life with dogs
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.
Wellness: Health Care
An examination of coming to terms with our worst fears
The way we loved her—my husband and I —ended in a fierce custody battle when we divorced, both of us threatening the other with lawyers and lawsuits. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since animals, as we found out, are not family but property. Which made Riva Jones technically mine, since I’d adopted her before the marriage. But as we all know, in matters of the heart, “technically” and “legally” are muddled, and a dog qualifies as a matter of the heart.
When we fought, Riva would come over and rest her head on my knee while she looked up at me, her eyes saying, Please be happy. She, like most dogs, was family, not property. And that’s why I agreed to share custody of her. My ex loved her the way I loved her, and no matter what kind of meanness I could muster for him at the loss of our relationship, I could not take Riva away from him, nor could I take him away from Riva. So after we broke up, we traded weeks. He lived across the highway and it was easy enough. We saw her through two major surgeries, costing us $7,000; she saw us through new partners, engagements, broken engagements and a marriage. She loved us just the same. She accepted her two-household life. She loved the girlfriends of my ex (even though I told her not to), and she loved my new husband.
After three years of the weekly dog swap, my ex announced that he was moving three hours away. I figured I’d just keep Riva full-time, but he figured otherwise, and fought for her. Motivated by the leftover guilt of leaving him or the fact that she loved him too, I agreed—we would do the dog swap once a month. For three more years, we met on the side of highways, at rest stops, in the dark corners of gas stations.
It seemed like we were trading contraband— who would have guessed that we had pulled over to trade off a German Shepherd? My new husband resented waiting in the gas station parking lot or on the side of the road. I do not know what the girlfriend thought. But Riva always seemed happy to get into one car or the other, never complaining, never even looking back. I wish I had just a little bit of that kind of acceptance, that sort of living in the moment, the attitude that says: “Okay, this is what we’re doing now. Fun!”
At 12, Riva started cutting trail on backcountry ski trips so she could keep up. The last time I took her skiing, she ran down the skin trail instead of following behind us, diving in and out of the fresh snow like a porpoise. When she disappeared, I shouted for her for an hour, afraid she’d fallen in a tree well. She had taken the easy way down and was waiting for us at the car; she sat, smiling, as if to say, That took you a long time.
I took Riva on her last summer hike when she was 14, which, in retrospect, was ambitious, though even our vet had called her the “Wonderdog.” My plan was to hike the two miles to Meiss Meadow from Carson Pass and then back again. It was hot, she was tired and her back end kept giving out. I sat in the shade with her, stroked her head and told her it was okay. I am sure that my ex and Riva took a similar hike—one that was a little too much.
By 15, Riva was blind and deaf. She became incontinent and was horrified when she realized what she had done. I tried my best to tell her it was all right. Nobody was mad at her. No one had ever been mad at her. We tried everything, including installing a doggy door and layering plastic over the floor of one room, with pieces of old carpet on top so she wouldn’t slip. That lasted until she pooped, stepped in it and smeared it all over the carpet pieces and the plastic. Then, the dog whose bed had been right next to mine for 15 years had to sleep in the garage.
My ex got a new job, one that required travel, so the last six months of her life, Riva stayed exclusively with me. I resented my ex on the days I had to clean the house, my shoes and her fur. I resented it when she had to sleep in the garage. I resented it every time I had to help her up and down the stairs, every time I had to go outside and stop her from barking at imaginary things, which prompted the neighbors to call animal control, even the police. Once during that time, I needed a break and called my ex; he said he could not take her. My husband said, “Riva is here to teach you something. It’s her last gift.”
I made a list of all the things I loved and how many of them I could do without and still want to live. Perhaps I could go without skiing and hiking and running, but not reading, not spending time with family and friends. I came up with a number: 30 percent. If I could still do 30 percent of the things I loved, I would want to live.
