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Lisa Wogan

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Putting Your Dog on a Low-Calorie Diet
Some things to know about "low-cal" pet food

There’s no denying obesity is a major canine health issue. Obesity contributes to arthritis, heart and liver disease, diabetes, respiratory difficulties, heat stroke, some cancers and more. And somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of domestic cats and dogs in the United States are overweight, according to several estimates. As we do in our personal battles of the bulge, we turn to reduced calorie diets for help. Unfortunately, these may not be the straightforward solution they appear to be.

A study of so-called light or low-calorie pet foods performed at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University revealed a confusing variation in calorie density and feeding recommendations among brands. Researchers found dry dog foods making weight management claims ranged in calorie density from 217 to 440 kilocalories per cup (kcal/cup), and that the recommended intake ranged from 0.73 to 1.47 times the dog’s resting energy requirement.

What this means is that well-meaning dog owners following manufacturer guidelines might not see promised weight loss in their chubby pups—in fact, they might see weigh gain—leading to frustration for people and ill health for dogs.

Knowing and counting calories is a priority for weight management, according to veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, MS, VMD, DACVN, with whom we talked about the Tufts study and canine weight management. Dr. Moser is an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, he serves on the National Organic Standards Board Pet Food Task Force.

“It’s incumbent on the pet owner to know what calories are in the food and the energy their dog needs,” Dr. Moser says. While weight and age are a good starting point for calculating what your dog requires maintain or lose weight, there are other important multipliers to take into consideration, such as whether your dog is spayed or neutered, and the intensity and duration of their daily activity. Also, pregnant or nursing dogs and puppies need more energy (aka calories).

A good way to set a calorie baseline is with a visit to your veterinarian. Since only about 17 percent of owners think their dogs are overweight, according to one study, the first step is breaking through denial. Your vet can help. There are several ways to set a daily calorie count, such as aiming for a one percent of total weight loss each week, or 75 percent of the calories required to maintain a goal weight, etc., Dr. Moser says.

The important thing is to be consistent and engaged. Once you cut back on calories, weigh your dog about every ten days, Dr. Moser says, to see when they plateau. Also, he recommends something called “body condition scoring.” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine website provides an illustrated chart that shows dogs and cats from emaciated to obese. Look at the pictures and ask: Where does my dog fit? You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs but your fingers shouldn’t fit between them.

Why diet food? Why not just feed your dog less of his or her regular food? “What makes a diet food different is we’re essentially diluting calories,” Dr. Moser says. There are only a couple ways you can do that including reducing fat content, which decreases calorie density and palatability, or adding fiber or even air, in the case of kibble. The calories in canned food can be diluted with water. “We are making dogs think they are full when they’ve really only eaten 75 percent of the calories,” Dr. Moser says. “The other stuff is just helping you feed more so the dog doesn’t beg.”

One reason Dr. Moser says people aren’t successful with low calorie food is because they leave it out for free-choice feeding. (Imagine a sort of bottomless bowl." “Because even low calorie foods have calories,” he says. He agrees with the study recommendation that free-choice feeding is not a good option—in part because food today is extremely palatable and so it’s easy for dogs to overeat. The better option is a measured quantity of food a couple times a day, he says.

If you don’t see calories listed on your label that’s because calorie counts are only required on dog food that claims to be lite, light, less calorie or low calorie. (The Academy of Canine Veterinary Nutrition, to which study co-author Dr. Lisa Freeman and Dr. Moser belong, is advocating for requiring calorie information on all pet food labels.) Foods with a light, lite, or low-calorie designation must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. However, Dr. Freeman pointed out that more than half of the foods evaluated in her study exceeded this maximum.

Why does it matter if your pup’s a little plump? Dr. Moser points to research that shows keeping dogs thin can extend their lives by as much as one and half years—that should motivate us to study labels and get out our measuring cups.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
The UnMusher
Restoring mistreated and abandoned sled dogs to health.

I push the glow button on my watch. Midnight. An enormous black cat and a Pit Bull mix snooze contentedly on my bed. I, too, was sleeping deeply, and it takes me a moment to remember where I am: a one-room cabin, 20 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska.

I climb down a ladder through a hole in the floor of the loft into a dog den and gingerly pick my way between paws and tails to a portable indoor john, hidden under the kitchen sink. It’s probably more than 20 degrees below zero outside, and I’m glad I don’t have to bundle up for a trip to the outhouse.

When I sit, 22 pairs of eyes glint in my direction. In the moon glow, the cabin is a dreamy dog domain, unlike any gathering of canines I’ve ever seen. Quiet and contented, they are sprawled on the couch, chairs, rugs, and under and on top of the raised bed in which my human host—Arna Dan Isacsson—sleeps. They lose interest in me quickly. One or two slip through the wool-blanket flaps of the dog door; others readjust, snuggle into one another and hunker down for more sleep. I climb back up my ladder feeling more like a wolf-child than a writer researching a story.

In the morning, the evening’s strangeness is gone. I wake to a dehumidifier’s noisy drone. In the bone-dry Fairbanks climate, this industrial-strength appliance will suck nearly three gallons of water—liquid dog breath—from the atmosphere every few days. Isacsson is heating coffee and doing yoga stretches with her “deputy,” an intense, tricolor Border Collie mix named Gari. She is why I’m here. I’ve traveled to the epicenter of competitive dog sledding to see how this transplanted Swede rehabilitates canine castoffs in a way no one else has the time, energy or faith to try.

Only a few dogs are inside this morning—comfort-seeking pups such as the delicate tan-and-white 14-year-old Husky curled up in the crook of the couch. Ten years ago, this sled dog was saved by one of Isacsson’s friends, who came across her as she was being beaten by a musher while she was still harnessed to the team. Isacsson has asked me not to use the dog’s name for fear the incident will be linked to that high-profile musher even today. Many of her dogs are here because they have troubled histories associated with mushing (from the stress of life on a chain to physical abuse, neglect or simply having been dumped), but she is careful about criticizing neighbors and friends.

Instead, she offers an alternative that is part rescue and part example. Since the early 1990s, Isacsson has lived with both her own and rejected dogs, as few as eight and as many as 30 or more, in as close an approximation of a natural pack as she can manage. She believes that by integrating them into the group, the often mistreated, last-chance dogs can be restored to a state of physical and mental health, and some day, thrive as companion animals in her home or with others. Her well-mannered crew testifies to the success of her method.

Dogs trickle in and out while we get ready for a hike. As she prepares breakfast and cleans up, they seem to visit with her and each other. “They need a social landscape,” Isacsson explains. “The experience of gnawing and grooming together satisfies something in their limbic system. It’s as important as food and shelter.”

Elaj (pronounced Ely), an Australian Shepherd who looks out of place among the mostly Husky mixes, climbs into Isacsson’s lap when she sits down. While she is a key component in his universe, she points to the pack as the active agent.

“I’m the camp counselor. I call the shots. But it’s the group that heals the dog. I just reinforce it. I allow for it,” she says. “I credit the success of rehabilitation and restoration of these often compromised dogs to the powerful healing dynamics that exist within the family pack structure. Many less desirable behaviors are simply being replaced by constructive peer influences and by just being allowed to live life as a dog where there are clear pack boundaries.”

