Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bloodhound at Work
Bloodhound fan and trainer Larry Allen reflects on the delicate bond between dog and handler.

We recently spoke with Larry Allen, dog trainer and working-dog handler extraordinaire. He took time out from his busy day as the emergency management director for a West Virginia county to have a phone chat with us about one of his favorite subjects, training working Bloodhounds. Allen and the rescue Bloodhound, Holly, were featured on “Underdogs,” an episode in the PBS Nature series. In 12 short weeks, Allen turned the “hyperactive” Holly into a working dog who is now a member of the Massachusetts State Police team.

Q. Holly didn’t seem like the typical pet dog. Do you often find “talented” dogs in shelters and rescue situations?
A. I can tell you that we had five come into rescue in the past week who ended up there because they either had too much energy, or the people who had them were having a minor challenge controlling them.

Q. Do Bloodhounds only work with a lead attached to a harness? Are there ever opportunities for them to run off-lead ahead of the handler?
A. I only know of two handlers in the US who have their dogs trained to work a scent trail off-lead. These dogs—at least, all of the Bloodhounds I have been acquainted with for 20-plus years—become totally oblivious to the rest of the world when they have been given the odor their human wants them to pursue. I’ve had my dogs walk off riverbanks—thank God I had the lead on them to prevent them from going over a 100-foot cliff. They get so focused on finding that odor that they will go until they literally drop or encounter a physical obstacle, be it a cliff or a vertical face or whatever. The lead just stops them.

Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
A. The lead is for the safety of the animal, and it is also one of the most effective superconnectors. The dog shows me, through the tension she maintains on the lead, whether or not she is sure [about the scent]. And likewise, the dog can tell if I’m upset or having a bad day. It is no different than anything else with the animal. If I’m having a bad day, best thing I can do is to put him up, pat her on the head and come back another day. Because that feeling will transmit right down to the animal and they are thinking “oh no, I’m not making mom or dad happy…”

Q. How are the signals transmitted? How can you sense, through the lead or other mechanisms, that the dog is actually getting close to the subject—what is that connection? And do you help her?
A. I will use Holly as an example—she was a challenge to keep up with. The putting the harness on is a visual and physical cue to the animal that she is going to work. The target, or scent of who it is that she is to find, is given to her—you see me in the film basically putting Holly’s head in a plastic bag to try to eliminate as many environmental odors as possible. I want to get her to focus just on the odor contained on the item in the bag.

So when her head starts to come out of the bag, the starting command is given to her. That is the only time that word is given during the entire trail, whether it is 100 feet or 10 miles. And from that point, depending on the tension, on how hard she is pulling on the leash—because if she is not really sure, she will start slowing down—you will pick up slack in the leash. Sometimes it may be an environmental thing she has never encountered before, maybe it is a smell of a particular plant or flower. So then it is the human praise, the “Good girl, you can do it, come on, baby let’s go, let’s go to work,” that reminds the dog that I’m okay here …

So that is what we were doing on Holly’s evaluation trail up in Massachusetts. As she is getting close to the subject (I had no real idea where the guy was other than when we started, they said, “He is out that way.”), as she is coming up, literally from 10 feet away, I see this wiggle starting from the nose and going all the way back. She is trying to run at a full speed and trying to wiggle from one end to the other. She comes flying around this six-foot-high bush, and there is her “runner,” tucked up, sitting on the ground, against this bush. She kind of leans back and takes one of her big front paws and smacks him, jumps back, and goes Woof! Woof! I knew with the tension that she was pulling and her body language—with the Bloodhounds, body language is 90 percent of it—that she found him.

Learning how to read the dog’s language, interpret her clues, is critical. If she was going to make a turn to the left, you would see her head cast off to the left, and then back on the track. If you see her look the second time, you had better be prepared, because the third time she looks, she will be making a turn.

