Sometimes our dogs communicate with us on levels that are surprising and revelatory. A case in point, having three dogs means that when I work from home, I’m kept busy doing door duty for them—they constantly ask to go out into the backyard, and a few minutes later, after they erupt into a chorus of “chase the squirrel,” I need get them back inside. There they’ll settle down for a few minutes, but then their asking to go out begins anew. Lola, our seven-year-old Pointer, takes her duties on squirrel-patrol very seriously. The two smaller dogs support her cause and cheer her on with a cacophony of barking, whining and high-pitched baying.
One day last week, I finally had it (as I’m sure the neighbors had as well) and decided that the dogs had to stay inside if I were to do any work. Charlie, our newest family member, is a gem of a Terrier boy and if he isn’t already glued to my side, he has spot-on recall, so he came in first. Kit, our Kentucky coy-girl, takes more coaxing but rattling a bag of treats did the trick. Lola is another story, she gets totally transfixed staring up at the taunting-bushy tails, who inspire her to run circles around the trees up on her back legs, like a crazed circus dog. This resulted in a sweaty and not-so merry chase as I tried to grab hold of her. But I finally got her, so in she went too.
I sat down to my computer, and within a few minutes, Lola walked up and looked at me motioning to the back door. I told her, no way am I going to let you out again, but she did this a few more times, even using her chin to gently tap on my hand. But I held firm, and ignored her pleas. A few minutes passed and I decided to go into the office after all, and take the dogs with me, so I called to them to get leashed-up.
But loyal Charlie was missing, and once again, Lola looked at me, and ran to the back door. I then heard a little whimper, and opened the door to find that Charlie had been locked out and was softly crying to come in. His cries were so muted, that I hadn’t heard him, although big sister Lola had. Now that the door was opened, I thought that Lola would bolt out, but instead she and Charlie did a merry little dance, greeting each other as if they had been parted for hours (and not the few minutes it was). I thought that was so touching, and so telling too. All along Lola was signaling not that she wanted out but that Charlie was stranded—but I didn’t have the good sense to figure this out.
It was an eye-opener to me, marking a “Lassie” moment for Lola. It was the first time—or the first time that I “got” it—that she was trying to cue me not for herself but for someone else. Could this be an altruistic act? What do you think, have your dogs done something similar?
Wellness: Healthy Living
Be proactive in monitoring what goes in your dog’s mouth
Questions about the safety of pet toys continue to haunt Nancy Rogers. They’re questions the Illinois dog owner has tried to get answered since 2007, when she hired a laboratory to test the lead content in 24 of her Shelties’ chew toys. The tests revealed that one of her dogs’ tennis balls contained 335.7 parts per million (ppm) of lead, an amount that, at the time, fell far below the levels allowed in children’s toys. Today, however, that amount exceeds the 300 ppm federal standard for lead in children’s toys.
What amount of lead should be allowed in the toys dogs lick, chew, slobber on and even shred? Do toys with relatively high levels pose any harm to our best friends? These questions are at the heart of Rogers’ frustration. When she had her tests run three years ago, she learned there were no standards for lead or other toxins in pet toys. There still aren’t any today.
“We can test and measure all we want, but until we have standards, it’s hard to evaluate what those levels mean,” says Rogers, a nurse from Orland Park, Ill. “I want there to be a standard that says whether an amount is safe or not safe.”
Many in the pet industry agree there should be guidelines for lead and other worrisome chemicals in dog toys. They share Rogers’ safety concerns, which surfaced in the wake of the recall of melamine-tainted pet food and amid growing concerns about lead in children’s toys from China.
“All that made me think about what’s in my dogs’ toys,” recalls Rogers, who now has three Shelties. “It also didn’t seem right that I had lost two eightyear- old dogs and we didn’t know why. I was doing this [testing] personally for the safety of my dogs and only tested for lead because that’s what they were finding in the toys from China.”
But others in the pet industry downplay the need for chemical standards in these products, saying they aren’t aware of any studies linking lead in dog toys to canine-related health problems. They also say many companies that make pet toys now follow the federal standards for lead in children’s toys— or the European standards, which limit lead levels to 90 ppm.
“It may sound like standards make sense and they may make consumers more comfortable about buying a pet toy, but there are no indications that there is a real risk to pets [from lead and other toxins] in their toys,” says Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “We have 1,000 members and we’ve heard no reports of dogs or cats having any ill effects from playing with any pet toy because of the lead or the plastic in the toy.”
