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
Dogs get a spot at the table
Decorative Pup Plates
Custom Portrait Plates
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs come together in a new model for dog rescue and care
Last March, when Animal Care & Control of New York City took in 14 Pit Bulls (including a mother and four newborn puppies) who had been found in alive in a burned-out Bronx apartment, the dogs’ prospects weren’t great. “It’s 99 percent Pit Bulls that are being put down every day,” says Emily Tanen, at the time a coordinator for ACC’s New Hope program, which helps get animals out of the shelter by placing them with rescue groups. “There are more Pit Bulls coming in [than other breeds] and fewer people wanting them, because of the image surrounding them.” Plus, the Bronx Fire Pit Bulls, as advocates dubbed them (facebook.com/BronxFirePitBulls), faced another challenge: they were under police hold, so New Hope had to find rescues willing to foster them without actually assuming ownership. “Not many groups want to do that, because [then] they are just housing the dogs for us,” Tanen says. “We could take them back at any time, and if the dog has any medical problems, we’re probably not going to pay for that, because we have no money.” Tanen worried particularly about the puppies going into the shelter environment and getting sick. “I spent hours trying to place the mom and the puppies that night before I left work, and [finally] Dog Habitat took them.”
Tanen singles out the two-year-old Brooklyn rescue facility—which cared for the five Pit Bulls for “a really long time” before ACC could officially transfer ownership—both for being among a shortlist of outfits willing to accept Pit Bulls at all and for the obvious care they take with the dogs they do rescue. “They were really open about how the dogs were, and they sent us update pictures,” she says. “Not a lot of groups do that, and when you are working in such a stressful environment like a shelter, it’s really nice to see that the work that you put into saving a dog paid off.”
Tanen may have realized that Dog Habitat (doghabitat.org) stood out from the crowd, but her under-siege post at ACC didn’t allow her the luxury of seeing just how special an operation it really is. Dog Habitat shares space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with Unleash, a daycare-and-boarding business (unleashbrooklyn.blogspot.com), and its rescue dogs live just like the pampered “clients” they romp with during the day. At night, rescues and boarders alike stay in their own four-by-four-foot pens, checked on by a staff member who sleeps on-site. They dine on organic food supplied by sponsor Stella & Chewy’s. “There is no reason a rescue dog should be treated as lesser than any other,” says Rob Maher, who got the idea to start a rescue after his and wife Bea Boado’s pet-supply shop, District Dog, became a magnet for dogs found in the neighborhood.
Once the plan took root, the couple recruited Jay Lombard, an educational fundraiser and customer with a Lab/Border Collie mix named Skyler, to serve as director of the operation. “My dog passed away the month we opened,” says Lombard, who has Skyler’s name permanently inked on his shoulder above a tattoo of the heart-shaped Dog Habitat logo. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in Greenpoint—I had to find an apartment that had a backyard—and I wouldn’t have met Rob and Bea. Because of him, I wanted to have a rescue.”
In the beginning, Unleash wasn’t even on the agenda. “As we created the nonprofit, we wondered, ‘How are we going to pay the rent? How are we going to cover the costs?’” Lombard recalls. “Our lawyer recommended the daycare and boarding [business], because our whole philosophy was having an open rescue.” It took almost a year for the group to find their 7,000-square-foot location on Franklin Street, now the neighborhood’s main cultural drag. Unleash, which provides space to Dog Habitat as a tax write-off, also has a staff of 14 handlers who can oversee all of the dogs simultaneously. (Rescues are not allowed to mingle with clients until they have been medically cleared and their behavior has been established.) The facility, which the website describes as a “holistic loft,” features weathered lumber repurposed from local factories and bright-green rubber floors made from recycled tires. Unleash offers pickup services in a hybrid SUV and purchases wind power through Con Edison. (Lombard and Maher would eventually like to install solar panels on the roof.) In fact, customers seem more familiar with Unleash’s sustainable practices than with the rescue program, at least initially. “Not a lot of people know about the rescue until they come here,” Lombard says. “Then they learn about it and feel good about their dog being part of the rehabilitation.”