And the helping part—in the training trails, virtually every one of them, you know the solution to the problem before you run the dog on it. That way, you can help the dog rather than just wander aimlessly. But coming up to a decision point, whether it’s a turn or a T-intersection, you basically just start slowing your pace down a little so it allows the dog time to think about what she is doing rather that just charging through. Then, when she makes the correct turn, it is just that quick one or two words of praise, and boom! You’re off and going again.

Q. At the beginning of her training, Holly had a fear of thunder and loud noises. Have you heard about the recent study out of Penn State that measured cortisol levels (as a stress indicator) in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? They found that the dogs’ human had no affect on their stress level, while living with other dogs decreased the levels. Have you seen this effect with your dogs?
A. That makes sense, because as much as we humans like to think we are the be-all and end-all for canines, basically, they are a pack-order animal. I have an ancient Cattle Dog, who is 12; when I got her as a pup, she was the only dog in the house, and she developed such a phobia. We worked and worked to get her over it. But it started to affect my Border Collie, my disaster dog, and we then worked through that. Now the other Border Collie, our rescue, who we are training to find human remains—when a thunderstorm rolls in, she looks around and sees that the others aren’t freaking, and thinks, No big deal.

It is ironic we have three dogs who are each trained for a different type of work. When the pager goes off or the phone rings, they instantly cue in on my behavior. If they see me putting on a certain type of clothing, or pulling out certain types of equipment, they know which one will be working that day. For instance, if I start pulling out life jackets, my human remains dog goes nuts, because she knows that when she sees that PFD, we are going somewhere. The Bloodhound seems to be thinking, It’s her and not me. I jokingly tell people that with the working dogs, my job is to drive the car, carry the radio and have water. I am firmly convinced that if the dogs had opposable digits, they wouldn’t need me at all.

Q. Why did you start Holly with sight training before scent?
A. Because the first thing that I am trying to help the dog understand is that this looking-for-a-person activity is a game. When it quits being fun, the dog quits being interested. So we start off with the puppy run, the visual—simple Pavlovian conditioning. It is behavior, desired response, behavior, desired response, the harness goes on, it clicks in, she gets the command, and, Oh, I get to chase somebody. It’s quick, it’s fun, it’s easy, praise, praise, praise. That foundation training is where I see the disconnect with a lot of folks. They say, “Oh, they did it,” and jump from A to G. And at 2 AM, when they’re working an actual case and things fall apart, invariably 80 percent of the fault can be traced back to foundation training, or lack of it.

Q. Like clicker training, marking each and all of those little things adds up, and then needs to be reinforced. Training is needed throughout their life, isn’t it? Is Holly still being trained?
A. Every day, because a Bloodhound is like a piece of lab equipment that you have to maintain, to calibrate and keep dusted; otherwise you go to use it and it’s broken. There are always new fragrances, new techniques—if a person jumps out of a sports car, it’s different than if a person comes out of a semi. And day versus night, snow versus rain versus dry leaves. As I tell these operational folks—whether they are SAR or law enforcement—when you get that initial certification on your dog, she is a deployable asset, and congratulations, you just entered kindergarten. Now the training starts! Because up until that point, the dog and the human are building the team, developing basic skills and meeting a certain number of criteria. Then they go out in the field. There is nothing more humbling than to show up on an actual case and realize, “Oh, I’ve never trained for this.” I’ll guarantee you that within the next two weeks, you will be training for that.

Q. Some people say that a human can actually “break” a dog. In other words, the dog has to trust you, and if you give the dog the wrong cues, the wrong direction—and the dog invariably knows better—that confidence between the two of you can be broken. Have you seen this with Bloodhounds?
A. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that. One of the dogs I placed and trained earlier—a rescue dog who came to me with some emotional baggage but did a great job getting trained—went into a situation in which she basically decided she wasn’t getting enough work. This dog was high maintenance, and needed lots and lots of work. She decided that she no longer felt like working for the human, and she shut down and was sent back to us. I tested her and found her to be happy, wiggly, dragging me around the field. Now she’s with another law enforcement agency and is doing fantastic because she is getting the work she needs. It is a very delicate bond, a very delicate balance. But Bloodhounds will go to their death to protect their human partners.

