First Lady Michelle Obama talks with us about two of her favorite subjects—healthy children and a happy dog.
Bark: Have you discussed walking or playing with dogs as a part of “Let’s Move” and the fight against childhood obesity in the United States? Do you see children’s relationships with their dogs as playing a role in this aspect of their health?
Michelle Obama: Through Let’s Move! we encourage families to find creative ways to stay active whether it’s through riding their bikes, walking together or dancing to music at home. For our family, having Bo has taught our girls about being responsible because Malia and Sasha are charge of taking care of him when they get home from school. And since Bo is an energetic dog, I know that when the girls take him out for his nightly walk they also run around and play outside with him.
B: Many studies have looked at the health and social benefits to dog ownership, including that walking with a dog increases the time spent in that activity and the degree of commitment to it, have you seen evidence of this in your own family?
MO: Bo has been such a positive addition for our family. I think of him as my third child because we all love him so much. Whether we’re teaching him how to roll over, swimming with him in the summer, or watching him greet kids who are visiting the White House, he constantly keeps us smiling.
B: Where does Bo sleep? Does he have a favorite trick/ behavior that your family finds especially endearing?
MO: Most nights Bo can be found sleeping in one of the girls’ rooms. I’m proud to say he is a really smart dog and is known for his tricks, but it is the simple things he does like climbing up in our laps to cuddle that we love the most.
Dog's Life: Humane
We talk with organizers of the Best Friend’s Society 2012 No More Homeless Pets conference to be held in Las Vegas, Oct. 25 to 28. Learn how to part of the solution— attend this important and informative conference.
Q. How did the No More Homeless Pets Conference come about?
A. The No More Homeless Pets Conference is legendary in its ability to bring together like-minded people who want to make a proactive, sustainable change for companion animals. Its sponsor, Best Friends Animal Society was founded on this premise. In the beginning, their origins were as grassroots as they could get. They saw the problem—stray, abandoned, neglected and abused animals—and created a sanctuary. They provided the local animal care and control around Kanab, including Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. When we say they built the Sanctuary, they did everything from creating the blueprints for the specialized buildings to physically constructing the buildings.
While building the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary, they also started sharing the information on how they were able to work better and smarter for the animals People from different countries, socioeconomic and education backgrounds came together and dove headfirst into working to realize a time of No More Homeless Pets. The conference was a next logical step in bringing these like-minded people together. The conference started more than 10 years ago with about 250 attendees. Last year’s had more than 1,300 attendees.
Q. How important is sharing success stories at the conference? Does it help to build a sense of community?
A. Sharing success stories is very important. From the very beginning the emphasis on hope and solutions is what attracted supporters to Best Friends and shaped the editorial content of its magazine and website.
From its start, No More Homeless Pets Conference has carried the message that ending the killing of adoptable, treatable animals is absolutely a goal that can be achieved. The sharing of the successes and innovations from across the U.S., Canada and other countries is one of the hallmarks of the conference and what keeps people coming back.
Q. Is there a long-term strategy or a multi-tiered plan to solving the problem—addressing key links in the process, such as, transportation, fostering, training—to reduce the number of pets who enter shelters?
A. All of these are important components. Each community has its own unique needs list so community-based solutions that look at the local needs and how to devise strategies that address those needs are best.
For instance consider the success of the city of Calgary in Alberta. Bill Bruce, director of Animal Services there, has approached ending the killing of shelter animals with a top-down, integrated community-policy approach. The department is funded entirely by pet-licensing fees and animal-regulation enforcement fines. A pet license is $30 for a fixed dog and $52 for an unaltered canine, and registration can be done online, in person and even at the bank. To encourage compliance, a fine for not licensing a dog is $250.They focus on public education about responsible pet ownership, pet-licensing compliance and addressing as many animal issues as possible out in the community before the animals become shelter problems. Bill has turned the “dog catcher” into a genuinely helpful community animal care resource.
The return-to-owner rate for cats in the U.S. is a miserable 2 percent. In Calgary, 49 percent of cats are returned to their owners and 29 percent are adopted. That’s a 78 percent save rate. An amazing 90 percent of dogs are returned to their owners in Calgary, 9 percent of impounded dogs are adopted and only 5 percent are put down.
More impressive still is the fact that Calgary accomplishes this with no taxpayer dollars at all, which protects animal services and the animals from political wrangling over budget cuts and economic trends.
Q. What changes have you seen in public awareness of adoption and rescue, spaying and neutering and are you seeing an impact?
A. When the No-Kill Movement first started about 17 million animals were being killed in the nation's shelters. That number is still about 4 million, a number that is not acceptable.
Best Friends started the first statewide coalition of rescue groups and shelters in Utah in 2000. Over 46,000 animals were euthanized in shelters throughout the state (1999 baseline). Today, that number has decreased by 49%. This year twelve communities achieved a 90% or higher “save rate” for the first 6 months of 2012. And slightly more than ten other communities were in the 80-89% range for the same period. In New Hampshire, Peter Marsh was a founder of Solutions to Overpopulation of Pets, the group that spearheaded the establishment of publicly funded pet-sterilization programs in that state. During the first six years after the programs were established, shelter euthanasia rates dropped by 75 percent and have been maintained at that level since that time. For more than 15 years, Peter has helped animal care and control agencies, humane organizations and advocacy groups establish effective shelter overpopulation programs in their communities. Marsh’s analysis of the impact of targeted spay/neuter services states that spaying or neutering five animals per 1,000 people in low-income areas will reduce shelter intake by as much as 33 percent over a five-year period. Jacksonville, Florida, reduced shelter intake by 23 percent in four years, and New Hampshire reduced shelter intake by 33.6 percent in six years. In Los Angeles the NKLA (No Kill Los Angeles) imitative is a coalition close to 50 local rescue groups Through the first five months of 2012, there has been a 15.7 percent reduction in the number of animals euthanized at LA city animal shelters—that’s 1,080 less in the first five months of the year compared to the same period in 2011. On top of that, the Coalition partners alone (separate of Best Friends or Los Angele Animal Services) placed 426 more animals than last year so far from January through June
Q. What are some of the success stories and evolutions of no-kill communities?
A. Here are four success stories, among the very many, that we are proud of.
1. Cheryl Wicks, founder of Sammie's Friends in Grass Valley, California, in 2000, Cheryl moved to the foothill area after living for decades in the fast-paced corporate world. She went to her local animal shelter to begin volunteering and found that not only were they killing 68 percent of the animals, she was also their only volunteer. In ’02, she attended the No More Homeless Pets Conference and received important information to help take her work to the next level. So she set about putting together a volunteer program and then things started going in the right direction. With the help of social networking, she was able to rally 100 people who wanted to end the killing of healthy pets in her community.
