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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

News: Editors
Are Some Dogs Hardwired to Overeat?

Researchers at Cambridge University looked at Labrador Retrievers (the most popular breed in the U.S. and the UK) to assess why that breed is more prone to obesity than other breeds. Their findings, recently published in the journal Cell Metabolism, point to a possible genetic reason behind this.

“About a quarter of pet Labradors carry this gene [difference],” lead researcher Dr. Eleanor Raffan noted. “Although obesity is the consequence of eating more than you need and more than you burn off in exercise, actually there’s some real hard-wired biology behind our drive to eat,” she added. Labs have the greatest documented obesity prevalence.

More than 300 Labradors, from pets to assistance dogs, were screened for known obesity genes in the study. The international team found that a change in a gene known as POMC was strongly linked with weight, obesity and appetite in both Labradors and Flat-Coated Retrievers.

Other breeds—from the Shih Tzu to the Great Dane—were also screened, but this particular genetic difference was not found.

Dr. Giles Yeo, was one of the human geneticists from the University of Cambridge, who worked on the study. “What we have found is that some Labradors get fat because they have a deletion in a gene within their brain,” he said.

“And this particular gene plays a role in sensing how much fat they have in their body—and so some Labradors don’t know how much fat they have and so keep eating to try to get fatter.”

Researchers also found that the mutation is significantly more common in Labradors selected to become assistance dog breeding stock than those selected to be companions.

It is certainly intriguing why assistance Labs are more prone to be carrying this gene deletion, but as they hypothesized, dogs carrying the POMC deletion may be more likely to be selected as for work as assistance dogs because trainability and temperament are the main “drivers for selection of these dogs, and positive reinforcement with food reward is the mainstay of puppy training.”

 

Wellness: Health Care
Q&A Author New Book Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs

Though in many ways, our dogs communicate with us all the time, when it comes to their pain, we have to figure it out on our own. Here to help with that daunting task is Michael Petty, DVM, author of the newly released Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs in a Q&A with Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska.

What are the most common ways dog guardians can recognize that their dogs are in pain, beyond obvious signs like limping or decreased appetite?

The answer to this is complicated and I probably can’t do it justice here. However, if people start to see their dog as lazy, not socially interacting, reluctant to do the things they liked in the past—really, any behavioral change—then pain should be on the list of possible problems. Dogs rarely quit doing the things they like to do because they’re old, they quit doing them because there’s something wrong. And that usually means disease, commonly something painful like degenerative joint disease.

You note in your book that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain treatment.” You also mention something called a “pain examination.” What does that entail, and is it something that’s perhaps best handled by a specialist?

A pain exam can take many forms. My approach depends in part on the history given to me by the dog’s caregiver, the breed, prior medical conditions and watching the dog walk into the exam room, just to name a few.

Every pain exam should consist of a complete physical exam; an observation of the dog’s gait when possible; a basic neurological exam (many neurological issues can mimic pain); and a hands-on palpation of the dog’s joints, muscles and bones. Based on the fi ndings, X-rays are often indicated, as well as blood work and urinalysis in anticipation of possible pharmaceutical interventions and procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia.

No one specialty “owns” pain. Anesthesiologists are well trained to handle acute pain, but not chronic. Neurologists are trained in matters like intervertebral disc disease, but not osteoarthritis. The list goes on. My fi rst choice would be to seek out someone with a pain certifi cation—a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner—from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (ivapm.org). This certification takes several years to earn, and program graduates are experts in the fi eld of pain management.

Do most vets understand the importance of neuropathic pain (essentially, a misfire between the sensory/nervous system and a region of the body)? And how is it best diagnosed?

Most of the veterinarians I talk to, outside of those belonging to pain-aware organizations such as the IVAPM, do not have a firm understanding of neuropathic pain. In human medicine, diagnosing neuropathic pain is difficult; it requires both a verbal description of what the pain feels like and verbal responses to certain tests. Without these tools, most of the time, our diagnosis is, at best, an educated guess. However, patient response to therapy for neuropathic pain is one indication that a veterinarian is on the right track.

You note that aspirin is dangerous for dogs. Are there any over-the-counter medications that can be given to a dog who has sustained an injury, to ease pain and infl ammation before taking the dog to a vet?

No. No OTC medications are licensed for use in dogs. Ice and stabilizing injured limbs are about the best you can do.

You support the importance of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a dog’s diet because they work to help decrease the production of pain-causing prostaglandins. Why is a fish-based source of omega-3 fatty acids preferred, and do foods such as canned salmon and water-packed sardines and tuna contain enough of it? How do we determine the correct amount?

