Dog's Life: Humane
Colleges are welcoming second chance dogs.
From a dog’s point of view, there may be no better place to spend some time than a college campus. Think about it: the grassy expanses, the flying Frisbees, the attentive humans and all the other opportunities that dogs, like students, have to bond, grow, absorb knowledge, find their passion or just lie in the shade.
It can just as easily be argued that there’s nothing better for college campuses, and more fitting with their mission, than dogs. Dogs can pave the way to healthy social connections. They can help calm frazzled nerves during final exams. They can serve as friends during bouts of homesickness. They tend to make an institutional setting a warmer, friendlier, more family-like place. And on top of all that, there are the volumes they can teach.
They require no salary. They don’t insist on tenure. Yet, without a degree, or even a pedigree, they can help us learn—maybe not computer science 101, but some fairly important things, like compassion and responsibility.
Why then—given the benefi ts to all involved—haven’t more doors opened to dogs at America’s universities? Blame the usual suspects: allergies, barking, poop, fear of lawsuits, fear in general and that rigid, play-it-safe thinking for which bureaucracies are famous.
Despite all the “Top 10 Pet-Friendly Campuses” lists you can find online— some of which include schools that permit little more than fish tanks in the dorm room—it appears that many institutes of higher learning still have a lot to learn when it comes to dogs.
The handful of schools that do let dogs live with students in dormitories commonly impose weight limits (something even the meanest of sororities have moved beyond), failing to realize that size in dogs, like size in people, has no bearing on either aggression or destructive tendencies. Most have breed restrictions, which are based not on academic research, but on insurance company guidelines. And for every school that does, conditionally, permit dogs in dormitories, you can find 100 more that don’t, though some are more intent on enforcing it than others.
In truth, the doors haven’t opened that widely for canines in college, despite dogs being exemplars of that most important attribute of all when it comes to learning: curiosity. Of those schools that are catching on to the magic of dogs, one—sorry, no Top 10 list here —leads the way, a private college in Missouri that not only permits students to have canine roommates (be they Chihuahuas or Great Danes), but pays them to do so.
Stephens College, in Columbia, Mo., provides $3,000 scholarships to students who agree to foster rescued dogs and cats. Between that program, the school’s 175 designated pet-friendly dorm rooms and free on-campus doggie day care, the small liberal arts school could easily make a case for being the nation’s dog-friendliest.
But that’s not the point. The point is that the influx of dogs, especially those for whom students are providing foster care in dormitories—assisting a canine’s transition to a new life while undergoing one of their own—has served not to just make the dogs better dogs and the students better humans, but the school, it could be argued, a better place. And therein may lie—or is it lay?— a lesson.
In the mid-1990s, a staff member at Stephens College suggested to the school president that students be allowed to bring their dogs with them when they came to school. The response, as she recalls, was, “Absolutely not! What are you thinking?”
A few years later, a new college president arrived on campus. Her name was Wendy Libby and, because the house she’d bought wasn’t ready, she lived that first summer in a school dormitory with her black Lab, Abby.
“Abby started the whole ball rolling,” said Deb Duren, who, sensing a change in the climate, made her suggestion again. This time it met with approval, and, in 2003, seven students brought pets on campus. Today, about two of every 10 students at the women’s college lives with a pet.
Duren, now vice president for student services and athletic director at the college, was no stranger to dogs, or to rescue work. In addition to being a volunteer herself, both of her daughters were involved in helping establish Second Chance, the rescue organization in Columbia through which the foster program is run. Both regularly brought foster animals home. Though her children are grown, Duren still has two rescues at home, a 14-year-old Chihuahua named Pixie, and a 12-year-old mutt named Hewy, after the Hewlett-Packard box he was found in.
Duren said that once the campus opened up to dogs, the foster program seemed a natural progression. “There were a lot of students who would have liked to have a pet but couldn’t bring one from home for lots of reasons,” she said. “They were willing to do foster work in the name of helping a new pet find a forever home, but also for the comfort and enjoyment of having a pet.”
With the school funding other forms of “community engagement” scholarships, adding the foster program wasn’t too big a hurdle.
Last school year, the foster program kicked off. The school set aside 10 double rooms in its dormitories for those taking part. Students in the program get a double room for the price of a single, and aren’t assigned roommates— at least, not human ones. They’re also spared the school’s pet deposit and have $3,000 lopped off their tuition.
In exchange, they agree to serve as foster parents for the full school year— to care for the pet, take it to adoption events and, once a dog or cat they’re caring for is adopted, to take in another one from Second Chance.
Second Chance, which has been rescuing dogs and cats for nearly three decades, gets about 70 percent of its animals from local “kill” shelters; about 30 percent come directly, as either strays or surrendered dogs. More than half have medical issues or traumatic pasts. Students in the program receive mandatory training on how to care for dogs, and Second Chance covers the costs of food, veterinary visits, collars, leashes, toys and medications.