To help raise money for the sick and injured animals, Cheryl started a 501(c)(3). She was looking to change the overriding mentality toward animals from being “killable” to being “adoptable.” The organization she named Sammie’s Friends, after her very special Shar-Pei, Sammie, was on a roll. In ’07, she approached the city to run the shelter. It took two years, but in ’09, Sammie’s Friends officially took over the animal control contract.
Sammie’s Friends, now running the municipal animal control shelter, euthanizes less than one percent of the animals.
Cheryl explains, "After I attended my first No More Homeless Pets Conference, it made me start thinking, ‘What can I do to get animals out of the shelter?’ It made me realize the animals are the clients, and we’ve got to do everything we can on their behalf."
2. Zach Skow, founder of Marley’s Mutts in Kern County, California, had been a volunteer with Best Friends’ Los Angeles programs for a few years when he went to his first No More Homeless Pets Conference in ’09. He went because he wanted to learn how to do more for the animals.
“Going to the conference is like going to spring training for sports teams. You hone your skills by learning from the best. We learned how to expand our foster network to save more lives,” shares Zach.
While Zach has attended other animal welfare conferences, he said none has come close to this conference in terms of the quality and accessibility of the speakers and the feeling of camaraderie the event cultivates. He went back to California with “a renewed vigor and (motivation) to take lifesaving to the next level.”
3. Denise Bitz, founder of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville, North Carolina, is coming to this year’s conference, which features sessions that are divided into seven main tracks: building a no-kill community, marketing, keeping pets out of shelters, adoption and fostering, fundraising, animal care and behavior, and new solutions to old problems. She says, “The tracks allow you to take exactly what you need in areas that can use the most improvement.”
Denise cites shelter enrichment (creating a mentally stimulating environment for her charges) as something she was able to put into practice after attending a previous year’s conference. Lessons she learned continue to pay off as well, including mailing and marketing techniques.
4. The Fetch Foundation’s founder, Marie Peck, had an epiphany: “The first time I was at the conference, it was overwhelming. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be with your people. I learned the best lesson: Be nice. It sounds simple, but it changed everything. From the quality of volunteers to the quality of donations, when we changed our attitude, our ability to do more just opened up.”
The Fetch Foundation is a “boutique rescue,” pulling dogs who are good candidates for search and rescue from shelters. But sometimes they get hit with an unexpected situation, like a hoarding case, and the information they learned at the conference is invaluable in helping them place multiple animals.
Q. What are the top things that people who support the cause can do on their own?
A. Become a supporter of Best Friends Animal Society and your donations support innovative grassroots programs including spay/neuter and TNR (trap/neuter/return) programs, promoting shelter adoptons, fighitng breed-discrimnatory laws and puppy mills, educate the public, holding major adoption events, and conducting large and small- scale animal rescues.
Q. Can you give us a preview of this year’s conference, what are you most excited about?
A. We’re excited for the sessions geared toward people who aren’t necessarily deeply involved in animal welfare but who want to make a difference in their communities. We’re featuring some unique success stories of individuals who have taken the initiative in their communities to help animals and have made a big impact—from creating multi- group adoption events, to helping promote spay/neuter programs, to starting programs that help lost pets find their homes, to programs that provide temporary foster to keep pets out of shelters when their people are in temporary crisis. Leading a community to no-kill often seems like a daunting task, but it can start with one individual, one program or one idea. Often these are ordinary individuals who have achieved extraordinary results for the animals, and we're excited to be showcasing many of these individuals at our conference.
We would love to hear from Bark readers about success stories on how their shelter, rescue group, spay/neuter program etc. is helping to move the needle toward no-kill. We would love to hear all the ideas and successes that other have had. (You can add your comments below.)
Author of The Call of the Mild
In her thoughtful and provocative new book, Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, Lily Raff McCaulou— raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and animal lover—meditates on the ways her perspectives on hunting and her place in the natural world have changed. We talk with her about her experiences, and her non-hunting fishing dog, Sylvia.
Bark: You contributed the endpiece for this issue, and in it, you talk about your dog, Sylvia. What can you tell us about her (besides the fact that she’s a great fishing companion)?
I spent months browsing Petfinder. com, where I eventually came across a photo-less profile of a female Flat- Coated Retriever mix named “Missy.” She was young but not a puppy. She’d been picked up as a stray; a couple of weeks had passed and nobody claimed her, so she was scheduled to be euthanized. Just in time, a group called Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals pulled her, took her to a foster home and listed her online.
Her profile was short but mentioned that she liked cats. It reminded me of Bob’s ad, and made me wonder if they were kindred spirits. (The funny thing is, we don’t even have cats.) The following weekend, we went—with Bob, of course—to an adoption event at a pet store a few hours from our house to meet her. We drove her home that afternoon.
B: What does Sylvia do while you fish?
B: You not only fish, but hunt as well. Was that something your family did? Does your husband hunt or fish with you?
B: What made you want to become a hunter?
Meanwhile, I was spending time with ranchers and loggers, many of whom hunted. I had always considered myself an environmentalist, but these hunters made me question what that really meant. They respected the animals they hunted, a paradox that intrigued me. Although I was more sentimental about my toll on the planet, they seemed to intimately understand that we all need natural resources—water, wood, oil and wildlife—to survive.
Farming—even of vegetables—is rife with death. Fields are tilled with blades that also slice voles. Combines harvest grains, shredding groundhogs along the way. To make our magazines and toilet paper, trees are logged, slaying owls. To charge our iPhones, coal is mined, destroying coyote dens. The roads we drive on, the lawns we play on—all of it used to be wildlife habitat. Hunting offered me a rare chance to come face-to-face with the animal life that sustains my own. I thought it could make me a better, truer environmentalist.
B: And did it?
B: In April, the New York Times ran your op-ed piece, “I Hunt, but the NRA Isn’t for Me.” What kind of reaction did you get?
B: What do you come away with from being outdoors—does the experience vary, depending on what you’re doing?
One challenge of hunting is to achieve this perfect state, a place between calm and alertness. If you’re too alert, you get jumpy. It’s exhausting and you can’t keep it up all day. If you’re too laid back, you miss the signs and can’t find an animal or get a shot off in time. There’s a sweet spot in there, but it takes a lot of practice.
B: I believe the number of hunters is on the decline, at least in California. Do you think the locavore movement is changing attitudes, something like the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s?
Some of my own reasons for learning to hunt do align with the locavore movement and its predecessor, the back-to-the-land movement. Hunting isn’t necessarily that different from, say, keeping backyard chickens, planting a garden or taking a butchery class. All are paths toward selfsufficiency, better understanding where our food comes from and procuring meat from animals that weren’t tortured in a factory farm or flown halfway across the world.
B: Did you try to teach Sylvia to hunt with you?