And when it comes to rehabilitation, there are some distinct advantages to the Dog Habitat model. “Having a space where the animals can socialize is a real benefit, versus having an animal stuck in a cage 22 hours a day and only getting walked once or twice,” says Diane Gauld, who works for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a nonprofit network created to help New York City become a no-kill community by 2015. “The environment you’re giving them is more like what life is. That’s the real benefit to what [Dog Habitat] is able to do.” Dogs who need it also get plenty of special treatment, be it medication, human interaction or plain old leash training. “The luxury we give them here is time,” Lombard says. Maher cites a dog he and Boado pulled from ACC last year. “We didn’t even know what Sasha was, but her entire back was bald and scabby,” he says. “She was going to be put down because she had mange, which is curable, but it takes a long time, so they can’t get adopted out. When she came in, she was so nervous. It took eight months before she was ready to be adopted, to walk with people. Even then, it was another four or five months before her mange went away.” Sasha, who turned out to be a petite blue Pit Bull with enormous prick ears, is now a daycare client.
That kind of commitment is what keeps volunteer Donna Marsh coming back to walk, bathe and handle the rescues. “There’s one right now I’m very fond of, named Buddy,” she says. “He was found wandering the streets in a snowstorm and he’s very nervous. He has a scar on his side—nobody knows how he got that. We just connected on some level. I take him to the park, and I’ve had him at my house with my dog so he’ll be able to adjust more easily to a home environment. He’s having cranial-release therapy, which is something they’re doing there that I’m totally impressed with. He’s improving. He seems more mellow now, and he walks better on the leash. It just takes time, but I get as much out of it as he does.”
Eager to spread the word about pet overpopulation, Dog Habitat invites kids to come to the facility, either with parents or teachers. Last spring, Christa Flores’s eighth-grade science students at the School at Columbia University chose to explore animal welfare for their Social Action Project. The group did research about puppy mills, visited the 110th Street location of ACC (where they saw three individuals surrender their dogs in a span of 20 minutes), interviewed Lombard about what Dog Habitat does to help and attended a Mayor’s Alliance adoption event in which Dog Habitat participated. “I think it will be one of those things that sticks with them forever,” Flores says. “They’ll never be able to see a purebred or go to a puppy store and feel the same way they might have a year ago.”
So far, Dog Habitat has found homes for about 200 rescues. While the focus is on New York City, the group does take in rescues from elsewhere, such as the 32 small-breed dogs that the Humane Society pulled from a puppy mill in Virginia last winter. “It was the perfect time,” Maher says. “Had it been any other month than January, I don’t think we could have done it. There are fewer dogs boarding after the holidays.” On an average day, Unleash hosts 70 dogs, a combination of daycare, boarders and rescues. “We try and stay at around 12 rescues so that we can focus on them, but we fluctuate,” Maher says.
Dog Habitat’s most recent initiative, the Nanny Dog Project, puts Pit Bull pups through a year’s worth of basic-obedience classes with no less an agenda than restoring the breed’s good name. Maher plans to train exceptionally calm pups as special-needs dogs to be placed with children and adults with disabilities. To date, there have been eight Nanny Dog Project graduates, including the Bronx fire puppies—Stavros, Notty, Squishy and Nugget—who’ve all been adopted. Mom Phoenix, who Lombard says “still smelled like smoke” that first night when she stayed at his apartment, was waiting to find her home at press time.
“These have been the best two years of my professional life,” Lombard says. “I’ve worked every day, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I’ve never had so much fun in my life. And I’ve never been so tired, but there’s an intrinsic value. Knowing that a dog who was on the euthanasia list now has a doorman … that’s really gratifying.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Life in the Here and Now
My son Ronan is attached to me, riding in his front carrier pack as I approach the white ranch gate. A gang of dogs gathers to greet us, and I crouch down to let them lick Ronan’s little hands and his bare baby feet. Some of the dogs are cloudy-eyed or blind; some are limping or even (like me) missing a leg; all have gray-touched fur.
We’re at the Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary, a hospice facility for animals with no place else to go. The dogs, horses and poultry at Kindred Spirits are old and have health problems; many have been abused or neglected. They’re not likely to be adopted, and some were languishing in shelters before finding their way to this sprawling ranch just south of Santa Fe, N.M. Here, it doesn’t matter how spry or playful an animal is or isn’t; it’s understood that time with any living creature is precious and worth celebrating. Along the pathway leading from the bird houses to the main “dog” house are memorial shrines, trees and spaces marked out with stones and decorated with old collars or favorite toys. Strings of Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind.