“Students can devote the time,” said Valerie Chaffin, executive director of Columbia Second Chance. “They don’t have the pull on their time—the family or full-time job. Even a full-time college student is only in class a few hours a day. The animals [leave] them in great shape, and that’s kind of a plus for us.” In addition to the free dog day care center on campus, which is located in a dorm basement, students who are fostering pets can usually find someone to help out, often as easily as knocking on the next door.
Of the 10 students in the foster program last school year, only one pulled out, and that was because she left school. At the end of the last school year, nine students were on foster-pet scholarships, and five more Stephens students were serving as fosters without the scholarship program as an incentive. Between returning sophomores and new freshmen, college officials expect up to twice as many students will receive the scholarship in the coming school year.
The program was established primarily with freshmen in mind. Freshmen, according to Duren, tend to more smoothly make the transition to college, and do better academically, when they have a pet.
They also do better when they don’t have a job, and the scholarship helps some avoid that. With the school’s $25,000-plus tuition, the scholarship can help students who might be on the border financially. “It can make the difference between getting to come here and not getting to come here,” Duren said.
“The school really put its money where its mouth is,” said Second Chance director Chaffin. “They saw that the benefits of the program outweigh any other issues. They didn’t get bogged down like other universities with potential liability issues, whether [the dogs] will tear up furniture or pee on everything, and all those other things that are so small compared to the benefits that Stephens is obviously enjoying.”
You can take your cat to MIT. You can bring your snake to Eckerd College in South Florida, provided he’s less than six feet long and non-venomous. At Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, students can share their dorm rooms with fish, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, cats and dogs, or at least dogs under 40 pounds.
Academia—though it hasn’t totally gotten there yet—is moving towards dog-friendliness, and for mostly sound reasons: students with pets tend to be good students.
“We recognize that students who are pet owners are generally responsible and caring individuals,” Barry M. Buxton, president of Lees-McRae, a Presbyterian college in North Carolina, said two years ago when the university designated its first pet-friendly rooms in Bentley Hall. “We want to encourage pet adoption and awareness that all creatures are sacred.” On top of that, it’s an effective marketing and recruitment tool, allowing a school to distinguish itself from the pack and portray itself as warm and welcoming—homelike, even.
“It’s definitely one of the upsides of being here,” said Cheyenne Smith, who will be a sophomore at Stephens this year. She planned on bringing her cat with her from Arizona when she started school last year, but she and her family decided that Stella Luna was too old to go along, and needed to stay near her vet.
Instead, Smith had a stream of foster cats, one after another, last year. That tended to keep her somewhat anchored to her room. “When I get a new one, I don’t like to leave them alone for a long time,” she explained. As a result, she said, she probably spent more time studying.
The college’s dog-friendly reputation was also seen as a plus by Briannica Ponder, a freshman last year who planned to bring one of her family’s two Miniature Schnauzers to school with her. After signing up for the foster program during an orientation, she opted not to.
“My mom is pretty attached to them and I didn’t want to separate her from them. Once I knew I was going to be fostering, I wanted to be able to give all of my love and attention to one dog.”
She had four roommates last year, starting with Phantom, a standard Poodle who stationed himself in her bed and didn’t want to get out; she had to train him to walk on a leash. Then came Lucille, a Basset Hound–German Shepherd mix who found a forever home after Ponder took her to an adoption event at Petco. After that, she took in a Beagle mix named Droplet.
In the entire school year, she was dogless only one week, said Ponder, who had some experience in rescue work before college, volunteering with her mother in St. Louis at Angel Acres.
As the school year came to a close, Ponder, 18, was serving as caretaker for Happy, a Miniature Schnauzer, just like the ones she left at home.
“All we have to do is give them some love and help them get adopted,” said Ponder, a theater major.
On top of all else she gets out of it, she said, “It’s a really good stress reliever. It’s really nice to be able to come back to your dorm and know someone is waiting for you and is happy to see you. It’s kind of like having a piece of home.”
“It changes how you view things,” she added. “When we have cast dinners, I may go for an hour, but I don’t stay that long. I want to see my dog more than I want to be out partying and stuff.”
She doesn’t see the additional responsibility as putting a crimp on her social life. To the contrary, she probably meets even more people because of the dogs. On campus, in addition to all the dog walkers, it’s not unusual to see cats being walked on leashes. There’s even a student who walks her miniature pig.
“With such a large number of pets here, it’s also a gateway to make friends,” Ponder said. “I don’t understand why more colleges don’t do it.”
Turning dog friendly may be more achievable at a small school, and operating and subsidizing a foster program may not be something every college wants to tackle, but at Stephens, where Duren has worked since 1984, the benefits have been huge, and the problems mostly minuscule.