Camp K9 Kin, as she calls her home, is a free-run kennel on 14 birch-covered acres. One partially cleared acre or two is ringed in cyclone fencing, which includes six expansive pens with doghouses opening onto a large central play area that Isacsson refers to as the courtyard. Her cabin sits inside the yard at one end. Most of the time when she is home, the dogs have free range of the courtyard and pens. Smaller groups are sometimes allowed beyond the boundary for reconnaissance in her woods and intense chase games along the fence line. When she goes to work, she leaves some dogs in the central area and others in pens with pen pals. No one is chained.

“There are people who think I spoil my dogs,” Isacsson says with a smile, and it’s true that her camp is nothing like the dog yards that dot most of Alaska. In the standard setup, sled dogs spend their lives among grids of doghouses on chains just long enough for them to circle their house or climb inside and maybe interact with neighboring dogs. In many households, sled dogs never come inside even when pet dogs are permitted indoors.  Their only entertainments are running in a team and mealtime. Summers can be especially dull, since some mushers stop exercising their dogs due to the heat.

Warm months at Camp K9 Kin include hiking, swimming, berry-picking and splashing around in swamps. In the yard, Isacsson sets up plastic pools as oases for drinking, cooling off and more grouping. In addition, she creates a bone yard; at night, after the dogs have enjoyed a fresh batch of raw bones, she collects them and then buries them in a pen. The next morning, the dogs race out to dig up, strut with and rebury the bones. Doghouses and the roots of a downed tree provide elevated perches for the dogs who like to watch over the yard.

She calls this the “layered life.” It’s the physical expression of the hierarchies and relationships in the group. The same sort of layering plays out on the various planes in the cabin. “Without having a tested hypothesis, I can tell you it’s very important for them to have this layered life,” Isacsson says. “They spend about 50 percent of their time working out these dynamics. I provide a wide spectrum of opportunities so they can find balance.” For a dog on a chain, she says, “there are no layers. There are absolutely no options at all.”

Watching Isacsson move among her dogs—in a knee brace, in case an exuberant pup plows into an old injury—is a revelation. A Pit Bull mix, a German Shepherd, several Border Collie mixes and a plethora of Huskies romp and play and snarl. There is lots of contact, some minor scuffles, but no fights—it’s high energy without the anarchy. They are mostly left to their own devices with one another, although occasionally, she runs interference for weaker, marginalized dogs, such as an old gray Husky named Payak, who has never really been accepted, or Yasmin, a silky new addition who is blind.

Her approach is informed by behavioral ecology; field studies of bears, wolves and wolverines; mythology; professional kennel management; gut; and endless, patient observation. She pays close attention to the pack, and they pay close attention to her as she communicates in English, Swedish and French, with body language and with animal sounds. She grrrrs and caws. She’s been called the “Mexican ‘dog whisperer’s’ Swedish twin.”

“I think the reason people make the comparison is the way that the dogs respond,” Isacsson says. But she doesn’t call herself a trainer or offer quick fixes, although she advises her dogs’ adoptive families for years and does consulting for people having trouble with their dogs. “I’m about connecting to the dog and finding a place for the dog in my life. I’m not about solving problems. I’m about relationships. That’s why mushers have problems with their dogs; they talk about correcting.”

Exercise is the other essential element of the Camp K9 Kin regimen. During my visit in March, when Isacsson traditionally takes off several weeks to journey with her dogs in the backcountry, we sled, hike, skijor and play games, including hockey-style fetch on the frozen Chena River or in the yard with a bandy stick.

What becomes obvious after a few days is that this is a physically demanding life in an extreme climate that would break down most people. In addition to the rigorous exercise, daily maintenance consumes time, energy and finances. It takes hours to pick up waste, replace straw in dog houses, clip nails, trim fur, massage limbs, chop and stew meat and fish (which she does on a porch stove even when the mercury hovers well below zero), treat ailing dogs, wash blankets, vacuum, repair gear and on and on. Isacsson makes ends meet with a night job, processing satellite images of Earth at the University of Fairbanks, and through the generosity of friends and supporters. Still, take one look at her biography, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.

The 45-year-old with classic Nordic looks—straight blond hair cut short, blue eyes, fair skin and ruddy cheeks—is the daughter of a Swedish actress, Mona Dan-Bergman, and a prominent watercolorist, Arne Isacsson. Her first name is a hybrid of theirs. They divorced when their daughter was three. After they split, she led a divided life—spending six months with her mother and six months with a foster family. At 12, she lobbied unsuccessfully to live with her foster family full-time. The months with her mother, who Isacsson thinks was probably manic-depressive, were difficult. The young girl ran away frequently and often hid in a hollowed-out tree.

Today, she’s adamant about calling her work foster care. “I don’t call myself a rescue,” she says. “I’m just kind of like a halfway house. I was a burden to the commons for a while because I was in foster care. Now, in my mind, I can repay the debt.”

As a child, Isacsson pretended to have been raised by wolves, an idea she thinks was originally inspired by The Jungle Book. “I think kids who are traumatized live in a fantasy world part of the time. The world of imagination can become the only balanced part of your life,” she says. “I have memories that aren’t really memories from my life. That pack of wolves I was raised by, I know now that it’s not real.”

She fed her fantasy by reading everything she could about canines in the wild. When she discovered there were no wild wolves in Sweden, she became outraged. In 4-H, she studied Turkish livestock guardian dogs and ways to manage livestock without eradicating predators.

She attended a farm high school, where she raised a litter of German Shepherd puppies for an entire year. “I was part of that pack, living with them in a barn. Yet, it was always clear that I was a human and they were dogs. They had leaders in their mother and father, as well as growing siblings, but still I too was their leader. It was an experience that no book or person could ever have prepared me for.”

On my last day in Fairbanks, we take the dogs out sledding. I know the dogs on my team—Jordy, Ilso, Raanin, Lappy, Sachiko and Kaepen—pretty well by now, which makes watching and encouraging them very satisfying. With the White Mountains in the distance, we glide through the gentle ups and downs and curves along a ridge. The only sounds are our heavy breathing and the sled runners crunching over snow-dusted ice. The sun, the wind and the team invigorate me. It’s easy to see why people fall so hard for this experience.

It’s warm, so Isacsson and I run, rather than ride, uphill, and take frequent breaks in the shade so the dogs can munch snow or roll to cool down. It would be fun to go all-out, but their benevolent leader is not willing to push these dogs to a point where they could be injured or become exhausted. That’s one reason she’s not a competitive musher.

Still, she has serious pedigree. As a teenager, she taught herself Nordic mushing. She constructed a harness out of horse halters, hooked her German Shepherds up to a kick sled and let them pull her across the fjord ice. After moving to the United States, she worked for three leading mushers, including four-time Iditarod champions Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. She was an ambassador for Scandinavian mushers and a production assistant on a PBS Iditarod documentary.