Fish-based sources are best because of bioavailability. Sources like flax seed are okay for people but useless for dogs, as they cannot convert flax to omega-3s. If you are feeding a food that has salmon or sardines as an ingredient, then you don’t have to worry about the amount, as it takes very little of these foods to provide enough omega-3s.

You call out a few botanicals, like ashwagandha, boswellia serrata and turmeric, for their benefits in pain relief and/or in reducing infl ammation. Do you prescribe these in your practice?

Yes. The problem is finding a reliable source of herbs, as they are not monitored by the FDA like pharmaceuticals are. One good option is a product called Dasuquin Advanced, from Nutramax; it has many important pain-modifying ingredients, including several herbs.

The veterinary attitude toward acupuncture seems to have changed a lot. In your experience, which conditions respond best to acupuncture? And how do you know which dogs are good candidates for this treatment? (I had a dog who would shake out the needles!)

Talking about acupuncture is one of my favorite things to do. I cannot imagine practicing without it, especially in my geriatric population, which is more sensitive to the effects of many drugs. I think attitudes have improved—in both veterinarians and dog owners—as more and more research is being published on the benefi ts of acupuncture; also, people hear about someone’s dog being helped by it. In addition, it has the support of the National Institute of Health for the treatment of pain.

For many dogs, the proof of being a good candidate is obvious in their response to treatment. Within one to three treatments, we can usually see an improvement in pain scores and observations. If we don’t, then sometimes the decision is made to stop treatment. I have had a few clients return and say they didn’t realize how much it was helping until it was stopped.

Many people experience what you did with your own dog. Some dogs are needle-phobic and resent even one needle going in. Some dogs are just afraid of being at the veterinary clinic and won’t sit still. I sometimes give these patients a mild sedative to get over this hump. A reduction in anxiety for several treatments often means that they eventually accept acupuncture without continued use of the sedative.

Finally, dewclaws. You make the point that a dog’s dewclaw, the equivalent of a human thumb, plays important functions in both the mechanics of the front foot and in joint stability, and that ligaments and tendons connect it to surrounding tissues. Yet you also observe that some breeders routinely remove it. How can this horrible practice be changed? Do any vet groups take a position on this?

Both the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association discourage any surgery done for cosmetic reasons, but they only name ear-cropping and tail-docking. Unfortunately, I don’t think this has had much of an impact, as very few breeders belong to either organization. I cannot speak for every state’s practice act, but most (if not all) specify that surgery must be performed by a veterinarian. Every instance where a breeder chooses to perform surgery crosses that line, and they are breaking the law. I feel that the best way to address this issue is through kennel clubs, such as the AKC. If the AKC were to say, “No dog born after such-and-such date who has had cosmetic surgery, including dewclaw removal, ear-cropping or tail-docking, can be shown in AKC sanctioned shows,” the practice would grind to a halt.

 

Wellness: Healthy Living
Dog-Friendly Prepping for Spring
A Seasonal Heads-Up

Spring officially, well, springs forth in late March, but depending on where you live, it might show up earlier, or later. Either way, if you live with companion animals, it comes with a few cautions. Take note …

In the house. Thinking about dealing with a winter’s worth of dust and debris? Think smart about your cleaning products; many are irritating or even toxic for dogs. Invest in eco-friendly products, or make them yourself. (For a passel of cleaning tips as well as other ways to green up your paw print.)

In the driveway. Most often associated with winter, antifreeze poisonings happen in the spring as well. Whether from shade-tree mechanics, unidentified vehicle leaks or even the bases of portable basketball hoops, ethylene glycol–based antifreeze winds up in driveways and streets, where its sweet taste attracts dogs and cats. Even in tiny amounts, it’s been known to cause sudden kidney failure.

In the yard. Slug and snail baits combine an attractant, usually apple meal or some other sweet-smelling base, with an active chemical compound such as metaldehyde to poison whatever swallows the bait. Increased rodent activity also means increased use of rat poison, which is one of the deadliest things your dog can ingest. Keep all of them out of dogs’ reach.

If you’re planting (or replanting), check out the ASPCA’s list of toxic and non-toxic plants. A safe choice trumps a dangerous one, particularly if your dog likes to graze in your garden. Go to aspca.org and enter toxic plants in the search box.

Then there are fertilizers; even organic or natural varieties can be harmful. Blood and bone meal can cause vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatic inflammation. Grass and flower fertilizers can also contain toxic chemicals that may be deadly if ingested.

Out and about. If your dog spent a good chunk of the winter crashed on the couch or eating a few too many sweet potato chews, it’s a good idea to bound gradually into a spring exercise regime. Monitor your pet and start slow. (This is also applies to the human member of the team.)

