Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Important lessons from a decade of missing pet recovery
A few days into a family vacation in faraway Bora Bora, Lynn Janata got an unwelcome email from her dog sitter in Renton, Wash.: We have a situation here. Cali has gone missing. The 14-month-old Australian Shepherd had bolted through an open garage door. Although the sitter took quick action, each time Cali was spotted, she was farther and farther from home.
With the help of friends in the Seattle area, Janata contacted Jim Branson, a volunteer with Missing Pet Partnership (MPP), a local group that helps recover lost animals. Branson’s black Labrador, Kelsy, is trained in scent-detection for tracking other dogs. Several times, Branson and Kelsy found Cali’s scent, but they weren’t able to keep up. The dog crisscrossed a three-by-five-mile territory during her seven days on the lam.
Every morning, from the island in the South Pacific, Janata ran down Cali sightings. “People gave so much of their help to try to find our dog,” she says. “But Cali was freaked out; she wouldn’t come to anyone.”
When the family returned from their distracted vacation, they went directly from the airport to search for their dog. Janata headed to the intersection where Cali had last been sighted. And she saw her. “To me, it was a miracle — there she was, sleeping on somebody’s front porch,” she says. “But in the back of my mind, I’m hearing Jim say, She might even bolt from you.”
So Janata sat on the ground with her back to Cali and set out her favorite stuffed toy and treats. When Cali didn’t come forward, Janata lay on her back. That’s when the errant pup started sniffing the air. “Then she just broke into a run and jumped into my arms,” she says. “I started crying.”
Sitting with her back to Cali was hard for Janata. “I’m sure she wanted to run to her when she spotted Cali in that yard,” Branson says. “She may have wondered if my advice to lie on the pavement was the best way to catch a dog.”
He had been skeptical once himself. “I was like everyone else before I learned about this,” he says of the approach, which is based on calming signals developed by Turid Rugaas, a renowned Norwegian dog trainer. “Almost nobody knows about this before we tell them, and it’s everybody’s natural instinct, when they see a dog on the run, to chase it. That almost never works.”
This is just one of several critical truths gleaned by MPP during a decade in pet recovery and hundreds of searches for lost dogs and cats.
It Takes a Village to Find a Lost Pet
We wrote about Albrecht in 2006, soon after she published her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles, which covered her transition from police-dog handler to pet detective (go to thebark.com/pet-detective to read the story online). At the time, she was a working pet detective in Fresno, Calif., focused on establishing a missing-pet recovery protocol and training lost-pet detection teams. Since then, she has moved her operation and shifted her focus. In 2008, she relocated to Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle, where cooler, damper weather is better for training scent-detection dogs. She trained four new pet-search teams, of which Branson and Kelsy are the only active searchers.
Albrecht is, in general, moving away from training pet-tracking dogs. In part, unsavory pet detectives caused her change of heart. “Several people ended up claiming they had fully trained their dogs when they hadn’t,” and making promises they couldn’t keep, she says. Today, MPP volunteers help with local searches, including carrying out public alerts and deploying wildlife cameras and humane traps; they also provide sophisticated expertise, such as search dogs and magnet dogs (more on that later). They rent out equipment and ask for — but do not require — donations for consultations and scent-detection-dog services.
Albrecht’s current mission is to create training partnerships with animal shelters so they can deploy their own volunteers to help recover lost pets. MPP recently formed a partnership with the King County Animal Shelter in Kent, Wash., where they plan to launch the first-ever lost pet search-and-rescue team on July 1, 2011. Ultimately, they hope to take this training program to shelters nationwide.
Number One Lost Dog Recovery Method
Take the case of a Chihuahua named Sukhi. Last year, she escaped on July 3. Her frantic owners contacted MPP on July 5, and five volunteers staked out the busiest intersection in Seattle’s Central District near Sukhi’s home, holding bright posters with Sukhi’s photo and CHIHUAHUA, RED COLLAR in large type. Within 20 minutes, someone driving through the intersection pulled over to say that Sukhi was at their house.
“The owners had put out hundreds of flyers prior to that, all of which had escaped the notice of this person, but these big signs are impossible to ignore, especially with someone there holding them,” Branson says. The “protest” creates a sense of urgency.