But mushing in the U.S. is different than it is in Scandinavia. In Isacsson’s native country, for example, keeping dogs on chains is illegal, sled dogs are usually allowed in homes and top mushers keep only about 30 dogs (as opposed to as many as 100 in U.S. kennels). Abandoned or dumped dogs aren’t a fact of mushing there, either, as they are here.

As much as she enjoyed being paid to live and work with dogs, at some point she realized she couldn’t be part of an organized sport that treated dogs like ATVs. Today, mushing plays a very different role in her life. “It does not define who I am,” she says. “I don’t have dogs to fulfill my mushing experience; I mush to fulfill my dogs’ experiences.”

The sport still drives her. Not only does she provide a home and healing for mushing rejects, she also wants to be seen as a workable model for kennel management. She has offered her vision to anyone who will listen, at mushing symposiums and during three years on the board of Mush with PRIDE, an organization established in 1991 to address the care of dogs and the public perception of the sport.

Still, she is realistic. Huge kennels and tethering aren’t going away anytime soon. So her short-term push is for kennel owners to create time and an environment for dogs to socialize off the chain. As a starting point, she recommends either perimeter fencing around yards or building large playpens so dogs can be allowed some free-run play together. She invites people to see her operation, to bring their dogs for a visit. She has even offered to help install fencing. And even this compromise on her vision, she knows, will be a tough sell.

When I check back with Isacsson six months later, she’s added three dogs and built three more pens. It’s snowing when I call, normally a cause for joy, but she’s demoralized. She’s on her way to take in her 27th dog, one of a large group of dogs that were being slowly starved to death. She’s stretched and doesn’t want to add to her pack, but this one is the son of her couch-loving Husky. “He’s family,” she says, to explain why her heart is overruling her head.

But the real punch in the gut, she says, came in July. A puppy she’d placed with good friends five years earlier was returned because of pressures in their life. She was crushed.

“I started thinking about it, wondering am I just enabling people?” says Isacsson, who always promises to take back dogs if necessary. “It was really an eye-opener. I’m thinking about not taking in any more dogs.”

I’m stunned. That she feels hopeless is a rift in the Force.

By the time I hang up, it’s almost 6 PM in Fairbanks, probably just about time to feed the dogs at Camp K9 Kin. During my visit, mealtime struck me as the realization of Isacsson’s vision. While many of the dogs are fed in pens with their pen pals, as many as eight to 12 eat together in the big yard.

Isacsson sets the metal bowls in a ring, like a canine Round Table, and stands in the center with two white plastic buckets. She calls a hungry dog, who then sits in front of a bowl that she fills with a scoop of kibble and two ladles of warm stew. Once the bowl is filled, she and the dog look into each other’s eyes. Until that happens, she waits. Then she says “okay” in Swedish. The dog lunges at the food. She turns to the next bowl, calls another dog, working her way around the circle. One dog at a time sits, waits, connects, eats—and leaves his or her pack mates unmolested.

After the meal, she’ll head inside for her own dinner of soup, cheese and Swedish flatbread. At some point, a howl will rise up in the yard. They do it every night after dinner. It’s eerie and beautiful and seems intended for her. Then Isacsson will walk onto her porch and call out, “Thank you.”

Could she really give that up?

With two dozen dogs keeping her busy, Arna Dan Isacsson has not had time to create a website, but she can be reached k9kin@yahoo.com.

 

Dog's Life: Travel
Fall Viewing with Dogs
Leaf-Peeping with Pups

Fall is go time. Sunny, crisp days and aromatic leaf piles inspire dogs to leap into the season. Why not follow their lead on a leaf-peeping adventure built for two?

Black Hills, South Dakota
In the fall, the Black Hills are all about yellow — the shimmering gold of aspen, birch and oak. Avoid crowded and dog-restricted destinations such as Mount Rushmore in the south, and head north to Spearfish Canyon, a scenic byway with 1,000-foot limestone cliffs and waterfalls for you and miles of pine-scented trail for your buddy. The Old West–style Spearfish Canyon Lodge welcomes dogs and offers several excellent hikes just steps from your room, including a short walk to the lovely Roughlock Falls, setting for the final winter camp scene in Dances with Wolves. spfcanyon.com

Eastern Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Orange hillsides reflected in midnightblue water, picturesque lighthouses and moose are among the autumnal highlights of the Eastern Upper Peninsula. Make a loop to Sault Ste. Marie and Drummond Island from your base on Mackinac Island. At the confluence of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, this tiny isle harkens back to an era when leaves were the big show. There are no cars, just walking, cycling and carriage rides (dogs permitted). Treat your pup to a classic Great Lakes lodge experience at Mission Point Resort, where the huge front lawn provides a great runway for diving into Lake Huron. missionpoint.com

White Mountains, New Hampshire
Crimson? Check. Burnt orange? Check. Deep purple? Check. Brooks, falls, covered bridges? Check, check, check. Savor a quintessential New England autumn, plus craggy, mossy peaks and plenty of hiking trails for sniffing and stretching, on a loop through the White Mountains in north-central New Hampshire. Then kick back in Rollover Rose, Little Fala or another of the dog-inspired rooms at the Lazy Dog Inn. Housed in an 1845 farmhouse in Chocorua, this seriously dog-loving bed and breakfast (which offers dog daycare and a fenced, off-leash play area) welcomes all shapes, sizes and breeds. lazydoginn.com

Hocking Hills, Ohio
Crisp, short days set the lush deciduous forests of southeast Ohio ablaze. There’s plenty to admire from the car, but hit the trails to discover hollows, caves, cliffs, waterfalls and strange rock formations tucked here and there. Include a side trip to the nationally acclaimed scenic drive from Marietta to Woodsfield, which passes through the Monroe Lake Wildlife Area. Be sure your dog’s recall is sharp — wild turkeys, red foxes and beavers will be out enjoying the shoulder season too. Dog-friendly cabins and cottages are available through Old Man’s Cave Chalets. Or, check out Beagle Hill Lodge, a Beagle-themed five-bedroom rental with canine murals. Oldmanscavechalets.com 4seasonshideaways.com (Look for Beagle Hill in the Rentals drop-down menu)

Taos, New Mexico
Aspens and cottonwoods shimmer a little brighter at the crisp, high altitudes of Taos and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Bag the best roadside vistas on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway or earn your views with hikes in the Rio Grande Gorge’s Wild Rivers Recreation Area, where dogs can snuffle absolutely ancient piñon and juniper trees. Many Taos inns, resorts, spas and B&Bs — including Taos Adobe and Stars — have at least a couple of rooms set aside for guests with furry friends. Plus, the city boasts more than its fair share of pet-friendly patio eateries. Be sure to stop by the Stray Arts Gallery, where sales of previously owned art benefit the nonprofit Stray Hearts Animal Shelter. Taosadobe.com

Cascade Mountains, Washington
Get a hawk’s-eye view and savor the full sweep of an alpine autumn aboard the dog-friendly Mount Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain Resort, about an hour and a half southeast of Seattle. This no-sweat, 2,500-foot ascent gives you a knockout view of the iconic, snow-covered dome of Mount Rainier. Hike down to take in the mountain’s meadows and lakes and marmots. Nearby, Alta Crystal Resort offers dog-friendly suites and easy access to National Forest trails. altacrystalresort.com

Culture: DogPatch
PhyDough’s Dog-Friendly Food Truck
Curbside Treats

A food truck is the stuff of dog dreams — savory delectables delivered to a curb near you and with no restrictions on your choice of dining companions. For years now, gourmet chuck wagons from New York to Seattle and Portland to Atlanta have been building cult followings around kimchi quesadillas, portobello cheesesteaks, pork schnitzel sandwiches and more— often with lucky pups sampling some in foodies’ wake.

