Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The whys and hows of the canine-equine bond
He’d been a birthday present for my mother. The Artful Dodger, we called him. A broken-coated Jack Russell Terrier, he sported a lopsided look, with one ear soft and dropped, the other starched upright in full salute. From the moment we brought Dodger home and posed him atop my old Paint horse, Clyde, for a quick photo-op (Dodger’s markings made him look like Clyde’s Mini-Me), it was clear that this dog was born to be around horses.
During his 14 years as Head Stable Dog, Dodger led the charge on morning and evening chores. He was frequently underfoot and escaped more than his fair share of flying hooves. But he also knew his job, and was tireless in his efforts to purge our stable of marauding rodents. And whether playing chase with the yearlings or lounging in the sun with the seniors, it was obvious that Dodger not only loved being close to the horses, he also had an innate sense of just how close was too close. Horse sense just seemed to be in his genes. After all, Jack Russells were bred as fox-hunting dogs, designed to run with the horses and follow the fox when it went to ground.
Years later, while working as a horse trainer at a ranch in northern Colorado, I witnessed a different level of interspecies interaction as I watched the cowboys, their horses and their dogs—Border Collies, Heelers and a few “ranch-bred specials”— at work sorting cattle. Whenever a wary bovine decided to make a break for it, the team of three intensely focused individuals would begin an elaborate dance of ducks and dodges designed to guide the wayward cow back into position.
As I continued to observe these working dog/horse teams, I began to suspect that the nature of this interspecies interaction was far more complex than what could be described by the classical predator- prey analogy. While both dogs and horses are, at heart, social animals who readily form long-lasting attachments to specific individuals, their reasons for forming social groups are fundamentally different. As prey animals, horses rely on each other for survival. Something you may have noticed if you’ve ever seen a group of wild (or domesticated) horses at rest in a field: While most of the herd sleeps, there is always one individual who remains alert and watchful, ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice.
Most wild canids, on the other hand, form packs to better bring down prey, living as a group to hunt more successfully. Hence, for dogs, membership in a pack is desirable but not necessary for survival. As domesticated animals, however, dogs are forced into a constructed social hierarchy that might include one or more dogs, at least one human and, in the case of the working dog, a whole host of other creatures.
Indeed, since their domestication, interspecies relationships between dogs and other animals have become not only possible, but also relatively commonplace. Part of the reason has to do with an evolutionary process called neoteny, in which particular aspects of a species’ development slow to the point where adults retain many traits previously seen in juveniles. This process has been at work in dogs since their wolf ancestors first began lingering around human settlements, and is responsible for producing the type of canine we all know and love: that cuddly, playful creature we bring into our homes and often allow to share our beds.
Not surprisingly, this perpetual juvenility curbs the majority of dogs’ most aggressive predatory instincts. Herding dogs, for instance, utilize predatory tactics to control their flocks, but fail to follow through on the instinct to bring down an animal in their charge. It is also what allows dogs’ work to seem an awful lot like play, and what frequently makes the line between playful pursuit and aggressive harassment more than a little bit blurry.
Merle and Sandi Newton of Crystal Rose Cow Dog College in Red Bluff, Calif., have been professionally training stock dogs for over a quarter of a century. Perennial champions at regional and national cow dog competitions, the couple knows a few things about identifying that fine line between playmate and predator, and what it takes to foster a good working bond between canines and equines.
Teaching a stock dog to work cattle alongside horses—something that’s crucial on vast Western ranches—begins with asking the dog to distinguish between types of prey. “We’re actually controlling and curbing a strong predator instinct,” explains Merle.
For this reason, establishing the human as the leader is a prerequisite for work with both horses and stock. Once the dog learns to act on his herding instincts only when given the go-ahead, the introduction of horse and dog usually proceeds quite smoothly. “The first time that our dogs see a horse, we want to be aboard [the horse]. That way, the dog starts to think of the horse as part of the human,” says Merle. Once the two become accustomed to one another, dogs quickly form bonds with “their” horses. “If someone was to get on my horse and ride off,” says Merle, “my dog would follow that horse until I called him away.”
Provided neither party is threatened by the other’s presence, and especially if there is some mutual benefit like play (or, as in the case of stock dogs, a working activity that feels like play), both horse and dog can certainly begin to view each other as just another member of the pack/herd.
“But, they’re predator and prey, fundamentally,” says Anne Dickens, director of publicity for the British Carriage Dog Society, “so why do they get along? I’m convinced it has more to do with the human than with the dog and the horse. Dogs see that the horses are a part of our lives, and therefore a part of their lives as well. And it works both ways. The horses trust the dogs because we trust them.”