If your outings take you to your local dog park or over hill and dale, keep an eye out for foxtails—wild grass awns that begin to sprout in abundance in the spring. They’re more obvious later on in the year when they dry out, but they’re also a problem at the green stage. Get Dr. Shea Cox’s take on the problem.

News: Editors
Keeping Dogs Out of Harm's Way
Spring Tips and Green Ideas

Spring and spring cleaning days are upon us, plus March 20th also marks the start of National Poison Prevention Week. An informative notice from Dr. Denise Petryk, on-staff veterinarian at Trupanion (pet insurance), provides insights into the most common pet poisons and other tips to help protect dogs and keep them out of harm’s way:

·         Household cleaning products: Soaps, bleach, detergents, specialized cleaners and even sponges can harm a pet by irritating the skin or eyes, as well as damaging and blocking the gastrointestinal system. See better alternatives to these cleaning products.

·         Plants: Tulips, Daffodils, Foxglove and Azaleas are all plants that can cause symptoms such as vomiting, drooling and even kidney damage when ingested by pets. Lilies are especially toxic to cats—and popular around Easter time—and can cause kidney problems, while the Sago Palm plant causes health problems such as vomiting, diarrhea and liver failure in dogs.

·        Fertilizers: The nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc and herbicides that supplement plant growth can cause severe symptoms in pets, such as difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal blockage. Be very careful about fertilizing lawn areas where many dogs like to spend time.

·         Yard tools: Rakes, shrub sheers and even shovels can be deadly for curious pets if they’re not stored properly.

·         Pest control substances: Rodenticides and other poisons such as slug bait are toxic to all animals, so owners should take special care to keep their pet away.

For more green ideas and safety tips see our dog-friendly prepping for spring checklist.

Culture: Science & History
Q&A With Pat Shipman, Author of The Invaders
How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction

Pat Shipman, PhD, is a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State and an internationally recognized expert in taphonomy, the study of how living animals are transformed into skeletons, and then fossils. Her scientific training and boundless curiosity lead her to take on the intriguing question of just why Homo neaderthalensis, one of the most successful apex species of hunters who had thrived for millennium in Eurasia, would almost suddenly, anthropologically speaking, become extinct. Her hypothesis: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (The Belknap Press) points to the abilities of both certain wolves and our ancestors to pair up and this gave them the competitive edge in the battle of survival. It is certainly true that this wasn’t done intentionally, but such an evolutionary breakthrough resulted in an alliance that had devastating effects on not just the Neanderthals but on a long species list including the huge woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers and Cave bears. Could it be possible “man’s best friend” have been the Neanderthals’ worst nightmare ? Shipman’s thesis starts with Homo sapiens, who in expanding north out of Africa were not only as an invasive species, but the most invasive in history, wreaking ecologically enormous changes throughout continents. The evidence that she relies on, by a meticulous review of the most current archeological research and genomic and genetic studies, can perhaps most readily be seen in the mammoth remains megasites, where the number of kills increases almost exponentially after the first evidence of the wolf-dog–human alliance was discovered. For ten thousand years before the domestication of the wolf-dog, evidence of early humans hunting mega-fauna like mammoth is scant, but with the addition of the superior hunting and tracking talents that wolf-dogs contributed to our projectile throwing ancestors lead not only to more successful kills of large prey but insured the success of our two predatory species. As for the Neanderthal, it wasn’t just simply that humans bested them as hunters but climate change was also a key contributing factor: but the combo of the alliance of the apex predators with the ice age ensured their extinction, so goes evolution. As Shipman notes about the Jagger Principle, “… the immortal words of Mick Jagger (yes that one) and Keith Richards are the best statement I know of to describe evolution. Things don’t stay the same; you can’t always get what you want; but with a little flexibility, you might get what you need to survive.” This is truly a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and Shipman presents a compelling argument for how canines and humans proved their flexibility and how this could have been the main reason that we survived and the Neanderthals didn’t. But drawing upon the wisdom of another ’60s duo, we also got by with a little help from our [first] friends. See the following interview with Dr. Shipman to learn more.

Bark: How long did it take humans, once they migrated out of Africa, to team up with wolves, a species that was unknown in Africa?

Pat Shipman: There were wolves in North Africa, but my guess is that humans did not team up with them but rather, based on genetic information, with European wolves. The earliest humans in Europe date to perhaps 42,000 years ago. The earliest wolf-dogs we know at present show up about 34,000 years ago (or about 37,000, if the raw radiocarbon date is calibrated for irregularity in the deterioration of C-14). Thus, it may have taken 6,000 years, or less—I seriously doubt we have found the first wolf anyone ever attempted to domesticate.