Now, dogs in Los Angeles have their own food truck: PhyDough sells preservative-free dog treats made with organic, human-grade ingredients. Also on the menu is soy- and yogurt-based ice cream for canines, thanks to a partnership with the Coolhaus Ice Cream Sandwich Truck. It’s more than a place to pick up snacks; it’s become a tasty hub around which dog lovers and their sated pals socialize.

PhyDough was founded by Patrick Guilfoyle, owner of Double Dog Dare Ya, a boutique kennel in Burbank, Calif. Guilfoyle’s five dogs, who serve as official taste-testers, are particularly enthusiastic about his latest business venture.

Culture: Science & History
Is Your Dog Waiting For You?
New study reveals that our dogs are affected by how long we're gone.

With dogs in the house, returning home—from a day at work or a trip to the mailbox—is cause for celebration, a wagging tail, the gift of a ball at your feet or even a little dance. You’re home! You’re home! But have you ever wondered why some parties are bigger than others? 

 

Recently, two Swedish researchers discovered that how long we’re gone makes a difference. In their study (published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in January 2011), Therese Rehn and Linda J. Keeling videotaped individuals’ family dogs on three different occasions while they were at home alone for periods of a half-hour, two hours and four hours.

 

In each case, the dogs spent nearly all their time alone lying down. (Other studies have shown that in households with more than one dog, there’s less lying about when the humans are gone; there’s an approximately 12 percent difference in activity levels.) The key difference in behavior in this study came during the reunion: After the two- and four-hour separations, the dogs welcomed their humans with greater exuberance than after a half-hour absence— exhibiting more frequent lip-licking, body-shaking and tail-wagging.

 

According to Rehn and Keeling, the more intense greeting behavior may indicate a desire to reinstate the relationship and/or may be the animals shaking off stress. In any case, the important takeaway is that dogs are affected by the duration of their solo time. The study doesn’t reveal whether they are actually missing their humans, but it does suggest that dogs feel the time— and that has welfare implications we can’t ignore.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Here Comes the Bride... and Her Dog
From flower pups to well-heeled guests, dogs take their place in weddings
Travis Nichol and Ally Zenor with Allisdair.

On a sunny June day in 2004, Danny Branson and Kathy Buetow were playing fetch with their Australian Cattle Dogs when Branson pulled out his pocketknife and began slicing into one of the balls. “I looked over at him, wondering what the heck he was doing,” says Kathy Buetow (now Buetow Branson). He held the ball up to her ear and said there was something rattling inside and he had to find out what it was.

“What, are you kidding? You’re ruining a good tennis ball for something silly like that?” she said. Her surprise turned to annoyance when she saw that the ball was filled with stuffing. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t want the kids ingesting that fluff!’ Of course, it took me only a few minutes and the blinding flash of diamonds to realize— finally!—what he was up to.” (The dogs were unimpressed by the elaborate proposal and looked up as if to say, “Throw the ball again, already!”)

A few months later, one of the impatient bystanders, Colby, was a tuxedo-wearing ring bearer in the couple’s lakeside wedding. Even better, the dogs joined the newlyweds on a honeymoon road trip from their Sidney, Ill., home to the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America National Specialty competition in Del Mar, Calif.

Dogs in the wedding? It hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. Eighteen percent of dog owners have or would include dogs in their wedding, according to an American Kennel Club survey. The reality is that dogs have become members of the family, and as such, many people want them to be a part of this important ritual as well. They participate as attendants and guests. They pose for wedding photos. They dance and socialize at receptions. And even if they aren’t up to crowds or are prohibited by a venue, they are often included in photos, on invitations and in keepsakes.

Given all this dog love, we figured it was time for Bark to venture into wedding planning, collecting wisdom from the trenches on ways to be sure—or as sure as you can be—that your dog-friendly nuptials are a howling success.

1. Treat pups as more than accessories. As cute as they are, especially in flowers and bow ties, dogs are members of the family and deserve the same attention and consideration.

Claire and Meg DeMarco’s Boston Terrier, Lexi (aka Lexington Rosebud DeMarco), was much more than their flower girl. “We wrote our own ceremony with the help of our celebrant, and it included many references to our becoming a family—Lexi is the evidence of that, and there were several times when we looked over at her during the ceremony,” the DeMarcos say about their 2008 wedding in Boston. “It may sound cheesy, but she definitely knew something special and important was happening.”

Adopted from a foster family only months before, the two-year-old pup in a pink carnation lei rose to the occasion. Well-behaved throughout, she calmed the DeMarcos’ jitters before, during and after the ceremony.

2. Find the right job for your pup. Not all dogs will blossom as flower pups or carry on as ring bearers. Your wedding —that day of days—is not the time to have expectations that might not be met. You’re stressed, distracted and (from your dog’s point of view) dressed funny— all that could affect the way he behaves.

During Sandy Portella Nelson’s outdoor wedding at her home in Fort Myers, Fla., last year, her four Italian Greyhounds stayed out of sight throughout the ceremony and much of the reception. But after everyone had dined, and before the cake-cutting, the DJ turned up the volume on “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and Dillon, Hopi, Romeo and Basille came blasting down the stairs.

“The guests loved it!” Nelson says. “A lot of them had heard many stories of the gang, so this just filled out the picture, so to speak. In fact, when it was time to put the dogs back in the house, guests asked if I would let them stay out for just a while longer.”

3. Recruit dog-loving pros for your team —especially the photographer (see tip 7), officiant and planner.

“A lot of wedding planners don’t have any experience with pets,” says Colleen Paige, which means they can’t really address your dog’s needs. A behaviorist, trainer and lifestyle consultant in Portland, Ore., Paige got interested in weddings when her dog-behavior clients started saying things like “We really want to have Jonesy in our wedding, but he’s still a little bit too hyper. What can we do to make sure he’ll walk down the aisle without a hitch?”

In her two-year-old company, The Wedding Dog, she combines her training expertise with full-on, dog-themed event planning. She’ll spend months preparing a dog for a trouble-free performance, find a baker to recreate the groom’s favorite pooch in cake and set up dog play zones for four-legged guests. Plus, she has a line of canine wedding couture.

Ironically, Paige’s first multi-species wedding featured a pet pot-bellied pig as ring bearer. “No one expected her to stop at every aisle and start eating the flowers,” she says. “It was crazy hysterical.”

4. If a dog is in the ceremony, include him in a rehearsal. “My original plan was to have Draven, my German Shepherd Dog, hold the basket in his mouth and have the flower girl walk alongside tossing the flowers,” says Marisa Capozzo-Schmidt, who was married at Annunciation Church in Crestwood, N.Y., in September 2007. “But Draven just wouldn’t hold it the whole way down the aisle, so we had them walk together, and she held a wreath of flowers. You need to be very flexible when working with dogs and kids!”