Culture: DogPatch
Poochie-Bells Outreach
Global Good

Each time a dog taps a leather Poochie-Bells doggie doorbell, she’s helping people in southern Africa improve their lives. On a visit to Botswana a few years ago, Poochie-Bells’ owner Cheryl Pedersen made friends with the folks at the Tsienyane Leathercraft Village. Today, village workers hand-cut and dye leather straps exclusively for Poochie-Bells, and in return, receive much-needed income to support their community.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Ballpark Dog
Major League Baseball’s first female head groundskeeper recruits her big working dog

From April through October, Talli, a 95-pound Bullmastiff, can be found doing what her canine ancestors did more than 100 years ago: guarding her turf against intruders. Talli’s domain, however, is not the estate of a 19th-century gamekeeper, but rather a 21st-century major league park. Each day during baseball season, Talli accompanies her owner, head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny to Comerica Park, home of the 2006 American League Champion Detroit Tigers. And while she sometimes helps with chores around the park, Talli believes her most important job is to alert Nabozny to any suspicious characters lurking around the stadium.

While we think of dogs primarily as companions, most were bred with a specific purpose in mind. Many such jobs have gone by the wayside in contemporary society, but some dogs, like Talli, creatively adapt. Nabozny first started bringing Talli to Comerica Park when she was a puppy so the young dog wouldn’t have to spend long days at home alone. Then, as Talli grew into adulthood, her breed instincts began to emerge—Talli understood that her role in life was to serve as Nabozny’s guardian.

This particular characteristic became evident one morning as Nabozny and the grounds crew were in the empty stadium, working on the field. As she recalls, “I have a crew of six people who work on a daily basis, and Talli knows who belongs on the field and who doesn’t. And she keeps an eye out; she’ll lie in the middle of center field or near where we are working. And she saw people walking down the stands. We don’t generally watch the stands because we’re watching what we’re doing on the field. But she keeps an eye on everything. She saw a group of about four kids, probably college students, that wanted to leap over the fence and get on the field. So she went over, started barking at them and just sat there.” While Talli held the boys at bay, Nabozny walked over and politely asked them to leave. Not surprisingly, they did so without protest.

While Talli understands that her most important job is to watch over Nabozny and the crew, she also enjoys helping them work on the field. One of her favorite chores is to assist the grounds crew in pulling the tarp over the infield in inclement weather. “Oh, she loves to help with the tarp,” Nabozny says. “When she’s in a rambunctious mood, Talli will grab the big rope and pull on it with us. And she’s actually grabbed a handle, too, and after we roll the tarp out, she’ll help us unfold it. Of course, she also runs across it as we’re trying to drag it, and then I have to tell her to sit.” Talli also likes to gather up the flags the crew puts into the turf to mark areas that need fixing. Which means, says Nabozny, “we have to go back and do it again.”

Talli also shows off her considerable groundskeeping skills during the stadium’s annual “Bark in the Park” event. As dogs and their owners gather in the stands to watch the game, Talli joins the grounds crew to help groom the infield. Nabozny decided to include Talli back when “Bark in the Park” was first announced: “I thought it would be cool to have Talli drag the field. So we made her a tiny little drag screen, not very heavy or anything. And I attached it to her collar with the leash attached to it as well so we were both kind of pulling it at the same time. And I trotted her around the field during the seventh-inning stretch.” Not only did Talli receive a round of applause from delighted fans, but Fox Sports also featured Talli demonstrating the “infield drag” on its show that evening.

As the first woman to serve as head groundskeeper at a major-league baseball park, Nabozny finds Talli’s presence, whether on the field or in her lap, to be a source of comfort, as well as a welcome relief from job-related stress —“Just having her around eases me a bit.” Talli is also a great conversation starter, as she “helps break the ice” when vendors come to call. While being able to accompany her person to work makes Talli a lucky dog, as far as Nabozny is concerned, she’s the fortunate one. “It’s a lot better for me. Because I get to see her, I feel like I’m being good to her, as good as I can be. Talli brings me so much joy—I just love her like crazy.”