I made a list for Riva. She could no longer chase chipmunks or swim, but she could eat treats and relax in the sun. From what I could tell, she was at exactly 30 percent. That’s when I started googling “When to put your dog down.” During this period, my friend Sandra came over. When she saw Riva, she said, “You have to put that dog down.” She was not being mean. Sandra is unflappable, and she is not one to couch her opinions in euphemism. She has an aging Pit Bull, Luna, who goes everywhere with her; they even went out together last Halloween, both dressed as witches. Sandra said, “When it’s Luna’s time, I want you to tell me.” I should also say that in addition to old age, Riva had Cushing’s disease, and her spine was a column of stones. Her belly was bloated and her fur matted with old age. Her milky eyes probably no longer looked intelligent, but I had not noticed. At one point that evening, Riva had fallen on the slate floor (recently installed because of her incontinence) and cried, and I picked her up. This, from the dog who never complained. Sandra said, “Put that dog down. You can’t let a dog lose her dignity.” I knew Sandra was right, that she was only trying to encourage me to do the humane thing, but of course I could think only this: That is coming from a woman who dresses her Pit Bull in a witch costume.
I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “It’s your decision to make. And you have to do it alone. Riva would want that from you. She expects it.”
But I called my ex, and we decided together that we would put Riva down in one week’s time. He would come to the house. The vet would come to the house. I put in for a day off work. But still, I kept searching online for something that would make things easier, something that would tell me when it was time. Again, I googled “when to put your dog down” and landed upon lists and surveys, which I took for Riva Jones, checking whether or not she ate or wagged her tail when I got home (the answer to both of those, by the way, was “yes” until the very end).
All week, I fed Riva steak and chicken and rice. I doubled her pain medication. I spent as much time with her as I could, and she improved. The weather had warmed, so she was sleeping on the deck, happy in the spring Sierra air. Some days, she could walk a half-mile up the trail behind my house. My ex came over, and we ended up sitting on the deck, sharing a bottle of chardonnay with Riva at our feet. We caught up on our friends, but talked very little about Riva. I wondered why he didn’t spend the time on the ground with her, but figured that we all deal with these things in our own way; maybe he didn’t really want to admit she was going, could not bear to say good-bye.
He came again the next day, the day before the appointment, and we took her walking. She made it about a half mile. We saw a bear, and she seemed happy to be among the wakening wildlife. We didn’t talk about the appointment, which was how things had always been between us. But after he left, I cancelled it. I told him we’d wait and see, take it day by day. My ex went home.
In the end, it really would be my decision to make. Among the survey questions on the “Should you put your dog down” test was Did you make euthanasia appointments and cancel them? I now checked “yes.” Riva was now at 50/50, the point at which, according to the survey, one should “put the dog down.” But did it count? Did I make a mistake when I made the appointment in the first place? So I waited.
I am here to tell you there will be an answer to your question, “When should I put my dog down?” but the answer cannot be found on an Internet survey.
There is only this: On a Thursday morning in April, you will wake up and your dog will be throwing up. By the time you leave, she will seem fine. But still, you ask your dog sitter, who is also a vet tech, to check on her during the day. You will run a poetry slam in the evening and will not be home until late. When you call your husband after work and before the event, he will say your dog seems fine. You will ask him what the dog sitter’s note said—she always leaves detailed descriptions of what goes on.
“No note,” he will say.
“She always leaves a note. Find it. Tell me what it says.”
“I didn’t see a note.”
“Look on the counter,” you will insist.
“No note,” he will answer.
You will leave it alone, knowing something is wrong, but you are in charge of an event, so you will choose to believe that your husband is telling you the truth.
He isn’t. He knows you have to go to the event. The note says your dog has been throwing up. But your husband checks on her and she seems to have improved, so he doesn’t say anything.
When you get home, you will find your dog on the porch, dry heaving. Though it will not have snowed for months, on this night, it will be snowing. You will find your dog outside, trying to throw up over the deck. She will know better, even then, to make a mess outside. She will be shivering, and tiny frozen flakes will be caught in her fur.
You will coax her inside, start the fire and ask her to lie on her bed. She will be dry heaving, and every once in a while, yellow bile will come up. She will froth at the mouth, and you will wipe the fur around her face with a towel.
So here’s when you know: when it’s too late. Which is what you tried to avoid with your googling late into the night. You will apologize to her over and over, telling her how sorry you are for not having the doctor come to the house and put her down.
But you could have not done that. You needed it to get to this.
You will call your vet, and because you live in a small mountain town, the office is closed. You will be directed to the vet hospital in the nearest big city, more than an hour from your house. You will call the hospital, and the woman on the other end of the line will encourage you to bring your dog in. “Her stomach could be flipped, and this is extremely painful,” the voice will say. You don’t believe this, but it will make you cry harder. “But she probably won’t make the drive,” the vet tech will say.