A director of product development at Fetch … for Cool Pets, Capozzo- Schmidt had a very special bond with Draven, whom she had rescued 10 years before. “He was tied to a tree and left for dead. I nursed him back and he’s been with me ever since,” she says. During the vows, Draven looked on from a special brown blanket with his name and the date stitched on a corner in pink.

5. Recognize that when a dog is involved, preparations, rehearsals and planning don’t guarantee perfection. The night before Shirley Newby tied the knot with Doug Tate in Waubaushene, Ontario, they did a dry run in the nearly empty United Church. Her granddaughter/flower girl walked down the aisle with Newby’s Briard, Amanda, without a hitch.

But on the big day, Amanda’s people-friendly nature took over. She not only stopped at every pew to greet the people, she also stepped on the flower girl’s dress, nearly tipping her over. “I’m so glad I didn’t see it,” Newby-Tate says. “I would have had a heart attack.”

6. Exercise restraint and compassion in accessorizing your dog. When Carrie Underwood married hockey pro Mike Fisher last summer, her Rat Terrier, Ace, wore a Swarovski crystal– encrusted pink tuxedo. If you’re a bling-loving country diva, this is understandable. But sometimes, overdressed dogs strike a campy or comic chord that may not fit the tone of this important day. Other considerations are your dog’s comfort (so she’s not obsessed with wriggling free) and safety (beware of accessories that could choke or poison a mouthy pup).

Eighteen years ago, when Debi Lampert-Rudman was planning her wedding, she brought her tricolor Cocker Spaniel, BonBon, with her on visits to her veil maker. BonBon was a gift from Debi’s fiancé, and meant a great deal to her. Seeing this, the veil maker suggested she include the dog in the wedding. This was well before the proliferation of formal wear for dogs.

The woman created a tulle collar with pink ribbons from some of the bride’s veil material, as well as a satin lead that matched her wedding dress. It was a meaningful gesture, and “BonBon was still herself,” Lampert-Rudman says; BonBon’s collar is among the mementoes of the event.

7. Select a dog-loving wedding photographer. For many of the brides we talked to, wedding photos featuring their dogs were hands-down favorites. And, because we tend to outlive our dogs, these images go on to be significant mementoes. You want a photographer who will bring the same spirit of joy and professionalism to capturing the dogs in the wedding as he or she does to the rest of the wedding party.

“What I carry around in my camera bag when I have a dog wedding is a squeaky,” says Pamela Duffy, who’s based in Sedona, Ariz. “I don’t tell anyone I have it, and when I start doing the portrait with the bride and groom and the dog or dogs, I usually revert to that because the dogs seem to lose interest.” She knows that weddings offer dogs a lot of distractions, so she holds the squeaker in her shutter finger, which usually means that the dog will be looking straight into the camera when she takes the shot.

A former photojournalist in New York City, Duffy fell into wedding photography when she moved to Sedona. Her style attracted those who were planning intimate, creative weddings, and it wasn’t long before a couple asked if their dogs could come. Once she put images from a wedding with dogs on her website, more couples sought her out.

Her first reaction to including a dog was based on how her own dog might behave. “My dog won’t always do exactly what I want. When people would say, ‘Do you mind if our dog brings the rings up?’ I’d say, ‘Will your dog really come on command?’” she remembers, laughing.

8. Appoint a designated dog wrangler. Unless the event is very small and informal, wedding couples have a lot on their minds, and it’s not smart to add keeping track of a dog to the list. Take the pressure off everyone by hiring a dog sitter, who can take the dogs out for a brisk, energy-consuming walk before the ceremony, keep them out of the canapés, and whisk them home or to a quiet retreat after the photos but before the band gets rowdy.

When Ally Zenor married Travis Nichol in Woodinville, Wash., in October 2009, she asked her friend Lindsey to be the official “Bearer of the Ring Bearer”—the ring bearer being the couple’s adorable West Highland Terrier, Allisdair.

“Lindsey put in extra time because she was not a big dog person,” Zenor says. “That was her stepping out of her comfort zone. It was important to her to get to know him. What made it successful is that Lindsey was invested in making him her date.”

Allisdair behaved himself, including refraining from barking at a bagpiper, which could have set off a howling chorus; he was, in fact, so calm that he fell asleep during the ceremony.

9. Have a backup plan. When Leesa Storfer married Scott Sidman on the beach in Provincetown, Mass., in July 2009, her Briard, Dolce, was her ring bearer, transporting the rings in a pouch attached to a pearl necklace around her neck. Storfer’s sister-in-law was escorting Dolce, but once the dog “saw the beach and me nowhere in sight, she pulled my sister-in-law so fast and furiously that she fell face-forward into the sand,” Storfer says. “Needless to say, she was not happy.” Storfer’s big, strong brotherin- law took charge of Dolce, who pranced down the aisle and then patiently awaited the bride.

A good back-up plan should include a place for your dog to escape the hustle and bustle, such as a room, a pen or even a crate, and/or someone to take him home, if needed.

10. Understand your dog’s temperament. Some dogs do better attending in spirit. Whether your dog’s personality isn’t a good match for the ceremony or reception, or you just can’t bring her, there are other ways to be sure she’s included. For example, she can be featured in a customized cake topper or a dog-themed lapel pin. (See “The Details.”) Another option: engagement photos with dogs make for eyecatching announcements and save-the-date cards.

Juliana and Justin Caton of Redmond, Wash., weren’t confident that their dogs, Jake and Alli, were up to a wedding. They were particularly worried that Jake— one of a litter of puppies they fostered and then adopted from the Seattle Humane Society—might be too excitable. So, they initially opted to include the pups in an engagement photo shoot with dog/wedding photographer Amelia Soper. They chose the Marymoor off-leash area as the setting because “we love going there; it’s our dogs’ version of Disneyland.”

In the end, the Catons overcame their concerns and included both Alli and Jake in the wedding in nearby Bothell. A friend escorted them. “He was giving them a little pep talk down the aisle,” Juliana remembers. “Everyone really liked it—they were laughing.” The dogs stuck around for photos, then were whisked home by a professional walker immediately après ceremony.

11. Consider eloping— with the dogs. Small, informal, outdoor weddings are a great fit for even the shyest dogs. When Lisa and Louis Ferrugiaro eloped to a dog-friendly bed and breakfast in West Cape May, N.J., in September 2008, they imagined that their dogs —Lola, a 13-year old Chinese Crested, and Gus, a 7-year-old Italian Greyhound—plus the mayor, who performed the ceremony, would comprise the entire wedding party. In the end, they were required to have two additional human witnesses, so the B&B owner’s 87-year-old mother and another guest joined the party. The newlyweds and their pups celebrated by taking a long walk through town and down to the beach.

