life with dogs
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Boredom Be Gone!
If you feel guilty about leaving your dogs home by themselves while you go to work, join the club. Most of us dislike it, though, truth be told, the majority of dogs do just fine. Many of them simply relax and sleep for a good part of the day while we stress out at work.
I say “many of them” because I’m absolutely not including dogs who are too young to handle a lot of time alone, or those who are struggling with separation anxiety or some other condition that makes being at home without you truly traumatic, somewhat upsetting or even just unpleasant. I’m talking about typical, behaviorally healthy dogs who really don’t mind the daily rhythm that includes your regular workday absence (though obviously, they would rather you stayed home).
Along with making sure that their basic needs are met, what do we owe the dogs who hold down the fort while we’re gone? Some dogs are fine with a cozy place to snooze, and some may be satisfied with a compatible dog buddy or some toys. Others need a little help in finding interesting ways to stay occupied while we go out and earn the money to support them in the style to which they have become accustomed. A great way to help these dogs is to provide them with multiple activity stations around the house.
Activity stations are just what they sound like: places for dogs to engage in activities that can be done alone. Setting up different activity stations in distinct areas of the house allows dogs to make good choices and to have fun even when they’re on their own.
This kind of enrichment won’t cure separation anxiety or help a dog overcome a fear of traffic, airplanes, passersby or the sound of sirens, and it’s not a cure for excessive barking or destructive chewing. What it can do, however, is make being alone more fun.
Deciding what sorts of activity stations will work best for your dog requires you to give some thought to your home’s layout and your dog’s interests and abilities. But basically, they are really only limited by safety concerns and your creativity.
Some stations are extremely simple, involving nothing more than a tug toy attached to the wall with a carabiner and a sturdy hook. Dogs who love to tug often do best if the toy is a little stretchy to compensate for the fact that nobody is on the other end giving it life and motion. The toy must be safe—no chance of the dog choking on it, becoming entangled in it or shredding it. A tug station is not suitable for dogs who would either become obsessive about it or frustrated by it. To interest your dog in it, shake the toy a little to make it move; once your dog has hold of it, let him tug on his own. Putting peanut butter on the toy makes it more enticing and helps many dogs engage.
A related activity station is for dogs who like to bat at toys rather than tug them. As long as the dog won’t become entangled in the toy or attempt to ingest it, this sort of station can occupy those who love to use their paws in play. Toys with multiple hanging parts often appeal to dogs who like to play this way.
Another activity station with simplicity in its favor consists of providing your dog with something safe to chew or eat. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to buy hundreds of new items. Rotating your dog’s durable favorites, supplemented by an occasional new treat, keeps this from costing a fortune. You can also use stuffable toys such as Kongs, or toys that the dog has to chase around or otherwise manipulate for the food to be dispensed —for example, the PetMate Wobbling Treatball, Kong Wobbler, West Paw Design Toppl or Buster Cube.
Make sure you are not giving your dog anything that poses a choking hazard or other dangers. Avoid rawhides and rope toys, and check with your vet about what else may be dangerous for an unsupervised dog. All dogs need to learn to enjoy an activity station is that it provides good things. For safety and convenience, site the station away from areas that are off limits to the dog, such as the counter or where kids store their toys.
On a related note, you can also keep your dog occupied by making the whole house (or at least a room or two) a place for food-searching activity. Hide treats while your dog is in another room, say “find your treats” and then head out for the day. (If your dog is sure to follow you, tell him/her to stay, or close a gate or door while you hide the treats.) Teaching your dog to search for food in response to the cue “find your treats” is not hard, but it’s critical to start by making it easy and gradually working up to greater challenges. Start with the food in full view and point to it or tap your toe by each treat until your dog gets the hang of it. You can also hide treats in canine puzzle toys that are specifically designed for this purpose.
A basket of toys is a great activity station, but for most dogs, it’s only appealing if the contents change frequently. To maintain your dog’s interest, rotate toys in and out and add new ones regularly. That way, your dog will never know which toys will be available on a given day. If your dog has a couple of favorites, make sure they’re always on hand. The purpose of rotating toys is to prevent your dog from becoming bored, not to take away toys just for the sake of removing them periodically.
For dogs who like to fetch, independent play may seem harder to provide. However, some dogs can be taught to fetch on their own using a ball and a ramp or an iFetch. There needs to be enough space for them to chase after the ball without injury to themselves or to your furnishings. It takes practice and patience, but once dogs get it, they are able to play on their own.
To teach dogs to use a ramp at a fetching station, start by placing the ball on the ramp and letting it roll away. This accustoms dogs to fetching a ball that has been “thrown” by the ramp. Then, teach them to drop the ball at the top of the ramp themselves. Once dogs realize that they can make the ramp work for them, many really enjoy the activity, though I’ve yet to meet a dog who didn’t prefer fetch played as a social game outdoors. (Caution: this activity station is not suitable for dogs who are so obsessive about fetch that they would play all day and drive themselves mad.)
Again, the safety of the stations and their elements is critical. Don’t use anything that could in any way strangle or trap a dog. Only use toys that can handle serious chewing, the level of which varies from dog to dog. Avoid rawhide or rope toys that a dog can choke on. If in doubt, put the toy away before you leave.
Don’t expect dogs to automatically be interested in activity stations just because you’ve set them up, however lovingly. The statement “If you build it, they will come” rarely applies. Dogs have to be taught what to do and to understand that the stations have entertainment value before they will engage on their own.
Activity stations can be antidotes to the boredom dogs may experience when left home alone. Providing them with something constructive to do can improve their quality of life, even though they may be fine with being alone. The stations can also help us fulfill our responsibility to make sure our dogs are happy, stimulated and entertained (not to mention relieve our guilt!) when we leave the house without our dogs, as most of us must do daily. Above all, they’re a wonderful way to change our dogs’ daily alone time from “fine” to “fun”!
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
For two decades, Michelle Flanagan- Haag competed in the Elite Wave of the American Birkebeiner—aka the “Birkie,”—the largest, and one of the longest, cross-county ski races in North America, which draws 10,000- plus skiers to Cable and Hayward, Wisc., annually.
Last year, under pressure from her husband, Mike Haag, who planned to compete in the Barkie Birkie 5K skijoring event with one of their dogs, Mr. Finn, she agreed to partner up with their other dog, Brewster, for the event. She thought she’d take it easy, but Brewster had other ideas.
Whether he was inspired by the cheering crowd on Hayward’s main street or by thoughts of catching up with Mike and Mr. Finn, Brewster took Flanagan-Haag to second place for women in 2014.
“I wasn’t competing at all, but Brewster sure was,” she laughed. “He was hell bent on getting to his brother. I was just waterskiing.”
You never know quite what to expect with the Barkie Birkie. Dogs as small as Toy Poodles and Dachshunds all the way to big Leonbergers show up at the start line. Some run behind their owners, some sit down, some trot alongside, but they all seem thrilled to be there.
“Spectators love that race,” says organizer Connie Mack. “It’s a fun way to get your dog out exercising.”
Up to 100 teams can compete in the 3K (sport) or 5K (expert) races. Two teams go out at a time, 15 seconds apart, which, as Mack says, adds to the fun.