You will ask, “Why would I force my dog into a long car ride she probably won’t make?”
“You should bring her in,” the voice on the other end will answer. You will hand the phone to your husband, and he will talk to the vet tech in the other room. You cannot, in fact, do this alone.
When your husband hangs up and comes back into the living room, you will ask if you are going to drive your dog to the big-city vet. He will say no. You will say, “Call Sandra. Ask for her gun.”
He will say, “What? I am not calling Sandra. It’s after midnight.”
“Call Sandra and ask for her gun.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Just get her gun.”
This is when you know it is time to put your dog down: when you have never shot a gun in your life, and you’re willing to illegally fire a bullet from your unflappable friend’s pink .22 into your dog’s brain.
Your husband will call your friend Sandra, and after she figures out who’s calling her so late at night and asking for her gun, she will say no way. She will tell you it is illegal to shoot a handgun in your town. Unflappable though she is, she will not let you shoot your own dog.
So you will pull your dog’s bed, with her on it, over to the couch, and you will sleep next to her on the couch. She will dry heave for a while but then fall asleep, mercifully, until 7 am. For the last time, you will sleep beside her.
Your husband will leave for a meeting. It will seem, for a minute, that your dog has stopped dry heaving, frothing at the mouth.
But she hasn’t.
You will call your local vet, and the receptionist will say the vet cannot come to the house, but you can bring your dog to the office any time. Your eyes will have that sandpapery feel. You won’t know why, but you will feel the need to shower while your poor dog is suffering in the other room. Maybe you just want to make sure. Maybe you will get out of the shower and she will have stopped dry heaving, and she will be better!
So you will dry off and get dressed and you will realize you can’t wait for your husband to be done with his meeting. It is time.
You will lift your old dog from her bed and carry her down the stairs. She will not resist you. You will put her on the grass, and she will sniff around and go to the bathroom, and this last act of normal doggy behavior will nearly bring you to your knees.
You will call her, your voice cracking. She will see the hand motions you now use since she can no longer hear you, and she will look into the car as if she might try to jump into it. Before she can try, you will lift her into the car, and put her on her bed. She will smile, knowing she is going somewhere.
You will call your ex, telling him you are on your way to the vet … that it is time. You will call your friend Eve, who has three dogs, because you figure she might offer you some words of wisdom, and she does. She tells you to have them do it in the car. She will tell you that is how she has had all her dogs put down.
When you walk into your vet’s front office, everyone will know why you are there. The front office staff will tell you they will help you carry her in. You look around at all the other pet owners with their animals who will have to watch this. Your vet will agree to come out to the car. You are thankful for your friend who told you to have it done that way. You will go out to the car, open the back and sit with your dog in the morning sun.
The front office person will come out with paperwork. He will ask if you want your dog’s paw print. You will imagine them sticking the dead paw into a mold and quickly say no. Then you realize that your ex might want said paw print, so you call him.
“Do you want her paw print?” you say when he picks up.
“You know, they make a plaster imprint of her paw.” Then you add, “But they do it after she’s dead.”
Your ex will agree that the $79.95 paw print isn’t needed.
“But you are doing the private cremation, right?”
“Yeah,” you will answer.
“Call me. Later.”
You agree that you will.
You also agree to the more expensive “private cremation,” even though a former student has offered to dig a hole in your yard.
Here’s what you need to know if you are afraid of the actual procedure. Don’t be. You will not believe how easy the dying is. Afterward, you will wonder why we can’t let our humans go in this way, with compassion and kindness and love.
Here’s what happens: The vet tech will tell you that your dog will be given something to calm her down, make her “loopy.” You will ask if you can have some. “Only if you want to puke,” your vet will say. “It makes dogs feel great, not so much with humans.” Your dog will very quickly stop dry heaving and foaming at the mouth. She will lay her head down and seem to be in a very happy place. You will pet her and talk to her and do your best not to cry because you do not want to upset her. Then the vet will say she is giving the second injection. You will keep your hand on your dog’s chest, feel her heart slow and then stop.
“We’ll be right back,” your vet will tell you. “Take a few minutes.”