I did save the wings from some birds that I shot and used them to try to teach Sylvia to track a bird’s scent. I would drag a wing around the backyard and hide it behind a shrub. Then I’d let her into the yard and tell her to find the bird. This sounds odd, but she was very reluctant to use her sense of smell. Excited by the tone of my voice, she would just look all over the place. I gave up pretty quickly.
B: At some point, would you like to hunt with a dog?
My next dog will be a hunting dog. I have so much fun with Sylvia, just hanging out and playing. Fishing with her is pure, endless entertainment. But unlike a hunting dog, she isn’t making the activity any easier for me. I suspect that if we worked together as partners, as in hunting, our relationship would be even deeper. I look forward to experiencing that with my next dog. For now, though, I couldn’t be happier with my fishing dog. Not many people can say they have a dog who shares their hobby.
B: What made you decide to write The Call of the Mild?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Interview with the President of Dogs Scouts of America
Summertime brings back childhood memories of swimming, hiking and summer camp with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts and lovers of crafts, campfires and sleeping under the stars. Like many youngsters, these activities revolved around scouting … troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Today, our dogs keep me company on my outdoor adventures, but I sometimes miss the camaraderie of my fellow scouts. Imagine my delight in discovering Dog Scouts—a national organization that promotes a variety of pursuits for dogs and their owners. I had the opportunity to find out more about this exemplary organization recently when I spoke to Chris Puls, President of Dog Scouts of America.
When and how did the Dog Scouts in America start?
DSA was established in 1995 for people and dogs of all ages and abilities. It was started by Lonnie Olson because of her dog Karli. Karli had been active in several dog sports and she had excelled in many other areas which did not offer registered titles. For example, she was an outstanding frisbee dog. She was the lead dog on Lonnie’s sled team, and she had starred in stage productions and television commercials. She performed tricks and entertained people in hospitals, schools and nursing homes with her therapy visits too. This dog was like an Eagle Scout (the highest rank in Boy Scouts), she had done it all! Lonnie decided that there should be an organization for dogs like Karli or dogs who aspired to Karli’s many accomplishments. And an organization for people who just wanted to have more fun with their dogs and learn new things.
The concept of having a single organization that gave recognition to all of the various activities which dogs become involved in was just too profound to ignore. Lonnie jumped on the idea of Dog Scouts to recognize all the dog activities under one organization (at a time when dog sports outside of obedience were just getting started and when many were breed restrictive). Rally had not yet been created and Agility had just been introduced in the U.S. a few years earlier. The only other “dog camp” had just recently started on the East coast and was geared toward serious competitors in various dog sports.
The idea of pet dogs coming to camp with their owners to learn skills, for which they would get recognition in the form of merit badges, was, as Lonnie says, “the best idea I’ve come up with in my lifetime.” Everyone loves the concept. Everyone wants their dog to be a Dog Scout. And now that concept has spread across the country and even to other countries with troops currently in 22 states plus Canada and Puerto Rico.
Much like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Dogs Scouts is more than fun and games, it involves a lifelong learning, enrichment and dedication. Can you talk about the organization's mission and focus on responsibility?
I think the Dog Scout owner’s motto sums up the mission: “Our dog’s lives are much shorter than ours—let’s help them enjoy their time with us as much as we can.” But the official mission we strive for is: to improve the lives of dogs, their owners, and society through humane education, positive training and community involvement.
We stand for responsibility—to the dogs in our care, to our communities, and to each other. We recognize the importance and benefits of the relationship between people and companion animals, and seek out ways to enrich this bond. We believe encouraging compassion and kindness toward our canine companions builds a more compassionate and kind world. We strive to create a better understanding and quality of life for our dogs and all animals in our world. We believe that our members make a difference by setting an example, developing skills and embracing opportunities to share our philosophy with each other and inspire people to join us. We know that sharing positive ways of training and problem-solving helps to keep dogs in lifetime homes and out of shelters. In Dog Scouts, people help dogs, dogs help people, and the whole community benefits.
We envision a future where dogs remain in happy, lifelong homes with responsible owners. In this vision, all dogs are seen as a useful and welcome part of the community, because people take responsibility for socializing, training, containing and caring for them. We strive to create a world where people view their dogs as part of their family and all dog owners have the knowledge they need to raise well-mannered canine citizens.
There’s an entry point to membership and level of commitment to Dog Scouts, correct? What are the first requirements upon joining Dog Scouts?
All participants must first earn the title of Dog Scout. They do that by earning the Dog Scout badge. This title/badge (and all the other badges) have components for both the dog and the person to learn and demonstrate so that both ends of the leash are involved. The Dog Scout badge requires the owner to learn about responsible dog care and positive training while the dog needs to demonstrate basic obedience like sit, down, stay, come, heel and leave-it as well as showing they are safe around people and dogs.
And like young boys and girls in scouting, there are lots of badges to earn by the dogs and their human companions. What kinds of badges are available?
After the Dog Scout badge is earned, the team is free to learn/earn just about any of the other badges (some have pre-requisites that need to be earned first). Earning badges are optional and not required, but offer a wide range of challenges for dogs and owners. The badges are categorized into the following areas:
There are 88 badges (including the 10 new badges that will be introduced this year, but are not yet present online).
Some of the more popular are the Backpacking and Hiking, Puppy Paddler (swimming), Manners, First Aid/CPR, Agility (all levels), Community Service and Art of Shaping (teaching the dog to wear a bootie that gets dipped in paint, that the dog then swipes at the canvas to create a masterpiece.)
Community involvement is a big part of Dog Scouts as well … how do the Scouts impact their communities?
Many troop members help out in their communities, this includes individuals who participate remotely, without having a troop nearby. Troops have raised funds for bullet proof vests, vehicle temperature warning systems and door poppers for police K-9 units. They have organized drives for specially shaped pet oxygen masks for fire departments and cool bed equipment and vehicle temperature systems to search and rescue teams. And some have secured food and toys for the pets of people in need and low cost spay/neuter programs. They visit hospitals and nursing home with certified therapy dogs, and are active in educational presentations at a variety of events. Plus, DSA members often pick-up dog waste left behind by other, less responsible dog owners. We even have a badge for this! It’s the Clean-Up America II badge (level I is picking up cans and bottles).
I understand that there’s plenty of time for fun and games as well ... can you talk about some of the outings, camps and outdoor activities?
DSA national provides two summer camps each year in June and July at the 70-acre camp facility in St. Helen, MI. These camps run Monday to Saturday and allow the owners and their dogs to experience many sports and dog activities that they might otherwise be unable to do. If a medium sized dog wants to try Earthdog/Go-to-Ground, which is typically limited to small terriers, the dog can try it out because Dog Scout camp has larger tunnels for the big dogs. If a Chihuahua wants to try carting, we have some tiny carts for them to try. DSA encourages the dogs and people to try any activity that is safe for their dog. The camps are $650 for the week and that includes all the activities from 8 am – 8 pm and all meals (lodging is extra and available on-site ranging from $8 per night for a rustic camp tent site or $75 per night for a one-room private cabin with A/C. There are also private and group rooms in the main lodge and a few RVs to rent. People can also bring their own RV—we have sites with electric hook up.