Whether it is that trust, a working relationship, or simply mutual curiosity, there is little doubt that dogs and horses do form some remarkable bonds. Dickens was witness to one such partnership during the 2008 Carriage Dog Trials in Worcestershire, England (an endurance and obedience event designed to both demonstrate and test the Dalmatian’s traditional role as a companion to horses and carriages).
Midway through the 25-mile course, half of her two-pony team had to be retired due to a high heart rate. Having been declared a “jolly fit little pony” by the vet on call, the remaining pony (named Polo) was left to run the second 12 miles on his own. As the team of two dogs, one driver, and now only one horse struggled to finish the course in time, Dickens watched as all began working—for the very first time—as a genuine team.
“With about three miles to go, my dog Fenris picked up on Polo’s energy and concentration and fell in beside him, where his harness mate would normally have been,” says Dickens. “He stayed there for the next couple of miles, every few moments glancing up at Polo, seemingly urging him on. It was quite extraordinary—especially from a dog who usually keeps his distance from the horses.” Eventually, Fenris’s sister Freya noticed what was going on and fell into place on Polo’s other side. “Now, it might be that they just got excited by the speed and thought it was a jolly game,” says Dickens. “But the way they behaved and the look on their faces made me think they knew the stakes were high and we all had to pull together as a team.”
Such partnerships, whether fleeting— like that of Fenris, Freya and Polo—or lasting a lifetime, are a perfect illustration of the depth and breadth of our animals’ capacity for understanding and emotion. Doubtless, our ability to enjoy these complex relationships may forever eclipse our capacity to understand the precise evolutionary and behavioral mechanisms that make them possible. But this much is clear: In their openness to the unknown, their tolerance and their willingness to trust, animals may have a thing or two yet to teach us.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The how [and why] of teaching dogs to carry packs
In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a spirited young Buddhist named Japhy takes his domesticated friends for a crash course in what he calls “mountain smashing.” While it sounds destructive, mountain smashing is really just a colorful euphemism for climbing to the summit. It’s choosing to spend a day outdoors instead of glued to the television, and Japhy makes it his life’s work to share such choices as a better way of living. He teaches his friends about the roar of the wilderness, the stillness of forests, and how a few miles on your boots and some basic camp food can convince you that you’re the luckiest person alive. Though I don’t have my own personal beatniks to take me outside and teach me to pay attention, I have even better guides: dogs.
With their red and blue packs, my dogs look like mountain smashers. They no longer resemble the goofy and good-natured Siberians who take my spot on the couch during movie snack breaks—they look like kind wolves, my personal escorts into the wilderness. Though dogs aren’t wild animals, they are not as foreign to the forest as we humans are. They’re the perfect link between the worlds, and with their packs on, they seem like my own personal sherpas—experienced guides showing me the world of wolves bubbling in their Husky blood.
The packs they wear are light, extensions of themselves; in them, they carry extra water, wool sweaters, biscuits and trail mix. They sport them proudly as they leap over fallen trees and dash after the smells of deer and porcupines. Having saddlebags on the backs of the dogs is convenient, too. I can access things I need quickly, instead of stopping to wrestle off my own backpack and root through it. The whole experience of dog packing makes our time outside together richer.
I adopted both of my trail-mates as adults when they were four years old; neither had carried a pack before they met me, but the training came quickly and easily. The trick was two-fold: First, making sure I had packs engineered for canine athletes that fit them perfectly. Second (and perhaps the secret to pack training), making sure those packs were only slipped onto their fluffy backs if we were going to have fun. When I first purchased Jazz and Annie’s packs, I’d lash them on for every trip to the dog park or walk around the block. The idea was to associate that weird new harness with action and adventure, even if it was only put on to chase a ball around the yard. Within short order, they associated the light panniers with time spent with me outdoors. Incidentally, so did I.
Over the next few weekends, I slowly added gear and distance to their pack walks. Soon, they were joining me on jaunts to the local co-op for some light grocery shopping. I’d secure them outside in the shade with water and take their packs inside as my eco-friendly shopping bags. When I returned with the heavier loads, I’d harness them up and we’d walk home together, all three of us smiling. They were getting exercise and smelling busy sidewalks, and I was saving myself a car trip for milk and eggs. It feels good to know you’ve done this good work together.