Intersection interventions are based on studies of “inattentional blindness,” which Albrecht read about in Temple Grandin’s book, Animals in Translation. “The hypothesis is that if you’re not paying attention to something, you won’t perceive it; it’s as if it’s not even there,” Albrecht says. The protests are designed to break through that blindness. (A related strategy is to tag a vehicle — providing the same key identifiers as on the posters — in neon ink on the back window.)
Even without staging protests, giant, bright, concise signs yield results — even weeks after old-fashioned 8-by-11 paper flyers have become rain-soaked, tattered and ineffective.
The approach for a missing dog is very different from that used to find a missing cat. Dogs run. Cats hide. To find a missing cat, you need a detailed search of your own and nearby properties. Wildlife cameras and humane traps are also helpful. To find a dog, “a search needs to be very visible,” Albrecht says. “Just massive, obnoxious marketing.”
Enduring Lesson: Persistence
Last October, for example, a cat named Burley hid in his own Sammamish, Wash., backyard for 33 days. It took persistence and encouragement, plus a motion-activated infrared wildlife camera and humane traps rented from MPP, to recover the cat.
“Having a resource like Missing Pet Partnership allows people to keep looking; it gives them tools [that help them] take active steps in the recovery of their animal rather than waiting and hoping,” Branson says. “Giving them encouragement [to look] increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.”
New Tool: Magnet Dogs
After escaping from their yard in Federal Way, Wash., Mack and his buddy Rocco, a pair of blue Pit Bulls, went missing for almost a month. Their owner, who was serving in Iraq, was devastated. When MPP volunteer Ryan Gamache learned about them, he made it his personal mission to recover the dogs.
Unfortunately, he discovered that Rocco had been killed and Mack had fled. But the bad news at least gave Gamache a starting point. He posted giant, neon posters that read “LOST BLUE PIT BULL BLUE COLLAR” along the major roadway near where Rocco had died. Immediately, leads came in.
Following up on a tip, he set out food and a wildlife camera, which caught images of the elusive missing dog. He then placed a humane trap near the camera, but for several days, the wary Pit Bull eluded capture. Then, a full week passed with no new photos. Gamache was discouraged, but not about to give up. (Remember, persistence!)
On January 26, he and two other MPP volunteers displayed new posters close to the last sighting. Leads flooded in the next morning. Around 11 am, MPP received fresh intel. This time, Albrecht wasn’t willing to run the risk of losing Mack. She headed to the scene with her magnet dog, Kody, a super-friendly Whippet mix. Through a variety of cell-phone machinations, Albrecht ended up just down the street from Mack, with Kody on a long leash.
“Mack immediately began to wag his tail, and walked right up to sniff noses with a tail-wiggling Kody,” Albrecht says. “My Snappy Snare was positioned over Kody’s nose so that when they sniffed noses, I could move it over Mack’s head, release the ring and catch Mack. It was a textbook capture!”
It’s also an illustration of a central philosophy of Missing Pet Partnership: try to think like the lost dog — in Mack’s case, like a dog who likes other dogs. It’s just one of many effective tools in a toolbox compiled over a decade of recovering lost pets.
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pups very much at home in Texas tower
In mid-June, when the first owners moved into the Austonian, a 56-story luxury high-rise in Austin’s up-and-coming Second Street District, some of their welcome gift bags included biscuits from the Groovy Dog Bakery. This was just one of many gestures aimed at making new canine residents feel at home.
“Anybody who visits Austin can see from the get-go that it’s a pet-friendly city, and during development we considered the importance of embracing our future homeowners’ pets as an extension of the family,” says Austonian marketing director JoAnna Nuding, who, like everyone on the development team, has a dog. In her case, a 10-yearold black rescue Pug named Sadie.
“We asked ourselves, What is going to make someone want to bring a pet into an urban environment?” Nuding says. The answer: A 600-square-foot dog park on the 10th floor with selfdraining artificial turf; a fully loaded indoor grooming area where owners can DIY or arrange for in-building “spa” services with nearby Dirty Dog (one of several neighborhood pet businesses, including a vet and doggy daycare, partnering with the new establishment); a designated pet elevator; dog-loving staff primed to lend a hand including in-a-pinch walks, even at 3 am; and, importantly, no breed or size restrictions.