“For us, it’s just a good fit in a lot of ways,” she said. “But it takes an administrative team that understands how animals can create a sense of community and is willing to take risks.”
Large universities are more like ocean liners; they can’t always react on the spur of the moment, or easily change course. “We’re a kayak,” she said, “so we can move more quickly and there’s not as much red tape to cut through.”
It also takes rules—there’s a whole book of them—and students who break them can receive demerits, for anything from unattended barking dogs to poop not picked up. A few times, when there have been violations of the latter, the administration called impromptu poop parties in which all students pitch in to clean up.
There are breed restrictions at Stephens. Students aren’t allowed to keep Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows or Akitas, or any mixes thereof. On the plus side, the school has done away with its size restriction, which only allowed dogs under 40 pounds. When left alone in a dorm room, dogs are required to be in crates or pens. Students also have the option of dropping off their dogs at the free dog day care facility.
Cognizant that not every student (or faculty member) is going to be a dog lover, the school also has pet-free dorms, and it doesn’t allow dogs and cats in classrooms or common areas, like lounges.
“There are people with allergies and students and faculty who aren’t that excited about pets,” Duren said. “We’ve all learned to coexist and be tolerant of others’ needs.”
Two dormitories have been designated as pet friendly: Searcy Hall, which is also known as Pet Central, and Prunty Hall, which houses the dog day care center. Of the school’s incoming students, about one of every four indicate they want to be in a pet-friendly residence hall.
The Second Chance dogs being fostered at Stephens visit other campuses, too, including nearby University of Missouri, one of an increasing number of schools across the country that are inviting pets on campus at final exam time to provide students with some stress relief. Students spend a few minutes petting and playing with dogs to ease tension, and the dogs gain from the encounters as well, getting some socialization, and sometimes getting adopted.
The Stephens foster dogs are sometimes involved in extracurricular activities as well. At least, that was the case with two near-feral Chihuahuas rescued by Second Chance. They both ended up being fostered by a student in the theater program.
When the school’s production of the play Legally Blonde opened near the end of last school year, one of the Chihuahuas played the role of Bruiser and the second served as understudy. Before each show, the audience was told that both dogs, and many others, were available for adoption.
“They did really well,” said Ponder, who was assigned to make sure the dogs didn’t run offstage. Once the play completed its run, the two Chihuahuas—star and understudy —were adopted.
Photographer Nell Dickerson fondly recalls childhood nights on the sleeping porch of her grandparents’ Mississippi Delta home—the sounds of katydids, cicadas, and tree frogs, the merciful breeze from the overhead fan. But during the heat of the day, the family sought refuge indoors, leaving the dog to his lonely vigil. “I felt like he understood that the porch was the gateway between inside and outside and that it was his duty to keep sentry there in case someone wanted to pass,” she recalls. For eight years, Dickerson traveled across the South taking portraits of dogs committed to the deep-seated tradition of watching the world. Those photographs comprise her latest book, Porch Dogs.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Downward dog, anyone?
Yoga leaves dogs more flexible and focused, less prone to injuries, and calm; it also increases their bond with their humans.
The lights are dimmed and the candles—strategically placed on the agility equipment pushed to the room’s perimeter—are lit as people and their pups (ranging from pampered purebreds to rescued Pit Bulls) make their way to a circle of cushions. Here at Andrea Arden’s training facility at the Animal Haven shelter in Manhattan, yoga is about to begin. The instructor is agility legend Chris Ott, though most of those in attendance don’t know her reputation; they’re just here for their dog’s yoga class.
Ott’s accomplishments include representing the United States on the USA/AKC Agility World Team, holding a Guinness World Record for weave poles, and numerous appearances and wins at national championships. Her experience extends beyond the agility arena, however. Most recently, she brought her three decades of dog training know-how to the creation of what she calls Four Paw Fusion yoga. The class, originally designed for high-level performance competitors and their handlers, was so successful that Ott modified it for pet dogs.
Companion dogs who take part in Four Paw Fusion enjoy many of the same successful outcomes the performance dogs experience, including increased flexibility and decreased rates of injury. Ott says that she was most surprised at “how quickly the dogs took to it and how much they enjoyed it, right from the beginning.” Yoga leaves dogs more flexible and focused, less prone to injuries, and calm; it also increases their bond with their humans.
Like all yoga instructors, Ott leads participants through a series of stretches. But unlike yoga for humans, in Four Paw Fusion, participants lure their dogs into place with treats and praise, enticing them to hold the position for optimal stretch. Some of the positions start with the dog on the ground, while others utilize pillows and FitPAWS Balance Discs (inflatable rubberized cushions originally developed to help humans tone and increase balance) for support.
