life with dogs
Dog's Life: Humane
1. Every time you volunteer, you are fueled by love. And that kind of fuel is different from greed, or fear, or competitiveness. It will give you the strength to do things you never thought you could do. And then some.
2. Dress for the occasion, meaning wear jeans and a T-shirt that have seen better days. Leave your jewelry, especially dangly earrings, at home. Keep your hair in a messy bun (some dogs mistake pony tails for rope toys). Please don’t bother with makeup, it will inevitably be licked off your face. And for the love of God, no flip flops. The day you wear them will be the day you inevitably step in poop.
3. Don’t be afraid to talk to the animals. Tell them about the advice you give but cannot follow. Tell them your secrets and fears. And then let their tongues and thumping tails and clumsy paws remind you that there are still plenty of reasons to smile. That life is not as serious as it seems.
4. It is not a good idea to try posting pictures of dogs on Instagram when they are jumping all over you. Rather than typing, “Adopt Joey and Spot at the Department of Animal Services,” you will inevitably type “Department of Anal Services.” And then your post will go viral for all the wrong reasons.
5. When you tell someone that you volunteer at an animal shelter, and they say that they love animals—but it’s too sad, they could never do it—tell them that you once felt that way, too. Tell them how shocking it was to find out that you could in fact do it. And that sadness is not the enemy after all. The enemy is doing nothing. The enemy is fear beating out compassion and empathy and love.
6. Dog poop is gross, but not life-threatening.
7. In most cases, it doesn’t take much to make a tail wag. A yard of grass. Fresh food. A warm touch. A soft blanket. A ten-minute walk. Dogs appreciate the little things, and we can learn a lot from this.
8. The animals are seeking what we seek. They want to be warm, not cold. They want to be safe, not vulnerable and unprotected. They want to be seen and heard and loved, not invisible. They want to be themselves, not somebody else. They want to forget the pain of their pasts, but sometimes they can’t.
9. Learn to take care of yourself, even if at first, it’s for the sake of the animals. If you try to be everything to everyone, you will burn out. Set boundaries. If you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of them.
10. Goodbyes are hard. Always.
11. Frequently ask yourself this: How might my life be transformed if I treated myself with the same love and kindness that I offer to the animals I care for? And then, every day, try to do it.
Wellness: Health Care
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)—what some call a “slipped disc”—can smolder or it can strike full-blown, leaving your dog in excruciating pain and unable to walk. Initially, signs that a dog is afflicted can be subtle: a hesitation about going up or down stairs, paws that knuckle under or cross over, nail scuffing, an arched back, a tense abdomen. Dogs may shy from their food bowls to avoid bending their necks, or cry when picked up.
IVDD causes compression of the spinal cord and leads to weakness, pain and sometimes paralysis, and is divided into two categories: Hansen Type I and II. Type I often swoops in suddenly, usually in younger, smaller dogs ages three to six. The center jelly of the vertebral disc, called the nucleus pulposus, degenerates, then ruptures and presses on the spinal cord. Not surprisingly, the chondrodystrophic breeds (dogs with short legs and longbacks)—Dachshunds, Corgis, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus and Beagles—are predisposed to this type.
Type II, which is typically seen in large dogs like German Shepherds, Labradors and Dobermans ages eight to ten, progresses more slowly. Though the disc doesn’t burst its center, it bulges between the vertebrae and impinges on the spinal cord, causing chronic pain and weakness.
To rule out fractures, bone infections and cancers, your vet will start with X-rays, but a contrast myelogram, CT or MRI (all of which are often done at specialty centers) is needed to visualize the spinal cord and determine the nature and location of the problem.
In addition to type, IVDD is described by level of severity. Roughly, grade I involves pain; grade II, unsteadiness; grade III, weakness that prevents standing or walking; grade IV, paralysis but able to feel deep pain when the toes are pinched; and grade V, complete paralysis with loss of deep pain.
Dogs with grades 1 through IV will likely be managed with pain meds, muscle relaxants and strict rest for up to a month, and are often referred for physical therapy or Class IV laser treatments. Depending on the duration of neurological deficits and amount of pain, surgery may also be recommended for dogs with grades II, III and IV. Because the disease can change quickly, even dogs diagnosed with lower-grade IVDD need sequential exams to ensure that the condition is not progressing.
When a dog is completely unable to walk, decisions have to be made swiftly. Dogs who stay in the grade V stage longer than 48 hours often remain paralyzed despite intervention, while up to 50 percent of those who have surgery in the first 24 hours may regain their ability to walk.
IVDD surgery removes compromised discs, hemorrhage and adjacent bone compressing the spinal cord. With severe disease, it’s the best chance for a dog to walk again. It does, of course, also entail expenses and risks that not everyone is able or willing to undertake. What other options do we have?