Within two months, the dogs and I were hiking the trails, and by the end of that first summer, the dogs were carrying all of our supplies for an entire day trip. When it was time for a meal, we’d find a clearing by a stream or a lake and have a grand picnic. Liver treats and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich never tasted better (they got the treats, I got the pb&j). I’d pull a tattered old paperback out of Annie’s pack and the dogs would snooze in the sun. I cannot imagine being in the wilderness without them. They’re my Dharma bums, and as a team, we smash mountains with the best of them. I think Japhy would approve.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Home Works: Smart Solutions
Ringware Dog Bowls
People Towels for Pet Lovers
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Vetstreet identifies naming themes over the past 12 years
Pet names can tell you a lot about a person’s personality. Some people follow themes around favorite things. I love Pixar movies so I named all of my pups after characters from the movies. Others have a preference for sweet sounding names or tough sounding names. And as more people consider their pets a part of the family, more dogs are getting names traditionally set aside for humans.
In 2011, the most popular dog names were Max, Buddy, Bella, and Daisy. (Funny enough, I don’t know any dogs that go by those names!) Max, which has held the top spot for several years, may be the most popular, but apparently it’s not the most trendy.
Pet care website, Vetstreet, searched their records and determined the top 10 names that have been trending over the past 12 years. The names that came up include Lola, Stella, Bentley and Diesel.
In its research, Vetstreet found a resurgence in short, old-fashioned nicknames, like Lulu and Milo; endearing, cozy-sounding names, like Lulu and Zoey; traditional human names, like Stella and Cooper; and names from pop culture, like Marley from the book and movie Marley and Me and Nala, the female cub in The Lion King. The website expects the name of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge’s new puppy, Lupo, will be very popular next year.
Vetstreet believes that these themes reflect the personal attachment that we have with our pets these days. And I also think it shows how obsessed with are with pop culture!
Have you noticed any popular or trendy names in your neighborhood?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A trainer talks about her “heart dog”
I love dogs. I love stories. And I love love. It stands to reason that I would love stories about the love of dogs, and, in fact, I do. Recently, I read this one about trainer Kathy Sdao and her dog Effie, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime dog whose entrance into someone’s life changes it forever. Whether we call such dogs the loves of our lives, our heart dogs, or our soulmates, they remind us that love is for every day, not just Valentine’s Day, and their love makes life richer, better, sweeter.
Kathy shares the experience of having her second husband leave her on September 10, 2001 for another woman, much as her first husband had done many years earlier. She would have been shattered even without facing what the following day brought, and it was Effie who helped her resist the temptation to take her own life.
Many dogs have saved people’s lives, thankfully, and there is something especially powerful about Effie having done this for Kathy by fostering her will to live. Kathy writes, “I gradually realized, with genuine surprise, that just having her close by, I felt a tiny ribbon of relief deep inside. It turns out that this simple pleasure of her presence, at a time when nothing else brought comfort, was the first steppingstone on my path back to wholeness and happiness.”
Describing Effie as her “joy-coach,” Kathy says, “She knows what's important: playing daily, experiencing the nowness of every moment, speaking volumes without using words, surrounding herself with dear friends.”
It’s been more than a decade now since Effie saved her life, and that time has given her a delightful new perspective, which is “I may not know how to pick men, but I sure as hell know how to pick a dog!”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
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News: Guest Posts
Dogs are great icebreakers and matchmakers
I’m pretty caught up in the pre-Valentine’s Day media swirl. I try to ignore it but I love reading true-life love stories, especially if they feature a dog—and a surprising number of them do. That may be because dogs are pretty great matchmakers.
Nine out of ten people in the UK say they were more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger if the stranger had a dog, according to a Dogs Trust survey reported in today’s Daily Express. Sometimes these meetings turn into lasting relationships.
So with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I’d love to hear your stories of falling in love because of a dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I’ve always been kind of a cat man.
I didn’t have pets as a child because I suffered from Responsibility Deficit Disorder, but I started having cats in college, soigné creatures with names like Odalisque and Mrs. Miniver. I had a long-term cat relationship when I first moved to New York: a brother-and-sister pair of tiger stripes, Queenie and Spike. They lived forever (I swear Queenie had dementia), and then they died. And after they died, I never got a pet again. I just never wanted to be bothered with food, litter and death again. For that matter, my life had embraced an instability that could barely sustain me, much less lower life forms. And then there’s the whole thing about smaller creatures depending on you. I don’t know how people with children do it. I mean: there are days when I resent my plants.
Once, there was a fly in my room, over a month, maybe two, and I kind of started to think of him as a pet. I didn’t name him or anything. But I’d say hello when I came home. And I’d let him know when there were orange peels in the wastebasket. I told myself I was nurturing a Buddhist respect for all forms of life, but really, I just couldn’t afford therapy.