At the end of the day, Talli makes one last inspection of the field, jumps on the golf cart with Nabozny and takes the elevator up to the stadium parking garage. She snoozes on the way home —dreaming perhaps of hot dogs, bubble gum left by players in the outfield, and the woman seated next to her, stroking her head. Talli needs her rest, because tomorrow, like the Bullmastiffs of a century ago, she has work to do.

Culture: DogPatch
Talking Dogs with Nick Trout, DVM
Author of Tell Me Where It Hurts discusses books, the writing process and the challenges of being a vet

One sunny afternoon, author and Bark contributing editor Lee Harrington met Nick Trout, UK-born and -trained staff surgeon at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center, at a crowded café in Cape Cod, Mass., to discuss dogs, writing and the incredible success of Dr. Trout’s debut book, Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon.

Bark: In almost every review of Tell Me Where It Hurts, the reviewer compares you to James Herriot. Do you consider yourself a modern Herriot?
Nick Trout: Not at all. As far as I’m concerned, there was only one James Herriot and I’m not trying to emulate or copy him. What I am hoping to do is to show that the characters one meets as a veterinarian, and the passions we share, are the same today inside a modern sterile hospital as they were in the Yorkshire Dales of the late 1930s.

B: How did you come to write this book?
NT: It just got to a point where a lot of stories were buzzing around in my head, and I asked myself, I wonder if I could do anything with this? I had no idea whether it was any good or not. I had no audience other than my wife. She’s honest, a great editor and she reins in my English colloquialisms.

B: In your book, you talk about the guilt of euthanasia—both your own and that felt by clients once a decision is made to put a beloved dog “to sleep.”
NT: I write about my first dog, Patch, a loyal and protective German Shepherd. He was the dog I grew up with, and like so many of his breed, arthritic hips were compounded by the neurological disease degenerative myelopathy. My father and I conspired to keep this poor animal alive for longer than we should have, and the guilt of that decision still haunts me. Like many teenage boys in that position, I didn’t cry when he was finally put to sleep, but I also didn’t forget. It was a valuable lesson in understanding when it’s the right time to let go, while dignity remains intact, before doubt and denial have a chance to take hold.

B: Now that you’re a vet, how do you approach the situation?
NT: One of the big challenges facing modern veterinary medicine and dog ownership is the fact that we have so much more to offer the animal. In the Herriot era, if a dog had bad hips, pain relief in the form of euthanasia might have been the only humane option. People turned to vets for assistance, and this was the best they could offer.

These days, veterinarians can come back with all sorts of medical and surgical options, forcing the owner to ponder two difficult, interrelated questions: How far should we go, and how far can we afford to go? We are making owners face tougher and tougher decisions about beloved family members all the time.

B: Not only do you show a great affinity for animals, you have a good read on people—your colleagues and clients. I fully confess that I am one of those wacko clients who is a complete hypochondriac, not for myself, but for my dog.
NT (laughs): I prefer it when wacky clients admit they’re wacky. Part of my approach—and one of the things I hope comes across in the book—is my fallibility. I want the owner with me in the decision-making processes. I want to hear what they are thinking. I want to know whether they think what I’m doing is reasonable … or not.

B: So, note to Bark readers: Talk to your vet. Hold nothing back!
NT: Yes, communicate. There was an article in the Boston Globe many years ago about how people wished their MDs were like their vets because it seems that we have much more time to spend with our patients. We need to—and we get to—communicate more.

B: What do you hear about the book from your fellow vets?
NT: Some of the nicest feedback has come from vets. They’ve thanked me for putting into words so much of what we internalize, particularly with some of the tough emotional cases. We may act strong and supportive, but we’re human and fallible too. The only certainty in veterinary medicine is how hard we are going to try to do right by your pet.