The Barkie Birkie starts, appropriately enough, near Sophie’s Dog Bakery on Hayward’s Main Street on February 18, 2016.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
By now, I imagine everyone is pretty sick of the millennial trend piece—the repetitive cycle of laments about why those born post–1980-ish are so tragically immature. Nobody wants to admit that he or she fits rather neatly into the subject of a lazily researched cover story. But if I’m being honest, a number of elements of my life fit the prototype. I rent a ramshackle, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. I am married, but childless. My husband and I have both changed cities and jobs any number of times, thus far opting for the freedom of a rootless existence over the grown-up benchmarks of mortgages and child rearing.
But beyond the surface facts of my life, there’s the gnawing, deeper sense that, despite having passed the threshold of 30, I am not—am not even on the path to becoming—a proper adult. After entering my fourth decade, my life still seems like an exercise in barely controlled chaos. Which is why, when we decided to get a dog, it felt like a profound, moderately terrifying step. Matt in particular was concerned about whether we were ready to take on the care of a creature other than ourselves, but I was insistent—no more putting off responsibility just because we held our capabilities in such low regard.
We reached an agreement: we would sign up with a rescue agency to foster. We’d provide a temporary home to a dog in need and see if we were up to the challenge. On a particularly crisp Friday in late September, I got an email from the head of the rescue organization—a shipment of puppies from a shelter in Puerto Rico was arriving and could we pick up one of them from her Manhattan apartment on Sunday? Over the weekend, we went shopping for essential supplies: food, bowls, a leash and harness, pee pads, a couple of toys. Confronted with even the limited inventory at a small neighborhood pet shop, we were flummoxed. The clerk asked a few basic questions: What breed was the dog? How old? What size? How long would he/she be staying with us? Any dietary needs? I realized I’d neglected to gather any of this information. Our pet-parenting journey was off to an inauspicious start.
Then we met him. He was delivered to me in the lobby of an Upper East Side apartment building, curled up in a small crate—all big eyes and gloriously floppy ears. That first night, the puppy trembled and whimpered for hours, resisting all our efforts to soothe him and settle him in. But the next morning, he started trailing me around the apartment, never straying more than a few inches from my heels. When I plopped down next to him on the floor, he crawled into my lap, exhaled an existentially loaded sigh and looked up at me with an expression that clearly read, “Stay.” And, just like that, I latched myself to this small creature for the rest of his life.
In the weeks and months that followed, I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at being relied upon. All the things that I fail to do for myself seem to come naturally with Buddy. I may still eat sandwiches for dinner, but our pantry is always stocked with high-quality dog food and treats from a bougie Park Slope pet store. We’ve never missed a vet appointment or fallen behind in his shots. I can’t remember to take a multivitamin, but every month without fail, I give him his flea prevention and his heartworm pill. In his early puppyhood, when he went through an extended period of digestive issues, Matt and I were both up at three most mornings, and again sometimes at five, hustling Buddy outside and washing blankets and towels. We’ve developed that special parental sonar hearing, where even the smallest sound of discomfort or distress wrests us out of a deep sleep.
To be clear, I’m not really comparing raising a dog to raising a child. At a year old, my dog can sit, (briefly) stay and has learned that peeing on the duvet is the fastest way to lose bed privileges. My work preparing him for adulthood is pretty much done. But anyone who’s ever loved a dog knows that the relationship between human and canine is richer and more complex than any language we’ve yet devised to describe it. (I’m reminded of this every time I see the handwritten sign posted on the entrance to my neighborhood dog park: “Only one family in security gate at a time”—a thoughtful little missive that avoids fraught words like “pet” and “owner.”) I am keenly aware that for the entirety of Buddy’s existence, his needs will not substantially change or lessen. He will never outgrow me. He will never stop mutely pleading with me to Stay every time I leave his side.
That kind of commitment is enough to make any responsibility averse person consider the benefits of a life of unfettered independence. But the thing is, when I’m at home next to this little dog who is happy, healthy and likely curled up on the coziest blanket in the house—for a dog born in a shelter, his taste for luxury has grown prodigiously—I’m filled with a sense of pride for something outside myself. And it feels, in a small but important way, like maturity.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Littermate syndrome has potential downsides.
The email described a familiar scenario: “We were planning to adopt one puppy, but the breeder said that raising two sisters would be easier. After we brought the girls home at nine weeks, their behavior became increasingly out of control. My husband and I could not get their attention for more than a second or two—it was as if we weren’t even in the same room. And then they started displaying alarming fearfulness of people and other dogs.” I made an appointment for a home visit so I could meet the family and the puppies.
Many dog behaviorists, trainers, breeders and shelters discourage adopting siblings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral issues may arise during key development periods because the two puppies’ deep bond impedes their individual ability to absorb and grasp the nuances of human and canine communication. Since fear is the canine’s default reaction to odd or unfamiliar stimuli, this muddled understanding of the world around them can lead to impaired coping mechanisms later on.
Of course, many factors influence behavior, and not all siblings raised together will exhibit this problem, which is called “littermate syndrome”; it’s a risk, not a foregone conclusion.
Dunbar points out that raising littermates necessitates training two puppies, which is particularly challenging when they’re essentially wearing blinders to all but each other. “It’s more than twice the work; it’s exponential. The two combine to produce levels of energy that we can barely measure. Tension develops in training and compliance as they squeeze the owner out of the relationship. They’re always living with an enormous distraction: each other.”
The Tie That Binds
Wilde believes the problems are rooted in hyper-attachment, which leads to hindered social development and communication issues. “People assume that having two same-age pups who play together and interact constantly covers their dog-dog socialization needs, but they in fact don’t learn how other [dogs] play and have no idea about social skills with other puppies, adolescents or adult dogs. Perhaps one puppy is a bit of a bully, which his littermate puts up with, but his rude behavior might not be tolerated by a new dog in a new setting.”
During my appointment with the family, we determined that the best course was to rehome one of the 12-week-old siblings. Dunbar agrees that it’s often best to separate littermates, especially if symptoms appear early, so that each has a chance to develop normally as an individual. This is obviously a burdensome decision for the overwhelmed owner to make, a sort of canine Sophie’s Choice, so he recommends that potential new owners meet both puppies and determine which to take home.
Dunbar, too, is adamant that one of the key lessons a puppy must master is how to be content with being alone, which is all but impossible with two siblings. “Once we’ve done that, yes, he can live with other dogs and have free run of the house. But if you don’t teach puppies early on how to be alone, and especially with siblings who have always been together, it will be catastrophic when one dies.” Dunbar encourages multiple dog households— “I always like having three dogs”—but the timing, temperament and age that each enters the home is paramount.
Most people have never heard of littermate syndrome, finding out about it while researching their dogs’ problematic behaviors. Increasingly, however, trainers and behavior professionals recognize that the cons of adopting siblings far outweigh the pros. “The only advantage I can think of is a short-term gain of the puppies being less lonely in the first month of life,” says Dunbar. “Everything else is a loss.”