Thankfully, veterinarians have been studying other modalities to treat IVDD, acupuncture among them. In 2007, a team lead by A.M. Hayashi found that dogs of all IVDD grades recovered more quickly with electroacupuncture (EAP) combined with a standard Western medical approach than Western treatment alone (JAVMA 231: 913–918).
In 2009, A. Laim et al. reported that dogs receiving EAP and pain medications after surgery for acute IVDD were less likely to need higher doses of pain meds during the first 12 hours than those who received meds alone. These patients also had significantly lower pain scores 36 hours after treatment (JAVMA 234: 1141–1146).
A 2010 study compared three options for IVDD dogs with severe neurologic deficits of greater than 48 hours’ duration: decompressive surgery (DSX), EAP, and DSX followed by EAP (DSX + EAP). The study, led by J.G.F. Joaquim, showed that EAP was more effective than DSX + EAP, and that DSX alone was the least successful. These dogs had severe, long-standing IVDD in the thoracic and lumbar (thoracolumbar) spine, and in the past, their prognosis would have been dismal. (JAVMA 236: 1225–1229).
How does acupuncture work? While there is some debate over definitions, it’s generally accepted that acupuncture points (acupoints) concentrate clusters of free nerve endings, small blood and lymphatic vessels, and mast cells, part of the immune system. A veterinarian certified in acupuncture inserts small, sterile needles into specific points to stimulate muscles, nerves, circulation and the immune system. For IVDD, one needle may be placed at the top of the spine by the shoulders, and a second above the pelvis, which moves the qi and stagnated energy caused by the disc disease.
Functional MRIs reveal that acupuncture activates pain-associated brain stem regions. The specific mechanism of acupuncture on IVDD has not yet been fully explained, but it’s surmised that it reduces local swelling, inflammation and pain; decreases cord compression, scar formation and tissue oxygen deprivation; and restores damaged nerves.
When compared to the use of needles alone, EAP has been found to increase the body’s response to acupuncture. In EAP, needles in the skin are connected by metal clips; electro-impulses move between the clips and into the needles, producing sensations that range from a tingling to a vibration. Frequency and intensity are determined by the type of condition being treated. Sessions usually last from 10 to 30 minutes, and dogs often fall asleep during treatment.
EAP has a cumulative effect and is typically prescribed as a series of treatments, every one to two weeks for at least a few months. Appropriate Chinese herbal formulas are often prescribed at the same time to reduce pain and enhance the effects of acupuncture. Dogs then proceed to maintenance acupuncture at one- to three-month intervals to prevent recurrence.
Ideally, your dog will never go through the pain of IVDD, and you won’t have the worry. But if you do find yourself up against a down dog, it’s good to know that adding acupuncture to the treatment repertoire may help your friend get back on all fours.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs may need a break from each other
“I haven’t been more than 30 feet away from him in almost nine weeks!”
That was my older son’s answer when I asked the kids why they were uncharacteristically cranky with each other. It was a fair answer because it was almost literally true. When we spent all of last summer in Europe, it was a lot of family time. Only my husband, whose work was the reason for our travels there, spent some time away from the rest of us.
I know better than to allow that degree of excessive togetherness between dogs in the same family, and I was a little chagrined to realize I had made such a mistake with my human family. Oops. Even dogs who adore each other and are truly the best of friends benefit from some time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Unless your dogs are the rare exception because they are emotionally incapable of being away from one another, some quality time apart can be advantageous.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of time; I’m not suggesting you adjust your life so that your dogs have hours of separate activities each day. Even one walk or activity a week, or a couple of separate 15-minute play sessions can go a long way. It only takes a short break to prevent small irritations from building up. Those little stresses may not be obvious to us, but dogs can still get on each other’s nerves. Most dogs adjust and there is no problem, but we can help them enjoy life just a bit more with a change of pace involving time away from each other.
Many people swear that their dogs hate to be apart, but in many cases, the issue is not being apart, but being left behind. If more than one person lives in your home, it’s easier to work through this by having each person take one of the dogs to do something at the same time. If you are the only human in the family, then a good plan is to leave something fun and tasty to chew on with one dog while you go somewhere with the other dog.
If this is a challenge for your dogs, it’s a good idea to start with very short separations so that you can teach each dog to be comfortable being left alone. It’s a good skill to have in just case one dog becomes ill or injured and you have a forced separation on your hands.
If you have a multi-dog household, do your dogs have time away from the other dogs in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How does the idea of leaving your dog behind matter?