Culture: DogPatch
Show Time with Bill Berloni
Broadway’s premier animal advocate and trainer tells all

For Bill Berloni, every year is the year of the dog—and the rat and the lamb and the cat and the pig. Beginning in 1976 with the extraordinary musical, Annie, for which, as a young aspiring actor, he found and trained a shelter dog to play Sandy, Berloni has spent more than 30 years working with some of the best in the business. When it comes to show-stopping animal actors, he’s likely to have trained them. In his new book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars, he shares his passion for animals, especially those of the pup persuasion. He spoke to Bark recently after a rehearsal for the upcoming Legally Blonde road tour, for which he’s training four brand-new dogs to make their stage debuts.

Bark: You started your animal-training career by finding Sandy at a shelter. Are you still working with shelter dogs?
Bill Berloni: Absolutely. When I was asked to find the original Sandy, they told me to go to a shelter because that was the cheapest place to find a dog. I had never been in one before, and I remember that as I looked at the conditions there, and all the dogs, I was so moved. I made a promise to myself: If I ever grow up and get another dog, I’m going to get it from a shelter. That was 32 years ago, and every dog I’ve ever trained has come from an animal shelter or rescue group. The dogs give me such joy, and I’ve had a wonderful life as a result.

B: What catches your eye when you’re looking for a dog?
BB: When I went in search of the original Sandy, I was looking for a sandy-colored mutt of no distinguishable breed. In Sandy, I found a dog who had been abused and was very frightened. Being somewhat young and gullible, I thought, I have to rescue that dog! He came a long way to get past that fear.
Now when I go to shelters, I see dogs who are just hangin’ out, in spite of the environment, and those are the dogs I gravitate toward. If they can deal with the stress of the shelter, then they’ll be able to deal with the orchestra, the lights, the crowds. I also test for aggression. Obviously, if a dog has an aggression trigger that can be easily tripped, it would be irresponsible to put him in a situation where it could be tripped. So, basically, I look for the ability to deal with stress and a low threshold of aggression to humans.

B: What happens to “show dogs” after the show’s over?
BB: They’re always welcome to stay with us. We have a fenced four-acre farm and a 3,000 square foot home; half of the downstairs is dogland. The dogs live with us—they don’t have kennels. When you have a pack of dogs, they either love the running outside, barking at the horses, jumping in the pond, digging holes—or they hang out inside. Not all dogs like it, though. A seven-pound Chihuahua doesn’t enjoy getting trampled by 15 dogs. So there are some cases when I feel that if I can find a dog a better situation, I will. When you make a commitment to an animal, it’s life-long. If living with us isn’t making the dog happy, we find him or her a good situation.

B: Tell us about an average day for one of your working dogs.
BB: Our job as trainers and handlers is to keep them healthy and happy. When a show is running, we keep them really quiet and calm throughout the day. We take them out, feed them a morning meal—again, just keep things quiet and calm until it’s time to go to the theater. We’re usually walking through the stage door about an hour before the show. Dogs are social creatures, so when we get there, we visit all the dressing rooms and greet the performers. Then we do the show and come home. They have their evening meal, and we all go to sleep.

The routine’s a little different during rehearsals. This is the time during which we’re desensitizing them to the noise and activity of the theater, teaching them to go onstage for the first time. We’re usually there eight hours a day. In my experience, dogs in this situation have about a 20-minute learning window, so the rest of the time is desensitization. Somewhere in that eight-hour day, we go through the training.

B: Do animal actors carry union cards?
BB: There are no unions for animals, and it’s a huge bone of contention for me. For example, humans get air-conditioning, animals go outside. To get air-conditioning, I have to negotiate. Also, when producers don’t pay, unions have legal teams and bonds to draw from. I have the courts. And it’s impossible to sue large companies. So I’ve learned how to protect my animals.