Exceptions and Hope
Myriad factors affect dog behavior, including genetics, early life experiences and owner engagement. As University of California, Davis, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Melissa Bain points out, “Two fearful littermates very well may be genetically predisposed to fear.” Bain is less inclined to apply the term syndrome to the set of symptoms. “It makes you think all littermates have problems, which is not the case.” She also emphasizes that the level of owner involvement is key, saying, “The symptoms escalate when the owners treat them as one dog with eight legs.” When conflict ensues between the pair, Bain believes it’s due to the dogs being similar in size, age and gender. “This uniformity makes it difficult for the siblings to delineate a hierarchy,” she said.
After one of the siblings had been rehomed, I received an email from the owner describing how the remaining puppy began to thrive under a remedial socialization program. “Dora has blossomed in the last three months into a delightful household companion, and she continues to improve. She now approaches people out of curiosity. We know she would still be fearful had we not separated the two before it got any worse. Dora has become more confident with all kinds of dogs, and successfully completed a group obedience class.”
While siblings blessed with extraordinary genes and socialization-forward owners may avoid littermate syndrome, the consensus among canine professionals is that it’s not worth the risk. Most would encourage new owners to adopt a single puppy who suits their lifestyle and to focus on the training and socialization that strengthens the interspecies bond unique to humans and dogs. Once your puppy is a dog, by all means, get a second, since the two will be at completely different stages, and the older one may very well emerge as a great life teacher to the younger.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Becoming a dog owner helped me dispel internalized myths about black people and dogs.
Until I met Cleo, I was a recovering cat lady who didn’t believe I could be a proper dog owner. In the communities where I grew up in Philadelphia and the Bronx, dogs were not sweet, lovable companions or surrogate children, but rather, terrifying or utilitarian animals. They required more work and money and energy than cats, and I never believed I had any of those to spare.
Until I moved to New York City, I had never encountered anything like the yapping Chihuahuas I saw in the homes of my black and Latino friends, or the sleek Afghan Hounds with stylish owners who appeared to float through Central Park.
I was, however, an animal lover from a young age, probably because I was abused as a child. Rescuing animals, particularly stray cats, empowered me; I hoped it showed the universe that I was invested not just in saving myself but also, in saving other creatures.
But dogs were different. The popular-culture connection between blacks and dogs is long and violent, punctuated by indelible images of police dogs (usually German Shepherds) lunging, teeth bared, or attacking Civil Rights protesters. Added to that history, the news reported by the blog ThinkProgress.org—that in the first half of 2013, blacks and Latinos were the only ones bitten by police dogs—makes that attitude easier to understand. According to the ThinkProgress story, in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reportedly referred to young blacks as “dog biscuits”—a sad legacy.
Whether or not we think dogs can be racist (a persistent Internet question), or believe that the majority of black people are inclined to repeat Michael Vick’s sins, the historical memory of and relationship between African Americans and dogs still seems fraught.
Historically, dogs have been classified as man’s best friend. But in America, manhood did not equally apply to white and black. If we were property, we could not own anything, not even an animal. The cultural adhesive that bound dogs to white people did not extend to African Americans, in part because some of us were not considered fully human enough to make best friends of beasts. There is, too, the financial responsibility of adding a pet in a context in which families historically had less disposable income to expend on the needs of a dog; it made dogs a luxury not easily afforded.
There have also been better narratives of African Americans and canine companions, especially in recent memory. As we have benefited from some of the economic effects of integration and assimilation, so, too, has our relationship with dogs.
When George Foreman went to Zaire to fight Muhammad Ali in 1974, he took his German Shepherd with him. Foreman has almost a dozen dogs, and while he was training, he told the Wall Street Journal that he enjoyed having a friend accompany him during his runs, among other things. In 2007, ESPN panelist Kevin Blackistone offered a commentary on black men and dogs for NPR, noting that Bill Cosby was a co-owner of a Dandie Dinmont named Harry who was favored to win the Westminster dog show. “And how can we forget the most-heartwarming stories from the tragedy of Katrina? They were of dog owners, mostly the working-class poor in heavily black neighborhoods like the now-famous Ninth Ward, who refused to evacuate without their four-legged loved ones,” Blackistone said.
I knew this kind of sentimental attachment. I have had it for kittens and maps, for letters and perfume gift-set boxes. I have witnessed, too, some black men in love with their dogs. As a young and serious hip hop fan, I took note of DMX (Earl Simmons), the first rapper I knew to boast about his love for dogs, and even incorporate barking as part of his rapping style, which sounds ridiculous now but was successful for him and the Ruff Ryders record label. He had a portrait of his beloved dog, Boomer, who was killed by a motorist, tattooed on his back. When I was a teenager, this relationship with dogs struck me as unusual for African Americans. (Lest I make Simmons sound like a good role model, I later learned that he had engaged in dog fighting and had both mental health and drug problems. In 2008, he was charged with cruelty to animals when Arizona officials seized a dozen underfed Pit Bulls and Pit mixes from his home.)
Thankfully, examples of black people with dogs are not all narratives of pathology and violence. As Blackistone said on NPR, “Most black folks are like me—I’ll do anything for my adopted Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Mocha.” Oprah Winfrey, probably the most famous person on the planet, is also a clear-cut dog champion. Visit Oprah.com and you’ll meet all of Winfrey’s furry companions, past and present: Cocker Spaniels Solomon, a 1994 Christmas present from Stedman Graham, and Sophie (both died in 2008). Luke, Layla and Gracie, Golden Retrievers adopted in 2006. Another Cocker, Sadie, whom Oprah adopted in 2009 from PAWS Chicago and who overcame parvovirus. For her 56th birthday, Oprah went back to PAWS and adopted Springer Spaniels Sunny and Lauren.
While a lot has been made of our first black president along symbolic, political and historical lines, the First Family has also provides us with another healing and sweet example. Not long after moving into the White House, the Obamas added Bo to their family. Then, in 2013, they gave him a little sister and playmate, Sunny. Both are Portuguese Water Dogs. Before they got Sunny, First Lady Michelle Obama told reporters that she hosted a “doggie play date” because “Bo [didn’t] have enough dog interaction,” according to the White House Blog.
In cities I’ve lived in around the country, I’ve also noted more black dog owners. This was especially evident when I moved to Austin in 2005 to work at the daily newspaper and attend graduate school. During the first few years I lived in Austin, I was far too busy for a pet. I was also incredibly lonely, confused by the liberal veneer of the place but seduced by the delicious food and the kindness and hospitality of my friends and colleagues. With about 300 sunny days a year, it was a perfect town for a runner, which I was becoming. Maybe if I had a dog to run with, I wouldn’t feel so out of place, I thought. Peer pressure also played a part.
My friends noted that I was a single woman living on my own in a less-than-pristine part of town. A photo editor at the newspaper heard that I was thinking about getting a dog, and mentioned that her friend was looking for someone to care for his dog Cleo. He had a brain tumor and was going into hospice, so he needed to find her a home quickly. I drove out to his trailer in Bastrop, wondering how my life might change if I got a dog, thinking of all the reasons I was still very much a cat lady. Then I spotted Cleo, affectionately tapping that long tail of hers. A Mastiff/Shepherd, she was the answer to my unspoken prayer.