But recent tests of hundreds of pet toys, tennis balls, beds, collars and leashes reveal that many contain what researchers call “alarming levels” of lead and other harmful chemicals. The tests were run in September 2009 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization that analyzes toxins in children’s toys and other consumer goods; results are posted on the Ecology Center’s research-based website, HealthyStuff.org. While the site explains that the project’s screening technology “cannot identify the presence and concentration of every chemical of concern” (Bisphenol A, for example), some key findings are worth noting:
• Of the tennis balls tested, 48 percent contained detectable levels of lead. Researchers discovered that tennis balls made specifically for pets were more likely to contain lead than “sports” tennis balls. The lettering on one “pet” tennis ball, for example, contained 2,696 ppm of lead and 262 ppm of arsenic, a known human carcinogen. None of the “sports” tennis balls tested contained any lead.
• While one-quarter of all the products had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of all pet products had lead levels higher than the 300 ppm allowed in children’s toys. Nearly half of the pet collars tested had detectable levels of lead; 27 percent had lead levels that exceeded 300 ppm.
“Pets are involuntary canaries in the coal mine in terms of chemical exposure,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. “Pets, like children, have higher exposure to chemical hazards, and our data show that pet products are far more likely to have hazardous chemicals than children’s toys.”
Not all the dog toys tested, however, contained harmful chemicals. Researchers discovered more than a dozen “chemical-free” toys—including the Air Kong Squeaker, the Hartz Flexa-Foam Round About Elephant and the Nylabone Double Action Chew. Despite these “green” findings, Gearhart says his organization’s tests illustrate why chemical safety standards are needed for chew toys and other pet products. The standards would not only protect pets, he says, but also young children who might put dog toys in their mouths. “For lead, the standard that applies for children’s toys is appropriate for pets,” Gearhart says. “I’d say the standard for children’s products should at least be a starting point for those levels.”
A veterinary toxicologist with the ASPCA supports similar guidelines. “Dogs are part of the family,” says Dr. Safdar Kahn, director of Toxicology Research at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “They are as important as our kids or other family member. And if we feel that way about them, then we should give them things that won’t affect their health.
“So yes, there should be standards for [chemicals] in pet toys,” Kahn adds. “Just like there are guidelines for children’s toys, there should be guidelines for [toxins] in the toys being sold for pets.” Dr. Kahn isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of lead poisoning in dogs caused by a pet toy, but he warns that long-term, excessive exposure to the heavy metal could cause health problems in our four-legged friends.
“Dogs like to chew on things, lick things, carry toys in their mouths, and if there are excessive amounts of lead in a toy, then they can get overexposed to lead,” he says. “And lead can do a number of things to dogs, depending on how much they’re exposed to and for how long.” Some health problems associated with canine lead toxicity include vomiting, weight loss, anemia, seizures and permanent neurological damage.
“Depending on how much exposure there is, and the duration, it can affect multiple organ systems,” Kahn says, adding that dogs who chew or ingest such products as fishing sinkers, curtain weights and old paint can develop lead toxicity.
Remember the “pet” tennis ball that contained more than 2,000 ppm of lead and more than 200 ppm of arsenic? “They are considered higher than the maximum tolerable dietary levels in dogs,” says Kahn.
But the levels of other toxins found in the pet toys tested by the Ecology Center—including traces of chromium, antimony and up to 166 ppm of the flame-retardant bromine—do not alarm Kahn. “Those are not expected to be a concern at these levels,” he says.
Years before concerns of harmful chemicals in pet toys became a hot topic, the Maine company Planet Dog started making nontoxic toys and other products for dogs. Since it opened its doors 12 years ago, Planet Dog has embraced strict hazardous material standards. Many are self-imposed, including the company’s decision to follow the lower European standards for lead in children’s toys of 90 ppm.
“We want to make sure everything we are producing is completely safe,” says Jeff Cloutier, Planet Dog’s manager of sourcing, quality assistance and product development. “All our molded toys are 100 percent safe. We also do our own third-party testing to ensure all the products we make and sell meet our standards.” Cloutier would still like to see national standards for lead and other chemicals in chew toys and pet products. There’s just one caveat: Those standards must be fair.
“The problem is there are so many different standards and tests out there for kids’ toys and clothes, but there is nothing for pets,” Cloutier says. “There needs to be something. This is a huge industry, and who knows what some companies are making.”
PetSmart says dog owners don’t need to worry about the safety of the pet toys and other products on its store shelves. The nationwide retailer claims all its products meet strict federal and other regulatory guidelines. “We use the same standards established for human safety,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Ericsson, “and we continue to receive successful test results on our products, and believe there is no cause for concern related to the products we sell.”