There are as many ways to include dogs in your big day as there are mirrors on a disco ball. Take the time to find the best way to celebrate their special role.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Four Dogs and a Wedding
An intimate wedding on a dog-friendly beach

Molly McNamara met Jeff McGlynn in obedience class when her Bearded Collie, Max, “dragged me across the room to meet him,” she says. McGlynn attended with his laidback St. Bernard, Cujo. With the dogs as matchmakers there was no doubt they’d be present for the wedding four years later—along with a three-month-old Bearded Collie puppy named Stanley.

  The couple lives in San Jose, where she’s an analytical chemist and he’s in software sales, and they decided to tie the knot at a favorite dog-friendly getaway in Mendocino. With individual cottages, a leash-free meadow and a private dog beach, The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek was a laidback setting for an intimate wedding with four friends and a Golden Retriever. Dogs almost outnumbered people at this affair.   They small group gathered for vows on the beach, which ended with some off-leash romping in the surf. “The dogs sat there through the whole thing and then they were like, ‘OK can we run around?’” McNamara says. After champagne back at the cottage, the wedding party went out to dinner and the dogs slept off the day of hard play.   “I think it was perfect,” McNamara says about featuring the dogs so prominently in her wedding. “I blame Max for changing my life. He brought me the love of my life.” A serious agility competitor, she also “blames” Max for turning her into an Ironman triathlete. “I was trying to keep up with him.”   After the wedding, the new family of five took a 6,000 mile road trip to Warwick, R.I., to visit McGlynn’s family.

 

Dog's Life: Humane
Gateway Pet Guardians
Rescuing neglected dogs from neglected streets

On the edge of the American Rust Belt, the once-prosperous city of East St. Louis, Ill., collapsed with industry in the 1960s and ’70s. Anyone with means moved away, siphoning off more than half the city’s population. Those who remain live in a landscape of fallendown buildings, burned-out houses, strip clubs and urban prairie with one of the highest crime rates in the country and countless free-roaming pet dogs and unwanted strays, nearly none of whom are spayed or neutered.

Although she was born in the city during its heyday, PJ Hightower has lived in St. Louis, Mo., for more than 30 years, and she rarely had cause to wander the dilapidated neighborhoods across the Mississippi River, until the route to her sister’s new home took Hightower through the heart of the street dogs’ territory. She began carrying food in her car on visits and going out of her way to deliver it to the dogs, eventually making trips for the sole purpose of feeding them. “It’s just one of those things that sort of mushroomed,” Hightower says. This was in 1995.

She progressed from simply feeding the strays — she hasn’t missed a single day since 2001 — to rescuing dogs in need, sometimes working with other rescue organizations, although more often on her own and with the help of friends and neighbors.

“She takes the same route every single day,” says Amie Simmons, president of Gateway Pet Guardians, the nonprofit organization formed in 2004 to support and expand Hightower’s efforts. “The dogs know she is going to be there. They hear her car and come running.”

Dribble, Nigel, Nina, Nigella, Hank, Aaron, Spelling, Bea, Arthur, Malcolm, Show Me, Blondie and on and on. “She has names for all of them. It’s like she has 200 pets,” says longtime volunteer Rebecca Ormond, who recently directed a documentary about the group called Gateway Guardians (see endnote).

Hightower pours kibble from 50- pound bags onto dry sidewalk or pavement and dispenses giant biscuits (and rubs, to those who will let her). In the summer, she brings clean water, which she’ll set out in cut-off plastic milk jugs. During these visits, she also monitors the dogs — keeping an eye out for trouble, such as when she first spotted Nigella with a flea collar so tight she couldn’t eat. Hightower managed to catch the dog and clip the collar.

“She knows everything about these dogs,” says Gateway executive director Jamie Case. “She knows medical history, heat cycles, where they came from, whose mom is whose, how many litters they’ve had over their lifetimes. That was the incredible thing to me — her knowledge. They’re like her family members.”

Hightower says she’s almost never afraid of the dogs. The day before we talked, she had spied an unfamiliar Pit Bull curled on a loveseat that had been dumped on the sidewalk. “I thought, I’ll just kind of see what’s going on,” Hightower says. “So I start to walk and I could just see his face but I could tell he was doing a total body wiggle … he was super friendly. I put the food on the [nearby] mattress … and before he even wanted to start eating, he wanted to be petted. He was so thin, it broke my heart.”

The East St. Louis strays suffer many of the plagues afflicting strays in the developing world — starvation; tick and flea infestations; heartworm; mange; parvo; cruelty at the hands of humans; attacks by other dogs; and TVT, a sexually transmitted venereal tumor that is usually only found in chronic stray populations. When a dog is too sick to survive on the street, an animal has been beaten up, or a new litter of puppies is born, Gateway Pet Guardians puts out the call for fosters (the organization has no shelter). Then Hightower rescues them, sometimes following them into manholes without first planning how to get out, or slips leashes on dogs who’ve never worn them, or dons long leather gloves and crawls on all fours in dark and decrepit buildings. She avoids breaking up adult packs — she’s seen pack mates left behind who suffer or disappear. With a shelter, the organization could rescue groups of dogs.

Gateway rescues an average of 100 dogs per year, although by mid-June 2010, they’d already pulled 90 dogs off the street — mostly puppies. Illinois law prohibits spaying strays and re-releasing them. Sometimes Hightower persuades residents to let her take free-roaming, “owned” dogs to be altered.

Reaction in the community is mixed. “I’ve never encountered anyone being negative toward us in all the time I’ve ridden [with PJ],” executive director Case says. “There are people who wave every single time they see us driving, and they’re like ‘Hey, it’s the dog lady.’ But then there are people who think we’re the problem. If we didn’t feed [the dogs] they would just die and there wouldn’t be a problem anymore. They don’t realize it’s a never-ending cycle.”

St. Clair County Animal Services director Jim Jacquot, who’s not familiar with Gateway Pet Guardians, says feeding strays, even with the best intent, can create problems, such as inspiring dogs to congregate in certain areas. But, like animal control departments around the country, he lacks the facilities, budget and people-power to tackle the enormous problem. With less than one-fifth of the county’s population, East St. Louis is the source of a large number of dogs — 2,500 to 3,000 a year — that end up in the county animal control.

There’s a definite gap on the ground. “We’re a couple of white ladies going over to a predominantly black community; there is what I consider to be a pretty large communication barrier. I guess I’m naïve. I thought with my background in social work … that I could go in and talk to just about anybody. But I have conversations with people … and we’re not even having the same conversation.”

Simmons and Case are developing strategies to open up a dialogue, beginning by reaching out to neighborhood churches. They’re hoping the documentary, which features people from the community, will also help bridge the gap.

In addition to developing spay/neuter outreach, Gateway is ramping up foster recruitment and fundraising to cover rising expenses (veterinary costs were $22,000 from January to June 2010, with adoption fees covering only $8,000) and to build a shelter. The goal: Move from a one-woman crusade to a sustainable effort.

It sounds like they have some time to complete the transition. Talking to Hightower late one night — the only moment she could spare in a busy day made busier by seven rescue puppies with parvo — she hardly sounds ready to stop her rounds. “It’s just a part of my morning,” Hightower says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m sick, if the weather’s bad. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are; I’m gonna go.”