B: Film or live—which is more of a challenge?
BB: Movies are easier than theater. For a movie, I can stand behind the camera or the actor and give the dog a silent command; we get it right once and go home. In the theater, I can’t give commands from the wings. If, for example, you’re watching Annie and you see Sandy look toward the wings and then do something, it’s clear he’s not listening to the characters on stage. So in the theater, we train the actors to be handlers. When you see my dogs on stage, you see them running to people they love, executing the commands, getting rewarded and then coming offstage to me. The dogs will do anything for me, but in live theater, they also have to do anything for someone else, and that’s an interesting dynamic. You really need well-balanced dogs to do that.

B: Is it hard to train the actors?
BB: It can be challenging, but most of the time, I work with people who love animals—Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker.

B: Speaking of Sarah Jessica Parker—do you think she took what she learned as one of the early “Annies” working with Sandy to her later role as a dog in Sylvia?
BB: Absolutely. When Sarah started in Annie, she had never been around dogs; she was from a large family—eight kids—and they moved around a lot, so they always had cats. Sandy was her first dog. She learned quickly how to work with him, and got very good at it. I went to see her in Sylvia, and afterward, went backstage. I said to her “You stole some of that stuff from Sandy, didn’t you?” and she freely admitted it. She really loved Sandy.

B: We know you use positive reinforcement in your training. Is applause reinforcing for dogs?
BB: Not at all. Applause is a great positive reinforcer for humans, but to dogs, it’s just an annoying noise that sort of buzzes in their ears. One of the things we teach them to do is to ignore that noise, and it really doesn’t take them long to learn how to do that. Of course, teaching them to ignore the noise made by 3,000 people who scream when they enter can be a challenge. You can’t really prepare them for it before opening night. But what you can do is get them so connected with what they’re doing—essentially, build the bond between the dogs and the actors—that when that sound happens, the dog looks to his person for direction.

B: Over the years, have you had any improv moments onstage?
BB: There have been instances where someone wasn’t paying attention, or miscued a dog, and the dog has walked offstage. But usually, if everyone’s doing their jobs, there are no problems. Still, things happen. For example, when actors come onstage, they often get entrance applause. Annie had been running for about a year, and every night, Sandy had gotten his entrance applause. It was a rainy midweek night, the audience was wet and tired, and when Sandy came onstage, no one applauded. He stopped and looked at the audience. Andrea called him: “Come here, boy! Come here!” But he stood there looking out at the crowd. All of a sudden, the audience started to laugh, and then they started to laugh harder, and he just stood there looking at them. And then he got his applause, and he went on to Andrea. They thought he was soliciting the applause, but my take was that, for 300 performances, he’d heard that noise when he went onstage and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening.

Another bit of improv involved the Bulldog in Legally Blonde. When Legally Blonde opened in San Francisco a couple of years ago, there was one scene for her in the first act, and it got a tremendous audience response. So before we went to New York, the creators of the show decided to write another scene for her in the second act—she’d go onstage and play with a toy. It came time for our first preview in New York, our first audience, and she was in the wings waiting to get her toy. She was so excited, she was almost vibrating. When she was cued, she ran out onstage, got her toy, sat down and threw up. In Bull breeds, this is a sign of happiness, so I knew she was looking forward to doing the new scene. After that, she never threw up again.

B: Of all the productions you’ve taken part in, does one stand out as more challenging than the rest?
BB: Prior to Annie, there had never been a character written for an animal—there had never been an animal in a play upon whom the action depended. There had been animals used as props—walked in on-leash or carried on—but nobody ever thought you could train an animal to do something every night that conveys a story. There we were in 1976, I’m 19 years old, we’ve got young composers, and no one told us you couldn’t do that. So they wrote a character for a dog named Sandy, and I was able to deliver that performance. Since then, every show that’s written tries to push that envelope. When we did Annie, just having a dog come out on stage and do a couple of simple behaviors was revolutionary. Fast forward, and it’s like...You want Bruiser to do what? Bark how many times? Most of shows I get are trying to come up with an animal behavior that’s never been done before.