Because dogs are gently lured into position, even those without extensive training can be very successful in the class. Ott says that, much to her surprise, the dogs who are anxious and struggle to relax are often the biggest beneficiaries of the course. “The dogs we see the most dramatic improvement in are those who start out stressed and are described by their owners as ‘difficult’ to live with and train. To see a dog who was previously uncomfortable with any kind of touching now able to lie on his back in his owner’s lap while doing stretches is a wonderful experience.”
Ott punctuates her calming instructions with lessons in canine anatomy; descriptions of what a particular stretch is designed to achieve; and important reminders about not pushing a dog too far, which could cause injury. Similar to human yoga classes, everyone works at their own pace.
As the session goes on, the dogs visibly relax, and by the end of the twohour workshop, even dog-park warriors who require marathon games of fetch are panting. Although the dogs aren’t running around or doing activities that on first glance seem strenuous, they leave class happily tired.
And it isn’t just the dogs whose attitudes are changed. Even the most distracted human participants—those who entered class sipping lattes, texting and chatting with one another— pocket their phones and turn their attention to the eager dogs, influenced by Ott’s gentle demeanor and the energy she creates. Although the class is designed for canine relaxation, the peace, tranquility and connection that develop between dogs and their people are delightful side effects. The stress of big city life falls away, and they’re able to refocus on one another—what could be better?
Dog's Life: Humane
The benefits of adopting a more mature companion.
When I first saw Rooney at the Martinez, Calif., animal shelter, she was dazed, matted and unsteady— obviously on her last legs. Her breath could’ve fueled my car. As a dog rescuer, I kicked myself for agreeing to see her. What possible prospects could I offer this bedraggled old Border Collie, beyond a marginally better demise?
Within two months (and minus several bad teeth), she was adopted—and seven years later, just after her passing, I look back on her as one of my all-time favorite success stories.
Named for her resemblance to “60 Minutes” commentator Andy, she was a grand old gal, full of nobility, life and love. She was gentle with adults and grandkids, she respected cats, and she kept younger dogs in line, even with that half-empty maw. Rooney was quick to settle into a regular routine, and when you patted her she just oozed gratitude and affection. In short, she was the perfect companion for Margie, the empty nester who adopted her. The world would have been poorer if those two hadn’t matched up and devoted themselves to each other.
If you’re approaching your AARP years (or even if you’re far from it), you’ve probably read about the many health benefits of pet ownership. Study after study has shown that blood pressure goes down, cholesterol levels improve and even heart attack risk declines. Companion animals may be the anti-aging medicine that you really should “ask your doctor about.” Having a pet also encourages you to get out and exercise, even if it’s just a gentle daily walk. And statistics don’t count the warmth, companionship and pure love that a mature canine can bring into a household.
Adult dogs are settled into their personalities, so you know what you’re getting more than you would with a puppy or yearling. They are usually house-trained, and may already know basic commands like “sit” and “stay.” Contrary to the old adage, you can teach these dogs new tricks—with adolescence out of their systems, they tend to focus pretty well on teaching moments. Their desire to please their people is very well ingrained.
And I can’t prove it, but I’ve heard it said too many times to discount the notion that adult adoptees are just plain grateful—they’ve seen the world’s harsher side and seem particularly appreciative of the new lease on life they’ve been given.
In recognition of the many mutual benefits of matching older dogs with their human counterparts, many shelters have established “seniors-forseniors” programs. They offer reduced adoption fees to folks older than some threshold age for mature dogs—typically six or more years old.
I recall an older gentleman who was looking over some impossibly cute foster puppies. Asked where he planned to be in ten years, he replied, smiling, “Dirt nap!” With many breed life expectancies in the 12–18 year range (smaller being typically longer-lived), six- or seven-year-old dogs—and even teenagers like Rooney, still have plenty of good “tread-life” on them. My senior friend decided on an eight-year-old Lab mix, and they’ve never looked back. (And I know Margie wouldn’t trade her years with Rooney for anything. She’s since taken in Gloria, another senior grand dame.)
A shelter in Reno recently received a letter from a woman who had adopted a senior dog there some time ago and then returned for another. She wrote: “Frankie’s time with me was very good. He was loving, gentle and a good friend. He would bound out of the house at the end of the day when I returned home from work. He would wiggle with happiness to see me. He would do those “play bows” that sometimes much younger dogs do.
“I want to tell you that I think I needed Frankie more than he needed me, but he loved me and I was grateful for that wonderful creature every day that I had him. My new girl, Willow, is lying at my feet chewing on a rawhide. I hope this makes sense—I heard her snore last night while I was watching television. I can hear her breathe and I am not so alone.
“It is possible that animals are our greatest gifts in this life.”