Gateway Guardians

For ten months, Gateway Pet Guardians’ founder PJ Hightower and volunteers used little pink flipcams to capture an intimate view of their work with East St. Louis stray and feral dogs. Hightower concocted a variety of ways to keep her pinhole camera at her waist as she fed, tended and rescued the street dogs — including a little jean pocket with a lens hole that she pinned to her clothes each morning and a pair of old pants with Velcro strips on them. The results can be seen in Gateway Guardians: A Documentary, which premiered at the 10th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in July, where it won the St. Louis Film Critics Association’s Humanitarian Award. The film will also be shown in the Webster University Film Series (St. Louis) on Oct. 10 and the Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival in Nov. 9, and in other festivals during the course of the year. Buy the video ($20) or find screening details at gatewaypetguardians.com. All film profits benefit Gateway Pet Guardians.

Culture: DogPatch
Dog Tattoos
Canine co-pilots inspire a range of tattoo tributes

At a waterpark last summer, I counted a dozen suburban moms with tattoos dotting their ankles, necks and lower backs. It was, for me, a watershed tally. What I’d been reading in trend stories for years finally sank in: Tattooing is mainstream.

According to tattoo artists I’ve talked to since, average Joes and Janes have been going under the needle for decades, but popular TV reality shows such as Miami Ink have revved the phenomena like a Harley engine. Some estimates put the number of tattooed Americans at one in seven. A Pew Research Center poll released last year revealed that four in 10 Gen Xers sport at least one tatt and 36 percent of all Gen Nexters (the oldest of whom just turned 26) have begun blazing a body-art trail that should put them on track to eclipse their elders.

So, when a nearly photographic likeness of a Pug permanently inked into DeAnna Miller’s arm arrived in my inbox—apropos of nothing and shortly after my waterpark revelation—it seemed natural to wonder: Where exactly are our dogs in all of this?

A few strategically sent emails to tattoo-savvy associates revealed a simple truth: Roll up the pant leg or draw back the sleeve of a tattoo-loving dog person and you’re likely to discover everything from Kanji-script dog names to painterly canine portraits.

“It’s relatively new,” says C.W. (Chuck) Eldridge, a tattooist who researches and documents tattoo history and is the owner of the Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Dog portraits in the past weren’t really popular. Now it’s actually quite common. Not just dogs, but cats, snakes and birds. You name it. You know how people love their pets.”

Kelly McGuire was a tattoo-free zone (a “virgin” in parlor parlance), when she entered a Topeka tattoo shop seven years ago, soon after the unexpected death of Geisha, her five-year-old Pug. Geisha was the first dog of McGuire’s to die, and the loss was devastating. “It killed me. I cried every day,” she says. With her husband’s encouragement, McGuire got a tattoo of Geisha’s face on her arm. “All of a sudden, it felt like a weight was lifted off me. I felt so much better.”

Though McGuire tells me that she thinks her story sounds weird, she’s neither weird nor unique. Several people, including a woman who added a smidge of her late dogs’ ashes to her tattoo ink, described tremendous grief relief after getting a memorial tattoo.

The mere idea of her dog’s mortality drove Janet Beeby, a canine massage practitioner and avid agility competitor, to a tattoo shop. “As she was getting older, I was starting to get very panicked,” Beeby says about her 10-year-old Kerry Blue Terrier, Gabby. “She’s been an amazing partner to me.”

Gabby—the first Kerry Blue to earn a master’s agility champion title—inspired a rock star design. In the tattoo, she leaps through a bright red collar (her signature “jewelry”) on Beeby’s thigh. “The idea was, I’ll have Gabby on my lap for the rest of my life,” Beeby says. It’s a portrait, but in a bold, illustration-style. “My non-doggy friends are like, ‘I guess you’re the only one with that tattoo,’” Beeby says. “My doggy friends are like, ‘that’s hot!’”

DeAnna Miller, whose Pugsley Ann portrait inspired my tattoo odyssey, says, “Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who want to pet my arm.”

Probably the best-known dog in American tattoo history is the United States Marine Corps bulldog. When World War I German fighters referred to the Marines as “Devil Dogs,” a smart flack at the Corps created a recruiting poster featuring an English Bulldog running down an Iron Cross–wearing Dachshund. Just as actual Bulldogs were adopted as mascots, jowly Devil Dogs in helmets turned up on Marine biceps everywhere.

“That’s probably the most famous dog in tattooing. Snoopy might be next,” Eldridge says. “All the cartoon dogs, the comic dogs are quite common.”
On the darker side, in shops across the country, flash sheets (sample tattoo art) feature growling, salivating Pit Bulls in spiked collars with messages like “Only the Strong Survive.” At their best, these urban tattoos are a bid for street cred. At their worst, they reflect the criminal underworld of dog fighting.

Often inspired by Native American stories, wolves, coyotes and wild dogs are also on the list of standard icons. “The wolf howling at the moon in silhouette is a classic tattoo design,” Eldridge says. A wolf is wrapped in the roots of a tree of life in Melissa Lynch’s tattoo. “The wolf for me isn’t necessarily the wolf. It represents all dogs,” says Lynch, a private dog trainer. “Wolves are very family oriented—loyal and strong. My roots wrap around that.”

With long blond dreadlocks, Lynch isn’t afraid of attracting attention, and she put the striking black-and-gray tattoo between her shoulder blades for a reason. “I wanted everybody to see it,” she says. “So they ask me about it, and then I can talk to them about rescue and shelter and adoption and training.”
Tamara Sellers works at Shaggy Pines Dog Park in Michigan, and is also equally happy to display her calf tattoo when she wears shorts. The cartoon-style portraits of her Vizsla, Labrador and Weimaraner dotted with green and purple paw prints—Shaggy Pines’ colors—runs from her ankle almost to her knee. The tattoo cost $300 and took a Grand Rapids tattooist five hours. That’s a good deal; $100 per hour plus tip was the average cost for most of the folks I interviewed. But five hours is a long time for a single sitting.

“It hurts, but it’s not painful where you think you’re going to die,” Sellers says. “The day after was worse. I felt like I had a huge road-rash down my leg.” But she’s thrilled to have a memento of her dogs while they are alive and someday, after they are gone. “When I look at the tattoo when they’re gone, I can remember when I still had them. It was a good time in my life.”

An image of a particular dog isn’t for everyone. “I was afraid to get a portrait,” says Karen Mountain, owner of Bark Natural Pet Care. “I’m afraid [the tattoo artist] won’t capture what I see.” The names of her dogs, Boone and Bubba, are framed by the outlines of bones on her ankles. To mark Boone’s death, she added a tipped halo over one end of the bone. She hasn’t decided what more she’ll do for Bubba, her Staffordshire Terrier mix who sleeps in the storefront window most days. She only knows that she’ll need some sort of tattoo within the first week after he’s gone.

Of the nearly 15 dog-inspired tattoos I tracked down and the dozens more I saw in artists’ galleries, only one included a person with the dog. “I drew it with a Sharpie on a piece of paper and took it into a tattoo parlor,” says Ali Johnson, describing her first—and right now, only—tattoo. The 30-minute, $30 ankle art is as simple as it sounds—a stick figure person with a ponytail running with a stick figure dog.