That is when you will bury your face in the fur of your dead dog and you will wail. The vet and vet tech will come back with a little stretcher, they will lift your dog onto it and cover her with a fuzzy ducky blanket that seems at once sentimental and silly, but heartbreaking, really.
The next day, you will relay your story to your running partner, and when you get to the ducky blanket, your voice will crack. You will have to stop talking. Your friend will say, “That isn’t heartbreaking. It’s soulbreaking.”
And so it was.
As with most dogs, Riva Jones taught me how to be a better creature in the world. How to live in the moment, to go with the flow. How to be a friend. How to live and, finally, how to let go.
Even though I wanted to prevent her from suffering even one single minute, I couldn’t. The last 20 hours or so were uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. But I have to believe Riva could see that I did the best I could. Would it have been more humane to put her down a week earlier, when I had made the first appointment? Probably. But as it is, I sometimes wonder if I should have brought her into the vet that morning, had the doctor check her. Maybe she’d be alive today! Those are the irrational thoughts that go along with the here-one-day-gone-the-next nature of death. I even worried that Riva would “wake up” in the vet’s office, scared, wondering where I was.
Everyone says your dog will tell you when it’s time. That you will know. That only makes sense in retrospect. You did it, so it was very much the right time. My ex didn’t send me a check for half the euthanasia or cremation, but he did call me to tell me he would be up to spread the ashes. When I told my husband, he responded, “Tell him no cash, no ash.”
I went back and forth about what to do. Finally, I opened the wooden box (a private cremation comes with a lovely cedar container) and we dished two heaping ladlesful of Riva into another baggie. As I did with my father’s ashes, I sifted through Riva’s remains, hoping for what, I’m not sure. Some feeling that it was her. But as with my father, it was gray bone fragment, and I could make no connection between it and the living being.
When I went to meet my ex with the ash and Riva’s collar, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. I felt like I needed an ending to my story, an ending, in many ways, to my relationship with my ex. We had kept in close contact because of Riva, but that would be over now. I then realized that the day he sat on the deck with me, drinking chardonnay, he was there not so much to say good-bye to Riva as to say good-bye to me.
We hiked up the hill behind the house we once shared. Since her death, he had gotten a dog paw tattooed on his forearm, and underneath, Riva’s name. I refrained from telling him, even in my usual passive-aggressive way, how ridiculous I found that. I saw that even though we both lost the same dog, we both had our own journey with it. When we reached the top, the valley unfolding into the lake, my ex opened the baggie and let the wind take the ash. It swirled around, scattering on the dirt below us. He then drove a metal cross into the ground with a mallet and wrapped Riva’s collar around it. We both sat there for a long time, looking out across the lake.
A woman with a dog came up the trail, and said, “Great spot, huh?” We allowed that it was.
“My husband proposed to me right there,” she called.
“Right where you’re sitting.”
She walked off with her dog, and I said, “Should we tell her?” We both laughed for a long time and then agreed it was time to head back down. When we reached my car, my ex gave me a check for half the vet bill without being asked. And then, finally, we said good-bye.
These delectable cookies are simple to make, and can be broken into smaller pieces perfect for training bits.
Mix the flour, oats, whole grains, parsley, dried milk and salt.
Add the eggs, peanut butter and honey and stir into dry ingredients to combine; the mixture will be crumbly.
Add enough water to bring the dough together. Mix with a spoon, or if using a stand mixer, use a dough hook.
Drop (or form by hand) the dough into walnutsized balls onto the prepared baking sheets. Flatten them to about 1/4".
Bake for about 45 minutes. When finished, the cookies will be dark golden brown, and will be dry and crisp all the way through.
Cool right on the pans.
Yield: 60 small (round) cookies.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs can sure get into them!
Though I could never match a veterinarian for tales of seasonal paraphernalia that has been ingested, when it comes to other aspects of dogs interacting with December’s décor, I have heard more stories of trouble than most people ever will. In other words, if you name something that people have in their homes to help celebrate the holidays, I’m likely to remember a story in which a dog messed with that item.
I hear tales of Christmas trees that have been knocked over and peed on. I have a vivid image of a black dog running through the neighborhood streaming tinsel all over the place. His guardian is convinced that this shiny decoration saved his life by reflecting the headlights of the car whose driver swerved just in time to miss him.
A friend told me that one year they had a white Christmas despite living in Southern California. Her dog had toppled a 10-pound bag of flour off the counter and played in it until the whole downstairs would have made Bing Crosby proud.