Offering amenities and services that go beyond the merely pet-friendly is the norm at many new high-end condos — from One Park Place in Kansas City to Sky Las Vegas on the Strip to the Residences at the Ritz Carlton in Toronto.
Why go so far for dogs? Luxury-minded empty nesters are downsizing, and “the mindset of the empty nester is the kids are gone but thank God I’ve still got my dog,” Austonian general manager Terry Arteburn says. “The dogs are now their children,” and for them, only the best will do. Ranging from $586,000 to $7.2 million and up, 40 percent of the Austonian’s 178 units were sold as of early summer.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Can a board game teach your kids about the animal rescue industry? Petsapalooza CEO Carianne Burnley designed Fur- Ever Home: The Animal Rescue Game to increase awareness of the challenges shelters face and dispel some myths about the animals who end up in rescue. Each player runs a shelter in Straytown, where they try to place cats and dogs in their “Fur-Ever Homes.”
Players face many of the same decisions and challenges real shelters deal with every day: hiring staff, fundraising, treating sick animals and overcrowding. Burnley says children who play the game are often surprised to learn that customers sometimes return the pets they’ve adopted. “It’s making children ask questions.”
Just like real shelters, Straytown shelters have a wide array of dogs and cats available. Although some pets are harder to adopt out because of their age, breed or behavior issues, there are plenty of puppies, kittens, purebreds and Canine Good Citizens. Burnley says, “I wanted to help people understand there are great dogs in rescue.”
For each game they sell, Petsapalooza is donating $5 to one of over 70 rescue organizations across the United States.
Dog's Life: Travel
This information has been adapted from Dan Nelson’s Best Hikes With Dogs: Western Washington, 2nd Ed.
Hiking is a great way to reconnect with both nature and your dog. On the hiking trail, away from cell phones and other distractions, you and your co-pilot can truly bond as you feel the terrain beneath your feet, take in the unfiltered beauty of nature and stop to smell the clover (or anything else that crosses your dog’s nose). But no hiker should venture far up a trail without being properly equipped. Outdoor experts Dan Nelson and The Mountaineers Books (publisher of the Best Hikes with Dogs series) offer their advice for safe and happy trails.
When heading out on a day (or multi-day) hike on a backcountry trail, the old tenet “be prepared” is to be taken seriously—starting with proper footwear, handy dog gear and basic safety measures. The items you pack will vary from trip to trip and dog to dog, but there are a few things each and every one of us should have in our packs. Each member of your hiking party—human or canine—should have a pack loaded with their Ten Essentials, including items you might need in an emergency.
Remember, the only way you can be sure your dog is safe on the trail, is if you stay safe, warm and well-fed. So let’s start with your essentials.
The Ten Essentials
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen). In addition to sunglasses and sunscreen (SPF 15 or better), take along physical sun barriers, such as a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. 3. Insulation (extra clothing). This means more clothing than you would wear during the worst weather of the planned outing. If you get injured or lost, you won’t be moving around generating heat, so you’ll need to be able to bundle up.
4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp). If caught after dark, you’ll need a headlamp or flashlight to be able to follow the trail. If forced to spend the night, you’ll need it to set up emergency camp, gather wood and so on. Carry extra batteries and bulbs, too.
5. First aid supplies. Nothing elaborate needed—especially if you’re unfamiliar with how to use less-familiar items. Make sure you have plastic bandages, gauze bandages, some aspirin and other supplies recommended by the Red Cross. At minimum a Red Cross first aid training course is recommended. Better still, sign up for a Mountaineering-Oriented First Aid (MOFA) course if you’ll be spending a lot of time in the woods.
6. Fire (fire starter and matches). Campfires should be avoided in most backcountry camps, but they can be lifesavers in an emergency. An emergency campfire provides warmth, but it also has a calming effect on most people. Without one, the night can be cold, dark and intimidating. With one, the night is held at arm’s length. A candle or tube of fire-starting ribbon is essential for starting a fire with wet wood. And, of course, matches are important. You can’t start a fire without them. Pack them in a waterproof container and/or buy the waterproof/windproof variety. Book matches are useless in wind or wet weather, and disposable lighters are unreliable. Be sure to build an emergency fire in a safe location where the fire can’t spread.
