work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
Allowing dogs at work can be a real morale boost.
Did your company cancel its annual holiday party? Or insist on more hours for less pay? Employers are finding it tougher than ever to keep up employee morale when everyone worries that the next cut might be their job. So kudos to businesses like Marcus Thomas marketing agency in Ohio for allowing dogs at work. Employees and customers alike benefit from the relaxation of petting a pup and it costs the company nothing.
As a freelance writer and part-time agility trainer, my dogs are constant companions. Occasionally, this can be a bit of a distraction, but for the most part, they remind me to take a break from the computer to rest my eyes, stretch, and throw the ball a few times. When I wrote about this subject for Bark last year (“Dogs @ Work,” May/June 2008), it was surprising how many workplaces allowed dogs and how well everyone got along. Even employees who weren't necessarily "dog people" didn't object to a pup presence.
Do you bring your dog to work? If so, how has the experience affected you and your co-workers’ productivity? If not, would you like to and do you think your boss would be open to it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
War hero’s medal fetches big money.
The prestigious Dickin Medal awarded to a British dog in the 1940s has sold at auction for $35,700 (or to be more accurate 24,250 British pounds), which was £10,000 pounds more than expected. The medal had been awarded to Rip, a wiry-haired stray, for his search and rescue work during World War II. He found more than 100 survivors who were trapped in the wreckage resulting from the German bombs of The Blitz.
Prior to his heroics, Rip himself apparently survived a bombing. After losing his home, he was adopted by an air raid warden. He is usually described as “coming from a complex ancestry,” which seems a fancy way of saying that he was a mutt.
The Dickin Medal was established during World War II to recognize the work of animals in war. More pigeons have won the award than any other species, followed by dogs, though one cat and several horses have also received the honor. The medal itself reads “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve.” Rip wore the medal on his collar for the rest of his life, and the phrase “We Also Serve” appears on his tombstone.
The fact that Rip’s medal sold for an amount that exceeded expectations is yet more tangible evidence of the ever-increasing value people are placing on animals, especially dogs. Sixty years after he won the award, Rip’s accomplishment is still highly valued, and the proof of his recognition is treasured.
News: Guest Posts
And not just any cats, Asian tigers!
You heard that right. Last year, camera traps and field surveys failed to yield a single tiger sighting in one of Cambodia’s largest wildlife reserves. In 2007, a mere paw print was the only sign of life. Time to call in a pro: Maggie. The German wirehaired pointer, trained to track down wild cat scat, is being called the best hope for finding tigers. And not a moment too soon, the tiger population in Asia has dropped from 100,000 to only 5,000 over the past century. Go Maggie go!
News: Guest Posts
Elliott Ness crosses the blue line
When you think of police dogs, don't German shepherds or Belgian Malinois come to mind? Chicago's Cook County K9 Unit recently introduced its two newest recruits, one of whom is a four-year-old pit bull. Officer Deborah Thedos rescued the handsome brindle dog -- now known as Elliott Ness -- from a local shelter and trained him to locate cadavers. To see Elliott Ness and his colleague, a young Bloodhound named Melanie who has already saved one man's life, click here for their public debut.
News: Guest Posts
FBI working dogs must earn their meals and are hand-fed every morsel.
So here's the difference between my companion dogs and FBI working dogs. My dogs must sit politely and make eye contact with me before I put down their food bowls. FBI dogs must detect one of 19,000 possible explosives combinations and before their handler feeds them their meal by hand. This simple act reinforces their will to work and strengthens the bond with their handler. In fact, these working dogs never eat out of a bowl until their retirement! To see these brave, brilliant dogs in action, check out this fascinating video. As a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, I'm thrilled that the FBI uses food to teach, motivate and reward its working canine partners. The APDT also emphasizes reward-based training, which I personally find to be the most fun way to teach dogs of all ages, sizes and personalities. The use of food helps FBI dogs save people's lives. Four years ago, I used food to save a dog's life. I was a volunteer with a German shepherd rescue and received a call from the Louisiana SPCA that a very scared German shepherd had been found as a stray and needed help. No one was going to want to adopt a large, fearful adult dog. I went to the shelter on my lunch hour and found a frightened, dark sable girl named Jetta. She huddled in the corner of her concrete kennel. Every day for a week, I visited Jetta and offered her food. At first, I gently tossed the treats to her. She responded as if I were throwing stones -- more cowering and shaking. On day three, she took a step or two toward them and then she began to eat them in front of me. The most magical day was when Jetta ate the food out of my hand. Two weeks later, I still hadn't found a foster home for her. My husband agreed that we could take her in temporarily. She soon blossomed into the beautiful, confident girl I knew she could be and was soon adopted by a wonderful person who continues to cherish Jetta as a close companion. What is your dogs' relationship to their food?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Reader submitted photos
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.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Riding along with a K-9 unit—a behind the scenes look at training, patrolling and bad guys
In the wee hours of the morning in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, Wash., a domestic-violence call comes over Officer Brandon McCullar’s radio—something about a man breaking his stepdaughter’s nose. He tells dispatch we’re on our way and tucks in behind another deputy’s car speeding toward the location. Lights flashing, knifing through the darkness, we seem to fly along the rural two-lane road. Up ahead, I see the other deputy take a hard, fast, right turn. We slow down. “Hang on, Lidar!” McCullar says to his partner, who’s standing on a special platform in the back seat. I take a quick look through the heavy metal screen and see Lidar looking straight ahead, alert and focused.