The good thing about having a fly for a pet was that I didn’t talk about it to anyone, didn’t tell any stories about it at work. People always tell stories about their pets at work. But no one wants to hear about flies. Which was fine with me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to sound like a Pet Person. I didn’t want to stand around the water cooler telling stories that started out reasonably enough and then suddenly veered into the most cloying sentimentality. And then, of course, you get those people on Facebook who not only talk about their pets but as their pets. That sort of thing gives me the chills.
Now, I like other people’s pets. I’m a pet sitter. And I like pet sitting. I like being the fun uncle who doesn’t mind if you get fur on his sweater. I like the limited responsibility, the promiscuity of pet sitting. The affection is all the sweeter, the cute-kitty moments all the more piquant, knowing it’ll be over at the end of the week.
It started innocently enough with a friend’s cat—Thomas, a super-cute gray-and-white, most of whose nine lives have been plus-sizes. For years, I stayed with him when Ann went out of town, and even lived with him for a while when I moved in with her after losing my apartment. Then a lesbian couple down in the Village with a cat named Junior started using me regularly. Junior and I really get along, and the couple tells me I’m the primary male influence in his life. Which is great, I guess. I always wanted to be a role model. I just never thought it would be for a cat.
I had an Upper West Side job with a cat named Mittens, a name I refused to call the animal. A couple of nights into it, I suddenly realized I had no idea where he was and, while I knew he hadn’t gotten out, I really wanted visual confirmation. But when I opened my mouth to call him, I found it refused to form the requisite syllables. I couldn’t, as an adult, walk around an apartment calling, “Mittens!” I finally settled on calling out (softly) “Kitten!” figuring that, as a lower vertebrate, he could be easily duped by assonance. I was wrong: he had no sense of poetry at all. I didn’t see him until breakfast the next day. And next week I have a meet-and-greet in Chelsea with Taylor, a cat I’ll be staying with for a couple of weeks in January.
So: mostly cats. I don’t do a lot of dogs. They’re so needy. It’s always feed me-walk me-feed me, just me-me-me-me, 24/7; it’s exhausting. And speaking of me, I have to watch out for myself as well. Neediness is a two-way street, and dogs and humans have co-dependence issues that go back to prehistory. Dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, and they quickly made themselves indispensible to humans—hunting, herding and so forth—in exchange, of course, for food. It was in part the stability they provided that allowed humans to finally settle down, establishing villages and, eventually, cities. In short, without dogs, there’d be no New York; you have to wonder if instinctively they knew it would be a great place to shit.
And I’ve never really liked little dogs. The little-dog thing is an aspect of my homosexuality I’d never explored. I certainly have any number of gay friends with little dogs, and have, in a jolly, avuncular way, shared their joys. In a less jolly but no less avuncular way, I’ve also shared their sorrows and moments of doubt: I remember helping a close friend transition from Shih Tzus to Terriers. But there are doors in gay men it seems only little dogs can open. In days of a simpler psychology, gay people’s relationships with their animals were seen as a neurotic transference of affection for the children we would never have. But now that we’ve figured out ways of obtaining human infants, the ardent devotion gayboys lavish on their little mammals has gone from being a symptom to just another color in the rainbow. The transference thing was so bogus anyway. I mean, I had two cats, and yes, when they were kittens, I thought they were adorable. But it’s not like I lactated or anything. And little dogs didn’t make me feel transfer-y at all.
So when I got the email—a couple in Chelsea; friends of a friend—asking if I was available to stay with their Pug for a week, I kind of made a face (kind of a pug face, come to think of it). But I hadn’t done a dog in a while, it was summer, their apartment was five minutes from work. I thought, why not.
I was surprised when I first met him, when I went to pick up the keys. He was bigger than I’d expected. And cuter. We took to each other right away. He jumped up onto the couch, into my lap, kissed me: cute. And the apartment was gorgeous, muted olives and rusts, with lighting that just got more fabulous the farther in you went. By the time you hit the bedroom, you looked like you were in your early 30s.
So I took the keys, wished them a bon voyage, and showed up a few days later with a briefcase of work and a duffle bag of clothes I thought would go with the apartment (I leaned toward green, figuring it’d play into the olive but make the rust pop). I kind of expected the Pug to come running, barking, as soon as I got in the door—he was so exuberant when we met—but he was nowhere to be seen. But when I went into the living room, I saw him on the back of a low easy chair (olive), obviously just coming out of a nap. When he’d shaken off his stupor and saw it wasn’t his daddies, that it was someone new, that it was me, the guy from the other night, he gave three full-throated barks, jumped from the chair to the ottoman, from the ottoman to the rug (rust tones in some of the stripes), chased his tail in a circle, chased it the other way, jumped on the couch, jumped on me and licked me into dermabrasion.