She came to live with me and promptly took over the sturdiest couch in my home. She had a beautiful brindle coat and serious amber eyes, and was in love with the neighborhood cats; she wagged her tail in admiration whenever one strolled past us. She ran happily unless the heat was too much, and then she would stubbornly drop her 70-pound frame to the ground in the middle of the trail at Lady Bird Lake until I got the hint.
At the dog park, I noticed one other black woman who regularly brought her Boxer. My friend, Brock, also had a gigantic brown Labrador named Brixton. Spotting other black dog owners at the park was affirming; it demonstrated that not all black dog owners were as wealthy as the Obamas or Oprah, or up to anything sinister like Vick or DMX. It was a bonus to know that, whenever dogs barked at me and Cleo, it was because she was as tall as a mini-pony, not because the dogs were reactive or their owners were racist.
Cleo and I did, however, have to contend with some confused stares from people when we went places in Austin. “Only white people go everywhere with their dogs,” one of my best friends said. I carry a Moleskine planner and am a poster girl for everything listed in the book Stuff White People Like, so that was fine with me. What was weird, especially when Vick was in the news, was that I often got confused stares from people who weren’t used to seeing a black woman with a large dog. On the other hand, I might have been projecting my own self-consciousness as one of the 8 percent of Austin’s black population.
Cleo helped make Austin feel more like home to me, in part because it’s a dog’s town and she was raised in that area. But I always felt a sense of unease—a hypervisible invisibility—that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When Cleo was with me, I was okay, though people would talk to her as if I wasn’t around. But when I ran on my own, I was stared at and generally dismissed—an aberration in a largely white environment.
Cleo was aging when I got her, and by the time I grew weary of feeling isolated in Austin, her muzzle was almost completely gray. My sweet old lady was on a steady diet of antibiotics and other medication when she died suddenly at home, about a month before I left Austin to try living for a while in Washington, D.C. After she died, I mused that she would probably have hated the idea of snow. “You’re a Texas dog, honey,” I said to her. “I understand.”
We might have gotten some strange looks in D.C., too. In 2012, D.C. had the dubious distinction of being the place with the lowest rate of pet ownership in the country (Vermont had the highest, according to the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook). The last time the American Veterinary Medical Association took a survey in 2006, just 20.2 percent of households in D.C. had pets. Anecdotally, this appears true: I saw more black people with dogs in Austin than I’ve seen during the few months I’ve lived here.
I was grateful for the many things I learned from Cleo in the time that I got to spend with her, not the least of which was the joy of her unconditional love and sweetness at a time when I needed it the most. I have been so sad and heartbroken that I still haven’t cleaned her nose marks off the inside of the car windows, where she liked to stick her head out and smile at the wind. Despite my fears about being judged as a black woman in love with dogs, glancing at my back seat where Cleo used to ride reminds me how nice it is to be pleasantly surprised, to get beyond our prejudices and love a dog … and maybe people, too.
News: Shirley Zindler
A recent event reminded me of how different dogs cope with the death of an animal or person they are close to and how we can help them. Our local Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue where I’ve volunteered for many years had two rescued wolfdogs (commonly called wolf hybrids) and gave them a wonderful life at the sanctuary as part of the education display. The older wolfdog, Sheila, passed away recently of cancer and her companion Willy howled endlessly at her loss. The rescue does a fabulous job with the endless sick, injured and orphaned wildlife that pass through their doors and I was impressed with how they handled Willy's response to Sheila’s passing. Willy was allowed to see and spend time with Sheila’s body and was present for her burial. After investigating her body he seemed to be able to understand that she wasn’t coming back and he stopped howling for her.
I’ve always had multiple dogs and I allow my surviving dogs to spend time with the bodies of my other dogs when they pass. The dogs and I sit together with the body for a while and huddle close and grieve together in whatever way feels right in each case. In my experience, my remaining dogs have ranged between intense interest for some and barely a passing sniff for others. There is no right or wrong response and in each case I give them as much time as they want to be with the body. Usually after a few moments of close investigation, they seem to have all the information they need and move on to other things. In some cases it isn’t possible for the other pets to see the body and most will eventually find ways to cope as well.
I’ve also seen dogs after their human companions have passed. In one case I removed a small dog from the arms of the deceased owner. The person had died peacefully at home in bed and the dog stayed curled up against the owner. I was told that the little dog was normally very snappy and noisy with strangers but in this case she quietly allowed me to lift her from her person. She was likely subdued from the event but it may have been helpful for her to spend time with the body as well. Another dog I picked up had witnessed the murder of their person by another member of the household. That dog was one of the more traumatized dogs I’ve ever picked up, but he too eventually recovered in his loving new home.
Regardless of whether you are able or willing to allow your dog see the body of another pet or loved one, there are things you can do to help them cope. Dogs respond differently to loss just as people do so try to take your cues from your dog. I do think it’s ok to cry and grieve in front of your dog, but also do your best to reassure your dog and spend extra time doing things they enjoy. For some dogs extra exercise and playtime are helpful, while others may want more cuddle time. Dogs that really enjoy other dogs might enjoy a new canine friend if that’s feasible. Although many dogs grieve deeply, most are able to recover well with our love and support.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
NYPD’s K-9 teams are loyal partnerships.
When NYPD officer Benny Colecchia brought his partner, Blaze, a nine-year-old German Shepherd, to the lower Manhattan emergency veterinary practice where I worked as surgeon in 2010, the big, stoic dog was displaying symptoms of colonic torsion, an uncommon twisting of the colon. If it wasn’t surgically corrected, Blaze could die.
Given Blaze’s age, even with surgery, the prognosis was guarded. He might require a bowel resection (removal of the compromised bowel) or develop sepsis (infection), or the bowel might fail altogether. But there was absolutely no hesitation on Colecchia’s part about going forward.
“Blaze is always on the money,” said Colecchia, a 16-year veteran of the NYPD. “He’s never balked.” The two had been partners for seven years at the time. Blaze, whose name was “Imp” before he joined the force, is known for his skilled cadaver-recovery work. Just prior to his trip to the vet ER, he had found a charred human torso in a burned-out Bronx building; the fire had been deliberately set.
Like most NYPD dogs, Blaze had been born and raised in the Czech Republic, which is known for its high-quality breeders and the dogs they produce specifically for police work. The city buys the dogs through established brokers for about $4,000 each. Considering that this includes the dogs’ veterinary expenses, food and housing for the first two years of their lives, as well as the flight to New York, it’s a good deal.
After 9/11, the city recognized the need to increase the number of NYPD K-9 units, and recruited heavily from the patrol ranks; Colecchia transferred over in 2003. Originally used primarily for patrol, the K-9 Unit now comprises four divisions: Transit, Emergency Service Unit (ESU), bomb and narcotics. There are approximately 40 dogs each in Transit and ESU (80 combined) and roughly eight dogs each in the narcotics and bomb divisions. But it wasn’t until 9/11 and their extensive use at Ground Zero for SAR operations that they became a critical part of the force and more publicly visible.
In fact, my first experience taking care of NYPD dogs came during this fraught time. Several dogs with burned, cut and bleeding footpads were brought into the practice where I worked in downtown Manhattan; their paws had been injured as the dogs scoured the edges of the inferno that had been the Twin Towers. The heat had caused the protective external footpads to separate from the underlying tissue. Despite how painful their paws must’ve been, their drive to continue searching was huge. I saw a hard-wired imperative in these dogs, a one-way arrow pointing to “Go.”