This is my second graveyard-shift ride-along with Officer McCullar of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and his K-9 partner, Lidar, a four-year old German Shepherd. I’ve become accustomed to the sights and sounds we encounter as we drive through the night, patrolling and responding to calls. My background in family law and domestic violence (DV) prevention means I also know that DV calls can be the most dangerous for responding officers. Tonight, I learn that DV calls often involve K-9 tracking if the abuser tries to run when officers arrive. Lidar is trained both to track and to take down fleeing bad guys. Maybe I’ll see him in action on this call.
I first met McCullar and Lidar in April 2010, when I went on a ride-along arranged through my office. I work as a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, in the Family Support Division, and have minimal, long-ago experience in criminal law. I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride along on patrol, so when this opportunity was offered, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Luckily, my first choice, a K-9 unit, was available, and I was assigned to McCullar and Lidar.
We met at a precinct building in the southern part of the county for that first ride-along. When I arrived at 8 pm, the precinct seemed to be deserted, but a few minutes later, a sheriff ’s car pulled up and parked several feet from where I waited in my car. As soon as the deputy got out of his car, I could hear loud, aggressive barking; this was my ride-along, and his K-9 partner was upset about something! Was it me? The deputy approached my car and we introduced ourselves, and I commented on the barking. McCullar said that Lidar barked at pretty much everyone, especially when he was left in the car.
We went into the precinct so I could get a bulletproof vest and an official green jacket with the word SHERIFF in big, yellow, reflective letters on the front and back, and sign a ride-along waiver. When we returned to the deputy’s car, Lidar was quiet. This was even more unnerving; what if Lidar didn’t like me? I took a deep breath, opened the passenger door and got in. The only thing I heard was a thumping against the back seat where Lidar rides. I glanced back to see Lidar furiously wagging his tail. When McCullar noticed the thumping, he laughed and said, “Well, let’s introduce you two properly!” I got out and stood beside the car. The deputy let Lidar out and he trotted right up to me, tail wagging, eagerly greeting me and smelling me all over. I was amazed at the way this trained police dog could so easily switch gears. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a calm, dog-loving person and Lidar sensed that. It probably didn’t hurt that I was wearing the jacket, and that his partner was with me.
Around midnight, we took a break. Parking near a field, McCullar brought out a throw toy for Lidar. He removed Lidar’s work vest, a signal to the big dog that he was off the clock, and tossed the toy. When McCullar walked back to the car, Lidar brought the toy to me. He didn’t drop it; he just looked at me, daring me to pull. After checking to make sure it was okay, I tugged and tossed the toy a few times for Lidar, marveling again at his seamless transition from work to play.
Because it was a slow night, McCullar called another deputy and asked if he’d help with some impromptu protection training for Lidar. That deputy had the unenviable job of wearing the padded protective sleeve that Lidar would bite when given the command to take down the bad guy. It was fascinating to watch Lidar run toward and launch himself against the deputy/ bad guy, biting down on the sleeve until commanded to release. Though braced for the impact, the bad guy standin was still nearly knocked off his feet. McCullar focused on Lidar’s response to the release command. It was clear that Lidar loved this training exercise. I asked the other deputy what it felt like to have Lidar clamp down on his arm. “With the sleeve, it’s not painful; there’s just a lot of pressure. But I’m always amazed at the force of his body weight when he hits me,” he said.