7. Repair kit and tools (including a knife). A pocket knife is helpful; a multi-tool is better. You never know when you might need a small pair of pliers or scissors, both of which are commonly found on compact multi-tools. A basic repair kit includes a 20-foot length of nylon cord, a small roll of duct tape, some 1-inch webbing and extra webbing buckles (to fix broken pack straps), and a small tube of Super Glue.
8. Nutrition (extra food). Pack enough food so that you’ll have some left over after an uneventful trip—the extra food will keep you fed and fueled during an emergency.
9. Hydration (extra water). Figure what you’ll drink between water sources, and then add an extra liter. If you plan to rely on wilderness water sources, be sure to include some method of purification, whether a chemical additive, such as iodine, or a filtration device.
10. Emergency shelter. This can be as simple as a few extra-large garbage bags, or something more efficient, such as a reflective space blanket or tube tent. In addition to these essentials, I add an emergency survival kit. This tiny package at the bottom of my pack holds a small metal mirror, an emergency Mylar blanket, a whistle and a tiny signal smoke canister—all useful for signaling to search parties whether they are on the ground or in the air.
Here is a list of equally important essentials for your dog.
The Ten Canine Essentials
2. Doggy backpack (for longer hikes). Let the dog carry his own gear. Dogs can be trained to carry gear in their backpacks, but, to avoid developmental problems, don’t put packs on dogs younger than a year old.
3. Basic first aid kit. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends a checklist of items for your dog’s first aid kit. The Red Cross also offers classes in pet first aid.
4. Dog food and trail treats. You should pack more food than your dog normally consumes because he will be burning more calories than normal, and if you do end up having to spend an extra night out there, you need to keep the pup fed, too. Trail treats serve the same purpose for the dog as they do for you—quick energy and a pick-me-up during a strenuous day of hiking.
5. Water and water bowl. Don’t count on there being water along the trail for the dog. Pack enough extra water to meet all your dog’s drinking needs.
6. Leash and collar, or harness. Even if your dog is absolutely trained to voice command and stays at heel without a leash, sometimes leashes are required by law or just by common courtesy, so you should have one handy at all times.
7. Insect repellent. Be aware that some animals, and some people, have strong negative reactions to certain insect repellents. So, before leaving home, dab a little repellent on a patch of your dog’s fur to see your dog’s reaction to it. Look for signs of drowsiness, lethargy or nausea. Remember to restrict repellent applications to those places the dog can’t lick—the shoulders, the back of the neck, and around the ears (staying well clear of the ears and inner ears)—which are also near the most logical places mosquitoes will be looking for exposed skin (at the eyes, nose, and inner ears) to bite. And don’t forget to check your dog’s entire body for ticks, foxtails and other trail troublemakers after your hike.
8. ID tags and picture identification. Your dog should always wear ID tags, and since a dog lost in the woods can lose his or her collar, I’d heartily recommend microchipping her as well. Carry a photo of your dog in your pack. If your dog gets lost far from home, you can use the image to make flyers to post in the surrounding communities.
9. Dog booties. These help protect the dog’s feet from rough ground or harsh vegetation. They also keep bandages secure if the dog damages its pads.
10. Compact roll of plastic bags and trowel. You’ll need the bags to clean up after your dog on popular trails. When conditions warrant, you can use the trowel to take care of your dog’s waste. Just pretend you are a cat—dig a small hole six to eight inches deep in the forest duff, deposit the dog waste, and fill in the hole.
[The Mountaineers Books Best Hikes with Dogs series]
Dog's Life: DIY
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A special twist for the sweater set.
By the end of shedding season, it can seem as though you have brushed enough hair of the dog to knit yourself a sweater. Actually, it might take more than one season to collect enough for a sweater, but a scarf or simple keepsake knitted from mohair-soft yarn spun from one season’s worth of your pal’s undercoat is well within reach of most breeds.
For thousands of years, humans have spun dog hair into yarn and enjoyed a warmth that actually rivals that of sheep’s wool. Each strand of yarn swirls with subtle colors. Over time, some of the hair lifts, forming a soft halo that inspires some to refer to dog-hair fabrics as “chiengora.” The resulting garments and keepsakes will warm your heart long after your co-pilot has trotted off this mortal coil.
“I get almost every reaction imaginable when I tell people I spin dog hair,” laughs Joanne Littler, one of a coterie of hand-spinners around the country who turns dog hair into spun gold. “They either screw up their faces and go ‘ewwww!’ or they are fascinated that this is a possibility.”
