support to help defray vet bills and other expenses for the animals in their care. You can donate money to specific, local senior dog rescue efforts highlighted in the resource guide in the back of My Old Dog, or you can opt to help to a nationwide program. For instance, the Grey Muzzle Organization does careful background checks and provides grants to effective programs that help older dogs across the United States. Grey Muzzle also donates orthopedic dog beds to shelters to get kenneled seniors off concrete floors. Another group, the White Muzzle Fund, is building an endowment to help support reputable senior-dog rescue organizations for years to come.

Helping a senior dog is such a great thing to do, and there are so many ways to do it. Please consider it. You’ll never, ever regret it.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
See the World From Your Dog’s POV
Canine GoPro
See the World From Your Dog’s POV - Go Pro

Bicyclists, skiers, snorkelers, hikers, skydivers, surfers and whitewater rafters have been using the rugged, razor-sharp GoPro camera to record their adventures for more than a dozen years. Now, dogs can go digital, too.

Several companies make dog photography mounts for the device. The GoPro Fetch ($59), for example, is available wherever the ubiquitous little cameras are sold. A comfortable harness that straps on securely around a dog’s neck and belly without restricting movement, it has two quick-connect camera mount points: one on the chest (to document surreptitious snacking) and one on the back (for over-the-head shots of squirrel chasing). Highly adjustable—it can be used on dogs from 15 to 120 pounds— it also includes a camera tether for added security. (Fotowelt, Kurgo and SmilePowo all sell similar mounts for $10 to $30.)

Aaron Roberts is a chemical engineer living in Raleigh, N.C. A recent graduate of North Carolina State, he works for a large pharmaceutical company in nearby Rocky Mount. Three years ago, he adopted a three-month-old brindle Plott Hound/Labrador puppy from the Wake County SPCA and named her Caroline; the two are inseparable. The Plott Hound is North Carolina’s official state dog; bred here as far back as the early 19th century to hunt wild boar, the breed is known for its intelligence, stamina, uncanny scenting ability and loyalty. But it’s Caroline’s benign Lab traits that make her instantly affectionate toward most humans. In fact, she doesn’t display much interest in other dogs, but is always curious about new human acquaintances.

“She’s also stubborn as a fence post,” Roberts said, “but I suppose that’s what made her ancestors such good hunters.” At 55 pounds, she’s not as large as some Hound breeds, which makes her fairly easy on Roberts’ car interior and dog-food budget. Caroline routinely watches Animal Planet from her claimed place on the couch, and comments loudly on certain scenes, especially those involving anything feline. Before Roberts trained her to respond to his call as well as cues to sit, stay, heel and lie down, she was a barely containable dervish of exuberance.

Roberts had been using his GoPro to shoot friends, selfies and scenics on weekends and vacation trips when he spotted the GoPro dog harness and decided to try it with Caroline on a visit to one of the city’s recreational lakes. He also bought a “floaty” that attaches to the back of the camera just in case it came loose in the water. He set the camera to shoot a frame every half-second, then released Caroline from her leash. She happily galloped off to investigate several other human/dog combos. Later, he sorted through hundreds of frames, looking for those few interesting, lucky shots. Once he found them, he adjusted color balance, contrast and cropping using the easy Instagram software.

“It’s fun for both of us,” Roberts said. “But I’m not sure appearing in The Bark is good for her. She’s already too full of herself.”

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Crate Escapes
Dogs use creativity to break free

Most people love that dogs are good problem solvers except when they hate that dogs are good problem solvers. Take the age old battle of dog versus crate. This is one of the situations in which we fuddy-duddy humans object to our dogs’ creative thinking and hamster-like wiggling ability. When we crate dogs, we are usually doing it for their safety and the safety of our homes. Millions of dogs love the coziness and security of their crates, and happily trot in to spend some restful time there, but the people who recorded the following videos have dogs who are not in that category. These dogs will apparently do anything to escape their crates, and they are successful at doing so. The many ways that our canine buddies set themselves free show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This dog breaks out after much effort, and while I admire his acrobatics and persistence, it is concerning that a dogs who make a break for it in this way will injure themselves. Luckily, this particular dog seems to have accomplished the goal without suffering any damage, but his level of desperation is concerning because he is literally forcing the issue.

What’s interesting me about this next dog is not the “how” of her escape, but the “why” of it. She was so drawn in by the calls of a litter of puppies in the shelter that she was apparently compelled to escape her kennel to be near them. Her own litter of puppies had recently been taken from her, so it’s likely that she her post-partum physiological state made her especially receptive to the needs of puppies.

This dog is methodical in her escape. There is no evidence that she is distressed or emotionally aroused in any way. She seems simply to prefer to be out of her crate than in, so she takes the necessary steps to make that happen in a calm, organized way. She shows evidence of having the emotional stability of an astronaut, to the point that I can practically here her saying to herself, “Work the problem.”