Anthony Compitello, another K-9 officer and a 19-year veteran New York City cop, brought in his partner Caesar, a 100-pound, six-year-old German Shepherd, for a surgical consult in 2012. Later, we talked about what it takes to be part of this unit. Compitello said there were 11 in his 2005 graduating class, which was the department’s largest. In order to apply for transfer to the K-9 Unit, an officer must have five years’ experience with the NYPD. “You can’t be a knucklehead,” Compitello observed. Once an officer is cleared, he or she must pass a rigorous physical-fitness test consisting of a run, an 80-pound carry to simulate a dog’s weight and a wall climb holding a 50-pound bag overhead.
Taking the Bite
During this exercise, the dog is on-leash, restrained by the handler. Since a handler’s dog can’t be trained to bite him or her, the cops partner up and take the bite from another handler’s dog. This training is vital, as all NYPD dogs are trained to “locate and bite” (as opposed to “locate and bark”) once they find a perpetrator. One of the NYPD dogs’ most important roles is to apprehend suspects, and the “get” is the dogs’ reward: they’re primed to want the bite.
“Your whole body’s resisting the dog. The biting is very intimidating,” Compitello recalled. “It knocks a lot of guys out [of the training]. They’re afraid, or they get hurt. Dogs are either front-biters and bite with their canines—which hurts the most—or full-mouth biters, using their molars to hang on.” Compitello proudly showed me scars on his right forearm from his training days; five stitches here, three stiches there.
The goal of the 20-week training is to teach the dog that catching a suspect or finding a scent is a game they always win, and the reward is praise and affection from their handler, followed by quick tug of war. If a dog has to be corrected during training, “Better double the praise,” says NYPD officer Rob McArdle, who has been in the K-9 Unit since 1994.
These dogs live for praise from their handlers. Food can’t be used as a reward, since work may take the dog into a restaurant, deli, grocery or other places where food is part of the search environment. So, play is the more practical alternative. K-9 officers carry a rope toy everywhere, and downtime always includes a game of tug.
Using their personal clothes and scuff marks from their shoes, handlers give the command “Track” so their dogs can learn their scent. The dogs also wear a special harness, which they come to associate with scent-tracking. Over the course of a week, training intensifies: the size of the clothing gets smaller, and it’s hidden in increasingly difficult places—garbage bags, under furniture or in ceilings in derelict buildings. Within days, the dog “tracks” to an article of clothing or artifact, and can search for the scent of that person in an abandoned car or building or across miles of a densely wooded area. Hundreds of scents could potentially override or overwhelm the dogs, but they’re able to retain their focus on just one.
The dogs’ scenting skills are also used extensively in recovery operations. In 1994, when McArdle got Baron, his German Shepherd, the training for an NYPD dog lasted 12 weeks. Baron was a patrol dog, one of only 15 working the five boroughs at the time. All of the dogs were trained to recognize gunpowder and live human scent. “Cadaver work was minimal in 1994,” McArdle said. “There was only one day of training. That changed dramatically after 9/11.”
McArdle had just started training with a new dog, Tonto, in early September 2001. After six years of physically rigorous police work, Baron had back pain and difficulty walking. Following a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, Baron eased into retirement, and McArdle was assigned another dog; Tonto was the new boy on the block.
On Duty at Ground Zero
“We didn’t believe it. You know, all kinds of crackpots get on our radio. Still, we headed toward the parking lot, and then a civilian said the same thing. We raced to our cars, drove to the base in Brooklyn to get supplies like flashlights and ropes, then headed into the city,” McArdle recalled.
During the weeks following 9/11, as search-and-rescue turned into search-and-recovery, Baron came out of retirement to work as a “spotter,” and, along with the other NYPD patrol dogs, was fast-track-trained for cadaver work, “Some dogs did find human remains in the beginning. But the cadaver scent was so overwhelming; it’s not the ideal situation for a cadaver dog. The dogs were literally on top of it, and it was too powerful.”
McArdle tried to give the dogs directions to turn right or left, things they would normally do automatically. But the dogs found the commands hard to follow. “I don’t think they were reacting to the human emotion. They were frustrated. They kept searching and coming up with nothing. Times like that, you just fall back on your training; the dogs do, too.”
By mid-October, police presence was cut back at Ground Zero, and McArdle and Tonto resumed their five-day-a-week training schedule. By then, training for all NYPD dogs had been extended to 20 weeks, and included extensive cadaver training. It was about this time that Tonto’s name was changed to TC, for Trade Center.
When I first met TC in 2011, he was the sole surviving NYPD dog to have worked Ground Zero. The partnership between McArdle and his dog was as synchronized as any between two individuals who have shared a decade of day-today history.
A Day in the Life
“The dog is the last resort before people go in. We give a clear, loud warning several times to give the suspect time to surrender, and anyone else time to get out of the building. Once that’s done, if there’s no response, we deploy the dog. That’s the toughest call, when you actually have to send your dog into harm’s way,” said McArdle.
It’s also hard to wait for the dog to come out before the Special Unit police officers go in. “You’re praying that they don’t find anybody in there, that the dog didn’t mess up.” McArdle paused, and then continued. “It’s all trust. The dogs are trusting that you’ll never put them in harm’s way. You’re trusting them with your life. They’ll get killed before one of us does.”
So far, New York City hasn’t had a NYPD dog die in the line of duty—none have been shot, stabbed or hit by a car— although dogs have been injured. In June of this year, Caesar suffered a near-fatal electrocution while searching an area of Ft. Bennett Field in Brooklyn. An exposed 220-volt wire had electrified the ground during a rainstorm. Compitello, only a few feet away, saw his dog hold up his leg, fall to the ground and start violently seizing, all in a matter of seconds. At first, he thought that Caesar had been bitten by a snake. He radioed for emergency transport to the hospital, and, after two days of intensive medical care, Caesar recovered. Compitello later realized how close he came to being electrocuted himself, had Caesar not been walking in front of him and taken the shock first.
A few years ago in New Jersey, a police canine was shot and killed in a private house. Afterward, there was an outpouring of public money specifically to outfit police dogs with bulletproof vests. The downside is that the vests are very restrictive; ultimately, it’s up to the handlers whether or not their dogs wear them. Typically, the only gear the dogs wear is a collar, so there’s less to grab.
“It’s a horrible feeling. The dog is there to protect us and is used as a tool, but the dog also comes home with us; he’s part of the family,” observed Officer Colecchia. Officer Compitello voiced the grim reality: “The dog’s replaceable, you’re not. The dog goes first.” As hard as it is for every police officer in the K-9 Unit to know, understanding this from the beginning is also part of their training.
A Price to be Paid
During the summer of 2012, TC developed a persistent cough. His chest X-rays showed many circular opacities, and he was given a presumptive diagnosis of lung cancer by a veterinary oncologist. Knowing his history—that for three months, he’d had his nose to the ground on a daily basis at the site of the incinerated trade towers—I suspected that it might be sarcoidosis, a progressive, inflammatory lung disease that many people exposed to the 9/11 fumes also developed.