In her fiber studio in Fairfax, Vermont, Joanne finds that fur from all but the very shortest of Shorthairs will twist into a fine yarn, ready for the warp and woof of the loom or for the loose knotting of knitting needles. If you want to make socks or some other stretchy project, some spinners suggest blending in wool fibers to add the elasticity dog hair lacks.
“The largest piece I’ve done is a 36-by 60-inch throw,” Joanne recalls. “It was made with about four pounds of Sheltie hair. The colors were a whole bunch of different grays, a little bit of charcoal, some fawn, and some creamy whites that made their own pattern throughout it.”
But what keeps you from smelling like your favorite swamp dog when you wrap yourself in a Samoyed scarf and wind up in an unexpected downpour? The same dish soap that dispenses with grease and grime from your pots and pans will also wash away the dirt and body oils that cause dog hair to smell.
Some spinners prefer to wash the hair themselves rather than have dog owners do it, as the it can easily mat or felt when wet, which renders it impossible to spin. Then they’ll usually will do a secondary sort to choose fibers that will yield the strongest, softest, most consistent yarn.
It doesn’t take a mountain of hair to provide enough yarn for a pair of mittens (about six ounces), a scarf (about 12 ounces) or a small keepsake (about an ounce). The best way to harvest the finest fibers is to leave those furry tumbleweeds under the bed and do what comes naturally: Brush your buddy.
Use a fine wire brush and focus on the downy undercoat that blows out in the spring. Get rid of as many of the stiff outer hairs as possible, and stash the softest fibers in a breathable container, such as a paper grocery bag or a cotton pillowcase, to keep them from moldering.
The amount of yarn-per-ounce of hair a pooch produces can vary wildly among breeds, and sometimes even among dogs within a breed. Projects requiring heavier yarns, such as sweaters, will require more hair per yard of yarn than lighter projects, such as scarves.
Check with yarn shops, local spinning guilds or textile magazines such as Spin-Off to find a spinner who’s experienced in working with dog hair—and who appreciates that mixed-breed bond of humor, respect and a lifetime of puppy love.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guiding Miss Ellie
It was a few years into my post-corporate, stay-at-home freelance life that I had the brainstorm. Feeling lonely and useless, I had been driving my husband, Andy, nuts. My life felt small. And the smaller it felt, the more impossible I became. Disgusted by my self-loathing, and sick of taking it out on the one guy I loved, I realized that it was time to pull myself together and focus my energy on doing something positive and worthwhile.
I decided that the perfect solution would be to raise a guide dog puppy. Andy couldn’t object. Though our loyalty to our now deceased old mutt, Lucy, had made it difficult for him to commit to another dog, this would be different, I pointed out. It was only temporary — just a one-year stint. It would be fun. And think of the good we’d be doing!
“Go for it,” he said without hesitation, much to my surprise. I made the call the very next day.
I was excited. So what if I was a basket case at the Guide Dog Foundation’s orientation meeting, the thought of giving up a pup I hadn’t even met driving me to tears? I would be fine. I’d be doing good!
During those first few sleep-deprived weeks, I’d slap on Cathy’s little yellow “Future Guide Dog” vest and head out into the world, looking for some acknowledgment. This was no mere pet, that vest would scream. This was a dog with a purpose. She had a goal. We both had a goal!
There were plenty of times when I’d be rewarded with a “Good for you!” or a “Thank you for doing that,” from a total stranger. But more often than not, I’d be faced with the same reaction — one that made me feel like a low-life, or a criminal. Instead of being lauded for my selflessness, I found myself being lambasted for my heartlessness.
“You mean you’ll have to give her up? How can you do that? I know I couldn’t,” people would snort. My own sister questioned the whole setup. “It’s like giving up your adopted daughter!” she claimed, as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece to reprimand her adopted daughter.
At first I’d nod in agreement, eager for approval. “I know,” I’d say. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.” Sometimes I’d even point to the puppies’ 50 percent failure rate as a twisted sign of hope. But it didn’t take long for that to wear off. “Don’t say that to me,” I began to snap when people would ask the question. “I really don’t want to think about it.” And if I really wanted to end the conversation I’d add, “Besides, think of all the good she’ll be doing.”