I wanted to bring Ronan here because, like most of the animals at the sanctuary, my baby is approaching the end of his life. Ronan has Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative neurological disorder with no treatment and no cure. He may die before his third birthday. Parenting a terminally ill child means letting go of the future and, instead, simply seeing the beloved through each day until the last day. Kindred Spirits owner-operator Ulla Pederson, a native of Denmark who has provided animals with end-of-life care here for more than two decades, necessarily subscribes to a similar philosophy, so when I learned about the place, I knew we had to visit.
Dogs, of course, excel at being in the “now.” When Ronan sits with them in the sunlight, there is peace and happiness and some comfort. They remind me that living for and in the future robs us of the present, precious moment. When Ronan touches their backs or ears with a trembling, slightly spastic hand, he doesn’t know or care that they’re refugees from puppy mills or from cruel owners who kicked in their jaws, or that they were found abandoned on street corners or in garbage cans. And the dogs, whom no one wanted but who are now wanted here, don’t understand or care that Ronan will never speak or walk, that he will be blind and paralyzed and deaf before he dies.
There is little a parent can do to prepare for losing a child, but if anyone has helped me do so, it was Bandit. He was already 10 years old when I adopted him, a St. Bernard/Lab mix with rotting teeth and bad hips and hookworms and heartworms and various other ailments. He walked funny and looked funny, and we spent a lot of time at the vet’s. Though he was incontinent and wore a diaper, I took him everywhere: to class (I was a graduate student), to parties, on cross-country trips and, finally, to Cape Cod, where I lived for a year in an artists’ colony. He was messy and smelly, but his sweetness was infectious and his open face, an invitation to love. He would loiter in the studio of an artist friend, then emerge with freckles of paint on his head, wagging his gray tail as big as an otter’s. Big fat art dog who farts and makes art, we said, kneeling in front of his painted dog face, squeezing and rubbing his ears and smelling his sweet-and-sour rotten-teeth dog breath.
“Oh, he’s just getting old,” people sometimes tell Ulla when she asks them why they want to offload their dogs, who are no longer playful, photogenic puppies. Such abandonment is obviously cruel—a dog is not a couch to be left by the curb when it’s worn out—but it’s also shortsighted. Is taking care of an old or sick dog a difficult task? Of course it is, just as parenting a dying child can be hellish. But both experiences offer profound truths about love. Thanks to the generosity of Ulla and the many volunteers at Kindred Spirits, this wide swath of dusty ranch land in the middle of the windswept desert is a place where animals without a future receive care that is not meant to make them better but rather, to make them comfortable, and love that is meant just to make them loved.
There are Bandit shrines all over my house: sketches of him hanging from the walls, his plaster paw print in a glass case in the study. He died in 2006, and adopting him was one of the best choices I ever made. And although my heart breaks every day when I look at my son, I don’t regret a single moment spent with him. Ronan, slowly regressing into a vegetative state, has no future, but he is still worthy of every bit of my love. As his mom, my job is twofold: to love him (easy) and then to let him go (the hardest thing I’ll ever do).
Like Ronan, the dogs at Kindred Spirits are alive right now, and they matter, they count, they are valuable not because they’re cute or have potential, but simply because they are living creatures. Like Ronan, they are free of expectations. They are loved while they are alive—given organic food and acupuncture and massage—and after they die, they are celebrated. As the memorials in and around the house make clear, these animals’ time on Earth, however brief, matters.
All of us will watch deeply loved people or pets die. We don’t like to think about it; it seems like the worst thing that could ever happen to us and maybe it is, but it is also an inevitable part of life. At night, I imagine those beautiful dogs, loved and safe, sleeping together under a star-cluttered sky, dreaming their animal dreams. My son sleeps in his crib across the hall and his time, too, is quickly running out. I lie in my bed, sleepless and brokenhearted, and grateful.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Co-Star of The Artist
Animal Savvy owner and trainer Sarah Clifford suspected that celebrity canine Uggie had just the right star quality for a supporting role in Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film, The Artist. Judging from the response he garnered from the critics, she was right.