The only other disease TC could have had was a fungal infection, which was not only extremely unlikely but also carried an equally poor prognosis, even with treatment. For a definitive diagnosis, a lung biopsy was required; this is an invasive procedure and requires anesthesia, which is always a worry with older dogs. Understandably, McArdle wasn’t interested in pursuing a diagnosis. Other than the cough, TC was not displaying any other symptoms, and continued living a comfortable, happy life with McArdle, his family and their new police dog, Clancy.
During the course of the following year, however, X-rays showed that TC’s lung disease was progressing. When TC was 13 years old, an ultrasound revealed that a tumor was growing within his heart. This sort of tumor, presumptively a cancer—a cardiac hemangiosarcoma—is relatively common among German Shepherds. Because of its location, TC was at risk for sudden internal bleeding, collapse and death.
On December 26, 2013, Rob McArdle called me at home. He was at his local vet, about an hour outside of the city. “TC’s in heart failure,” McArdle said, his voice cracking, “I’m going to let him go. I want to do right by him.”
This was, of course, also understandable. TC had always done right by McArdle. As his partner, he showed up every day and did his job without error or hesitation. As a beloved family dog, he had seen three children grow to adulthood and was able to see them a final time when they came home for the holidays. The relationship between McArdle and TC was standard for a police officer and his service dog: heroes protecting each other as well as the rest of us.
I called McArdle not long after he had TC euthanized. He was already in the patrol car, driving to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Long Island. TC’s body, wrapped in his blanket, lay on the back seat, where he’d sat every day for 11 years.
Rob McArdle now patrols his familiar beat in Midtown Manhattan with Clancy, who has been his K9 partner since TC retired. Blaze is a healthy 13-year-old, happily retired and family pet to the five Colecchia children. He’s also mentor to Timmy, the three-year-old Shepherd who’s now Colecchia’s K9 partner; Timmy excels in SAR and has a nose every bit as keen as Blaze’s. Anthony Compitello has a newly trained three-year-old Belgian Malinois, Argo, although 9-year-old Caesar has yet to retire.
Colecchia and Blaze, Compitello and Caesar, McArdle and TC: these teams and others like them are symbols of the power of dogs and people working together. May public awareness of these dogs and their importance to police officers— and to public safety—continue to grow.
While we on the west coast are contending with a very robust El Nino rainy season, we aren’t complaining after so many years of drought. But it does make dog walks and exercising extra challenging. But for most of the rest of the country dealing with harsh and cold winter weather is even more difficult. So today when we received a press release from the Central Veterinary Associates in Long Island, NY we thought that they had many good ideas to help you prepare for wintery conditions.
● Always Dry Off: When your dog comes in from the snow, ice or sleet, be sure to thoroughly wipe down their paws and stomach. He or she may have rock salt, antifreeze or other potentially dangerous chemicals on their paws which, if ingested, can cause severe stomach problems. Antifreeze should especially be watched for as it can lead to kidney failure. In addition, paw pads may get cut from hard snow or encrusted ice, so it’s important to check them over and treat them accordingly.
● Hold Off on Haircuts: Save for extreme circumstances, you should never shave down your dog during the winter. Their long, thick coats are vital for protection from the cold. If you have a short-haired breed, consider getting him a coat or a sweater with a high collar or turtleneck with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly.
● Keep Bedtime Warm: Make sure your dog has a warm place to sleep, off the floor and away from all drafty areas. A cozy pet bed with a warm blanket or pillow is ideal.
● Bathroom Breaks: If you have a puppy or aging pet that may be sensitive to the cold, it may be difficult to take them outside. Use wee-pads or old newspapers to train puppies or to allow older pets to relieve themselves.
● Bring Pets Inside: If domesticated animals are left outdoors during winter months, they run the risk of health conditions caused by extreme temperatures. Cats are especially susceptible as they have free reign of the outdoors, and become lost during a storm, or taken in by a neighbor. In similar fashion to summer months, you should never leave your pet alone in a car in cold weather, as they could freeze and develop serious cold-related health conditions.
● Keep a Short Leash: Never let your dog off the leash on snow or ice, especially during a snowstorm as they can lose their scent and easily become lost. More dogs are lost during the winter than any other season, so make sure that your dog always wears his identification tags. It is highly recommended that all pets are outfitted with a microchipping device, which it makes available as part of a low-cost service.
● Check Your Engine: As you’re getting into your car in the morning, bang loudly on the hood of the car before getting in. Outdoor cats and wild animals like to sleep under cars or within the engine compartment or wheel base, as the engines keep the vehicle warm long after the car is parked. However, once the car is started or in motion, the cat can be injured or killed by the fan belt or tires.
● Clean Up Spills: If you spill any antifreeze or winter-weather windshield fluid, be sure to clean it up immediately. Pets, especially cats, are enticed by the sweet-tasting liquid, but it is poisonous. Ingesting antifreeze leads to potentially life-threatening illness in all animals, domesticated or otherwise. If possible, use products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol.
Also, Dr. Aaron Vine, DVM, Vice President, Central Veterinary Associates adds that, “It is very important to keep your pet safe and healthy during the winter season, especially during storms like the one in the forecast this weekend. The extreme cold may have an adverse effect on your pet’s health, so pet owners must take the necessary precautions for their pets when bringing them outside. It is especially important during extreme weather circumstances to ensure that your pet is microchipped, which makes it easier to locate them. In the event they become ill as a result of being exposed to the elements, please bring them to a veterinarian immediately.”
Do check out their Holiday Safety Tips blog and visit www.centralvets.com.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A troubled Greyhound finds her perfect match.
We weren’t going to keep her. That was understood at the outset. By me and by my partner Kathy. By the Greyhound adoption group. By the Greyhound advocacy group that had deemed her a candidate for rehabilitation. Possibly even by Blondie herself. And after we brought her into our home, we wondered if we should have taken her at all.
“Giddy’s Blondie” was one of the last two dogs at Dairyland Greyhound Park, a racetrack in Kenosha, Wisc., when it closed for good at the end of December 2009. Before the track closed, and by the time this exuberant and friendly former racer was three years old, she had been placed in two homes, had been returned to the track’s adoption center twice and had become a dangerously fear-aggressive dog. Probably unadoptable. But the track vet, Dr. Jenifer Barker, thought Blondie could be saved. So did the Greyhound Alliance, a group that facilitates Greyhound adoption through financial support of special-needs dogs, among other things. As a result, Greyhounds Only, Inc., the rescue group from which Kathy and I adopted our three previous retired racers, took Blondie into their program.
The hand of fate seems to have been working feverishly here. For years, Barbara Karant, president of our Greyhound group, had been after us to foster dogs, but Kathy, concerned about upsetting the balance we had with our other dogs, had always been reluctant. So when Barbara asked if we would foster Blondie, I was surprised when Kathy said we’d meet her and maybe, just maybe, foster her. The minute we walked in the door to the facility where Blondie was being held, the sleek dog ran to Kathy and glued herself to my partner’s leg. Kathy joked that Barbara had coached Blondie—who had been keeping her distance from everyone—to do this. We decided to foster. But, just to be clear, we weren’t going to keep her.