The company routinely tests samples of its imported pet products, Ericsson says. “We also hire an independent company to conduct a variety of quality- assurance tests on representative batches of [pet] toys, including tests for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium,” she says. “We take the safety of our products very seriously.”
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) says its members are just as vigilant about the safety of dog toys and other pet products. The trade group says many of its members have adopted their own chemical standards, using the European lead levels or the 300 ppm in the United States as baselines. “There is a kind of informal standard going on now,” says the association’s Ed Rod. “Some of our members have also found that large retailers impose their own standards. But some members have run into difficulties because those standards are not always the same. Retailers set their own standards. One company may have one standard and another retailer may have another one.”
Do APPA members agree that national standards for toxins in pet toys should be adopted? “There is discussion in the industry about whether some sort of voluntary standards are appropriate,” Rod says. “We’ve met with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about getting some standards. But the CPSC has no jurisdiction over pet toys, and they are underfunded and overworked. They have no interest or inclination unique to pet toys. They’re looking at children’s toys. So going to the CPSC and getting some standards for pet toys is not an option.”
Rod says members of his organization understand dog owners’ concerns and frustrations about toxins in their pets’ toys. “People saw Mattel recall toys for lead and heard about the lead problems with the Thomas the Tank Engine toys,” he says. “The next connection was, understandably, ‘What’s in my pet’s toy?’”
But there isn’t a consensus among APPA members that chemical safety standards are needed, Rod says. “I’m sure there are two points of view. It’s convenient to say that there are standards for children’s toys and if those are good enough for kids, they should be good enough for dogs.
“On the other hand, it’s hard to establish a baseline. And there is no science showing any ill effects from the lead or plastic content in a chew toy for animals. Therefore, we have no basis for evaluating any lead or plastic content standards unique to pet toys.”
At least one worried dog owner says she’d consider APPA members “heroes” if they’d spearhead a campaign to establish standards for toxins in pet toys. “We need standards and we need to know what levels are okay to expose our pets to,” Nancy Rogers says. “I still think the Pet Products Association should lead that effort. This issue matters because pets are part of our families.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
The downside of rawhide
“I never buy at Wal-Mart, I only buy organic and nothing from China, ever!”
This is how Danielle Devereux, whose German Shepherd Sammy is a ravenous consumer of snacks, describes her treat-buying strategy. Sammy prefers his rawhide toys soaked in warm chicken broth first. “As you can guess, he’s a little bit spoiled.”
In Devereux’s remarks, I hear echoes of my own long search for the right dog chew toys. From the time my Shepherd was a wee pup, we combed the pet aisles looking for enticing substitutes for couch and chair leg. She quickly sniffed out her favorite section among the knuckle and femur bones: the bins where the rawhide is cached.
Promoted as an “all natural” treat, rawhide does keep dogs entertained, perhaps even more so in its many basted, twisted, even brightly colored mutations. It’s the equivalent of that gummy-worm-fortified cereal made with real oats that children howl for all the way down the breakfast aisle. Those looking to improve on the bone are like the clever marketers who expertly tune a child’s whining pitch. Your dog would like to convince you that rawhide is primal therapy for his carnivorous soul!
But if rawhide manufacturers were held to the same standards as drug makers, they’d be forced to add an equally long list of warnings to their labels: May cause stomach torsion, choking, vomiting, diarrhea, salmonella poisoning and exposure to various chemical residues.
The closer you look at the rawhide gravy train—its tentacles in China, typically, at one point or another—the more you may want to wean your dog off this dubious by-product.
The Dose Makes the Poison
“The most potent compounds for stimulating the taste buds in dogs, and presumably wolves, are amino acids that taste sweet to humans”—so goes the discussion of canid diet in Wolves, edited by David Mech and Luigi Boitani. Judging by an explosion of patents for flavored rawhide, which include “tastes” such as bubble-gum and hickory, chew-chefs have apparently done their research. However, in creating treats dogs will chomp for hours, they’ve also produced potentially more toxic products. The more dogs lick, chew and swallow the material, the greater their exposure to any contaminants it contains.
In the case of bubble-gum flavoring alone, the Material Safety Data Sheet reveals a toxic confection containing the carcinogen FD&C Red 40, along with preservatives like sodium benzoate. But tracking the effects of chemical exposure is nearly impossible when it’s a matter of slow, low-dose poisoning. The FDA’s veterinary branch, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, checks into pet food additives only after numerous complaints about a particular chemical.