BK: What environmental reasons led to this amazing partnership?

PS: There were many different predators in Europe when modern humans arrived; competition for prey was considerable, and even worse once humans came on the scene. The idea of domesticating any animal was completely unknown, but somehow— probably by accident—some wolves began cooperating with some humans because the alliance benefited both.

They caught more prey, faster, with less risk to canine or human, which meant more energy for reproduction. Wolves had a set of skills for hunting in packs: speed, keen ears, a very keen sense of smell, sharp teeth and claws. Early humans were much slower, had lousy senses of smell and hearing, and blunt teeth, but they had distance weapons that could kill an animal while avoiding injury from close contact. By teaming up with special wolves—wolfdogs they could capture a much wider array of animals with much less risk and less expenditure of energy. They were nearly unstoppable.

BK: You write that proto-dogs were like “living tools” to humans. Was this a mutually beneficial arrangement?

PS: Absolutely. You cannot force any animal to cooperate if it does not want to. You cannot force an animal not to be hostile to humans or to cooperate with humans if there is no benefit to the animal.

BK: Wolves are highly territorial, and may kill other wolves who come into their area. Since this was well before human settlements, humans and wolf-dogs would have traveled great distances, through other species’ (i.e., wolves’) territory. Could the advantage to the wolfdogs come from the protection offered by their human partners?

PS: Both wolf-dogs and humans were more efficient hunters through cooperation— the wolf-dogs by having hunters kill the prey from a distance after they had found it, isolated it and stressed it through charging and holding it at bay.

For wolf-dogs and humans to travel together, they must have cooperated to drive off or kill the wolf packs through whose territories they passed. Indeed, there is a marked rise in the number of wolf bones in human sites after wolf-dogs appear. I think wolves were deliberately targeted by humans in order to protect the wolf-dogs, and to protect the remains of their kills from scavengers.

BK: Why do you think that Neanderthals did not also have wolf-dogs?

PS: One quite real possibility is that modern humans had adaptations that fostered better communication with wolf-dogs and possibly (we don’t know) Neanderthals did not. For example, humans are the only primates with whites to their eyes, which makes communicating the “direction of gaze”— where you are looking—very obvious. This is a huge advantage in silent cooperative hunting. We do not yet know if Neanderthals had this adaptation or not. Assuming that they saw humans working with wolf-dogs, why Neanderthals did not steal them or make their own is unclear. Humans undoubtedly prized the canines and may have gone to great lengths to prevent them from being stolen. Maybe Neanderthals did not have the empathy and ability to understand wolf-dogs that is so necessary to a good working relationship. Maybe Neanderthals tried and just couldn’t figure out how to handle them.

BK: What do you think inspired humans to see that teaming up with wolves might give them a competitive edge? Did it have to do with their diet perhaps?

PS: I don’t think humans set out to domesticate wolves into dogs; I think it was an accident based on taking in orphaned puppies and raising them. Before working with wolf-dogs, humans were rarely able to kill mammoths or other very large game; afterward, there are sites with dozens of mammoth kills. I suspect that killing mammoths efficiently and regularly required the help of wolf-dogs, so mammoths weren’t really a preferred human food until humans had wolfdogs to help.

BK: It was interesting that the primary protein source in the bones of both wolfdogs and humans can be detected. What does that tell us?

PS: First, this sort of study tells us that, at the same site, wolf-dogs and wolves ate different prey animals predominantly. (That is a very surprising finding if my colleagues and I are mistaken and the wolf-dogs are really wolves, that would make them a very odd and distinctive group.) Second, this type of study shows us that humans may have provisioned wolf-dogs, rather than letting them simply eat whatever was left over.

BK: You say that wolf-dogs were a first, but unsuccessful, attempt at domestication; and that domestication happened several times in different areas. Are you concerned that their mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) evidence hasn’t been found in modern-day canids?

PS: Not at all. There is as much mtDNA evidence that these identified wolf-dogs were wolves as there is that they were dogs: none. The mtDNA we have so far from wolf-dogs is unique, previously unknown. What that means is uncertain.

This particular genetic material is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter and so on; the father’s mtDNA is not. This means that if you have a small population with an unusual mtDNA, the probability that it will go extinct in 1,000 years—much less 35,000—is very, very, very high.

It could be as simple as a few females who don’t reproduce successfully or have only males due to random chance. Also, athough we have several thousand mtDNA lineages from living animals, there are millions of dogs and wolves whose mtDNA is unknown. Maybe the sample sizes of living animals are too small and the wolf-dog mtDNA is still out there somewhere. Maybe it is simply extinct.