Sitting here with that story fresh in my mind, where it shares space with fond memories of Rooney, I am gratified to know that these adoptions can hold such meaning and so enrich the lives of all concerned. If you have a hankering for “one more good dog,” please consider adopting an older best friend—it’s one of the biggest win-win opportunities that senior life affords.
Author of Dogtripping
Mystery-lovers know David Rosenfelt for his “Andy Carpenter” series. The fictional Andy is an exceedingly reluctant attorney whose real passion is dog rescue, particularly Golden Retriever rescue. He’s most likely to be persuaded to take a case if a dog’s somehow involved.
What his readers may not know is that Rosenfelt is himself dedicated to dogs. He and his wife—whom he credits as the real force behind their dog-welfare work—started out volunteering in the LA shelter system and in short order, found themselves running a home-based rescue and placement group. At times, they had as many as 40 dogs, some of them unadoptable due to age or infirmity.
His recent book, Dogtripping: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, and 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure, is nonfiction, the story of relocating the pack from the West Coast to the East—an improbable and wildly complicated exercise made possible, he says, by the extraordinary help and generosity of friends and fans.
While on a Dogtripping book tour earlier this year, Rosenfelt gave a reading at a local Berkeley bookstore that benefited a northern California rescue group, and The Bark took advantage of the opportunity to talk to him in person. Following are the edited highlights of that conversation, which took place in our office and included an inordinate amount of laughter (which we didn’t transcribe).
Q: Why did you choose Maine?
Q: In Dogtripping, you suggest that the move happened in spite of you. Would you do it again, and would you do anything differently?
Q: How did the dogs take to RV travel?
Q: What’s a typical day like at casa Rosenfelt?
Q: Over the years that you and your wife operated the Tara Foundation, you must’ve become quite an expert on dogs.
Q: Do you work with behaviorists?
Q: You mentioned that you’re particular about vets. What are your criteria—what do you look for?
Q: You take in older dogs and dogs with health problems. How do you deal emotionally with the loss of a dog?
Q: Are you involved in rescue now that you’re living in Maine?
Q: How would you compare living in Maine to living in California?
Discover more at davidrosenfelt.com.
Dog's Life: Humane
Insurance companies’ breed-restriction lists take a bite out of housing options
The term “foreclosure dogs,” which came into the lexicon sometime around 2007, is all too familiar to animal shelter and rescue workers. Canine victims of the housing collapse, many of these economic orphans face the added burden of being, say, a Chow Chow — or just looking like one. Why does that matter? Two words: breed restrictions. At least a dozen breeds and their mixes are commonly found on insurance companies’ “prohibited” lists, which affect those who rent as well as homeowners. How many dogs might have dodged the shelter had their foreclosed owners found rental housing that allowed them to keep their companion animals with them?
According to Adam Goldfarb, director of HSUS’s Pets at Risk program, so many pets are losing homes that it’s impossible to track specific breeds or breed mixes. However, other statistics don’t bode well for those on the restricted lists. The long-running mortgage meltdown has resulted in more than 4 million foreclosures as of 2009, and no clear end is in sight. Factor that against a 2009–2010 survey by the American Pet Products Association, which shows that 39 percent of U.S. households include at least one dog, with a national average of nearly two per household. And when it comes to size, seven of the 10 most popular breeds weigh more than 25 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club, and that’s not counting the mixed progeny of popular breeds, which, when restrictions exist, are also prohibited.
“It’s more of a problem for renters than for homeowners,” Goldfarb observes. “It’s harder for renters since they don’t control the insurance used by the rental property,” much of which is run by large companies with business- wide policies in place that they’re unlikely to change. Take, for example, Parkwood Rentals in Pierce County, Wash., which handles all types of rental housing, from single-family homes to apartments and townhouses. On its prohibited list are more than 14 breeds and their mixes.
“We did not compile this list,” says Katie Howard, associate broker with Parkwood Property Management, Inc. “This is the list of breed restrictions recommended by the insurance industry that we have adopted as part of our pet policy. If there is a question of breed, veterinarian certification may be required, along with pictures, references and a possible pet interview.”
Will the pet interview or a training certificate help if a potential renter’s dog is on the list or has a relative that is? Not according to Howard. “Unfortunately, we are not able to make exceptions to the breed restrictions.”
An explanation of the rationale behind the restrictions comes from a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, who — in 2005, when a Washington state bill prohibiting insurance companies from banning breeds failed to pass — defended her company’s position by saying “We’re in the business of evaluating risk, and based on what we know, those dogs [on the list] pose a higher risk.” Two states — Michigan and Pennsylvania — restrict breed profiling by insurance companies.