A few days into it, we were pretty sure we’d made a huge mistake in agreeing to take her into our home, even temporarily. We’d seen no signs of aggression, but the experience was unsettling nonetheless. Blondie would walk over to one of us and stand very close, clearly wanting attention. The moment we started to pet her, however, she’d yelp as though we’d kicked her, then run to hide in her crate for hours. Thinking she was perhaps in pain, we made what became a series of vet appointments. After countless hours in the offices of an animal behaviorist and a couple of specialty vets in the farthest-flung suburbs of Chicago, it was determined that mostly what she needed was time. And to continue taking Prozac. Steeling ourselves against her yelps, we continued to touch her; she needed to (re)learn that every touch did not mean pain.
As we began gathering bits and pieces of her recent past, we learned that in her first home, there was a teenage son with bipolar affective disorder. While we will never know for sure exactly what happened in that home, it would appear that the son punched, kicked or hit Blondie in the face with a blunt object. After a couple of months, the boy’s mother finally decided that Blondie’s quality of life was not good and returned her to the track’s adoption center. By this time, all the blood vessels in one of her eyes had been broken. Also, though no one was aware of it at the time, her spine had probably been knocked out of alignment, leaving her in near-constant pain.
This last factor became relevant in the second home in which she was placed, where she actually would have been fine with the older single woman who adopted her if not for the actions of her supposedly well-meaning adult son. When mother and son got Blondie to the woman’s home, Blondie hid in her crate. The man tried to force her out, pulling her by the collar. When Blondie bit him, he decided she was dangerous and needed to be returned. He dragged her, still in the metal crate, down a flight of stairs, possibly causing further physical injury. And that was how she came to be left at the track, a hurt, mistrustful creature.
Initially, we were told that had the Greyhound Alliance not interceded on her behalf, she might have been euthanized; one of the adoption groups approached to take her into their program thought she should be put down. Later, when I spoke with Dr. Barker, she said she suspected that Blondie’s trainers liked her well enough that they might have kept her as a “kennel dog”—a dog who no longer raced but continued to live in a crate except for eating and exercise/elimination breaks. She’d have been alive, but not living in any meaningful sense of the word. Once our adoption group took her on, a vet in Chicago, Dr. Kathi Berman, put Blondie on Prozac, and a chiropractor at the practice discovered her spine issues and got those straightened out (no pun intended).
In the meantime, we exercised as much patience as we could muster. I gently pushed Blondie’s limits, trying to show her that I wouldn’t hurt her no matter how much I touched her. Kathy nervously attempted to respect those limits so as not to shatter Blondie’s or our nerves when she had one of her inevitable anxiety attacks. Our little PTSD dog, we called her. Actually, Kathy preferred that name to the one she had, but I reminded her that if we weren’t going to keep her, we shouldn’t change her name. Blondie remained Blondie.
Gradually, Blondie’s panic attacks decreased in length and number—at least around Kathy and me. With friends and family, she still kept a wary distance, especially with Kathy’s dad and brother-in-law. Dr. Barker laughed when she found out that Kathy and I were lesbians: Blondie’s trainers were a lesbian couple, too, she told me. That we are women probably accounted for, in part, Blondie’s burgeoning trust in us —just as her experience with the callous sons in her two previous homes had disposed her to be guarded around men.
There was, for instance, a delusional homeless man who wandered the streets of our neighborhood the year Blondie came into our lives. During this time, there were three dogs in our house: Blondie; Iris (our other Greyhound); and Annie, Kathy’s dad’s Greyhound, who was there temporarily while he was in the process of moving. Walking the dogs, I would often cross paths with the homeless man. Annie loved the guy and couldn’t get enough of his abundant odors. Iris was indifferent to him; if he petted her, she accepted his attention with a bored nonchalance. Blondie— possibly influenced by her earlier experiences— would buck and rear at the end of her leash if he tried to come near her. The fact that he was male can’t have helped either.
But even relatively sane men like our relatives made her uneasy. The behaviorist had said to let Blondie come to them when she was ready, and everyone was careful around her in the beginning, not touching her unless she expressly showed an interest. Even then, she’d often panic and run off. Everybody in our circle knew her history. They were respectful of her limitations, sympathetic to her misfortunes and able to bide their time, waiting for her to come around—literally and figuratively— despite the fact that such standoffishness was not at all characteristic of the love-junkie Greyhounds we’d known up to then.
Sometimes now, when my arms are wrapped around her neck and my face is snuggled against her long snout, I marvel that this is the same dog—this dog who now leans up against friends and family, allows my young nephew to pet her on the head, does tricks for us when we ask, and puts her head in my or Kathy’s lap for many minutes at a time. Yes, as you’ve probably long since guessed, we adopted her.
Over the months when we were trying to get her comfortable in her own fur, we had come to love her. Not only does she have the sweetest face, her willingness to trust again after what she’d been through would have made it hard not to love her. Mostly, though, it was the thought of her having to endure getting used to a whole new family— the cruelty of unsettling her again— that made us decide to keep her.
These days, some three years after she first entered our home, Blondie is, above all, exuberant. Ask her if she wants to go for a walk and she’ll bow, spin and wag her tail ecstatically. She likes to root around in her milk crate for just the right toy, toss it upward, pounce on it and, with her butt in the air and her tail circling like a helicopter rotor blade, manically bite the squeaker. When I let her in from the back yard where she’s been running full tilt, I always say, “Watch your knee caps.” When the door opens, she comes through it like it’s the starting gate at the track: she bolts up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and slides to a stop as she crosses the living room like a canine Kramer from Seinfeld. But she’s not on the track, and she knows it, sidling over to where I’m sitting and positioning her great chest over my thighs so I can hold her.
Our friends in the adoption group joke that we “failed foster.” It’s the proudest I’ve even been about—and the most I’ve ever enjoyed—failing.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Making slopes safer for everyone.
In a cold february morning in 2013, a Golden Retriever named Rocky and his owner/ handler John Alfond quickly climb into the backseat of the Flight for Life helicopter. Rocky scoots to the far side next to the window. Alfond slides in beside the dog, followed by the avalanche technician. The liftoff is fast and hectic, and Rocky leans into Alfond for reassurance. It will take them 12 minutes to reach the Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, and every second counts. Rocky, an avalanche-dog-in-training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, is being transported to a disaster.
Avalanches threaten not only skiers and snowboarders but also snow-mobilers and ice climbers. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 25 people on average die in avalanches each year. In 2010, that number hit an all-time high with 36 deaths, and a near-record high again in 2012 with 34 fatalities. The risk is the highest in Colorado, which has more than 1 million acres of avalanche terrain and a notoriously unstable snowpack.
When the Flight for Life helicopter touches down, police officers and members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol are waiting. They brief Alfond and team on the incident—a man in his mid- 40s witnessed an avalanche. The man wasn’t affected, but he saw others swept away. No one is sure how many people are buried. Rocky paces on the end of his leash.
Alfond, himself a member of the ski patrol in Vail, assesses the scene’s safety. He identifies the wind direction, and looks for signs of more slides—cornices, or snow that could shift. Time is critical. After 15 minutes, nine out of ten people, or 90 percent, will survive an avalanche. After 30 minutes, that percentage decreases to 50.