While chews made from rawhide, bone or other animal parts are consumable, and are therefore considered “food” under FDA law, as long as the label contains no reference to nutritional value (such as “high protein”), the agency advises that manufacturers “may not have to follow the AAFCO pet food regulations.”
Producing rawhide begins with the splitting of an animal hide, usually from cattle. The top grain is generally tanned and made into leather products, while the inner portion, in its “raw” state, goes to the dogs. Removing the hair from hides often involves a highly toxic recipe: sodium sulphide liming. A standard practice is to procure rawhide in the “split lime state” as by-products from tanneries, facilities that top the list of U.S. Superfund sites. In the post-tannery stage, hides are washed and whitened using a solution of hydrogen peroxide. And that’s just one step.
Other poisonous residues that may show up in rawhide include arsenic and formaldehyde. Even dog skin is a possibility. An ongoing investigation of the fur trade by Humane Society International, an arm of the HSUS, resulted in this information, as listed on their website: “In a particularly grisly twist, the skins of brutally slaughtered dogs in Thailand are mixed with other bits of skin to produce rawhide chew toys for pet dogs. Manufacturers told investigators that these chew toys are regularly exported to and sold in U.S. stores.”
Back to the Factory (Farm)
There’s no knowing where it’s been, and where it begins is also unsettling. Rawhide is a by-product of the CAFO—or concentrated animal feeding operation, the bucolic term for today’s industrial farm.
“Nasty, brutish and short” is how Ken Midkiff, author of The Meat You Eat, describes the life of the animals who give up their hides. He’s no expert on rawhide, but Midkiff says he knows far more than he cares to about CAFOs, where thousands of “sentient beings,” crammed together inside huge metal buildings, “never see the light of day until the truck comes to pick them up for slaughter.”
“There’s also a major problem with various drugs,” he adds, citing a CAFO cocktail of antibiotics, arsenicals and hormones used to boost production.“While the claim is made that these don’t remain in the meat of hogs or beef, that claim has not been tested by any federal agency.”
Pattie Boden, owner of The Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., where organic toy enthusiasts shop, doesn’t carry rawhide. Instead, she stocks free-range chews, bully sticks, and organic raw bones, from shins to lamb necks. Her purchasing-protocol (and philosophy) is one owners might apply in their own search for healthful treats.
“I’m not going to be the most financially successful pet store,” Boden says, “but I feel confident in the products I select, and I can sleep at night.”
Find a soul mate is never easy, but Brooklyn based Sarah Oren Brasky, aka the “Dog Matchmaker,” is an expert at improving the odds. Brasky’s passion for dogs began in childhood and has continued into her adult life, where, in addition to her work with dogs—she also founded and edits the rescue blog Foster Dogs NYC —she teaches elementary school.
Motivated by the conviction that adopting dogs rather than purchasing them from breeders or pet stores saves many innocent lives, Brasky has made it her mission to help people connect with compatible canine counterparts. Using a questionnaire to establish the type of dog an individual has in mind as well as the conditions under which the two will cohabit, she then casts a wide net, searching her contacts for the best possible pairing. Thanks to Brasky, Harry, Biscuit, Shiloh, Kain, Koko and many others now have homes and people who love them. Dog rescue is in her bones, she says, and in providing this service, the matchmaker herself is perfectly matched.
Dog's Life: Humane
Bark n’ Bitches: LA’s First Humane Pet Shop
Lush red walls and vintage furnishings are the first clues that this is no ordinary pet store. When a dozen dogs scramble to the door for introductions, it’s clear you’ve entered a retail hybrid: a hip, humane petshelter boutique.
At Bark n’ Bitches in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, the retail store supports a rescue shelter, and the rescues snooze amid high-end merchandise and artsy black-andwhite canine portraits. This pet shop/ shelter model is the brainchild of self-described “dog-aholic” Shannon von Roemer, who credits her adored Pit Bull/Lab mix Jimi with inspiring LA’s first humane pet shop. “Jimi is really the one who awoke me to the abandoned-animal crisis in LA County,” says von Roemer, who estimates that she has saved about 2,000 dogs in seven years. “I thought, if I’ve been given the gift of this store, it is my responsibility to do something for this community, which is in so much trouble.”
Jimi was muddy and homeless when von Roemer rescued him from a park near downtown LA’s skid row. When Jimi died in 2007, she created the rescue organization, Jimi’s Angels, in his honor. Two years later, she began to populate her retail pet store with rescue dogs.