In the U.S., breed bans began in the 1980s after a string of serious attacks, many said to involve Pit Bull–type dogs. In 1984, Tijeras, N.M., was the first to enact a ban, which targeted Pit Bulls. As other regions followed suit, the insurance industry took note. Goldfarb isn’t sure when the practice began in housing, but says that in his opinion, it has definitely increased in the last five years. Over time, at least 75 breeds — from Dalmatians to Karelian Bear Dogs — have made the lists, which vary by region and company. To make it even more confusing, breeds allowed in one place or by one insurer may be restricted in others, or by other companies.
Though not all insurance companies profile — Farmers and State Farm are among those that don’t — those that do base their restrictions on actuarial and claims data, dog-bite reports, and state or local breed-specific laws. According to an article found on Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal & Historical Web Center (animallaw.info), the use of actuarial data has been blocked by courts in some situations. For example, when actuaries found correlations between poor minority neighborhoods and increased risk for homeowners’ claims, they stopped issuing policies in those neighborhoods, a practice known as “redlining.” In the same article, the writer states that breed discrimination is a different kettle of fish from redlining, because insurers “have been unable to demonstrate an actuarial justification for discriminating based on breed.”
In the 1990s, reports of dog attacks increased. Breed bans boomed, lawyers found a new specialty and insurance underwriters scrambled to adjust their policies. But those who actually worked with dogs scratched their heads.
“It didn’t jibe with my experience,” says Janis Bradley, formerly an instructor at the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers. Bradley, who had worked with dogs for years without incident, also talked to other trainers — “I didn’t know anyone who had been seriously bitten by a dog.” Her curiosity piqued, Bradley decided to find out what was actually going on, and started looking for facts related to this contentious subject.
In 2001, soon after she began her research, another sensational story gripped San Francisco and the nation: the mauling death of Diane Whipple by two Presa Canarios kept by Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Though the case hinged on owner negligence rather than the breed’s aggression, the dogs were huge and the details were terrifying, and it became a touchstone for breed-ban advocates; terms Bradley calls “fear words” made headlines. Of the many factors that lead to breed bans, she thinks reporting bias is the most influential. How — and how often — information is relayed, along with a focus on certain breeds, can distort the issue in people’s minds. Her research convinced her that perception is everything; the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. No breed has been proven more likely than another to bite, Bradley says, but a log she keeps of Google hits and key phrases related to bites and breeds turns up an unsurprising fact: Pit Bull and Rottweiler are the most common search terms.
The study “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998” (J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000; 217: 836–40) is often cited as support for restricting these two breeds. This study, which was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), tried to link breeds with fatal bites to assess policy implications. “It has done tremendous damage [but] there is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Bradley says of the report, which she feels continues to be misused today. The biggest problem, she says, was its focus on fatalities, “an extraordinarily rare event.”
In contrast to the study’s narrow approach, Bradley gathered all the research then available, pulling together numbers showing that the likelihood of being killed by a dog is about one in 18 million. Or that roughly 3.9 million of the annual 4.7 million reported bites require no medical attention. (Most bite victims are children, according to the CDC.)
Ironically, the authors of the study had hoped to prevent the discrimination they feared was taking root at the time, says co-author Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division. “The folks involved in the study had concerns that people were considering breed bans,” she recalls. Golab goes on to note that they also had concerns about the study itself, among them, that the breeds involved in fatal attacks change over time. The study didn’t address breed popularity, a factor that could cause breeds to appear more often in bite statistics simply because there are so many of them. Another concern was that the study authors were looking at fatalities rather than bites, which are impossible to track. This meant they were unable to definitively assess any specific breed’s inclination to bite.
Reliance on media accounts and questionable breed identification were also areas of concern. The ability to tell a bear from a deer may be a useful human survival tool, but newer studies show it hasn’t helped when it comes to breeds; people often can’t tell a Foxhound from a Doberman. Eyewitness reports were — and still are — “pretty spotty,” Golab says; in one instance, “a Boxer was identified as a Pit Bull–type dog.” Often, identification occurred after the dog had been euthanized, making it even more speculative.
Though the final report did not conclude that any breeds are more likely than others to bite, it did call out Pit Bull–types and Rottweilers as being involved in more than half of the fatal attacks. Golab and her colleagues warned against using the flawed data to enact bans; the alternative to breed laws, they wrote in the report, “is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior.” At that point, the CDC abandoned its efforts to link breeds and aggression, acknowledging that it’s impossible to track the numbers.
Golab says that breed discrimination existed before the study, and has gradually become more prevalent over the years. “It certainly doesn’t help adoption rates when owners are penalized for choosing a dog of a particular breed, whether the penalty is a higher insurance rate or a flat-out refusal to insure. [Restricted breeds] can easily end up on the least-desirable list for adoption.” Or, if owners can’t obtain affordable — or any — insurance because of the breed they own, they often relinquish the dog; euthanasia is a common result. Foreclosure only adds to the problem, as people struggle to find alternative housing that will allow them to bring pets with them at all, let alone a dog of a “blacklisted” breed.