Johnson decided she wanted a tattoo to celebrate running three half-marathons, all of which she trained for with an Australian Shepherd named Osa. “She ran the 13-mile training run, came home and dropped a ball at my feet like, ‘What’s up with you?’” says Johnson, who quit graduate studies in biochemistry at Duke University to become a dog trainer and now owns Kinship Dog Training.

“The tattoo stands for a lot of the things I care about—that I partner with my dogs and that I care about my health and theirs,” Johnson says. “I didn’t put a leash in it because I wanted to show that we chose to be together.”

 

Dog's Life: Humane
White Whiskers Welcome
Old Dog Haven accommodates senior dogs

It’s not easy to catch up with Judith Piper, founder and executive director of Old Dog Haven (ODH). She reschedules our first interview when one of her charges starts having grand mal seizures and another needs immediate treatment for glaucoma. The following week, she cancels when a tumor sidelines a pup named Pearl.

So, even before meeting the 15 mature dogs on Piper’s five acres north of Seattle, I have a pretty good idea that rescuing homeless seniors is a more-than-full-time vocation. What I’m not prepared for is how Piper—dressed in fleece, sweatpants and sneakers—gives herself fully to the moment. Talking about her work, she betrays no impatience. She introduces each dog: A Spaniel named Byron may have Cushing’s disease, a little black mutt named Jet has flunked out of several adoptions, a yellow Lab named Malik has Horner’s syndrome, a Cocker named Biscuit is “a little bastard” and so on, until I have stroked nearly every graying head.

Inside, the décor is “donated dog bed,” and everyone quickly settles onto a soft surface. Only one dog fails to join in the greetings. Off in the kitchen, a Terrier-mix named Snoop sleeps on a bed. He’s a recent arrival—underweight, with untreated dry-eye, ear problems, and terrible skin and fur. “I think he’s going to be a short-termer,” Piper says sadly. “He’s just not here.” She confides later that cases like Snoop’s, when she can’t provide even a few hours of real contact before death, are the most difficult.

Talking in terms of hours is not your typical rescue timeframe. But Old Dog Haven isn’t typical. It’s one of only a handful of organizations around the country that focuses exclusively on the unique challenges of old dogs. With the help of 148 foster homes and 62 volunteers up and down Western Washington, the three-year-old nonprofit provided placement assistance, assisted living and “Final Refuge” (hospice care) for as many as 400 eight-and-older dogs last year; about 85 percent are Final Refuge dogs.

Although Piper and her husband, Lee, who is a key collaborator in the organization despite a full-time job, always had space for rescue and shelter dogs in the past, it wasn’t until a few years ago that they became aware of the particular plight of old dogs. In 2004, a friend asked them to save an ailing oldster named Liza, who had been dumped at a shelter. In a loving home, Liza rebounded, and though she didn’t live long, she had some happy days. It took only a few more elderly shelter dogs for the Pipers to realize that it wasn’t all that rare for people to abandon an old companion, and to see that in shelters, these dogs were passed over for adoption. At some point, they looked at each other and said, “You know, this is the pits. They can’t be dying like this.”

Piper sold the tack store she’d run for 18 years to dedicate herself to the mission of providing quality of life for old dogs for as long as possible and then letting them go surrounded by friends rather than alone in a concrete cell. In 2005, news stories about her fledgling group drew calls for help from as far away as Florida. “Be careful what you ask for,” Piper says, as the dog in her lap—Alice, a 14-year-old deaf Schnauzer with four teeth—looks on adoringly with her only eye.

“She is an amazing person who has focused on a population that most would rather forget,” says Kathleen Olson, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society, which operates the busiest shelter in Western Washington. Old Dog Haven rarely takes dogs from owners, although it will post notices on its site for owners who need to rehome old dogs. Mostly, ODH takes in those faring poorly at shelters or on euthanasia shortlists. As many as 75 Pierce County dogs find homes through Old Dog Haven each year.

“It’s hard to think about the hundreds of dogs who would have died in shelters by themselves if it hadn’t been for Judith,” says Ron Kerrigan, a longtime shelter volunteer on Washington’s Whidbey Island. He runs the ODH website (which is key to placement and fostering efforts) and serves on the board. He and his partner live with nine old dogs—including Calypso, who is blind and deaf.

After making a career out of taking in dogs no one else would adopt (including more than a few “psychos”), Kerrigan’s switch to ODH’s Final Haven dogs has required a change of mindset. “We do it to give them a place to die in a loving home,” he says. “We don’t do it to have pets.”

On the other end of the Old Dog Haven volunteer spectrum is Lisa Black. She has two traditional rescues, plus a Final Refuge Pointer named Betty and an elderly mystery-mix foster named Lucy (for whom she finds a new home within days). Black lives and breathes the faith that these can be the best years of a dog’s life.

“They are easy,” Black says. “They’re usually housebroken. They don’t chew your stuff. If you want to take them for a walk, they’re ready to go. But if you want to hang out at home, they’re happy to do that too.”

Piper’s phone rings frequently, and during my visit, she lets the machine take messages. But when her cell phone sounds, she answers it. A new dog has been diagnosed with a grade-4 heart murmur. As the main contact for more than 130 dogs in ODH care, she is a seasoned sounding board and fairly expert on geriatric health.

“The great thing about Judith is that she has so much practical hands-on experience,” says Julie Nowicki, who volunteered for ODH before launching a national senior dog advocacy group, The Grey Muzzle Organization, in May 2008. Because Piper is so immersed, she is often a better judge of an old dog’s condition than many vets, according to Nowicki.

“By the time we get them, it can be years and years of neglect,” Piper says. Sometimes their guardians were too old to manage. Other times, aging pets’ special needs (and accidents) overwhelm their people both financially and emotionally. Unlike shelters, which vary greatly in the information they gather, ODH makes sure their dogs receive thorough checkups, blood and urine analyses, dental exams and treatment, and sometimes ophthalmology exams. The group has even financed open-heart surgery and eyelid lifts. Piper has a standing veterinary appointment every day of the week, and the organization’s bills can run $20,000 a month.

One-eyed Alice switches to my lap as talk turns to the future. Piper admits that the 18-hour days are catching up with her. Even as her organization has accomplished so much so quickly, she sees problems for old dogs exacerbated by the recession.

“Right now is a disaster,” Piper says. “I’m getting calls about every two hours from people wanting to surrender their dogs. At least half to two-thirds of those are, ‘I lost my house. I lost my job. I can’t keep my dog.’ It’s really hard—I get these people who are just hysterical, and I don’t have any more batteries in my magic wand.”

She has learned to say no. She has also had to counsel some people that euthanizing an old dog in the company of loving familiars is far kinder than dumping him at a shelter, where he will most likely be put down alone after days or weeks of stress and discomfort.

After a couple of weeks, I e-mail Judith to check up on poor old Snoop. I’m expecting the worst. “He’s actually doing better!” she replies. “Getting much brighter ... started eating everything in sight last week … seems to be enjoying himself … and gives tiny little kisses and tail wags every so often.”

It looks like there’s still a little power in her wand after all.
 

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