Now, von Roemer personally scours high-kill shelters weekly and handpicks dogs for her shop. She says she can spot a highly adoptable dog in “2.2 seconds,” but her heart breaks at the many pups she must leave behind.
Once inside Bark n’ Bitches, dogs stay until they meet their human match. Adoptions aren’t automatic, however. Potential owners interview with store staff and fill out a threepage application that asks about their other pets, travel habits and whether they intend to install a doggie door. Adoption fees range from $350 to $450 and include grooming, a vet visit, a microchip and an online training program. Von Roemer rewards clients who adopt with a 10 percent lifetime discount and a one-time, 20 percent off shopping spree.
Bark n’ Bitches is ahead of the curve, even in trendy Los Angeles. Just last fall, the LA City Council banned the sale of dogs from commercial puppy mills and required pet shops to offer dogs from shelters and rescue organizations. Von Roemer thinks the city’s decision and the success of her hybrid store shows that rescue dogs can look forward to better days. “I believe when people are given the options and are educated, they will do the right thing,” she says.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Ask the Expert
Q: At the business where I work, I have pleaded with my boss to allow me to bring my dog, arguing that it would make me a better employee. He’s generally sympathetic to the idea, but his hesitancy in actually approving my request triggers a question: Do workers have any legal right to have companion pets at work if it makes them more productive or mentally healthier?
A: Certainly, if you have an actual disability, federal law is on your side. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that an otherwise qualified employee with disabilities be given meaningful access to the same programs and services that other employees enjoy. In those circumstances where employees describe provision of an animal to be a “reasonable accommodation” for certain impairments, courts apply a balancing test, weighing the benefit of the assistance an animal might provide against the hardship a disruption might impose on others in the same workplace, including customers and co-workers.
Being a question of fact (that is, an issue that can be proven or disproven), a claim that having a dog ameliorates stress or allows one to better perform job duties must be supported by evidence that the dog has particular medically therapeutic qualities. In other words, just as in grade school, you will need a note from your doctor; further, the note must be specific—not just a vague endorsement of the dog’s effectiveness as an overall source of good feelings, but a solid diagnosis that the dog actually solves specific problems that need to be solved in order for you to do your work.
Like your boss, courts may pay lip service to the value of canine companionship but are ultimately quite reluctant to give legal significance to the observation that “dogs make people feel better,” since this point of view has no identifiable stopping point. The worry is that eventually every person who can make some sort of case for it (depression or low self-esteem, for example) would be entitled to bring the dog of their choice to work, without regard to job-related training or utility. Or worse, that there would be no logical reason to eventually deny accommodation for those who liked cats, fish, reptiles or birds better than dogs. For that reason, while one may find many more dogs in offices these days compared to even five years ago, it is doubtful that they will become a standard workplace phenomenon anytime soon. Another factor underlying courts’ anxiety is the odd (and quite modern) perception that overall, animals tend to subtract from human productivity much more than they contribute to it.
If you are not disabled, the only other two likely ways to legally compel your boss to accept your dog’s daily attendance would be either a) a claim of discrimination based on your membership in a legally protected category, or b) proof that your written employment contract provides for it in some manner. Both present obstacles, the former because dog ownership is not yet a recognized state or federal constitutional right, and the latter because you most likely do not work for Enlightened Dog Owners of America, Inc., Work and Woof United or any of the similar imaginary companies that one might envision during a lunchbreak daydream.
Until you do, your best bet is to check out the Pet Sitters International website, petsit.com, particularly their “Take Your Dog to Work Day” Action Pack. That way, you can lay the groundwork with your boss for at least one dog-accompanied work day next year.
Yummy Picnic Recipes
Summertime means picnics and cookouts … and burgers and watermelon for everybody, even our dogs! Next time you gather around the picnic table plan on packing something special for the pups. Bark contributor Natalya Zahn shares her recipe for a dog-delicious burger/bun combo, sweet potato chips and watermelon pops …
BIG DOG BURGER
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl (mix with hands). Form into “burgers” and space 1" apart in a baking dish or on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350˚ for 30 minutes. Cool before serving and store in refrigerator.
PB & JAM THUMBPRINTS
Combine all dry ingredients, then mix in peanut butter, bananas and water. Mix until dough forms. Shape dough into 1" rounds, place on baking sheet and press thumb into centers. Bake at 350˚ for about 15 minutes. Let cool. Heat jam in a saucepan or microwave until liquid in consistency. With a spoon, drip the jam into the center of each cookie. Let stand 1 hour for jam to set. Store in an airtight container.