DSA national also holds Spring, Fall and Winter outings that are fun get-togethers and free for DSA members (lodging extra). Members may rent the camp facility for their own use or use it to hold a seminar, troop camp out or other learning activity.
There are also two mini-camps held by troops near Pennsylvania/Massachusetts and in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. These are 3–4 days and include several badge activities and learning sessions.
We have about 40 troops that hold various activities for their members—everything from hikes and parties to community service events and fundraisers. The number of events a troop has per year varies by troop. People can see a map and a listing of troop locations and troop leader contact information online (scroll down under the map box for contact info).
Are there age restrictions for children joining with their dogs?
We have a Jr. Scout program that is open to children from 6 to 18 years of age. A child of any age can be a member of DSA (with parent’s permission), but some troops have rules about minors attending troop events. This might include the parent needing to stay with the child or the child demonstrating a certain level of competence in controlling the dog. At camp, anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult that must be responsible for them. We usually have a few kids per camp, but mostly it is an adult activity.
Can people participate in Dog Scouts online or virtually ... if they live in remote areas or don’t have a troop nearby?
Absolutely! All the badges can be earned by submitting video of the dog doing their part and written answers for the owner’s part of the badge. Individuals are encouraged to participate in activities like the DSA National Hike-a-Thon, which takes place every May and individuals can organize activities and fundraisers for their community.
We also have various competition and titling events that are open to everyone (with discounts for DSA members). Currently, we offer titles for backpacking, scent detection, carting, treibball (ball herding) and IMPROV (a fun, useful and varied form of obedience). The guidebooks and rules for these can be found at: dogscouts.org.
The dogs must love scouting ... any stories stand out?
We have had a number of dogs who try a dog sport for the first time at Dog Scout camp, and then go on to compete and earn titles. Several have even made it to the National level. This has happened with a number of dogs in Dock Diving, but also in Rally and Frisbee. And dogs of all breeds have found they LOVE lure coursing!
Usually at least half of the campers during the summer camps are people who have attended our camp before, sometimes well over half are repeat campers. And some of the campers have attended every year since the start and are now on staff! Many have attended multiple years and we give out “Happy Camper pins” that award a new “bone” for every 3 years of camp attended. Many people have multiple bones hanging from their pins. The Texas mini-camp filled in less than 3 days last year and this year it filled (50 campers) in just a single day! We often hear from the campers that Dog Scout camp is the best time they have with their dog.
What’s on the Dog Scouts calendar this summer?
We offer camps and events throughout the year—our popular Michigan summer camps held in June and July are currently full as is the Texas mini-camp this fall, but space remains at the Blue Ridge mini-camp in Western Maryland, Aug 16-19, 2012. The DSA Leadership Retreat and two Canine Freestyle camps with WCFO Judge Gloria Voss are offered every April and May.
Current and future outing dates are posted online: http://dogscouts.org/
Culture: The Daily Show
In 2012, we talk dogs with John Oliver, the British comedian who has been a writer and correspondent on Comedy Central’s multi-Emmy-winning program, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Our interview with him appeared in our exclusive behind-the-scene coverage of the dogs who grace, enliven and patrol the show’s offices. Oliver tells us about the newest family member, a first for him.
BK: Tell us why you got your dog, Hoagie. Has she been good for you?
JO: I got her so I could have a piece of uncomplicated joy in my life. Yeah, it’s been fantastic; she really doesn’t give a shit about the “Daily Show” or working in an office, which I find enormously helpful at the end of the day.
BK: Your former colleague, Jim Margolis, told us the real reason you got her was to humanize yourself.
JO: Yeah, that’s true.
BK: Has she come to the office yet?
JO: She came here for one day; she’s a puppy and struggled to understand that this is not a dog run, but a place to work. I made her sit and give me a paw, and told her this is a place of work. I thought she surely would understand. She did the first two things but didn’t get the third one.
BK: How’s her training coming along, in general?
JO: She’s been great. The one thing she hasn’t been able to do is to be in a large office with other dogs at the moment. Maybe at some point, once she’s calmed down, she’ll join the rotation of dogs. But she got so excited, she just wanted to run around all the time, and I can’t cope with that when I have deadlines.
BK: How old is she now?
JO: She is nine months
BK: Well, you have a few more months of puppyhood. Goldens are puppies until they’re two, or even older. Is she your first dog?
JO: Yeah, my first ever. I had one pet before and that was a goldfish when I was seven years old.
BK: Is that why you got another Golden?
JO: Yeah, I never thought of that, but yeah.
BK: Has puppy-raising had any surprises for you?
JO: No, not really. My wife has been doing most of the work, so I can’t take credit for the way she’s progressing. But it is lot of work, and certainly a lot more rewarding.
BK: Do you baby talk to Hoagie?
JO: I talk to her as if she were a 45-year-old adult. She seems to enjoy that.
BK: Do you get your kicks watching the other Daily Show dogs do their thing?
JO: I don’t know what we would do without these dogs. There was one day when they weren’t allowed in the office because the then-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, was the guest and we had to have bomb dogs sniffing around. You can really feel the difference when they aren’t here. It would be a very different place if there weren’t dogs walking around.
BK: Is that one of the reasons you signed up?
JO: That was instantly one of the best things. For the first time, it made me want to have a dog. So it probably contributed to me getting Hoagie in the long run.
BK: I thought Hoagie was a male name, but your pup is a girl.
JO: I don’t think Hoagie is a name at all. It’s a description of something, like a sandwich. I don’t think it’s masculine or feminine.
BK: How about Hoagy Carmichael? Ole Buttermilk Sky and all.
JO: Yeah, I wanted to name my dog after someone who was reportedly anti-Semitic! My wife loves hoagies.
BK: So, is she mostly with your wife?
JO: Yeah, I just spoke with my wife this morning. Hoagie was eating Reza Aslan’s most recent book, which is about, I believe, America’s war on terrorism; she’s very interested in that.
BK: Do you have a career path charted out for her?
JO: I would like her to eat a spectrum of different books, ingest information from different sources. Reza Aslan is great author, but there are others out there. Maybe she can start eating novels as well, moving into literature as well as nonfiction.
BK: Do you see her playing straight “woman” to you—can you imagine having her with you on interviews and in skits?