Once Alfond is comfortable that the snow pack no longer presents an imminent danger, he asks Rocky to sit. The dog obeys. Alfond gets down on his knees and looks Rocky directly in the eye. “Are you ready to work?” he asks. Rocky sits tall and holds Alfond’s gaze. He’s ready. Alfond unclips the leash. “Find it!” he says. Rocky bolts.
The dog immediately identifies a partially buried man, alive, but with head and leg injuries. Alfond praises Rocky, who romps with glee, and then asks him to sit. “Are you ready to go back to work?” he asks. Rocky turns serious again, and Alfond issues the “Find it” command a second time. After several minutes, the dog identifies two more victims, fully buried, and begins to dig them out. Alfond determines that both are dead. Rocky is still praised, as his job is to “daylight” avalanche victims—to locate and unbury bodies, alive or dead.
Alfond sends Rocky back to work to “find it” one more time, but the dog turns up nothing. Alfond radios in the coordinates of the bodies as the avalanche technician loads the injured man onto a sled. Rocky follows. Total time from when they stepped off the helicopter: 23 minutes.
Once Alfond and the team rejoin the rest of the group, the mood turns celebratory. The incident was a simulation, and Rocky performed exceptionally well. The two “bodies” are volunteers, members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol, as is the “injured man,” who hops off the sled and starts to wrestle with Rocky. “He’s ready for certification,” Alfond says, high-fiving the avalanche technician.
The next month, Rocky passes his certification test at Copper Mountain Resort, along with a Labrador named Mookie and his handler Caroline Stone. The two dogs officially become the second and third members of Vail Resort’s certified avalanche-dog team. “I was more stressed than Rocky was,” Alfond says. “When it comes to avy dogs, humans are the dumb end of the leash.”
Born to Rescue
Rocky was born April 4, 2011, at Hunters Trace Kennel in southeastern Wyoming. Alfond chose the kennel because owner Marsha Greenwell had successfully put four other dogs into ski patrol programs. “There are specific traits I look for in a puppy for avalanche rescue,” says Greenwell, “but the most important factor is the dog’s genetics.”
For avy work, Greenwell breeds dogs with pedigrees proving good health and strong joints, as well as successful hunting or field-competition backgrounds. She feels that hunting and field dogs have attributes that are also desirable in avalanche dogs: they are intelligent, bold but not reckless, and possess the perseverance to work and search. Once the dogs have been bred, she selects puppies who can distinguish scents easily, demonstrate a strong work ethic, are confident and playful, and know when it’s time to rest. The key trait she looks for, however, is eye contact. “It’s been proven that dogs communicate through eye contact,” she says. “They get a lot of their instruction from us by what we’re saying to them with our eyes. It’s how they learn to trust in scary situations, like getting into a helicopter.”
By the time Rocky’s litter was five weeks old, Greenwell had selected two possible avalanche dog candidates. At eight weeks, she’d narrowed it down to just one—the male with the gold yarn around his neck. “She was right,” says Alfond. “Rocky is smart, has a great temperament and a strong work drive, and loves to search.”
Alfond gave Rocky four weeks to get adjusted to his new home before starting training. The Alfond household includes two children and two other Golden Retrievers; fortunately, Rocky fit in well. The pup’s first lessons lasted five minutes, building up to 20. After Rocky mastered the basics like sit and come, Alfond started laying the foundation for the commands essential to search-and-rescue work.
Alfond would ask Rocky to sit; once he’d done so, a friend or family member would hold the dog. Next, he’d ask Rocky if he was ready to work, and then walk 10 to 20 feet away. Watching his owner “leave,” Rocky would become anxious to follow (hence the need for someone to hold him). Finally, Alfond would issue the most critical command in the search-and-rescue dog universe: “Find it!”
The friend or family member would let go of Rocky and he’d run directly to Alfond. Praise, play and treats were part of Rocky’s reward for a successful “find.” “When they get good at that, then you start to hide, like ducking behind a rock,” says Alfond. “Eventually, you hide downwind from them, without [letting] them see where you hide, and they find you based purely on scent.”
After a summer and fall of preliminary training, Rocky was ready to try his new skills in the snow. Alfond started Rocky with basic burial drills, in which the dog is held as he watches a person crawl into a snow cave, and then released with the “find it” command. Rocky progressed to finding someone who had been buried in the snow out of his sight.
In January 2013, Rocky and Alfond traveled to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Utah to attend the four-day WBR International Dog School. The oldest and most prestigious program of its kind, the school includes instructors from Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, Swiss Alpine Club, Alaska SAR Dogs and the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. By spring 2013, Rocky had mastered avalanche simulations like the one at Arapahoe Basin. His total training and preparat ion for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) certification took two years.
The Avy Dog Difference
“As the number of people recreating at ski resorts and in the backcountry continues to rise, more resorts are starting to see the benefits of avy dog programs,” says Thompson, himself an avy dog handler and a member of the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol.
Thompson, who has participated in more than a dozen avalanche SAR efforts with his dog, a Labrador named Dixie, created Beaver Creek Resort’s avalanche dog program in 2000. Four dogs currently participate, and the resort plans to add a fifth for the 2013/2014 season. “In the winter, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice,” he says. “When Flight for Life responds, they look for the closest avy dog to the scene.”
Thompson doesn’t mince words when it comes to avalanche survival rates. Ski patrollers understand that the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be caught by one in the first place. The hard fact is that by the time avy dogs and their handlers reach a site—by helicopter, snowmobile, skis or all three —it’s usually too late for the victim.
At 30 minutes, the avalanche survival rate is 50 percent, and that percentage drops to 20 after two hours. “We always respond as fast and as efficiently as possible with the thought that we’re going after a live body, but more often, that’s not what we’re finding,” says Thompson. Alfond agrees. “An avalanche dog is not a magic bullet.”
As he and Rocky head toward their first ski season as a full-fledged avy dog team at Vail Resort, Alfond acknowledges that there are serious on-the-job risks. In addition to avalanche danger, there are other hazards, such as frostbite or Rocky accidentally getting cut by a ski edge while running beside him to a rescue. Yet Alfond appreciates the rewards of his job. “If we rescue just one person, or bring just one body home to a family, it’s worth it.”
Alfond sees another benefit to having avy dogs as part of a resort’s ski patrol team: they’re great for public relations. Ski patrol members are not typically known as the most approachable skiers on the mountain. Quite the contrary— they’re the ones who bust you for ducking a rope and to get to the untracked powder out of bounds. But when avy dogs are around, suddenly people want to interact. “Guests actually come into our office just to pet them,” says Alfond. “And we get a lot better reception at schools during our snow-safety presentations when the dogs are there.”
Avy dogs may be a ski resort’s best chance at decreasing the avalanche death toll. Dogs put a friendly face on snow safety outreach programs. They give the ski patrol an opening to talk about the importance of carrying a shovel, beacon and probe into the backcountry, and knowing how to use the gear in an emergency. Avy dogs in their red vests make people smile, and may make them more attentive to messages about using common sense in the backcountry, including having a partner and carrying a cell phone.
The presence of avy dogs at ski resorts helps make people more snow-safety conscious—and that’s a feat worth wagging about.
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