Traveling with dogs has become much more common in recent years, but there is no doubt that it’s a challenge to include our best friends on all excursions. Whether there are restrictions at hotels, restaurants or spas, or if the transportation on trains, buses or planes is the deal breaker, there are issues related to traveling with our dogs. Sometimes it’s as simple as them not being welcome at the friend or family member’s house where you will stay. Perhaps there’s a wedding that is a human only event or another person is bringing a dog who is not compatible with yours. There are countless reasons that can prevent us from bringing a dog along on our travel adventures.
Sometimes, the issues that come up if you must leave your dog behind are compelling enough reasons NOT to make the trip at all:
Many people take their dogs on most of their vacations, perhaps limiting themselves to trips that involve driving instead of flying. Other people don’t travel much or at all because that would require them to leave their dogs back home. Does having to leave your dog behind inhibit your travel or prevent you from taking certain types of trips?
Message from the Editor
The first issue of what would become The Bark came out in 1997, which makes this our 19th year. It’s hard to believe we’ve lasted this long. In the beginning, Bark was a humble community newsletter drumming up support for an off-leash area in Berkeley. We had no intention of transforming it into a full-fledged magazine.
But, as they say, timing is everything. While publications aplenty focused on what’s called the dog “fancy,” there was a noticeable gap in the larger area of everyday life with dogs—what has come to be called dog culture. Bark stepped in to fill it and, in many ways, defined it.
For dogs and the people who love them, things have evolved in many interesting directions over the last 19 years. Most of the changes have been for the better.
On the science front, researchers across a number of disciplines are expanding our understanding of the canine mind, the domestication process and how our two species co-evolved. More humane and science-based training methods have come to the forefront, as have increasingly sophisticated and well-informed behavior-modification strategies. Advances in veterinary medicine and health care include an increased validation of alternative modalities.
Then there’s food, which always provokes a lively discussion. In the commercial food sector, a greater variety of ingredients can be found, along with different delivery systems —dehydrated, freeze-dried, raw-prepared—many of them healthier than they were 19 years ago. The industry also has paid attention (to some extent) to consumer’s post-2007 food-recall concerns, but there is a still a long way to go on that front, and greater transparency is still needed. In the DIY sector, there’s a growing interest in angst-free home-prepared meals that can be as balanced and nutritious as packaged varieties.
Many of Dog Nation’s greatest strides have come in the increasing social acceptance and understanding of the role of dogs in communities—not just in the lives of dog lovers, but in the lives of people in general. For example, we’re seeing more dog-friendly housing opportunities (some with amenities), dog parks, off-leash recreation options, day care centers and professional services. There’s a canine sport for every type of dog, and people are actively interested in supplying dogs with enrichment activities. Hotels and resorts are eager to attract the growing number of people who travel with their co-pilots. In literature, a flood tide of books, both fiction and nonfiction, explore our oldest friendship, and filmmakers and other inventive artists recognize and pay homage to our favorite muses.
In another healthy sign of progress, there are fewer dog race tracks, which are now legal in only six states. This bodes well for Greyhounds, who can retire and live their lives as the elegant companions they were meant to be.
In the digital world, Petfinder and similar sites have revolutionized the way we locate the dog of our dreams and, by extension, meet up with others of similar dog-centric interests. A plethora of apps and gadgets promise what seems like hands-free pet care, and a few may prove to be helpful in enriching the lives of workday-home-alone dogs.
Dogs have many talents, more of which are being tapped for a wider variety of guide and assistance work; many jobs can’t be done—or done as well—without them. It’s also inspiring that canine rehabilitation and training are taking place in unlikely venues, such as prisons and juvenile institutions.
The best development of all, however, is that mixed-breeds are now number one in the nation, most of them likely to have been adopted from a rescue group or shelter. People are beginning to understand how important it is to be part of the solution by adopting rather than buying, to opening their homes and hearts to shelter dogs. Shelters also have come a long way since 1997, with many of them offering state-of-the art care and accommodations and paying greater attention to enriching the lives of their charges: organizing play groups and innovative volunteer, foster and walking programs, and working collaboratively with local rescue groups. Burgeoning rescue and sanctuary movements, including the transport of animals both within the country and internationally, are inspiring to behold.
As editor-in-chief of The Bark, when I look back at the past two decades, I can truly say that there have been more positive advances in Dog Nation than in most other areas of our society. But while we celebrate these developments, I must also caution that there is a still a long way to go. The number of Beagles and other dogs being bred for and used in labs—living out their entire lives in cages—remains a blot on the landscape; there really has to be a better and more humane alternative. And there must be an end to the needless deaths of animals in shelters, and to animal abuse and cruelty.
That being said, I’m proud to be in a position to keep tabs on these situations, and to report on them to you. My hope is that by chronicling what’s going on, and shining a light on areas that still need work, we (the magazine and our readers) can inspire policy- and decision-makers to step up and make the changes needed to push that progress along. We would love to hear your thoughts on this.
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.
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