JO: No, I don’t think I would do that. The problem is, Jim is kinda right: she would fundamentally humanize me. So I can’t really do my job when she’s around. It would bring up too much compassion whenever she is around. I can’t have that. When I interview someone, I can’t have any kind of humanity inside of me.
BK: Did adding a dog make for a perfect family unit, or is it practice for having children one day?
JO: It’s been amazing, and nice, to come home after a stressful day at work and have someone just be there. Not that she isn’t interested in what I do for a living, she just can’t really comprehend it. So I can truly trust she isn’t interested in how my day was. She’s interested in going for a walk. I find that more relaxing than anything I have ever found as a way to de-stress. She doesn’t like the Daily Show because there are no dogs on the screen.
BK: Does she watch TV at all?
JO: She likes sports that are played on grass — she likes watching all that green. She is quite hypnotized by green. She thinks that the Daily Show should be on grass.
BK: Does she fetch?
JO: She calls it retrieving.
BK: How about tug-of-war; do you play it with her and let her win? That’s the important thing, you know.
JO: That’s something I need to work on. I’m a pretty sore loser. One of us is going to be disappointed.
BK: You have to let the dog win occasionally.
JO: Oh no no! I am working on that.
BK: When you’re stopped on the street, is it because of the show or the dog?
JO: The dog, especially when she was a puppy. People would come up to talk to her, then look at me and say, “I know you,” but then they’d look straight down at her and start talking again. I know exactly where I stand in that hierarchy.
Culture: The Daily Show
BK: You’re a dog lover, right? You must appreciate having the dogs at the office.
WC: I like all dogs — I make friends with dogs on the street. Having dogs in the office is probably the best thing. I don’t have to wander the streets to make friends; I can do it from the comfort of my desk.
BK: What do you say to the dogs?
WC: When I’m in the office, I definitely know my voice changes when I talk to the dogs. I’m not talking baby talk, but even that it is interesting — to see a person who might have a really gruff exterior start talking to a dog, like, “Who’s my big boy?” There’s something about pets that brings that out in people. At the Daily Show, you have animals around to help you relax a little, reminders that you shouldn’t take life too seriously.
BK: Yes, others have mentioned how the dogs help relieve stress … how they cool it down a little.
WC: I think the dogs know it, too —they get a sense when people are a little bummed out. Jen’s dog, Parker, is really good about that; she’ll make her way toward you, wag her tail and start pawing at your chair and you think, Yeah! I’m going to take a few moments and just hang out with Parker. And forget anything that was bugging me a moment ago.
BK: Dogs sometimes make their way into your material, like your piece, “SeaWorld of Pain,” on PETA’s lawsuit to free killer whales.
WC: We were in no way saying that it is OK to abuse animals; if there’s animal abuse out there, we need to hear about it. I think in the conversation with the woman from PETA, she was asking humans to have empathy for the plight of killer whales, but doing it in a way that lacked empathy for some humans. It seemed like an odd double standard. [Editor’s note: PETA was equating the condition of captive killer whales with human slavery.]
BK: Is the Daily Show planning any canine political coverage?
WC: Maybe another dog political debate. A while ago, Anderson Cooper moderated a dog debate for us, and we used the office dogs. Some people thought it was real. What that showed me was that people really do want to see a dog political debate.
BK: There’s been a real surge in the popularity of small dogs; what do you think about this trend?
WC: I think that a lot of people are embracing dogs in general, and small dogs, too. In the south, you wanted a big dog to protect you, or to hunt with. I live in a New York apartment, and for me to have a 60-pound dog would be hard. But a little dog … I can put him in a little bag that doesn’t look like a purse and carry him and go where I have to go. It’s kind of weird, but I’ve seen more macho tough dudes with little dogs, and I think Oh, wow! If I met you 15 years ago, you would probably be saying “Why are you carrying that little dog?” A lot of it is economics. It would be interesting to match up the economy and the popular dog sizes. But the love a dog has to give doesn’t depend on the size of the dog — the size of the heart is the same.
Culture: The Daily Show
Parker & Jen
Parker: Lab mix, seven years old
Ally: Pointer mix, three-and-a-half years old
Kweli: Golden Retriever, eight years old
Culture: Science & History
What do dogs know and how do they know it?
We talk with Alexandra Horowitz, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, about her new book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. This engrossing work is inspired by Horowitz’s experiences with her dog, Pumpernickel, and draws upon her own and others’ research in the field of canine cognition. This book expands our understanding of the nature of dogs and provides a channel to seeing and “smelling” the world from a dog’s point of view.
Bark: Your fascinating new book, Inside of a Dog, begins with a discussion of canine “umwelt.” Can you tell us more about umwelt and how it might affect our understanding of our dogs?
Alexandra Horowitz: The idea of umwelt, which originated with the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, is that the world of each animal is defined by how he/she perceives and acts on the world. Thus, the umwelt of humans does not include infrared light, since we have no perception of these wavelengths and cannot act based on seeing it. However, for bees, who can see infrared light, it is part of their umwelt, and they use the reflected infrared from the center of some flowers to locate nectar. The scale of objects, and their salience, also matters. In our ordinary life, we humans don’t deal on [what we call] the microscopic scale of bacteria: thus, objects that small aren’t part of our impression of “what is out there” at all. A dog’s umwelt is determined by what he can perceive, by his history, by what matters in the world to him. Humans are clearly a big part of the umwelten of dogs, but we don’t register much in the fly’s umwelt (at least, not as anything distinct from other mammals).
For dogs, we can imagine that their world is defined by their perception and action. Their perception includes being able to smell much more acutely than we can (including detecting changes in others’ hormones) and hearing within a greater range than we can. Thus, they will be able to respond to stimuli we don’t even notice. At another level, their umwelt is defined by the things they can bodily act on: They handle the world with their mouths, so the world gets divided into things-that-fit-in-the-mouth and things-that-don’t-fit-in-the-mouth—a way of seeing the world that is quite different than our own.
If we begin to understand what dogs think about, what they can see and smell (and what they can’t), I think we’ll have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a dog—the dog’s perspective, if you will. Appreciating his perspective goes a long way toward making a closer relationship (as it does between people!).
B: The dog’s amazing olfactory powers make their worldview different than ours. Can you explain why?
AH: As we go about our day, we see the world first, using vision to help make sense of the sounds (conversation, sudden honking, a nearby thud) and the smells (something rancid or sweet wafting on the air) around us. Dogs smell the world first, using olfaction to organize and make sense of what they see and hear. The richness of our visual world is matched, if not surpassed, by the richness of their olfactory world.
This leads to some profound differences in the way the world looks, which I describe at length in the book. For instance, smells deteriorate over long distances, and are carried hither and thither by currents of air. The visual scene does not change with the breeze, and with distance, only looks “more distant.” The result is that the world is mapped differently for the creature who primarily “sees” it via his nose rather than his eyes.