I have to admit, the face did take some getting used to. Head-on, a Pug can look like he’s just run into a wall, but at certain angles he’s adorable. I once had a boyfriend like that: he had a strange cast to his face, but if you caught it at the right angle, he was really cute. He never noticed that I always faced him on the diagonal. What’s amazing about a Pug, though, is the moment—early on; somewhere in the first 10 minutes; somewhere in the first belly rub—when you suddenly shift from thinking that he’s kind of ugly to thinking he’s just the cutest thing in the whole wide world. It’s a nearly imperceptible movement, a moment’s sudden grace, transformative, pure. I thought, This must be what it’s like to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. The world is transcended; Pugs are cute.
Yet the evolutionary drama still had to be reenacted: The dog had to establish an immediate, intense bond with me so that I would feed him, and the surest way of establishing that bond was by doing something immediately and intensely cute.
The dog was a leaner. He wouldn’t just sit next to you when he wanted attention, he’d lean into you, pushing into the petting hand until he flipped upside down across your lap, his head lolling back in full-body-rub ecstasy. After I’d unpacked and settled in, I decided to meditate a little before I got to work. I sat on the floor, my legs in a faux-lotus, and as I focused on my breathing, the dog came and nestled against me, leaning into my ankles. For an astounding moment, there was nothing but my breath, the warmth of the dog and the sound of the rain on the air conditioner. Then I suddenly sneezed, and before I’d even pulled out of it, the dog was up on his hind legs, paws on my shoulders, licking me a god-bless-you. Thus the pact was sealed in dog breath. Maybe I was there to feed him, but he had me eating out of his hand.
His name doesn’t matter, since I rarely called him by it. I called him Pugsy, Pugster, My Little Pug-Pug, Pup-Pup, Puppy and Dog. He didn’t care what I called him. I was just there to rub him. I could call him Mittens for all he cared. From then on we were inseparable: he followed me wherever I went, sat at my feet as I worked at the computer, waited outside the shower for me in the morning. Before bed we’d watch some TV together, and he’d bark at animal noises and sirens in the shows.
Something I googled said Pugs can be “yappy,” and My Little Pug-Pug had a pretty good vocabulary: a throaty moan when he wanted a treat; a gurgly growl when he was playing with his ball; and a what-in-god’s-name-are-you-doing-out-there-in-the-hallway yip. He also had exquisite diction. The first night, he was snuggled up alongside me in bed and I was just about to fall asleep when he heard something in the hallway. He jumped up, leaned over the edge of the bed and said, quite distinctly, “Woof!” (The articulation of the “w” was extraordinary.) I said to him, “Did you hear what you just said?” He also had a good ruff-ruff, a ruff-ruff-ruff and a pretty good arf as well.
While my affection for the animal grew stronger by the minute, it was a feeling I entertained as a fully cognizant Homo sapiens. I felt very clear on the relationship. I never saw the dog as a replacement for a child, though he was a perfectly good replacement for a boyfriend. There’s much to be said for being wildly adored by something really cute. OK, you have to pick up its shit, but anyone who thinks being in a relationship doesn’t entail picking up someone’s shit has no sense of metaphor at all. And, properly trained, boyfriends make heartwarming companions. I once had a boyfriend I taught to play fetch. (He rolled over pretty well, too.) Women, it’s said, can be feline. But men are definitely dogs.
And drawn to other dogs. Pugster’s daddies had told me he was a man magnet, and they were right. Puppy has an intense cuteness aura, and the leash connected me to the very heart of it. A lot of guys talked to me who, sans chien, I imagine would have regarded me, if at all, with the Chelsea Chill. But I didn’t care. For the nonce, I was perfectly happy to bask in canine glory. For a week, I was a gay man in Chelsea with a little dog. I had a Pug and I was proud.
The day I left, he knew something was up when I put the duffle bag on the bed. He sat outside the bedroom door and watched me as I packed. When I came out of the room, I told him it had been fun, and that his daddies were coming back. I tried to sound excited. I threw him a handful of kibble and locked the door behind me.
* * *
I’m back home now, in my room. My roommate’s cat really likes me, and is sitting by me as I write this. I call her Purr-Pot. Or Chicken. She’s purring as I pet her absently, my gaze drifting out the window, drifting south, downtown, to Chelsea. My fingers run over her black fur, she purrs and pushes against them, and I wonder if she can feel the distance in me, if she can tell that part of me is elsewhere. But then, how could she possibly tell, possibly know, possibly understand?
She’s a cat.
This essay originally appeared in The Morning News.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
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