The truth was, the thought of giving her up was starting to loom over our relationship with Cathy like a wobbly construction crane over a busy Manhattan street. In the privacy of our own home, Andy and I would often compare notes about how we felt about her. “She’s so bossy,” I’d say, stroking her velvety black ears. “And did you ever notice how clumsy she is?” sounding an awful lot like the me of the early stages in our relationship. “He’s too blond,” I’d try to convince myself, a wary child of five divorces. “And he wears white socks!”
“Stop being so critical of her,” he’d say. “She’s just a puppy! And speaking of puppies, have you seen my socks anywhere?”
One day, as I watched him endlessly lobbing a contraband Squeaky Monkey to a tirelessly leaping Cathy, I barked out a warning. “Be careful,” I cautioned. “I think you’re falling in love.”
He continued to toss. “You know?” he said. “I really do enjoy her. But I just don’t feel like I’m anything special to her.” “You mean you don’t think she’s special?” I asked, assuming he was referring to her rather generic Lab-like personality. “No,” he corrected me. “I mean I’m not anything special to her. I just don’t feel like we’ve bonded.”
I did wonder, and not for the first time, if this notion of feeling special might have been the missing link for Andy in his past relationships, specifically his first two marriages. But then again, I suspected that this might simply be his own way of keeping his heart a safe distance away from disaster. I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, that night Cathy and I went out to sit on the front stoop, waiting to greet Andy when he came home. “There he is,” I whispered in her ear, as soon as I recognized his lopsided gait a half a block away. “It’s your pal!” I repeated, as her tail became a blur of motion. “Go get him!” I urged, letting go of the leash as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Hi, honey. I’m so happy you’re home. Did you have a good day?” I asked, brushing his cheek with my lips as I took the grocery bags from his hand.
As the months passed, we both struggled with our growing affection for Cathy and with the increasing frequency of the dreaded question about giving her up. One day, as I caught up with the two of them after a run in the park, I heard Andy responding to a couple dressed in matching “I Love NY” sweatshirts. “You know,” he said, as he bent down to pat Cathy’s head, “we’re just enjoying every day with her.”
At first I had to laugh, recalling his reaction as she jumped on the bed at 5:15 that very morning. Barking. Loudly. But later I thought about how much truth there was in what he said. We were enjoying every day. And the longer she had been with us, the more in the moment we had become. There was no more judgment — she could do no wrong. And if she did? What was the big deal? It was only temporary, right? (Though I do offer apologies in advance to the blind person who may someday find themselves being dragged on their belly in pursuit of a squirrel. We did our best — honest.)
I tried out Andy’s line the next day at the dog run. “We’re just enjoying every day with her,” I claimed to the curious huddle of dog people. “And besides,” I added with a flourish of my own, “aren’t all relationships temporary?” Heads nodded, and voices mumbled, “True, true.”
And, of course, it was true. Didn’t my friend Judy’s husband literally get hit by a bus two summers ago? And what about my other friend, Amy, whose husband walked out on her, with no warning, after 24 years, leaving her sitting at the kitchen table, stunned, over her morning cup of coffee? Then there was Beth, who had married a guy who, 15 years later, decided he wanted to be a girl.
I took the lessons learned from Cathy to heart. But while I focused my efforts on a more mindful marriage, my little canine polygamist remained loyal to no one. Or everyone. It didn’t matter if you were a mail carrier, a garbage collector, a veterinarian or a homeless drunk resting on our sidewalk. All you’d have to do is smile at her, or utter the words “cute” or “puppy,” and she’d burst into her own little St. Vitus dance. It became clear that she’d just as soon go home with the super next door as with me. I couldn’t help but think of my niece as a toddler, when she first came over from Romania — constantly wrapping her arms around strangers’ knees in the mall. “Attachment disorder,” my sister had explained. “It’s a common bonding issue with adopted kids.”
In Cathy, however, I was reluctant to label it as a disorder. She was just a happy dog. As a hard-core pessimist, I admired her ability to remain ever hopeful that a forbidden chicken leg might fall off the counter, or that the neighbor’s cat might suddenly admit that he actually liked her. Whereas I couldn’t speak before my morning coffee (which Andy, in self-defense, faithfully brought to me in bed), Cathy always woke up happy.