The standard calculation is that 99 percent of all mtDNA lineages go extinct, so we can’t conclude too much from that. I am not at all worried that the mtDNA information from wolfdogs has not yet been matched in any other group. Also, the entire wolf-dog group may well have gone extinct, with a still-later domestication of wolves into dogs. We just don’t know.

News: Editors
Cesar Millan Crosses the Line
Prompting Investigation for Animal Cruelty

Our colleague, Mark Derr’s “Dog’s Best Friend” blog looks at an alarming program from Cesar 911 (National Geographic Wild). Seems as if the controversy surrounding Cesar Millan lives on, but this time his total disregard of how his misguided and irresponsible “beliefs” about animal behavior and dog training have resulted in other animals being harmed. It is truly unconscionable that National Geographic, that purports to be a family oriented network, would allow this animal abuse to happen and then to actually televise it. Trying to get a dog to be a “friend” to pet pigs by leashing them together and then the dog running amuck injuring the pigs certainly should not be considered to be suitable or entertaining programming. As for Millan, as dog lovers should be aware of by now, just about every animal behaviorist and veterinarians worldwide have denounced his methods and teachings. National Geographic needs to hear from us about this latest abusive behavior. There is a Change petition that is being circulated. 

LATEST NEWS: Cesar Millan is now being investigated for possible animal abuse on this matter. 

Here is Mark Derr's post:

[Note: The video clip of the Cesar 911 episode to which this posting refers appears to have been removed from public viewing on YouTube.  A partial clip and commentary can be found here(link is external).]

On March 7, staff writer Christian Cotroneo reported for The Dodo, the website devoted to “the love of animals” on Cesar Millan’s “worst dog-training idea, ever,”  that is, a particularly demented plan to reform a pig-killing French bulldog by giving him a “positivememory” with pigs upon which he can build a less lethal relationship with all other life forms.  Millan, the self-proclaimed dog whisperer who has attained cult status by showing hapless dog owners how to become “pack leaders” by giving their animals “discipline” before “affection,” has raised the hackles of serious animal behaviorists and dog trainers even before his program first aired on the National Geographic channel in 2003.  Since then he has become a one-man conglomerate, with spin-off television programs, a magazine, best-selling books, and a hugely successful website. 

But all along, he has had his critics, including me, as most readers of this blog know.  In 2006, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times criticizing Millan’s approach to training and his antiquated view of dominance hierarchies.  Other critiques have followed, including a number of essays by my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff and protests from the leading animal behaviorists in the country. Criticism of Millan routinely draws vitriolic, sometimes threatening, responses from his followers.

The current controversy surrounding Milllan focuses on an episode from his new program Cesar 911, in which he addresses problem cases. The clip was posted on You Tube on February 25 and has raised a ruckus in social media said Cotroneo in his response to the show. (A noted above, the clips have largely been removed from public view.) In the episode, Millan puts a pig-killing French bulldog into a fenced training area stocked with pigs with the intent that he will learn not to attack but to love pigs.  While on a long line—an extended lead—held by Millan, the dog seems fine, but when his human companion unlooses him on Millan’s order, Simon turns demonic.  He rips one pig’s ear.  He escapes Millan’s desperate lunges—“I’ve got it,” the dog whisperer says at one point.  At another, as Millan tumbles to the ground gasping for air, he mutters, “This is teaching.”

But what is taught and what is learned?  Certainly the best learning outcome would be for National Geographic to take a stand for dogs, pigs, and other animals and remove Cesar Millan from the air until he reforms his act.

Used with permission of Mark Derr.

News: Editors
Shelter Dogs take Center Court at Brazil Open

We just read a wonderful story about another inventive and humane way to save shelter dogs and to showcase their many charms and talents. This story is from the Brazil Open tennis tournament being held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Shelter dogs Frida, Costela, Mel and Isabelle, all sporting orange bandannas, wowed the onlookers by their ball “handling” abilities. In their previous life these four ball-dogs were street dogs in Brazil largest city. But now, as trained by Andrea Beckert, from the Association of Animal Wellbeing, they are retrieving the out-of-bounds tennis balls, and bringing them back, joyfully, to their trainer and, at times, to the players.

As Beckert noted—she trained them for months before this appearance—they were hoping to make the animals more confident and playful to “win” attention and hopefully new homes. “These are dogs that were mistreated. We have to make them adapt, feel the environment, the court, the noise of the balls and the noise of the people. Some are doing well, others are still a little scared,” she related. The basic commands that the dogs learned were ‘pick the ball,’ ‘let it go,’ ‘stay’ and ‘come.’”