B: You note that dogs couldn’t really see TV in the pre-digital conversion days; the physiological reason behind this is significant—can you explain it?
AH: It has to do with how we process light. Specialized cells in the eyes of mammals translate light waves into neural activity by changing the pigment in the cells. In the milliseconds that the pigment is changing, the cell can’t receive any more light. This leads to what is called the “flicker-fusion” rate: essentially, the number of snapshots of the world that the eyes can process each second. Our flicker-fusion rate is about 60 images per second.
The image on old TVs and film is really a sequence of still shots sent quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing a continuous stream. Given our flicker-fusion rate, the film needs to be only slightly faster than 60 still images a second to trick our eyes into seeing motion. Dogs, though, have a faster flicker-fusion rate—about 70 or 80 stills per second. When watching film, they can actually detect the individual frames as well as the dark spaces between them. With the recent conversion to entirely digital television broadcasts, though, the flicker-fusion rate is no longer relevant, since digital TV works differently. So dogs can, in theory, watch TV—though it still is not very olfactorily interesting!
B: Why do you think it took researchers so long to truly study the dog?
AH: I think it took scientists a long time to see dogs as cognitively interesting because they reasoned that animals who are closely related to us—like apes and monkeys—were more likely to display behaviors similar to those of humans. As it turns out, in social cognitive tasks such as interpreting others’ gestures, dogs often surpass chimpanzees in performance! Additionally, I suspect that it was felt that dogs were already “known,” because they are so common and familiar to us as pets. What we are discovering is that in some cases, we are correct about what dogs know and understand, and in many cases, our common-sense understanding of dogs is not quite right.
B: A lot of your research involves dog play. Why is play so important?
AH: Play is a terrific venue in which to see dogs’ fast-paced, coordinated behavior; they are highly skilled players. As many dog owners may know, most bouts of play begin with a play signal, such as the familiar “play bow,” in which one dog bends down on his front legs, holding his rump high and his tail up and wagging. Another signal is the “exaggerated approach,” in which one dog lopes toward another dog, often with an extra-bouncy stride. These signals are considered requests to play, or announcements of an interest in playing. It appears to be important to play signal before starting to play, since play involves behavior that would be considered aggressive—biting, mounting, bumping—in another context.
When I looked at play sequences in very slow motion, what I was able to see was that dogs were very good at getting the attention of their hoped-for playmates before play signaling. And they seemed to know what kind of attention-getter would work in different situations: a more forceful attention-getter when the other dog is distracted, a mild one when the dog is standing idly. With humans, a person might need to shout to get the attention of someone talking to someone else; similarly, we don’t need to barge into someone standing right in front of us in order to get his attention. Dogs seem to know that. And then, only after getting the other dogs’ attention, did they signal an interest in playing.
B: Dogs of the same “breed type,” like herders, seem to enjoy playing together and appear to have different styles of play than other breed types. For instance, they use the “eye,” and play “who winks first gets to be chased.” Have you studied behavioral traits in breeds and how they are expressed during play?
AH: I find it extremely interesting that breeds often gravitate to other members of their breed to play. Indeed, it seems that even similar-looking mixed-breeds often play together. Some of that could be explained by their owners’ interest in the familiar-looking or -acting dog (if owners loiter together, it gives the dogs more time to get acquainted). But most of it presumably comes from the dogs’ mutual recognition of characteristic behaviors in one another: the way the other dog solicits play, how he uses his tail and, as you suggest, even showing “eye” or other breed-typical behaviors. My own research did not control for breed, and I don’t know of any other studies that have specifically identified whether or not certain behaviors are more likely during play among members of one breed than play among members of another. It’s ripe for the investigating!
B: It was interesting that you said that long-time or close playmates can exchange shorthand signals with each other. How can we learn to read our dog’s shorthand?
AH: The shorthand is usually a component of the play signal. The play bow involves bringing the forelegs down and the rump up—so, a shorthand version of that is what I call a “play slap”: just bending down on the front legs, usually with an audible slap. Similarly, many signals involve an open, almost grinning-looking mouth; as shorthand, a dog can do a very short open-mouth display with another dog. If you know the components of the signals, you can see how dogs break them up to use with their regular playmates.
B: In regard to your statement that dogs don’t hunt cooperatively—since dogs evolved from wolves, who do hunt cooperatively, it would seem that dogs would, too.
AH: You make a great point. Some dogs may hunt together—and dogs definitely act cooperatively with each other in many settings, including play. My point is a little different, however. What I wanted to emphasize was that typical dog behavior has changed considerably from typical wolf behavior in numerous ways. The studies on which I base my statement were on free-ranging (stray) dogs who need to hunt or scavenge to eat; researchers found that the dogs did not hunt together cooperatively, as we see in wolves. These groups are perhaps the closest model that we have of what is natural social behavior for dogs unmodified by the immediate presence of humans. Dogs bred for hunting may also act very differently, of course, than mixed breeds.
B: Pointers can “honor” the point of another dog while hunting—a truly amazing thing to see. Mark Neff at UC Davis is collecting evidence of the genetic basis of this behavior. Are you familiar with this behavior?
AH: Following another dog’s hunting point is very consistent with all the recent experimental research showing that dogs are quite good at following dogs and humans who indicate (by pointing or looking) where a hidden toy or food is. This may seem obvious to some dog owners, but to psychologists, it is quite meaningful that dogs follow points; most non-human animals don’t seem to use pointing as an informational cue. It is also a testament to the quality of the experiments that we see this ability in the dogs’ natural lives as well.
B: I was happy that you discussed dogs’ fascination for novel objects (neophilia). But have there been any studies that actually showed this to be true?
AH: Yes. In 2008, Kaulfuss and Mills published a study showing neophilia in dogs. The dogs in their study were given the choice of new or familiar toys, and most preferred the new toys. This doesn’t mean they will always be interested in a new toy; rather, it indicates that dogs have a sense of what is familiar and what is novel, and are curious enough to investigate the novel.
B: How can you tell if your dog feels or is expressing guilt?
AH: It is an open question whether dogs feel guilt, one that we all have our hunches about but that is very hard to confirm empirically. I recently published a study testing whether the “guilty look” that dogs show—ears back, tail down, slinking off or avoiding eye contact—actually indicates that the dog has disobeyed and possibly feels guilty. I found that dogs showed the most guilty look not when they had actually disobeyed, but rather, when they were scolded or confronted by a suspicious owner, even if they had done nothing wrong.
What most dogs do seem to know is that some actions—those that have provoked punishment in the past—are “wrong,” off-limits or at least likely to provoke punishment again. This is not the same as feeling guilt. They may do the guilty look as an entreaty not to be punished.
B: How can you tell if your dog is bored? I know that is one of the biggest concerns of dog lovers.