One of the sweetest videos of dogs escaping their crates is this one, because the crated dog had outside help. It’s great to have a pal who can help you get out of a jam!

Has your dog been victorious in a contest of Dog versus Crate, and if so, do you know how the escape happened?

 

Culture: DogPatch
James Rebanks Talks Sheepdogs and the Shepherding Way of Life
The Shepherd’s View
Shepherding Way of Life, views from the field of border collie

Last year, in his Bark review of James Rebanks’ remarkable memoir, The Shepherd’s Life, Donald McCaig observed, “It isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.” Other reviewers also sang its praises; for example, New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani called it “utterly compelling,” and named it one of the Top 10 Books of 2015 (it was also on our list). So, we were thrilled to see that Rebanks has a new book, The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape, replete with his lovely and compelling photography and poetic essays. On its pages, he shares with us a unique view of the pastoral world of England’s Lake District. We caught up with him recently to find out more about these working dogs and his remarkable partners, Floss and Tan, the sheepdogs who help him tend the flock.

Bark: Where would shepherds would be without sheepdogs—would it even be possible to do the job without them?

James Rebanks: A shepherd isn’t a shepherd without a sheepdog, just a fool running round achieving nothing on a mountain. Sheep are quicker than people, and on their own terrain, impossible to manage without a good sheepdog. To gather the flocks on our mountains (we call them fells) takes 5 to 10 shepherds and shepherdesses, and 20 or more sheepdogs. They are our main tool, and key to what we do.

BK: How can you tell if a dog will be good in the field? Is it breeding? Are skills passed along genetically?

JR: We start training dogs when they are very young, so they learn their names and to come to us. They progress as the months go by, until they are fully trained at about two years old. My youngest dog, Meg, is a year-and-a-half and can do nearly all the work of my mature dogs, Floss and Tan. She has learned from them. Well-bred dogs from good families are incredibly gifted, and show their raw talent and focus as puppies. So I think a lot of the instinct is there, waiting to be harnessed and focused through training. Nature gives you the potential, but nurture determines how well that instinct and natural potential are harnessed.

BK: What makes a good working sheepdog? Does the environment determine how well they can do their jobs?

JR: I like a classic Border Collie-type sheepdog. I think they look right, but that is just vanity. All that really matters is how well the dog works. A pup comes to its new owners to start its new life at eight weeks old. Choosing a puppy is about knowing the working quality of the parents. Floss and Tan came from a noted sheepdog breeder whose dogs are remarkably good workers. Different types of landscapes require different types of sheepdogs; fell land requires dogs with stamina and an ability to hunt sheep out of bracken.

BK: Do sheepdogs have different skill sets?

JR: Yes. Some sheepdogs have strong “eye” (power over the sheep with their gaze and presence), and those kinds of dogs like working in small fields close up to the sheep. Others work best in the mountains and across big spaces; they can hunt sheep out of crags and rocky screes. This kind of dog is best for the fells.

All dogs have different character traits; some are confident, others timid. Part of training is learning to connect with the dog and to communicate with it and get the best from it. Floss is a very strong, confident dog who likes to work up close; she tries to dominate me and the other dogs. Tan is quiet and shy, and I have to encourage him and praise him. I change my tone of voice depending on which one I am working, or I can unsettle Tan.

BK: In your first book, The Shepherd’s Life, you said that it’s possible to “make a mess” of training a sheepdog. How does that happen?

JR: The thread between shepherd and sheepdog can easily break. The dog is often trying desperately to please the person she works for, so if you speak in the wrong tone, or get frustrated or cross, you can shake the dog’s confidence, or scare or sicken her and spoil her love of the work. But perhaps the commonest mistake is that the dog just doesn’t understand what the shepherd wants, and becomes disheartened.

A few years ago, I felt I didn’t understand training as well as I should, so I sought expert advice from a trainer called Andy Nickless, who makes DVDs about training sheepdogs. I use his training method and find it works very well.

BK: In the same book, you wrote, “Shepherds hate other people’s dogs near their sheep.” What kind of harm can off-leash pet dogs do?

JR: To sheep, dogs are just wolves. But the sheepdog who is well known to the flock becomes less stressful and scary, and they know it is under the shepherd’s control. A stray, unknown dog —which is often out of control— causes them stress. It may chase them until they collapse from exhaustion, or miscarry; it may attack and kill them. Even tiny dogs can do this. And even the nicest, friendliest family pet can be excited by fleeing sheep and become momentarily wild as the adrenaline kicks in.

So that’s why I hate other people’s dogs near my sheep: they are all potential disasters. Dogs should be kept on leads near farm animals, for everyone’s sake. Responsible dog owners can help by persuading others to do the right thing. And for that, we are grateful.

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