All four still live in the shelter, said Marli Scaramella, the organizer of the ball-dog program, “The idea is to show people that a well-fed and well-treated animal can be very happy. We have more than 1,000 dogs in our care,” she said. Let’s hope this worked and will inspire other sporting events in other countries.

 

Wellness: Healthy Living
Calories Count

Winter not only keeps us inside, it’s also a time of food-centric holiday celebrations. How can we share the fun with our dogs without packing pounds on them? When you want to get the facts, you go to the pros, and for an answer to this question, we checked in with Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, ACVN and associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. Her general advice is that we be mindful of our dogs’ daily caloric needs and their total intake. (More on this in a future issue.) Dr. Churchill also shared a few tips.

> Go for frequency, not volume, and choose either very small treats (pinkie fingernail-size) or ones that can be broken into small pieces.

> Look for tasty low-cal alternatives; if your dog likes likes raw fruit and veg —carrots, celery, green beans, cucumbers, apples, blueberries—keep a ready-to-eat supply on hand.

> Unsalted, unbuttered popcorn provides lots of bang for its caloric buck; there are only 20 calories in a popped cup, and a cup goes a long way, especially when scattered around for the dog to find.

We saved the really big question for last. How do we resist those soulful eyes as we eat our turkey sandwiches and our special holiday cookies? Dr. Churchill advises that if we’re going to cave, we should do it with the lowest-calorie treat. It’s also important to avoid reinforcing begging (do your best!) and to preserve our dog’s routine. Dr. Churchill’s final takeaway: Dogs choose joy, and the time we spend with our dogs means more to them than food. Carve out time to make some joyful memories.

Culture: Science & History
Interview with author of No Better Friend
Robert Weintraub talks about Judy, a remarkable dog

We recently talked with Robert Weintraub, author of No Better Friend, our favorite book of 2015. This remarkable story about Judy, the only canine POW of World War II, has won the praise of many critics, and was selected, too, by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as one of last year’s best. This inspiring (and harrowing) story reminds us just how inimitable our bond is with dogs.

Q: No Better Friend is certainly an apt title for a book about an amazing dog and the intense bonds she shared with the people in her life. What made you decide on this title?

A: Well, in all honesty, the marketing department at Little, Brown went through a whole host of options before we settled on this. But No Better Friend, I thought, captured Judy’s incredible loyalty and unique comradeship with the servicemen, both before and during her imprisonment. She took the saw, “man’s best friend,” to a whole new level.

Q: What inspired you to write about this subject—not just Judy, but also, WWII POWs and the Pacific theater?

A: Once I discovered Judy’s story, I knew I would have to capture the larger picture of her fellow prisoners, Frank Williams in particular. That led me to the fall of Singapore and the mad dash to Sumatra amid total Japanese domination in the South China Sea. Had Judy been in France, of course, I would have told that story, so in a sense, she took me to the Pacific. But despite their intense deprivations, the POWs of Sumatra have been largely ignored by history, so I was rather glad to be able to shine a light on a subsection of WWII that was more shadowy than others.

Q: You come from a sports journalism background—is there anything from that perspective that especially drew you to Judy’s story?

A: Certainly the qualities that draw people (including me) to sports—performance under duress, teamwork, strength of character—were fully on display in this story. The POWs, including (and especially) Judy, got one another through the worst possible times. They shared food despite not having enough for themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent fellow prisoners from taking beatings from the guards. They nursed one another through terrible disease and suffering. Judy and her fellow POWs rose above the nadir of humanity to display the best qualities humans have to offer. Obviously, the stakes were far higher than in any sporting contest, but the characteristics were similar, just writ large.

Q: It’s difficult to read about this period in history—about a war waged against a country that practiced extreme mistreatment of captives, unhindered by the Geneva convention. It makes stories about survivors like Judy and Frank Williams even more startling, and the details of what they, and many others, went through as POWs that much harder to digest. That must have been very challenging as you researched the topic.

A: I considered myself something of a buff on military history, WWII in particular, even before I began the research, but nothing prepares you for firsthand accounts of the brutality and shocking inhumanity of the camps. The legacy of the German concentration camps somewhat obscures the horrors in the Japanese camps, at least to the average person, so I thought it was important not to shy away from the terror tactics and sadistic barbarity practiced by the Japanese (and their Korean lackeys). In the course of writing, I found that any temptation I had to ease up on the worst of the offenses was offset by admiration for the POWs and Judy’s ability to withstand them. So my perspective tilted; I actually wanted to highlight the atrocities, for they presented Judy and her friend’s courage and endurance in greater relief.