AH: Boredom in dogs looks remarkably similar, in broad strokes, to what it looks like in humans: flagging energy, reduced activity, poor attention, sleeping too much. Dogs may pace (similar to zoo animals kept in too-small enclosures with nothing to engage them) or do repetitive actions, such as licking or chewing themselves obsessively. If you come home to find your house in disarray, socks mauled, pillows disemboweled, it’s likely that your dog was bored—at least until he found those socks and pillows with which to occupy his time. Boredom can be sated by giving the dog something to do: play with him, give him plenty of social time with other dogs, or hide safe toys or treats for him to find when you’re away.
B: You said that “in many ways, dogs act as if they think about their memories as the personal story of their life.” What do you mean by this?
AH: It is an intriguing question whether dogs think about themselves—that is, whether they have a sense of their own life story, their autobiography. It is also a very difficult question to address scientifically. I am proposing, however, that much of dogs’ behavior, such as what they remember—where they buried that bone last summer, the dog who was hostile the last time they met, a shortcut home—indicates that they are in fact thinking about their life in an autobiographical way.
B: A final question. Is there a possibility that dogs co-evolved with us, especially since the dog genome dates the wolf/dog split to almost 100,000 years ago, about the same period during which Homo sapiens was developing? Also, the change “out of wolf” began so long ago that it would seem to predate human settlements. So perhaps the theory of dogs “taming” themselves as scavengers around our “settlements” might not be right.
AH: I think it is quite appropriate, based on the evidence we have, to say that dogs and humans co-evolved. As I discuss in the book, there is archeological evidence that dates the intertwining of our lives to 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, though most researchers believe that we lived together for perhaps thousands of years before that time. The interesting and more recent finding (using mitochondrial DNA)—that wolves split into two different groups, one of which was to become what we now know as the domestic dog—is suggestive that the connection between humans and dogs may have been quite long ago. It is also possible that these “proto-dogs” were well suited to later domestication, but weren’t yet associating with humans (or our forebears). The evidence simply isn’t all in yet.
To listen to an interview with Alexandra Horowitz on NPR, click here.
Environmental justice advocate, MacArthur Fellow, president of her eponymous green economic consulting firm: by anybody’s definition, Majora Carter is a dynamo. Born, raised and still living in New York’s South Bronx, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, and by 2003, had implemented the highly successful Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program—a pioneering job training and placement system that seeds communities with a skilled workforce that has both a personal and an economic stake in its urban environment.Among her landmark projects is the conversion of a stretch of debris-strewn riverside to a vibrant neighborhood park and the beginning of an 11-mile greenway. And she might never have discovered the place or its potential had it not been for her dog, Xena.
Bark: Tell us how Xena came into your life.
The puppy and I looked at each other, but I didn’t really have any huge emotional moment where I felt I had to save this animal. I was working to save humans from noxious environmental planning by the City of New York at the time. But something attracted me to her, so I took her home, dried her off, found some food in the fridge—which she devoured—and spent the next year trying to recover chewed shoes, books, furniture and other household objects that fell before the wrath of this energetic and fast-growing pup. The vet who checked her out (and continues to do so) said she was four months old when I found her. I named her Xena.
B: We understand that Xena had a paw in the revitalization of the illegal dumping area that became Hunt’s Point Riverside Park. How did that happen?
Xena used all of her 80 pounds of young dog energy to drag me deeper into the abandoned lot. Past refrigerators, needles, stacks of tires, oil drums, old tar roofing, thistles, dead things and a bunch of other items I was thankful were not on her list of things to roll in that day.
Just as we began to get too far out of sight of the road for my comfort level, I caught an unfamiliar glint of light out of the corner of my eye. Xena pushed through the last patch of tall weeds as she bounded forward to her goal, and right there in the morning light, the Bronx River flowed, with ducks landing and butterflies dancing.
Except when I went to Connecticut for college, I had lived in that part of the South Bronx—called Hunts Point—all my life. I could see on the subway maps that we were surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers, but I never actually saw the water because their banks were crowded with waste and sewage treatment facilities, truck lots, power plants, and illegal dumps like the one we discovered that day.
It was so beautiful to see the river there that morning. I knew I could play a role in turning that land into a park, where families could get connected with nature and each other in a positive, healthy atmosphere.
B: How is the neighborhood using the park? Does your schedule allow you time to go there with Xena?
Aside from the obvious recreational benefits, members of the community are employed maintaining the riverfront, and are using it to train other workers for future waterfront restoration projects. I don’t get to the park nearly as often as I’d like—especially when you consider how much time I spent working to make it happen. But I did have my wedding there on the first day it was opened. Xena was my flower girl!
B: Environmental justice is a large concept; can you scale it to a one person/one dog level?
B: Environmentalists and dog lovers have a number of intersecting interests. One of the more obvious is that in densely populated urban areas, both people and dogs appreciate and need environmentally healthy open spaces in which to walk. What can dog people do to improve their local environments?
B: What channels do you recommend following to address local environmental issues?
B: Are there tools individuals can use to make a case for attention? Taking along a videocam (or using a cell phone) to document problems encountered while out walking with our dogs, for example?
B: We also understand that you have a degree in film, and an MFA. Do you have occasion to use this training in your current work?
Q&A with the creators of the new series
Guess who’s coming to PBS? It’s Martha, the unassuming, loquacious and forthright mutt whose ingestion of alphabet soup turns her into, as one reviewer noted, the “Mr. Ed of the canine world.” Bark recently connected with Susan Meddaugh, Martha’s creator, and Carol Greenwald, WGBH Senior Executive Producer, to learn more about this milestone event.
Bark: Who is Martha? How did you develop this remarkable dog—was there a “bulb going off” moment? Did you immediately run your studio and start sketching?
Susan Meddaugh: Martha was our first dog. She was a stray, a real combo package of breeds. She had been on the street for a while when a friend of ours found her. Actually she found our friend, who was working in her front yard. Martha sat down beside her and refused to move, thereby cleverly forcing her to help her. After all her attempts to find Martha’s home failed (and since she had several cats and no room for a dog), our friend called us.
Martha was so skinny we could see her ribs, plus she had the whole flea population of eastern Massachusetts on her back. We were soon to discover that she wasn’t housebroken, and had a habit of eating the furniture. We wondered whether it had been a good idea to take her home. We named her after our friend Martha, who had been the one to call us, and was therefore responsible for our new addition to the family, however it might work out.
Fortunately, after a while, the essential Martha began to emerge. She was smart, interesting, expressive, opinionated and very drawable. I was writing and illustrating children’s books, and it was obvious that Martha needed a book of her own.