Bradley, whose research provided her with material for her first book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, continues to track CDC bite statistics. The number of dog bites has held steady over 15 years, she says. Even so, she doubts such information will change people’s minds if they are already convinced there’s a dog-bite epidemic, or that certain breeds are more likely to bite.
“We are innately credulous if we don’t have prior knowledge of something,” she says. “The default response is to believe what we are told,” or have heard repeated time and again. Bradley feels that breed discrimination, like other forms of bias, won’t end without large societal changes.
As the recession wears on, pet policies will continue to restrict housing options for people and pets in crisis. In addition to planning ahead for a move, Goldfarb suggests homeowners do the legwork to find an insurance company that doesn’t profile, and renters look for an individual homeowner or smaller company, which may be open to changing their policy or making an exception. They are both ways “to encourage breed-neutral policies.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking at unemployment through the eyes of my four-legged friend.
I am unemployed. There. I said it. So what if I’ve been in denial? So what if I’ve spent the last two months “on vacation,” visiting with friends and family, collecting severance and happily not waking to an alarm for the first time in three years. Now, however, my current state of joblessness is starting to sink in. I’ve finished my “funemployment” phase and have moved into “Uh-oh, I have bills piling up” mode. It occurs to me that looking at the world through the eyes of my newly rescued Spaniel mix, Murphy, might calm my worries.
Tonight when I walked Murphy, I realized that he sees things from a completely different vantage point than I do. I mean, obviously— he’s approximately four and a half feet shorter than me. But he also sees and appreciates things in a simpler way. Here are a few of the lessons he’s teaching me every day.
Appreciate routine. Since I don’t have a back yard for Murphy to romp in, we go for walks at least four times a day. When he hears the jingle of his leash or hears me ask “Wanna…,” his eyes light up as though he’s been offered five pounds of raw beef with no limitations. Who knew a walk could be so exciting! I might be unemployed but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate my own new routines and embrace them: a morning smoothie, checking TMZ.com to see what LA gossip I missed, logging into my email account to see if any job leads have come through, walking my completely lovable dog around my neighborhood. I’m learning to appreciate whatever routine I have and be grateful for it, because when I’m back in the nine-to-five routine, I’m going to dream of the “good old days” when I could do whatever I wanted.
Eat well. I’m pretty sure I feed my dog better than I feed myself. I pay a little more for his food, but do it happily because I feel I’m extending the time we’ll have together. Since I’ve been unemployed, I may not have a lot of money to go out to dinner, but I can still meet a friend for a drink and an appetizer at a trendy new hot spot. Just getting out of the house and hanging with my friends makes me feel better. A self-proclaimed “foodie,” I’ve also decided it’s a good idea to start cooking, so I search the Internet for money-saving recipes and invite my friends over for a meal. They appreciate the home-cooking— and maybe next time, they’ll take me out to the newest hot spot for dinner on them!
Networking is important. Now, Murphy is not a dog who “networks”— he’s not looking for a job or trying to start a business. He is, however, very interested in other dogs, sniffing private parts and making friends. He remembers where he previously ran into Gizmo or Spencer, and lingers in hope of running into one of them again. When we’re out walking, we invariably run into a handful of dogs and their people. The dogs wag and sniff, the people chat. You never know when you might hear about a job lead or find out that someone works at that great firm where you’ve been hoping to get your foot in the door. Network, network, network: it’s the best way to get that next job.
Take time to smell the proverbial roses. When I worked full time, I often forgot to look at what was going on around me because I was so busy tackling the crowded freeways, handing in that overdue report or grabbing lunch on the run. When I walk Murphy, he sees and smells everything: the halfeaten cookie on the ground, the wild rosemary by the side of the house and, if he’s lucky, another dog. While I’m unemployed, I’m trying to take things a little slower, enjoy the view from my patio, mow my own lawn, window shop, sit at the local coffee shop and people-watch. Enjoy life.
Wake up on the right side of the bed. I am definitely not a morning person. However, when I wake to a cute little dog staring at me with his puppy-dog eyes, willing me to get up and take him for a walk, how can I not start the day with a smile on my face? With a beginning like that, I can’t help but have a good morning that sometimes lasts all day. I may not have checks coming in, but I have a dog who loves and relies on me. If I’m in a better mood, I’m more apt to have a spring in my step and more open to the opportunities around me.
Since I adopted Murphy, I’ve tried to see things through his eyes. If you’re currently unemployed, consider adopting an animal or volunteering at a local shelter. It will help you pass the time until you head back to the work-day world.
Dog's Life: Humane
Serving food for dogs and comfort for owners.