Q: I tagged more pages in this book than in most that I review. Judy demonstrated so many instances of valor, intelligence, loyalty and, at times, cunning. Which ones stand out for you?

A: Yes, Judy made the exceptional look almost routine. Before she was even taken prisoner, she had several amazing episodes. At one point she took to guiding a small band of shipwreck survivors across the Sumatran interior in a quest for escape, through a deep rainforest thick with insects, mud and predators. Judy was actually slashed by a crocodile during this long march, but kept to her station as ranger, leading the group to (perceived) safety on the opposite coast.

There was the time when she was being transported by Japanese prison ship and the boat was sunk by a torpedo. She narrowly escaped, and once in the water, went about saving the lives of flailing shipmates instead of worrying for her own safety. In the camps, she repeatedly threw herself at guards in order to distract them from beating up fellow prisoners. One time she was shot and slightly wounded while thrusting herself between attacker and prey. Judy obviously put herself in grave danger during these episodes. But she continued to stand up for her fellow POWs right until liberation. Hers was truly a story not just of survival, but also of spirited resistance.

Q: What do you think made Judy so exceptional? As I read this book, I looked at my dogs and wondered what they would have done in the same circumstances. Do you have a dog?

A: We have young children, so we are waiting until they are a bit older before we get a dog of our own. But I grew up with a very loyal, very spirited Golden Retriever. Although he wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Judy, I like to think that he would have displayed the same courage and stamina. I don’t know that it’s possible to compare an average domestic canine with Judy, however. While she wasn’t a trained military dog, she was a mascot on a navy ship from a very young age, and was baptized to the sights and sounds (and smells!) of war, as well as death and destruction. Even before that, as a very young pup, she escaped from her kennel and survived on the streets of Shanghai for months before being brought home again. Clearly, this was a dog with something special inside her; an essential piece of her welcomed action and adventure, and when she faced the worst, she rose above it.

Q: What do you think it is about dogs that draws people like Frank Williams to the realization that, as you write, “His love for her was noble”?

A: Clearly, we recognized dogs’ special kinship with us at some point in their transition from wild animal to domesticated friend. In Frank’s case specifically, I was putting his love and loyalty to Judy in the context of his experience during the war. He was captured early on without putting up much of a fight (he was a radar technician in the Royal Air Force). After years of awful treatment in the camps, he had every reason to give up and let death take him, as so many other prisoners did. But Judy’s battling example shook him from his lethargy, and instilled in him the seed to fight on, survive each day, and put faith in a better time ahead. In exchange, he shared every bit of devotion he had with Judy, even risking his life to procure official POW status for her. In the worst situation imaginable, even worse than the war itself, Frank found the nobility that had eluded him while he was a free man. That was thanks to a dog—a special dog, true. But the qualities all dogs bring out in people is what makes our relationship with them so remarkable.

Q: I understand that a young readers’ version will be out soon. How did you recast the story to make it appropriate for that age group without diminishing its essence?

A: That version will be out on May 3, thank you for mentioning that! It was a difficult task to rework the narrative for younger readers, in part because I had never done it before, and in part because of the material. I had to walk a fine line between highlighting the inhumanity of the camps, which made Judy and Frank’s bond so special, without overplaying the brutality. I also found it necessary to trim much of the surrounding historical material in order to concentrate on the story at the heart of the book, the relationship between Judy and Frank. Not to worry, however; a series of sidebars provides historical context while not diverting the main narrative.

Q: What do you hope younger readers learn from your book?

A: I hope kids everywhere, including Asia (there is a Chinese edition), learn that love, loyalty and friendship are unconquerable, no matter how horrifying the surrounding conditions. And that while humans are forever finding ways to treat one another badly, the special relationships we have with dogs can transcend the often-shaky relationships we have with each other.

For more see our review of No Better Friend, plus an excerpt from the book.

 

Wellness: Healthy Living
Exploring the Humane and Canine Microbiome
Q&A with Dr. Robynne Chutkan

Dr. Robynne Chutkan, one of the leading gastroenterologists in the country, is the author of a new book, The Microbiome Solution, in which she takes us on an exploration of our guts’ ecosystems. Her rousing endorsement of “living dirty” includes the benefits of living with dogs. Bark’s editor speaks with her about just how helpful dogs are to our health, inside and out.

Is it true that there are similarities between our microbiome and those of our dogs, and that dog-owning families have more diverse microbial colonies than dogless households?