I know of a dog who decorated almost the entire set of holiday cards with muddy footprints. The family sent them out anyway, with a note that this year the dog had signed them. Another dog messed with the holiday mailing by somehow getting a large number of postage stamps stuck in his fur and on his face. Festive!
Dogs eating holiday meals is nothing new, so the stories of dogs sampling the potluck dish meant for a party or helping themselves to an entire turkey or ham are almost cliché. Perhaps dogs consider themselves the head of quality control and feel the need to perform a taste test. More worrisome are the many dogs who have needed medical attention after consuming fudge or other foods that can be dangerous for them.
Many families have been saved the hassle of unwrapping packages by dogs who took it upon themselves to dive into the gifts under the tree. Some dogs get into the wrapping paper before it even meets up with the gifts, apparently considering rolls of paper great toys, or maybe just really stiff toilet paper. (We all know how many dogs adore unrolling toilet paper!)
Just last year, I saw a Facebook post about a dog running down the block with a wreath around his neck. The guardian who wrote about it said she always had dogs who enjoyed decorations. A previous dog of hers had been lucky to escape injury after trying to play tug of war with a strand of lights that sparked when they were yanked from the outlet.
A client once had to reschedule an appointment because her dog was too busy dealing with digestive issues after swallowing a sequined top and part of one shoe that went with a favorite party outfit. Luckily, surgery was not required, but it was still a rough (and messy) day or two for everyone involved.
Chanukah candles knocked over may not be as common as upended Christmas trees, but I assume this is because only a small percentage of us are celebrating in this way. I use my Grandma’s Menorah, which is nowhere near stable enough to be anywhere that a dog can reach it. I know that because one year we had a little accident with the candles on a low table and a large dog with a wagging tail giving us a small heart attack. (They were not lit yet, thankfully.)
>Clients have shared stories of dogs terrified by the inflatable Santa and reindeer in the yard, and of the occasional fight between the canine residents and these giant, air-filled seasonal visitors. Just as scary for quite a few dogs is the experience of having a Santa hat slip over the eyes. A dog who can’t see because of a wardrobe malfunction and is running around in a panic is a threat to himself and others.
Along with the difficulties already mentioned, there are more dogs than you can shake a stick at who have eaten the cookies intended for Santa.
How has your dog interacted with the holiday accoutrements in a way that you wish had never happened?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do dogs prevent anxiety?
Kids who are asking their parents for a puppy this season have a convincing new argument to try. A recent study ("Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?”) reports that kids who live with a dog are less likely to be anxious than their peers living in homes without dogs. Researchers evaluated 643 children for signs of anxiety. They found that only 12 percent of kids who have dogs met the clinical criteria that would prompt health care professionals to further screen for anxiety. This was in contrast to 21 percent of kids without dogs who met those criteria.
Despite the way this study has been reported in the media, the authors of this study do not claim that there is a causal relationship between having a dog and lower levels of anxiety in children. Sure, if you are reading this, you are all but certainly a dog lover and inclined to see the benefits of being with dogs. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back you up if this where you stand. Being with dogs can lower levels of cortisol (which is associated with stress), decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of oxytocin (which is associated with social bonding.)
The study highlights the correlation between living with a dog and a lower likelihood of anxiety in children, but makes no claims about why the association exists. It is entirely possible, for example, that people who are less anxious by nature are more likely to have dogs, and their children just happen to share a lower likelihood of anxiety. Or perhaps people with children tend to get dogs only when their lives are not too stressful, which means that the people with and without dogs vary in their anxiety levels for reasons that are not related to having dogs.
It seems highly possible that living with a dog lowers the risk of anxiety in children, perhaps by alleviating loneliness and separation anxiety or by facilitating social interactions. Still, it’s important to understand that the links found in this study do not show the presence of the dog to be the key factor.
While I would not recommend that anyone rush out to acquire a dog for the sole purpose of lowering their children’s chances of developing anxiety, kids might try to convince you to do exactly that. They may have a point.
Visions of Gold
To have vision, says Danelle Umstead, “is to have sight, an idea or a dream.” Her immediate vision is to win gold for the U.S. in alpine skiing at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Danelle’s husband Rob Umstead, her coach and sighted guide, will be leading the way through the courses.