Uggie received the prestigious Palm Dog award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and fans are calling for more. Movieline film critic S. T. VanAirsdale has begun a “Consider Uggie” Facebook campaign to get Uggie on this year’s Best Supporting Actor ticket, and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post tweeted his disappointment when the New York Film Critics Circle failed to recognize the eight-year-old Jack Russell Terrier as a shining star.
Uggie, known most recently for his role in Water for Elephants, stars alongside Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman in this film set in Hollywood in the late ’20s, a period when the “talkies” were changing film—and the lives of entertainers along with it—forever.
The Bark chatted with Sarah about working with an animal actor, and the technique it takes to have Uggie rescue a fellow actor on film.
Bark: How did Uggie get his start as a performer?
Sarah Clifford: Uggie was around a year old when he was rescued by my talented friend and fellow animal trainer, Omar Von Muller. His original family found him to be too high-strung, and they were going to take him to the shelter. They called Omar (who did regular dog obedience at the time). Omar and his family quickly fell in love with him, and within about a year, Uggie was performing in print shoots, commercials and films. He has been working steadily for the past eight years.
B: What sorts of training techniques did you use with Uggie in this film?
SC: Uggie was fresh off Water for Elephants when we started our prep training for The Artist, so he was already pretty warmed up. We use basic movie behaviors: going to marks, staying with an actor at all times (called a “go with”), sit-stays, down-stays, speak, go to, on your side and head down. Of course, we brushed up on the bang (play-dead) trick.
Months before filming began, I went over the script carefully and did a breakdown of all the behaviors he would have to learn and rehearse.
Fortunately, Uggie already knew many of the things that were in the script. Omar and I focused on establishing Uggie’s relationship with Jean and getting Jean comfortable with giving Uggie cues. When an actor is comfortable giving a dog direction, the looks are going to be more natural on camera. Jean was a very willing participant and really worked hard to learn all of Uggie’s verbal cues (in English).
In our prep training, we zeroed in on perfecting two specific things: the “go with” cue in very busy environments — through crowds, with loud noises, across streets—and the bang trick in many different forms (sitting up, standing up and then falling backwards in a variety of places).
One of the most challenging scenes in the film was the sequence in which Uggie comes out onto a live theater stage packed with film extras. As a trainer, I had to be far away, tucked back behind the curtain. Jean had to work Uggie on his own while acting and hitting his own marks. It’s a long scene to have a dog do multiple times and land on the same mark from multiple angles, but Uggie almost always nailed it, because we practiced the heck out of that scene. Dogs need to rehearse (we call it prep) scenes, just as actors need to memorize their lines.
B: What’s the secret to getting a dog to be a good actor?
SC: Great animal trainers. They make or break an animal actor’s performance because they are the animal’s “director.” Every cue the dog responds to, and every emotion the dog expresses, comes through the trainers. Omar and I have been friends for eight years, and I believe he is one of the most naturally gifted animal trainers I’ve ever worked with. I have learned so much from him.
It also takes the right dog, a dog who exudes confidence and fearlessness, and is not reactive to distractions. Uggie truly fears nothing! It is, of course, a collaborative effort — a director should be able to offer the animal trainer a clear vision. The actors also need to be willing to help create that relationship so it looks genuine on camera. I have worked with some actors who refused to even hand a dog a treat, which is the dog’s paycheck!
Jean did whatever it took. He was always willing to stuff his pockets with hot dogs and chicken so he could “pay” Uggie after each take.
B: Jack Russell Terriers are typically very vocal dogs. Did working on a (nearly) silent film change the dynamic for Uggie as an actor?
SC: Indeed they are a vocal breed, and Uggie is especially vocal! Getting him to “speak” is just about as easy as getting him to eat. Because it was a silent film, Uggie could bark a lot more than what would normally be appropriate if we were rolling sound. Being able to work on a silent film and talking the dog through scenes was fantastic. We had many good laughs about that ... how we’d miss being able to talk to the dog throughout a take.
B: Can you describe how you and Uggie prepared for the scene in which Uggie rescues Valentin from a burning house?