Later, we saw something that reminded me what precious cargo our canine companions are in our vehicles, and how important it is to contain them safely. We heard over the radio that a car had crashed into a house. When we arrived at the cul-de-sac, we saw a barrage of red-and-blue flashing lights from a fire truck, aid cars and police cars. Neighbors were standing around watching, and local dogs were barking. An SUV had crossed a couple of lawns and run into the front porch of a split-level home. The vehicle’s front end was completely crushed, and it was pinned under the pillars supporting the roof over the home’s entry. Several firefighters in full gear were moving around the vehicle, trying to extract the older female driver, whom officers speculated had suffered a medical emergency; she was conscious, but her legs were trapped. There was also a dog in the car on the passenger-side floor, and he wasn’t letting anyone close to the woman. Everyone agreed the dog wasn’t necessarily aggressive; he was simply scared out of his wits and doing his best to protect her. But he had already bitten a firefighter and a police officer and they couldn’t get to the woman until the dog was controlled.
Then, one of the firefighters had a brilliant idea: he wedged a plastic body board through the passenger door, placing it between the dog and woman and safely containing the dog. The firefighters were then able to use the Jaws of Life to cut away the driver’s-side back door and the driver’s seat so they could remove the woman from the car.
Seeing this situation made me ask McCullar what would happen if he were shot—what would Lidar do? The deputy said that if Lidar had already been sent to take the shooter down, he’d keep pursuing until he subdued the target or was shot himself. If he pinned the shooter and McCullar couldn’t give the command to release, it might be difficult for other officers to get Lidar to back off; Lidar is trained to release only upon his partner’s command. That’s why McCullar works with other deputies, giving training seminars so they’ll know what to do if this unlikely situation occurs. The deputy’s worst fear is to find himself incapacitated, with Lidar standing over him, protecting him and preventing responders from rendering aid. Clearly, it’s a scenario no one wants to contemplate.
Now, several steps behind and off to the side, I cautiously follow McCullar into the driveway of the house with the violent stepfather. Lidar remains quietly in the car, eyes on McCullar. The scene is chaotic: four cars are parked in front of the house and several young people are milling around, crying and hugging each other for comfort. The officer we followed and another who arrived after us ask questions, trying to get a bead on the situation. One young woman—the victim—is very angry; she’s yelling and has blood on her clothes. She storms into the house and slams the door. McCullar follows her, and I instantly worry—who knows what might be waiting for him in there?
Emerging from the shadows, a man of about 50, short and heavy, stumbles toward a vehicle with the driver’s door ajar. An officer quickly grabs his arm and speaks forcefully, telling him to stop. “F*** you,” the man responds, trying to shake the deputy off. He has blood on his hands, shirt and shorts. The officer calmly puts the man under arrest, cuffs him and reads him his Miranda rights. When told to stand so he can be transported to the precinct, the man goes limp and uncooperative. By now, McCullar has come out of the house, and says to the man, “Sir, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Will you help us get you standing?” The man’s reply is a string of obscenities. The two deputies drag the drunken, belligerent man by the shoulders to one of the other patrol cars and put him in the back. Looking around the yard, I notice a child’s red wagon full of potted geraniums decorating the front entry.
We get back into our car and Lidar relaxes. Then it hits me: not only is Lidar a comforting presence for McCullar throughout his work shift, but having a K-9 partner means you never have to transport drunks or murderers or other violent criminals to the precinct. No having to stop to pull the back seat out of your car and hose off whatever bodily fluids the suspect’s left behind. When I share this insight with McCullar, he smiles. “It’s just one of many benefits of being a K-9 team,” he says. If I were a cop, I’d definitely want a K-9 partner.
McCullar takes me back to my car at the South Precinct just before 4 am. I drive home, my stomach aching from tension, scenes from the night swirling in my head. All three of my dogs get big hugs.
This behind-the-scenes look gave me new appreciation for the work law enforcement officers do—patrolling our streets and handling enormously stressful situations, rarely receiving any thanks for their efforts. I heard a lot of raw language, dark humor and insider banter between the officers during my ride-alongs. Some people might find the gallows humor insensitive and callous, but I totally get it. They need to blow off steam. One of the ways McCullar does that is by throwing a toy for Lidar during their breaks, which strikes me as a good alternative.
A friend—a retired sheriff ’s deputy— had a K-9 partner who died in the line of duty, stabbed by a fleeing felon he tried to stop. Years after, describing what happened, my friend choked up and said he refused another K-9 partner because he couldn’t risk going through that pain again. My ride-alongs allowed me to witness how brave, strong, eager and willing police dogs are, working beside their human partners. It’s a 24/7 partnership—on the job and at home. The bond I observed between McCullar and Lidar is inspiring. I wish them both long, successful careers, followed by a well-earned retirement.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
It all started when Tiger’s agent, Nancy Novogard, called to ask if we would be available to shoot a feature film. I suppose I should add that yes, my adorable, three-and-a-half-year-old Terrier mix, whom I adopted when he was just nine weeks, has an agent. And while he’s shot a variety of photo spreads for magazines and books (Vogue, Bark’s DogJoy), appeared onstage with David Letterman, performed Off-Broadway, and now appears in a national commercial (CSX trains), he has never done a feature film.