After she had been with us for about six months, I noticed Andy singing in the shower, a spectacle I hadn’t been subjected to in a really long time. And that stupid trick he used to do before bed, where he’d kick his underpants up into the air and catch them on his head? It was back. Despite her alleged failing at making him feel special, it was clear that Cathy was making him happy, just by being happy. The next morning I watched, through one open eye, as she wiggled her butt and licked his ears. I struggled to sit up and speak. “Good morning,” I croaked, forcing a smile. Andy eyed me warily. “You okay?” he asked.
Cathy is gone now, in training. True to her nature, the day we brought her in she yanked mercilessly on the leash, eager to join her pals in the kennel, and never looked back. It was a tearful parting, for some of us. “Stay happy,” I sobbed, as I bent down to kiss her nose. Andy’s tears didn’t start until we got to the parking lot, just as they had after the first time we dropped his daughter off at college. The difference was, we knew the daughter would be back.
But honestly? Cathy could be back too. Exuberant extroverts don’t exactly make the best guide dogs. I have my doubts. In the meantime, I keep her picture smack in the middle of our living room, the way some people do with inspirational icons like John F. Kennedy or Jesus. I’ll never forget those deep brown eyes or those chubby jowls, but I know there will be days when I just may need a gentle reminder of a different sort.
And in the meantime, there’s Tiffany. A five month-old counter-surfing, toilet paper-pulling, knee-nipping, garbage-stealing future guide dog. But that’s a whole other story.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
As we walk along the wooded trail, Sage, a one-year-old male German Shepherd, uses a neck bite to push Sam, a four-month-old Labradoodle, to the ground. Sam jumps toward Sage, who once again flings the pup to the ground. Sam lies on his back wildly kicking his legs in the air while Sage bites down on Sam’s neck and growls. Sam finally wriggles free, only to be pinned again a few seconds later. Sam and Sage repeat this pattern of interaction over and over for about ten minutes, until we realize that if they keep it up, we will finish the two-mile loop around midnight. We need a quick solution, so we let Sage carry a tennis ball — his favorite thing in the world. Eureka! It seems to work, except for one glitch. Sam keeps running after Sage and leaping on him as if to say, “Leave that ball alone and come play with me!”
Sam and Sage are friends — best friends, in fact. Although it might strike some as anthropomorphic to describe their relationship in these terms, scientists have been documenting friendships in wild animals for over 30 years. First described in nonhuman primates, friendships have now been reported in a wide variety of mammals, ranging from giraffes to bottlenose dolphins. Friends are defined as individuals who, by choice, spend a lot of time near each other and frequently engage in friendly behaviors. Behaviors vary by species: Baboon friends groom a lot, bonobo friends have recreational sex, female dolphin friends “hold fins” as they swim together, and dog friends tend to play.
Over the past decade, we and our colleagues have been collecting video data of dogs interacting with each other. We have filmed hundreds of hours of adult dogs, juveniles and puppies at dog parks, on walks and in backyards and living rooms, including our own. We code these tapes frame by frame in order to scientifically address questions about play and other social behaviors in dogs (findings to be discussed in future articles). Along the way, we have documented, on tape and in notes, a number of striking canine friendships.
The relationship between Sage and Sam illustrates several important features of dog friendships. To begin with, canine friendships, by definition, are mutually preferred and jointly constituted. Sam was a puppy when he first met Sage on that walk five years ago. Since then, Sage and Sam have been exposed to many dogs, and a few of them have become friends of one or the other, but their relationship remains very special — and it was special right from the start. Not many dogs can take Sage’s rough play style, and to some outsiders it might seem like Sage is bullying Sam, but Sam relishes it and is fully complicit in their lopsided play pattern.
We have noticed that close canine friends often play roughly and develop idiosyncratic games. For example, Safi and Osa (female German Shepherd and male mixed-breed who were best friends for five years) often chased each other through the woods until they ended up on opposite sides of some huge log. Then, facing each other, they would bark back and forth as loudly as possible, interspersing the barks with nasty, lipcurling snarls. After 20-30 seconds, one would leap over the log toward the other and the chase was on again.
To a naïve observer, the play of good friends might look or sound like mortal combat. In reality, their wild games reflect how comfortable they are letting go with each other.