Although we share many of the same microbes, dogs in general have a more diverse microbiome than we do. Not surprisingly, some of their additional species are soil microbes (rolling in the dirt from time to time may be a habit worth copying!). Close contact with our dogs is hard to avoid, and that’s a good thing, because they end up passing on some of their unique microbes to their owners, giving dog-owning households a microbial boost.

Dog owners who have children share more mouth bacteria with their dogs than they do with their children. Is this a good thing?

The microbiome in children under the age of three is still developing and as a result, is very different from that of an adult, although there are still lots of shared species with household members (and pets), given the proclivity children have for [putting] everything in their mouths. So, most adults (not just dog owners) have a very different microbiome from their young children. As children get older, their microbiome starts to more closely resemble that of the other household members—not just parents, but pets, too. The vast majority of microbes our canines pass on to us are helpful or benign, not harmful, so keep those doggie kisses going.

So bacteria aren’t species-specific? Is that why, as you note, owning a dog is a highly effective way to replenish and revive bacteria that are basically under attack by modern-day living?

Some bacteria are species-specific, but many are shared by both humans and dogs. Most dogs are much more in touch with the natural world than their owners are, and that’s exactly where lots of the health-promoting microbes come from: soil; unfiltered, unchlorinated water; and, of course, the poo of other animals that our dogs are constantly checking out. Dogs tend to go easy on the hand sanitizer and antibiotics and eat a less processed diet (all habits worth emulating), so they haven’t super-sanitized away as many of their microbes as we have. Some of these canine microbes can be passed on to us, helping to replenish our lackluster microbiome.

The high-fat, low-fiber food we eat, attracts a different range of microbial types; do you know if that is the same for dogs?

I’m not aware of any specific studies looking at variations in canine diets and the effects on their microbiome, but certainly, dogs who eat more processed grains and other foods not natural to their diet tend to have more health problems, and the same is true for humans.

You mention that it’s okay to be a little dirty and sweaty. Why do you think Americans are so obsessed with being hyper-clean?

In the pre-antibiotic era, epidemics of the plague, cholera and other highly infectious diseases wiped out vast numbers of people. The advent of penicillin in the 1930s is still one of the most important contributions to modern medicine, and antibiotics have saved countless lives. But now the pendulum has swung the other way; we’re currently in an era of overdiagnosis and over-treatment, and we’re seeing the emergence of new “modern plagues,” not from infection, but from not enough microbes.

However, the public still sees antibiotics as the life-saving miracle workers they were in the first part of the last century, not as the overprescribed menace they’re becoming. Plus, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in the livestock industry, mostly to fatten animals for slaughter. Clearly, that’s not a lifesaving endeavor.

I think the pharmaceutical and personal-product companies also have a lot to do with it. They’re responsible for many of the public-health campaigns that incorrectly equate cleanliness with health, and of course, they make billions of dollars selling hand sanitizer and other anti-bacterial products.

It’s not just okay to be a little sweaty and dirty, it’s great for your microbiome and your overall health. We need exposure to dirt and germs (bacteria, fungi, protozoa and so forth) to train our immune systems to recognize friend from foe. Not enough exposure to germs, especially when we’re young, leads to a confused immune system that tends to overreact. The result is allergies and autoimmune diseases.

In defense of less bathing and shampooing: your body is really good at concocting the exact formula needed to keep your skin and hair moisturized and healthy. But what do we do? We scrub away our natural oils with harmful antibacterial products and then try to revive our skin and hair with store-bought products full of chemicals. Live dirty for a healthier— and better looking—you!

Many studies have shown the benefits to children of having a dog, including a decrease in eczema and asthma. Why else would you recommend that a family get a dog?

Having a dog is great for reducing stress and anxiety and lowering blood pressure. And we already know they improve the microbiome of the entire household.

What’s your personal dog “biome”?

My mother’s bridge partner, Eva, worked for the Swedish embassy, and when she moved back to Sweden, she left her beloved German Shepherd, Trygg, with us. He’d been used to spending all his time with Eva, and became immediately attached to my mom. We had to be super vigilant in the bathroom because he loved to drink from toilets (all kinds of rewilding going on!).

Hugo, our German Shorthaired Pointer puppy, came into our lives about six months ago. Getting a dog forced me to slow down my too-busy lifestyle and spend more time sitting on my front steps, stroking Hugo and literally smelling the roses. He’s super active, so my husband and I take turns running with him in the mornings and evenings.

We live near Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, so, thanks to Hugo, there’s a whole lot of dirt and sweat happening on a daily basis. Our daughter Sydney loves him so much that we really can’t imagine life without him.

Hugo slobbers over everyone he comes into contact with, and since I frequently have meetings with the Gutbliss team at our house, he’s become our CRO—Chief Rewilding Officer!

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