“He’ll need to bark — incessantly,” Nancy added.
Of course, I was lying — just a bit. Tiger does “speak” on command, but to him this means ONE BARK, then stop. As dogs go, he’s just not a barker. That said, I have trained him to “count” — which really means BARK-UNTIL-IGIVE- YOU-THE-CUE-TO-STOP. Now, I just needed to keep it going.
The bigger problem, though, was that as Tiger barked, he kept moving closer and closer to me. How could I get the distance needed on a set while getting him to stay on his mark?
I called my friend Christine Mahaney, whose Border Collie rescue, Toula, has film credits aplenty. Christine is also an animal trainer/wrangler for dogs — plus myriad other animals ranging from rats and chickens to deer — in the Detroit, Mich., region.
“OK,” she said, in her adorable Midwestern accent. “Here’s what you do: Tie his leash to a banister or something, and start close — don’t let the leash get tight. Then back away — making sure he keeps the leash loose. Work slow. That’s what I had to do with Toula.”
A week later, I awoke to torrents of rain. I needed to get us to a studio in Queens for the audition, which meant hailing a cab, as Tiger is just too large (28 pounds) to carry in a bag on the subway. As a native New Yorker, I do not own a car.
Getting a cab when it’s pouring, however, is never easy. And with a wet dog…
A yellow taxi stopped. The driver looked at Tiger. I said, “I promise I will give you a big tip.”
We arrived at Kaufman Studios in Queens, just under the 59th Street Bridge. Tiger wandered around, sniffing, while I checked out the competition. There was an 18-week-old Tibetan Terrier. Adorable — but could he bark on cue? A three-pound Yorkie. Hardly the kind of dog a street kid would pick up. There was also a cute, terribly energetic Cockapoo, and a Poodle-y mix. One of the owners tried to practice as we waited.
I looked at Tiger, feeling snarky.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
I stopped wiggling my fingers and smiled, feeling all smug and cocky.
Dan, the prop master, led us down the hall to the audition room — really just a small office-like space. I noticed a poster along the way: Son of No One
Was that the title of the film we were auditioning for? I wondered.
We walked to the back of the studios. There were about five men, including director Dito Montiel, first assistant director Urs Hirschbiegel and a few others. Someone said, “OK — so let’s hear him bark.” I leaned down to take the leash off when Urs added, “Actually, he’ll be on leash for this.”
I smiled and handed the leash to Urs.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
After about five seconds I said, “How’s that?”
The men exchanged glances. “Great. OK — now we need — will he grab a pant leg and shake — like he’s attacking?”
Huh? Not so comfy or snarky now.
“Uh… no one told me that.”
“Well, can he?”
“He knows PULL.” I took out a toy.
Tiger grabbed the toy and pulled and pulled with all his might, tearing at the green alien stuffie. The men were not impressed.
“We need him to pull on someone’s pants.” Urs pulled on the bottom of his trouser leg. “Tiger,” he said with a German accent, “Pull on this.”
Tiger looked at me. He looked at Urs. He looked back at me.
“He hasn’t been trained to do that, but this is one smart dog. Give me a week.”
“What if we put the toy under the pants?” Urs put his hand out. I handed him the toy.
My sweet, smart puppy walked over, grabbed at the toy stuffed under Urs’ trouser leg and pulled.
The men nodded profoundly. “Great! OK — thanks.”
Dan walked me out, back down the corridor to the crowd. As we walked, he told me that they would need several pictures of Tiger, and confirmed my availability.
Two days later, we got The Call. That’s when things got real interesting.
I recalled the name of the movie and looked it up on IMDB, the movie database. There was a list of actors already committed to the movie: Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Channing Tatum, Katie Holmes … I began to get very excited.
“Are you sure that’s the film?” Nancy asked. “We were told it’s a small film.”
“I met a guy named Dito. How many directors do you know of named Dito?”
I started training Tiger to pull on a pair of pants. Since that is a behavior not generally sought by the average dog owner — most people want to train a dog not to pull on pants — I pulled out Captain Haggerty’s How to Teach Your Dog to Talk. Captain Haggerty was, for many years, the trainer for dogs in movies. He recommended using a scented pad made of burlap filled with batting.