Last summer, Danelle’s longtime guide dog, a black Lab named Bettylynn, developed optic-nerve atrophy and had to retire, so Aziza, her new canine guide, will be rooting the couple on in Sochi. Bettylynn, the first guide dog to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in 2010, will be pulling for the couple back home in Park City, Utah, along with their son, Brocton.
When Danelle was 13, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that eventually causes complete darkness. Her vision is “spotted,” and she can only see up to five feet in front of her. Even then, colors have to be highly contrasting for her to make them out, and she sees little to no detail. Then, in 2011, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Still, neither of these hurdles has kept her from achieving her best.
Her father introduced Danelle to adaptive skiing in 2000 and acted as her guide. She quickly fell in love with the sport—the freedom, the speed, the exhilaration. She began training and working full-time with Rob in 2008, and competitive success soon followed: Paralympic Bronze medals at Vancouver (2010), nine World Cup podiums and Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships. Her success relies heavily on the 100 percent trust and communication she shares with Rob as he guides her down the hill at top speed. It’s similar to the trust and communication she had with Bettylynn and is working to build with Aziza.
Danelle and Rob have created Vision4Gold.org as a way to mentor junior disabled athletes by sharing her story and offering encouragement. We’re confident that Danelle will realize her vision.
Dog's Life: Humane
“I could never set foot in one of those places. They’re so sad. I’d want to bring all the dogs home.” When I tell people I work for Humane Society Silicon Valley, I hear this a lot, the “it’s-so-sad” card. This is usually followed by a tale of horror about a local city shelter or, worse yet, how they cry whenever they see that Sarah McLachlan ad on TV.
The Sarah McLachlan ad doesn’t make me cry, it makes me mad. Because it’s only a half-truth.
Terrible things do happen to animals. But presenting shelters as barred and caged places where these sad victims of abuse are jailed is not only untrue, it damages the animals it purportedly sets out to help. Who would want to set foot in one of “those places”? And what sort of sad, damaged beast would you be bringing into your home? Best just to send a check, buy from a breeder and leave the animals to their own devices in there. After all, you sent the check.
When I was 19 years old, I was stricken with late-stage lymphatic cancer. During my two years of treatment, I walked around yellow from jaundice, doughy from steroids and squeaky bald, a baseball cap covering my head. To see a picture of me taken while I was being treated for cancer and assume that it tells you something about who I am all the time is patently ridiculous. It doesn’t tell you that I have a wicked sense of humor and a foul mouth or that I’m a book addict and an unabashed dog geek who sings along to Lionel Richie on the radio.
It just tells you that I was a victim— a damaged, benighted creature, a walking after-school special.
Yet, time and time again, these pictures of animals on the worst days of their lives are served up to the public as what they can expect to find at their local shelter. No one ever questions that they’re taken out of context. Instead, we’re presented with this idea that there are regular pets and there are “shelter pets” and the two categories are drastically different. And we wonder why more of America hasn’t embraced adoption as their first choice for their new pet.
Real truth? There’s no such thing as a shelter pet. There’s just a regular pet who happens to be at a shelter. The fact is, most animals in shelters are there because their owners’ lives have changed and not because of anything they’ve done. Most animals don’t come in abused or neglected. They come in from homes like yours and mine, and they behave like your pet and my pet. Shelter is a noun, not an adjective.
The ones that were abused or neglected? What happened to them doesn’t define who they are. Yes, I could post a picture of a smiling poodle and tell you that he’s a victim of domestic violence and the scar on his back is from where he was burned with chemicals. I’d rather tell you that he greets everyone with a wagging tail and loves kids and fetch because that’s the dog you’d be living with. Not the scar, but the living, breathing animal.
Those of us who work in our marketing department have hard-and-fast rules about what images we present. We won’t show beaten-up animals. We won’t show bars and cages (not that we have many of them—we have condos and suites instead). What we will show you is our truth: hopeful, normal pets who are at the launch pad of brand-new lives.
We know those shelters exist, the ones with the bars and cages. But we’re not one of them. We’re working to change the face of shelters and find new ways for those in our industry to think and do things differently. To be the happy places where happy animals come from, even on the worst day of their lives. To create a space where pets going through a transition can meet people who can’t wait to love them.
After all, our pets deserve only the best.
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