The Sage/Sam and Safi/Osa relationships clearly have important benefits for the dogs and also for us. The friends don’t live together, but they often visit each other’s homes. This can offer a great alternative to a kennel or leaving a dog home alone all day. While together, they tire each other out and stimulate each other’s bodies and minds. At the end of the day, living with a dog who has some of his social, physical and mental needs met is easier and much more fun.
These benefits can be real for any two dogs who enjoy each other’s company, but dog friendships offer something above and beyond the play factor. For one thing, friends seem especially likely to come to each other’s aid when in trouble. For example, we were at a park when another dog approached us. The dog, a medium-sized mix, charged toward Sage and barked in his face. Sage turned and walked away, so the newcomer turned his attention toward Sam — first barking and then growling at him. These were not play growls. In an instant, Sage ran over and placed himself directly in front of Sam and faced the newcomer. Sage barked and walked toward him. The other dog moved back, and then took off in response to a call from a distance. Although it all happened very quickly, it was clear that Sage had supported his friend. Over the years there have been several similar incidents in which the bolder dog, Sage, supported the less assertive Sam during conflicts with other dogs.
Or take Bahati, a dingo-like female who is friends with Tex, a light-brown male sporting a black mask. Tex’s human friend, Tyson, was trying to help Tex overcome his fear of deep water. Standing on a dock with Tex in his arms, Tyson slowly lowered him into the water while Bahati watched from shore. Although the water was shallow enough for Tex to stand in, he panicked, paws flailing wildly. Before Tyson had a chance to do anything, Bahati sped up the dock and leaped into the water beside Tex. A strong swimmer, she immediately headed toward the shore, and a reassured Tex swam alongside her.
Although neither Sage’s defense of his friend nor Tex’s panic were life threatening situations, consider a video that hundreds of thousands of people have watched on Youtube. Cars and trucks were speeding along a freeway in Santiago, Chile, while a routine surveillance camera automatically filmed the scene. A stray dog was hit by a truck and lay injured on the road. Seconds later, another stray braved the speeding cars to cross several lanes to reach the other dog. Then this rescuer dragged the wounded dog backward, using forepaws, until they safely reached the edge of the road. Clearly, dogs enter the world primed to care about and for others, whether canine or human.
Friends can provide much-needed stability when change threatens a dog’s equilibrium. After Sage’s two canine housemates died within two weeks, he lost interest in going for walks, eating and training. It was clear that he was in mourning. People, when grieving, get solace by talking about their loss and spending time with close friends and family, but what’s a dog to do? Sage couldn’t exactly pick up the phone and share his feelings with Sam, but with our help he could visit his buddy. Sage began to spend several hours at Sam’s house a couple of times a week, and after each visit he seemed transformed. He would return home with his big, open-mouth smile, which always made us smile too; he would eat that evening and he seemed happier. As the visits continued, Sage slowly came back to life and, thanks to Sam, before long he was his old self again.
The fact that Sam, not we, could draw Sage out of his black hole indicates that dogs can give each other something we cannot. In particular, we can never chase and tackle the way another dog can, and we don’t speak their language. This raises an important question: If our dogs have canine best friends, does this detract from our relationships with them? In our experience, the answer is a definite “no.” Although our dogs routinely play and hang out with their canine friends, they still seek us out and adore our company as much as ever. We spend one-on-one quality time with each of our dogs, whether we’re having fun in agility, teaching new tricks, or playing hide-and-seek. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dogs can have dog friends and still be close to us. Access to dog friends makes dogs happier, and happier dogs make for better human companions.
Can our dogs’ social needs be met through dog parks or dog daycare? For some dogs — the confident extroverts — perhaps, but others are more shy, and, as they age, many dogs lose interest in the company of exuberant youngsters. There also exist dogs who don’t get along well with other dogs but who can be friends with a special someone.
Human children and wild animals get to choose their best friends; sadly, most dogs do not. We may try to choose for them, but dogs’ preferences for other dogs are highly idiosyncratic and often difficult to predict. Instead, we can attempt to expose our dogs to many other dogs when they are young, and if we pay careful attention, we will notice which ones they like best. When such preferences are mutual, opportunities for prolonged canine friendships arise, and we should make the most of them. Who knows— we might make some new friends along the way, too.
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