As the economy struggles, animal shelters across the nation are facing a staggering increase in surrendered pets due to the economic downturn, and many shelters, and even food banks, have started offering pet food. According to the HSUS, 68 organizations nationwide currently offer pet food assistance to those in need, many supported by grants from the Humane Society’s Foreclosure Pets Fund established last year.
In California, the Santa Cruz SPCA distributes more than 7,000 pounds of food each month at Heather’s Pet Food Bank. Named after local songwriter and dedicated shelter advocate Heather Zir, the food bank has become one of the largest and longing running in the nation since opening 10 years ago.
This year, Heather’s Pet Food Bank has seen a 25 percent increase in demand. “People who used to donate are now coming to get food and supplies,” says Santa Cruz SPCA Executive Director Lisa Carter.
On the opposite coast, at Long Island, N.Y., Little Shelter’s Animal Soup Kitchen has also observed a striking demographic change in the past year.
“While once restricted to low income areas, people [looking for help] are now coming from all neighborhoods,” explains Little Shelter Communications and Events Manager Jodi Record. “Without assistance, many families would have no choice but to surrender their pets to the local animal shelter.”
Tom Wargo has made it his life’s mission to help Georgia families care for their pets during hard times. His volunteer-run organization, the SOS Club, has been distributing supplies for the past 11 years, and as the recession deepened, Wargo found that pet owners needed more formal assistance.
In September 2008, the SOS Club opened Daffy’s Pet Soup Kitchen in Lawrenceville, Ga., to keep up with increasing demand. During their first month, Daffy’s distributed 4,000 pounds of food in addition to pet supplies and discounted medical care. Now the soup kitchen averages 8,000 to 12,000 pounds each month and feeds 1,500 animals. With the growing need, plans are in the works to start five new locations in Georgia; the group is also working with others across the nation to open soup kitchens in other states.
“The goal is to keep families and pets together,” says Wargo, “We get calls every week from rescue groups with people who need to surrender their pets because they can’t afford food. It breaks their heart. Now shelters can refer owners to us for supplies and veterinarian care.”
Pets aren’t the only ones receiving support through the soup kitchen. Daffy’s encourages donation recipients to do a minimum of five volunteer hours each month at a local organization. It can be humbling to need the food pantry’s assistance, and the suggested service requirement fosters a sense of responsibility and importance. In tough times, Daffy’s has proven to be much more than just a food bank.
“At first some people are embarrassed to come,” explains Wargo, “but once they do, everyone sits in the office and swaps stories, ideas, and advice to help each other out. We have become a family for most and everyone acts like they’ve known each other for years.”
Dog's Life: Travel
If you and your dog enjoy off-leash parks, traveling and outdoor activities, dog camp is for you!
Good socialization and play skills make dog camp more fun for everyone. Your dog should enjoy playing with — or at least be neutral toward — other dogs and people. Young dogs should be able to read cues from other dogs and older dogs should be able to tolerate jostling by faster, younger dogs. Small dogs should be comfortable around big dogs. All dogs should be willing to share toys, and possibly cabin space.
Solid, basic obedience skills — sit, stay, coming when called — are critical for off-leash games, heavy-duty play, hikes, swimming and other activities. Good manners help everyone relax.
Research dog camps to determine which best meets your vacation goals. Some focus on competitive agility and obedience, others on off-leash games and hiking, and some are quite rustic. Then, sign up and give dog camp a whirl!
It’s all here. The classic summer camp experience you remember from childhood — swimming, hiking, boating, rustic cabins, campfire songs and lots of socializing — tailored to four-footed guests. That means days packed with agility, flyball, Rally-O, lure coursing, dock diving, clicker training, freestyle, even painting, not to mention well-earned naps. Two-footed campers can bone up on animal communication, Tellington TTouch, canine massage and much more. Each camp has its own flavor, style and emphasis, but here are a few favorites: Camp Dogwood, Ingleside, Ill.; Camp Gone to the Dogs, Stowe and Marlboro, Vt.; Camp Unleashed, Asheville, N.C., Berkshires, Mass., and Sequoia, Calif.; Camp Winnaribbun, Stateline, Lake Tahoe, Nev.; Canine Club Getaway, Lake George, N.Y.; Dog Scouts of America, St. Helen, Mich.; Happy Tails Daycamp for Dogs, Fennville, Mich.; and Maian Meadows Dog Camp, Lake Wenatchee, Wash.
Worth tuning in
A friend of The Bark’s just told me about BBC Radio 4’s marvelous series called Dog Days. You have only a few days left to listen to them. Each runs around 15 minutes, and discusses various aspects of dogs behavior and dog culture. Interviews with researcher, John Bradshaw, and other British dog aficionados. From My Dog Tulip and Flush to current research on dog love. As the programs’ presenter, Robert Hanks (along with his Whippet Timmy), describes it, “When we tell stories about our dogs, we are also telling stories about ourselves.” Give a listen.
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