SC: We shot the fire scene over many days in a few different locations. I worked all the exterior scenes because Omar was out of the country during that time. To get Uggie to go to the cop and really evoke that frantic energy, I had to be super exuberant and really keep my energy at a 10 at all times. We shot the pant-leg part and the play-dead part in a few pieces, and each time, I would pattern him.
When he ran into the smoky house, I was inside calling him as loud as I could and squeezing squeaky toys. I grabbed him just before the cop came charging through because the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see either. It was challenging.
I hid hot dog pieces all over Jean and told Uggie to go with him. As Jean is laid down on the lawn, Uggie, sniffing all around him and seeming concerned for his master, is really searching for the hot dog bits. Now I am giving away all my secrets.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Most are common for people, too
When I was deciding what to call my children, any name that seemed more like a dog’s name than a person’s name was immediately eliminated. That meant that I said, “No,” to Max, Sadie, Molly, Jack, Jake, Maggie, Lucy, Zoe, Charlie, Riley, Bailey and Sam, even though my grandfather was named Sam, and my dad’s grandparents were Max and Sadie. After years of training dogs in classes and in private consultations, those names seemed more canine than human to me. I was worried enough about treating my kids like puppies, and I didn’t want their names to make it even harder for me to learn how to be a parent to human children.
A generation ago, this would not have been a problem since the use of traditionally human names for our dogs is relatively new. It reflects the wonderful trend towards considering our dogs members of the family and our ever-closer relationship with them. So except for the fact that it added an extra challenge to choosing names for my children, I heartily embrace the changes in dog names.
The list of the top 10 dog names for 2011 according to Petfinder.com contains eight common human names (Max, Daisy, Bella, Lucy, Molly, Charlie, Jack, Sadie) and two names that sometimes belong to humans but are still more common for pets (Buddy and Rocky). This is a big contrast to years ago when Rusty, Rover, Fido, Spot, Chief and Patches were among the most popular names for dogs.
Does your dog have a name that is also popular with people?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Activities that kids and dogs can share
Every family with both kids and a canine companion is presented with opportunities—and obstacles—in providing for their needs. To be sure, both can be met, many in similar ways. Dogs and kids share so much: the need to decipher the confusing world of adults, learn the complexity of language and the consequences of their actions, figure out the seemingly arbitrary limits imposed on their pleasures and interests. They can also share many activities, including hiking, chasing, napping and divvying up a sandwich.
Kids can and should be integral to the dog’s training and care. A well-trained dog gets invited into more of the family’s life, both at home and away—more of the good life that is.
On their part, kids need to be encouraged to integrate themselves into, not separate from, the full spectrum of a dog’s daily activities. Setting down the food bowl or going for a perfunctory leash walk won’t reinforce the bond or afford much joy. Kids should be fascinated by their companions, thrilled with their willingness to join in almost anything, eager to share time massaging, photographing, inventing games, learning words they can share. Make your dog a fancy collar, homemade biscuits, a tug toy from worn-out jeans! Learn the parts of your dog’s body! Calculate his ROW (rate of wagging)! Create a snowy obstacle course, a plaster cast of his paw, shrink-art dog tags for his collar—and your backpack.
Here’s a sample of projects kids and dogs can share, addressed to the kids in your family. For a host of other recipes, games, cool projects, training tips and more, visit workman.com/mydog.
In cold weather, both dogs and people tend to spend more time indoors and, as a result, get less exercise. While ice skating and snowboarding aren’t sports your dog can share, with a little planning, you can create a veritable canine winter Olympics! Here’s a sampler of activities that can also be adapted to indoor fun—indeed, the whole idea here is to improvise. Each “event” reinforces the learning successes that your dog needs.
Leap over a pile of leaves, tunnel through a cardboard box, walk across a picnic-bench bridge, race up a leaning plank, leap into the sandbox, bound across a snowball-wall—invent a course with whatever safe options you find.
Remember to progress slowly. Make each challenge a success before adding another one. Set up the first course with only two or three objects, and build up to six or seven. An adult’s help is really worthwhile here.
Try going through the course together, leash-walking your dog over or under the obstacles. Use lots of encouragement, a few key commands, praise and some treats for good measure. You might find that UP, DOWN, COME and SIT are especially useful. Or invent new commands as needed; teach UNDER, for example, if you want your dog to crawl beneath an object. Use the same words every time, and stand just on the other side of the obstacle so that the dog is coming toward you.