When I spoke to my friend Rick Caran, whose Yorkie, Jilli Dog, is the internationally known poker-playing pup, he strongly suggested that I only train to the scent — so that my dog wouldn’t think I wanted him to go around grabbing every pant leg he saw.
But which scent should I use? My Google search turned up an array of flavors: mouse, duck, rat and so on. As the idea of bringing rat scent into my New York apartment on purpose was not terribly appealing, I chose duck.
I dug out an old pair of pants, sewed the burlap pad reeking of mallard inside and started working. Sometimes the pants were just a tug-toy, sometimes I tied them to a chair and sometimes I put them on. I invited friends over to put on the pants and let Tiger tug. We rehearsed in the stairwell, the park, on the sidewalk — everywhere. Tiger became a terrific tugging Terrier.
I examined the rest of the script. Tiger appeared in more than eight scenes. Mostly, he was “background” — sitting on a chair, for example, but mainly he was going to need to bond with Jake, the young actor playing Milk. I prayed that Jake was a dog lover.
The night before the first day of shooting, I pulled out Tiger’s travel bag. Tiger started jumping around — he clearly loves working. I packed our things: pop-up crate, toys, blanket, duck scent, silent whistle, dog bowl, a selection of collars, brush, paper towels, baby wipes and treats, treats, treats. There were the regular treats from the dog store, but also, string cheese and slices of turkey hot dog.
The next morning we awoke at 5:00 am. More rain. I staggered out of bed. We arrived on location in the projects in Queens and were escorted to our “room” in the “honey wagon”— the colorful name ascribed to a trailer parked near the location. It was about 5 feet by 10 feet — with a toilet at one end. And it was freezing.
Still think movies are glamorous? Nancy and I set up the crate, dumped our stuff, trotted over to the breakfast wagon for some hot coffee, then settled down for a typical day on a movie shoot, waiting to be called to the set.
Four hours later, someone knocked on our door. “They’d like Tiger on the set, please.”
Tiger jumped out of the crate, eager and excited to work. I clipped on the treat pouch, threw on my raincoat, grabbed Tiger’s leash and away we went — down the rickety stairs of the honey wagon, through the mud, around the enormous puddle gathering around the clogged, neglected city drains, past the Kraft services tent and into the apartment building smelling of urine and who-knows-what. Inside, Tiger was introduced to a young teenager named Simone who was playing “Young Vicky.” They were immediately smitten with one another. Tiger would need to sit with Simone on the couch.
That was the extent of the direction. The only tricky part: I would have to be hidden from view, behind a thick curtain. The room where they were shooting the scene was so small, only the actors and the cameraman could be inside.
The next seven days were a variation on that theme — lots of waiting around, lots of free food, lots of rain and mud, and some work, generally with me crouching behind or between or below. We were fortunate that we had a company of actors and crew who generally seemed to care about Tiger’s well-being; they allowed us to bring him along to the lunchroom, and they treated him like a star. Jake Cherry, the young actor playing Tiger’s owner, was also wonderful and really took the time to bond with Tiger.
That said, it was not an easy job. Situations popped up on set every day that required a great deal of skill and patience and creativity. While general obedience training is important (skills like STAY, COME and, of course, SPEAK), it is not enough. The dog has to want to be there and feel comfortable around many, many people, lots of different noises, and all manner of other unpredictable situations. I had trained Tiger, for example, to play dead and hold that position even as someone leaned over him. What I did not train him for was for that someone to jump afterward.
I should add that Tiger was never in any physical danger during the shoot. As a matter of fact, the scariest scene in the movie was actually the easiest to shoot, as the behaviors needed were close to what I’d imagined when we prepared. Much of that is also due to the two representatives on set from American Humane, who were our advocates on set and off, ensuring that no animals were harmed.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Although once nearly eradicated in developed countries, bedbugs are on the rise. These tiny bloodsuckers don’t transmit diseases, but can leave itchy welts on you and your warm-blooded pets. It’s important to routinely check any place you or your pets sleep for the telltale dark stains of bedbug activity.
Dogs aren’t taking this bedbug business lying down, either. Some companies are training dogs to be the ultimate pest detectors. With their sensitive noses, dogs can sniff out a single bedbug, and even tell live bugs from harmless dead ones, helping pest control specialists work more quickly and use less pesticide.
If you suspect a bedbug infestation, contact your pest control specialist. Pets are especially at risk from the long-lasting pesticides used to kill bedbugs, but certain chemicals, such as pyrethrin, may be safe when used correctly, and a handful of companies do offer non-toxic solutions to the bedbug problem.
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