LIVER CRACKER “BUN”
In a bowl, combine flour, wheat germ and parsley — set aside. Briefly blend liver in a food processor. Add liver to dry ingredients, then mix in oil and water until a sticky dough forms. On a greased cookie sheet, shape bun rounds — about 3" in diameter and 1/2" thick. Brush with egg white and sprinkle sesame seeds over the top. Bake at 400˚ for 15-20 minutes. Buns should be slightly soft in the center when pressed. Cool before assembling burger and serving.
WATERMELON FREEZE CUBES
Cut melon into roughly 3/8" slices. Using cookie cutters, cut shapes out of the flesh of the melon and place on a freezer-safe plate. Chill for 4 hours. Remove from freezer, transfer treats from plate to Ziploc freezer bag and store frozen until ready to eat.
SWEET POTATO CHIPS
Slice whole potatoes into rounds: a 1/4" slice will create a crispier chip, a 1/2" slice will create a chewier chip. Place on a foil-lined sheet. Bake at 250˚ for 2 hours, turning over once. Allow to cool on sheet. Chips should be stored in an airtight container.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Nashville’s finest bookstore has new workers.
In the weeks before my business partner Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, I would bring my 16-yearold dog Rose to the store. I folded her up inside her soft bed and then stretched her out in the warm sun that fell through the front window. She would sleep while I painted a cabinet or shelved books. Rose, who had once been a Chihuahua/Terrier mix, was now nothing but a limp little sock puppet of a dog, and I carried her with me everywhere. I wanted her to be a store dog. If I was going to have a bookstore, it seemed only right that Rose should have a job. I thought that she could stay in her bed by the cash register and people could pet her, but it didn’t work out that way. Having lived a long and happy life, Rose died two weeks after we opened.
The truth of the matter is that Rose, no matter how much I loved her, was not store-dog material. For one thing, she hated children, and while she almost never actually bit them, she could bark and lunge and snap without provocation. At times she could be so ferocious that children felt bitten without the actual bite. The only reason I even thought she might be able to be a store dog late in life was that she could no longer walk, and her sight and hearing were negligible. She just liked the petting, and the size of the hand running over her small flank didn’t matter anymore.
Karen thought the bookstore should have a piano, and so she got a piano. I thought the bookstore should have a dog, but now I didn’t have a dog, and I was too sad to go out and get another one.
So we hired a part-time dog, a sleek, short-haired Miniature Dachshund named Lexington who came in with our events manager, Niki Castle, once or twice a week. Lexington was from New York City, where she and Niki had lived before moving south. As a city dog, she was not afraid of crowds. She was used to strangers making over her. She was used to children getting in her face. Frankly, she liked children getting in her face. Her M.O. was to race around the store 10 times, greet everyone and then skid back into the office, where Niki would scoop her up and drop her into a sling she wore across her chest. There, in her pouch, Lexington napped. Twenty minutes later, she’d take off running again. It was the cycle of her day.
No one could complain about the job Lexington was doing. Children marched back to the office and demanded to see the Dachshund, and off she would go to the picture-book section. She did not gnaw on the spines of the books on lower shelves. She did not lose her temper, never once, when a small hand tried to keep her from her appointed nap by holding onto her tail. She was in every way top flight. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want my own store dog.
“We have a store,” my husband would say when he called about various shelter or foster-care dogs we had seen on the Internet. “Do you think he would be a good store dog?”
But if you don’t have a store, how can you know? How can you know if your dog can be trusted not to dart through the continually opening doors, or if he’ll jump up and grab a fluttering scarf, or have accidents in hidden corners, or bite a child—even one child, one child who may have been asking for it in every possible way. How do you know that dog when you see him?
It turns out my husband knew. The Friday afternoon we walked into the Nashville Humane Association and my husband saw Sparky, he knew. He leaned over and lifted him out of his pen. “This one,” he said, without looking at a single other dog.
After 16 wonderful years with Rose, it’s hard for me not to panic when I see a tiny child toddling towards my dog, fingers outstretched. But regardless of size, Sparky gives every customer a fullbody wag, then drops to the ground to show his spotted tummy. Most children then drop to the ground as well and together they roll around.
There are always children who are nervous around dogs, who look stiffly away as though they’re being addressed by a crazy person in the subway, but Sparky is never pushy. If ignored, he will sit for a minute and try to puzzle out the situation (Child doesn’t want to play?). Then, coming up with no logical explanation, he simply walks away. So what about Lexington? After all, she was here first. All I can say is that while there have been some high-speed chases, there has been no competition. We’re bookstore enough for two small dogs, one who looks like a tiny supermodel, the other who resembles an unruly dandelion.