Which leads me to my son, Niko. I had the right occupation, the right child, the right dog and the perfect moment. I had already put Martha in some of my children’s books, usually just slipping her into the background. She had also found her first co-starring role with Helen in The Witches’ Supermarket. But she wasn’t yet talking. My son, seven years old at the time, was sitting at the table eating alphabet soup. Of course, Martha was right next to him, almost in his lap. It was his creative question—“Mom, if Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?”—that put all the pieces together. The personality of the dog, plus Niko’s question, immediately suggested a visual image of the soup letters going into Martha’s mouth and up to her brain. Of course, this required a novel approach to the way the brain is connected to the digestive system.
I did not rush to my studio and immediately sketch out the story. This idea was just the beginning of a story, which would go through a couple of versions before it fell into place. The main question after the initial idea was, what would Martha do or say if she had the gift of gab?
B: How much of this was informed by Martha herself?
SM: Obviously, the personality of Martha is completely inspired by the real dog, and the attitude was already there. Martha would let me know what to do with the story. So what would she do, being Martha? She would be opinionated, outspoken—she would speak for the dog, letting people know what dogs are really thinking. But being a dog, she wouldn’t necessarily know when not to say what was on her mind. In Martha’s world, she is still a dog. The only thing unusual about her is her ability to speak. She’s not a person, and she will always see the world through the eyes of a dog.
B: Have you ever heard of children feeding alphabet soup to their dogs, hoping that their dogs would talk too?
SM: I have heard of that happening, but I’ve heard it from adults who mostly are happy that their children are so taken with a story that they would try that. As for the kids, I think it’s just a wonderful possibility, sort of like the children who ask me, “Did Martha really talk?” I can tell they don’t really believe she spoke, but still, they hold on to the sliver of hope that just maybe she did. Also, it’s quite clear in the books and in the TV series that Skits cannot speak, even after many bowls of alphabet soup. So they are forewarned that even the family’s other dog isn’t bilingual, and that so far, there’s only one Martha.
Carol Greenwald: We heard from a public television colleague that when her son was four and a half, he asked to have Martha Speaks read to him, over and over. When they went grocery shopping, he reminded her to get alphabet soup; she began finding unopened cans of soup on the counter, which she put away, thinking she’d left them out by mistake. And then one day she came into the kitchen and saw her son standing with their standard Poodle, his foot holding Martha Speaks open to the page that shows the cross-section of Martha’s brain filled with letters. With one hand, he held up the dog’s earflap, and with the other, he shone a flashlight into the dog’s ear. Then he looked at his mother and said, plaintively, “But how will I know?”
B: What role does Martha have within her family? And can you tell us why you chose to make her young companion a girl rather than a boy?
SM: As I mentioned, Martha and Helen had already been paired in The Witches’ Supermarket. But although Martha’s personality has been evident since the first book, Helen’s character had to be fleshed out for the TV series. Martha will continue to be Martha: Confident, honest, loving, talking and acting before thinking, sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt. She’s learning about the world (and learning some words along the way). Helen is somewhat shy and cautious, a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, an artist, and the more sensible part of the duo, who tries to pull Martha back when she goes too far. For her part, Martha will push Helen into new situations and adventures that Helen would ordinarily be reluctant to try. It’s a loving relationship of opposites that works for both of them … usually.
CG: WGBH was attracted to the property specifically because it has a female central character. The majority of cartoons and TV shows for young children have boys at the center. We were thrilled to have a girl.
B: The goal of this series is to expand the vocabulary of its audience. How did you go about doing that? How are the words introduced so that the young viewer will understand their meanings?
CG: Surprisingly, first-grade vocabulary knowledge predicts eleventh-grade reading comprehension. So achieving our educational goal is incredibly important to us. People often assume that when you’re talking about teaching young kids vocabulary, you’re talking about words they are learning to read, like “hot,” “cat” and “top.” However, we’re focused on helping kids learn the meanings of more sophisticated words, so that when they begin reading—and particularly when they move from learning to read to reading to learn—they will understand the meaning of what they are reading. It doesn’t matter if you can sound out “aggravate,” “plot” or “custom” if you don’t know what they mean.
We worked closely with a board of academic advisors to figure out how we could use television to build children’s vocabularies. Because the vocabulary gap between at-risk kids and their more advantaged peers is so great, our advisors encouraged us to incorporate as many words as possible. Thus, we are teaching 800 words the first season (through 40 shows). They also confirmed that the best way to teach vocabulary is by providing context, so we are integrating the words and the definitions into the dialog of the stories, supporting them visually whenever possible, not teaching them in isolation. Because repetition is key to learning vocabulary, each of our words is repeated at least five times in the story, and more than that in the paired story (each episode has two stories) and across the series. We work closely with our content director, Dr. Rebecca Silverman from the University of Maryland, to both choose appropriate words and provide age-appropriate definitions.
B: Besides vocabulary building, what other lessons do you hope your viewers come away with?
CG: We have worked hard throughout the series to depict pet ownership in a positive way, to model good owner behavior. We hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for the important role dogs and all pets play in our lives. We also hope, through the series and our national partnerships, to raise awareness for animal shelters and encourage more families to adopt.
B: In one show, Martha finds herself in an animal shelter and sets out to free the other animals. How did that episode come about?
CG: Susan and her late husband, Harry Foster, have always been very supportive of shelters and humane societies, so when we were brainstorming story ideas, we knew we wanted to do a story about a shelter. Our writers loved the idea of Martha finding herself in the pound because it offered a lot of possibilities—a dog’s-eye-view of the experience. And we were particularly sensitive to the idea of encouraging shelter adoptions once we began reading about the surge in shelter pets post-Hurricane Katrina, and now with mortgage foreclosures.
CG: Houghton Mifflin is re-releasing the “classic” Martha Speaks books this fall, with new editions (the hardcover version of the original Martha Speaks book includes an audio version, and the paperback includes stickers), and they will be publishing tie-in books based on some of the TV scripts beginning fall 2009, which will include tips for families on building vocabulary.
As with all PBS KIDS series, there is a wonderful website, pbskids.org/Martha, on which kids can play games and watch short videos of Martha and her friends, and parents, teachers and caregivers can find out more about the series and curriculum and get educational support materials. All of the games are designed to support the educational goal of the series. In addition, a selection of video clips and Martha episodes is available on PBS’s new broadband service (pbskidsgo.org), so kids can watch Martha online.
The series is also supported by educational outreach activities. Public television stations are hosting community events to celebrate the premiere of Martha. Some stations will be launching “reading buddy” programs, which will pair 4th- and 5th-graders with kindergarteners to share books and vocabulary-building activities in the classroom. WGBH is also working closely with the ASPCA, Intermountain Therapy Animals, humane societies, the American Library Association and other groups to encourage local partnerships with public television stations.
Martha Speaks premiered on PBS KIDS on Labor Day, Monday, September 1. Visit Martha online for more.
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