Follow these guidelines to make your own fun, safe course:
• Use only sturdy, steady obstacles. Nothing should slide or wobble under the dog’s weight. Remember that when leaping, a dog’s legs push hard, and that could upset something that isn’t heavy or anchored well.
• Nothing on the course should be sharp, splintered or movable (like a swing).
• Every “landing pad” should be soft—grass, sand or snow.
• No dog should jump to or from a level that is higher than the top of his head. (Measure that distance so you can design your course accordingly.) Toy and long-backed breeds (think Dachshunds) shouldn’t jump from any height at all.
• Make the course short and easy so your dog can complete it without frustration.
• Change the course every so often. You’re improving your dog’s physical agility as well as his ability to work with you. This is rewarding work!
Search and Rescue
This is a version of the “Find It” game, in which your dog “rescues” biscuits trapped under a backyard “avalanche.” Have your dog sit. Place a bit of biscuit a few feet away and give the command FIND IT! Praise the dog the instant he snatches the treat. Say GOOD in a high, cheerful voice. After a few successes, move the treat a bit farther away. Eventually, poke it just under the snow or hide it behind a bush or tree. (Let your dog watch you hide it.) In each case, say, FIND IT!, and praise your dog the instant he does.
Gradually, bury the treat deeper and farther—when your dog isn’t watching. Always use the same command, and praise your dog when he finds it.
You can also play this game with tennis balls or toys. Or play it in the house, hiding rather than burying the objects.
Forget the uneven bars and the pommel horse—the balance beam is ideal for dogs! Find a plank that’s about one foot wide and as long as you’d like. Place it right on the ground or raise it a few inches above with packed snow, bricks or anything that provides stable support. To start, leash-walk your dog across the beam; you walk alongside. Use coaxing words such as, “Here we go,” or invent a command, such as FORWARD. Once your dog is comfortable with the plank, walk faster. Eventually, as long as you’re in a fenced-in area, your dog can walk the beam off-leash.
Make a circular racecourse in the snow by stomping a path with your boots, using a snow shovel or dragging a sled weighed down with a couple of friends. Invent a race where you make laps around your track. Pretend you’re trekking across the Arctic; each lap is one mile toward a goal of, say, 100 miles. Or use a real map and say that each lap equals a certain distance that you can chart on the map with a marker.
Your dog won’t know that you made these treats yourself, but you will, and that makes the connection between the two of you all the more significant. Each treat tidbit you offer, especially during training time, rewards the dog’s brain as well as his stomach. Here’s a simple recipe, and no baking is required.
Photographing the canine family member is fun, but often tricky—check out a how-to video on taking great pictures at thebark.com/kids. These suggestions will help you snap fantastic photos that you can incorporate in greeting cards, calendars or online galleries.
No-bake Dog Treats
Mix up these quick, chewy biscuits in a big bowl or zip-lock bag. A small ice-cream scoop is handy for making ball-shaped treats (you can also use your hands), and you’ll want a rolling pin and cookie cutters for shaped cookies. (Dogs care about the taste—pedigreed deliciousness!—not the bone or fire-hydrant shapes.) Create a work surface with a sheet of waxed paper or foil; save it to wrap the finished treats.
6 cups rolled oats
2 cups peanut butter (sugar-free, ideally)
1 cup liquid (milk, soy milk, water or broth)
1. Assemble the ingredients in a large bowl. Using a sturdy utensil, mix until smooth. Add more liquid if the mixture feels too crumbly. As the treats dry, they become drier and harder.
2. Wet your hands to shape the treats: roll out logs and slice them into coins, or scoop out small balls and flatten them. For cut-out cookies, roll the slab 1/4- or 1/2-inch thick; match the treat size to your dog’s size. Dunk the cookie cutter in water between cuts to help the dough release.
3. Store the treats in the refrigerator or, for an even crunchier treat, in the freezer.
Plus, Share Your Photos!
Join us in a holiday celebration of kids and their dogs. Visit Bark’s online kids center—and learn fun and easy craft projects. Submit your art projects and photographs for a chance to win great prizes and to be a part of our online gallery. thebark.com/kids
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