“Who’s this?” a woman asked me when Sparky put his front paws on the edge of the big, comfortable chair where she was sitting, reading a book. He butted his head against her knee.
“This is Sparky,” I said. “He’s the store dog.”
“What’s his job?” the woman asked me. “What does he do?”
I looked at her. She was scratching his ears. “This,” I said, stating what I thought was obvious. “He does this.”
Do store dogs encourage reading? I believe so, in the same way the rest of the staff encourages reading: by helping to create an environment you want to be in. Children beg their parents to take them to our bookstore long before they can read so that they can play on the train table and pet the store dog. Trains and dogs then become connected to reading.
Sparky and Lexington are also happy to provide a complementary service for people who don’t have dogs of their own—children, parents and non-parents alike—so they too can have a little snuggle before they go home. Our store dogs aren’t here just to create a positive association with books; they’re also here to create positive associations with dogs.
A high school English teacher called several months ago to say her class had read one of my novels and she wanted to bring the students to the store for an hour before we opened so that I could talk to them about the book. It was early in Sparky’s tenure and I thought a closed store with a limited number of people inside would be a good trial run. The 20 or so high school students pulled their chairs into a lazy circle. They were hip, disaffected and slouching until Sparky trotted in. As it turns out, there’s no one, not even a high school senior, who’s cool enough to ignore a small, scruffy dog.
Sparky worked the room like a politician, hopping into one lap and then another, walking over knees, until he had pressed his face to every person in the room. When he was finished, he came and settled in my lap. That was when the students looked at me with awe. Sure, I had written a novel, but they felt certain they could write novels if they felt like it. What I had going for me was the love and devotion of a really good dog.
I have no ax to grind with e-books. I care much more that people read than about the device they chose to read on. But I do believe in small businesses, and in the creation of local jobs, and of having a place where people can come together with a sense of community to hear an author read or attend story hour or get a great recommendation from a smart bookseller.
And I like a good store dog, a dog who knows how to curl up on your lap when you’re thumbing through a book. A virtual Sparky? A one-click Lexington? Believe me, it wouldn’t be the same.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips on sharing that most special day
When my fiancé Blair and I started courting, the event that sealed the deal for me was when he met Ernest. Blair was sitting on the stoop of my apartment building, I opened the front gate, and Ernest pretty much bounded into Blair’s welcoming arms. Ernest is my—now our—12-years-young Lab/Beagle mix. A year later, Blair proposed while we were walking Ernest in Riverside Park. Ernest has been there for it all. Of course, when we began discussing wedding plans, we talked about how to involve Ernest in our big day.
It turns out that we are far from the only couple wishing to include four-legged children in their nuptials. Here is what we have learned about including Ernest in our wedding:
Be mindful of your dog’s temperament. If your dog doesn’t like a big crowd and you are having more than 25 guests, you might find some other way to include your barker in the wedding. One couple I know has a particularly feisty Springer Spaniel and decided the best way to include Lola was to have her pose with them in their engagement photo that was to be printed in the local newspaper along with their announcement. You can also acknowledge your dog in your choice of wedding favors.
I went to a great wedding where little bags of dog-shaped cookies accompanied by a note let each guest know that a gift in their name had been given to the animal shelter where the couple rescued their dog. Also remember that your dog needs to be comfortable being handled by someone else, and that appointing a designated dog handler is a great way to make sure that your dog is never left in a lurch. (Or alone in sniffing distance of that delicious wedding cake.)
If you think your dog can handle the wedding, make sure your venue is dog friendly. Loft spaces and private homes are your best bets for indoor spaces. It is illegal to bring dogs into restaurants for health code reasons; most public buildings—city halls, courthouses—have similar laws. Even many churches and synagogues won’t let you walk your pooch down the aisle, but even if your dog can’t be a part of the ceremony, it may be able to attend the reception. Again, check with your reception venue to make sure.
Most outdoor sites can accommodate a dog with no problem. Just make sure to keep a bowl of fresh water nearby and to have that designated dog handler give your pup a spin around the block—before pooch leads you down the aisle. (Our dear Ernest will mark anything outside, I mean anything—so we are getting married inside, at a loft.) At the same time you check with your venue, make sure you check with your officiant; some may not preside over a ceremony that includes pets. It’s also a good idea to take your dog to the venue a day or two before the wedding, as a familiar space will be more comfortable on the big day.
You must also decide what role your dog will play. Many companies now make special ring-bearing pillows that will attach to your dog’s collar. If you are crafty, you can attach any small ring-bearing pillow to a length of ribbon tied around your dog’s neck. Your dog can simply accompany an attendant down the aisle. Consider buying a special collar that coordinates with your wedding party’s attire. Mrs. Bones offers a huge selection of brocade collars in different widths, and Designing Dogs has handmade collars that can be personalized with your pup’s name. You could also ask your florist to design a wreath of flowers for your dog to wear. Make sure whatever your dog is going to wear that you give it a trial run before the big event, especially if your dog isn’t used to “dressing up.” My friend Lisa-Erika found a tiny tux for her Miniature Yorkie, and then she plopped Buddy on a pillow in a pretty basket carried by her maid of honor.
Finally, remember to bring your dog supplies (food, water, treats, brush, whatever you need) and to have a designated driver for your dog. I know Ernest won’t be interested in dancing the night away with us, so after the ceremony he’ll be given a nice long walk and then be whisked home, where he’ll find a nice, big bone next to his water bowl. I hope he will consider it a wedding gift.
Web alternatives to kennels
If cage-free, off-leash accommodations were the last big trend to sweep the boarding business, than sleepovers with regular folk are the new sweet spot between home and kennel. Today, several websites connect dog owners seeking a more hands-on, affordable boarding experience for their pups with dog-loving hosts eager to open their homes to canine visitors but with varying degrees of pet care experience.
Launched in Phoenix in 2004, the same year as Facebook, SleepoverRover.com helped pioneer the current web-based wave of hosting dogs as guests in private homes. With experience in pet retail and grooming and a desire to find a low stress alternative to kennels, co-founder Maggie Brown set about recruiting retirees and stay-at-home parents to take care of dogs in their homes.
Unlike newer sites, Sleepover Rover representatives evaluate each host and inspect each home, in some cases, providing dog-proofing and behavior advice. Sleepover Rover actively facilitates each match, handles payment (splitting the fee with hosts), and follows up on each home stay. Sleepover hosts are located in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, and in Southern California from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
In 2011, two sites—DogVacay.com and Rover.com—launched more open-market versions of the same concept. Like AirBnB, these sites allow dog owners and dog sitters to post profiles for free. Owners are responsible for selecting a sitter and making arrangements, although they pay through the site, as well as checking references, which include onsite and other social media reviews. The sites take a percentage, from 3 to 15 percent, of fees collected by the dog sitters.
Started by a husband-and-wife team, DogVacay was originally limited to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but now has more than 10,000 qualified hosts (DogVacay interviews hosts and checks references) around the country, concentrated in urban areas also including New York, Miami, Dallas, DC, Chicago and Atlanta. The hosts make an average of $1,000/month.
A well-funded, Seattle-based startup, Rover.com started by putting down roots in the Pacific Northwest but is now actively expanding in 52 cities.
In a recent New York Times blog specifically about DogVacacy the important issue of insurance was examined. While traditional homeowner's policies provide coverage that protects you in the event that your own dog bites someone, typically if a “guest” dog does likewise, this wouldn't be covered. You would need to acquire specialty insurance coverage for pet businesses, similar to groomers, boarding kennels, etc.
The Times article, explains:
"DogVacay's Web site says it includes “complimentary” insurance for hosts and guests with every booking. The free version covers veterinary care for guest dogs and dogs owned by the host, up to $2,000; it doesn't, however, include liability coverage for the host.
Hosts can pay to upgrade to “premium” insurance that does include liability coverage of up to $4 million, said Aaron Hirschhorn. The coverage is offered through Kennel Pro, an affiliate of the insurer Mourer-Foster.
DogVacay's site links to Kennel Pro's site, which says its policies start at $350 a year, which sounds a bit steep for someone hosting a dog only occasionally. But Hirschhorn said DogVacay was able to offer expanded coverage for $48 a year to its hosts through a special arrangement with the carrier. (The more affordable premium isn't cited on the Web site.) The fee is deducted from the first booking, so hosts don't have to pay the premium upfront, he said. He estimated that half of DogVacay's hosts bought the upgraded coverage."
Some local jurisdictions might also have laws about the need to have a business license. In Houston, for example, you might need a kennel license and an inspection.
Even though a few of these services do initial “vetting” of the hosts for you, and urge you to meet the “host” before you finalize your arrangements, some comments on the Times piece express concerns about leaving a dog with someone you only met on the internet. Have you used any of these services? Would you be interested in using them, or even being a host?
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