B: Do you prefer to work with female or male dogs?
BB: Fortunately, gender doesn’t matter to the character; as I’ve said to directors, if the audience is looking at the dog’s genitals, I think there’s something wrong with the play. What I’ve found over the years is that canines are very sexist—dominant males, submissive females. Generally, females are easier to train because they’re willing to be less dominant, but they’re less courageous—they roll over for anyone. I use mostly males—I’ll get a male dog and I’ll butt heads with him. It’ll take a while for him to learn who’s in charge, but once he understands that, he’s unflappable. Whereas the females, they give it up real easy, and generally, they’re more easily spooked.

B: When the dogs aren’t working, do they seem to miss the routine?
BB: I don’t find it on their days off. Where we see it have the most effect is when the show is over. Here are social creatures who go to theater every night and get loved up by 30 to 40 people. They do behaviors, get treats and have one-on-one time with me. When the show closes, they come home and they’re one of 16 or 17 dogs within our family. They get used to all that wonderful positive reinforcement, and then they come home to us and we can’t give them enough. But they settle in.

They go back to being regular dogs. I think that’s very important. When news crews come to my house, I think they’re expecting an agility course, or trainers making them do tricks. When the dogs aren’t working, they interact with one another and with us. We don’t train them on a daily basis until we have a job for them. We interact with them, make sure they follow the rules, but they go back to being dogs.

B: What’s new on the horizon?
BB: It’s been somewhat of an extraordinary year for me—people are calling it the year of the dog on the road. As a performer, you’re blessed to have a hit show once a year. We’re now opening the national tour of Legally Blonde; in two weeks, we’ll go to Florida to open the touring company of Wizard of Oz, and then after that, we go back up to North Carolina to reopen the national tour of Annie. Most of the theatres in U.S. have booked three shows that have my animals in them. Chances are that anyone attending the theatre will be seeing one (or more) of our rescued dogs onstage.

What’s even better is that the publicity around each show gives us the opportunity to do outreach on behalf of shelter and rescue dogs. Selling shows can be a hard thing, but it’s easy to sell human-interest stories, and I do it because it promotes animal welfare. The shows sell my book, and 20 percent of the proceeds from the book go to the Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York. Even the programs mention the source of the animal performers and encourage people to adopt. There are great animals at local shelters who need homes—adopt from a shelter or rescue group and you may find your own star.

Culture: DogPatch
Earth Talks: Earthdog and West Paw

In celebration of Earth Day, I spoke to two innovators, people who think green 365 days a year. Dave Colella of Earthdog and Spencer Williams of West Paw Design share their thoughts on a green world, dogs and the future.

Dave and Kym Colella, Owners
Earthdog uses hemp to create a stylish assortment of US-made dog collars, leashes, beds and other pet accessories.

On the power of choice:
For us, the green movement seemed to come together about this time last year. We’ve been making hemp products for 12 years, and we’ve endured plenty of jokes … but now people are coming around. In general, there is an increased awareness of what we’re eating, what we’re using to fertilize our crops, what we’re putting on our bodies. There is a growing awareness among all kinds of people that our personal choices matter.

On the future:
I see a lot of fresh and creative ideas coming to the green industry, inventive ways to recycle and create new products out of old products, along with innovative technology that’s taking us in exciting directions. We’re personally pleased about the reintroduction of the industrial farming act to Congress; perhaps one day we’ll come back to growing industrial hemp in this country—that’s really exciting. Now, all the hemp we use is Asian- or European-grown; we have to import the raw materials, so all that money is going offshore—not to mention the energy it takes to import these materials—when we have farmers in this country who could benefit from a fantastic crop.

On dogs and the green movement:
Dogs’ needs are pretty basic, and it’s our responsibility to honor and respect their animal nature, lessening our footprint, reducing our consumption and using things that aren’t going to pollute the planet. Dogs just enjoy being outside—this afternoon, our dog was sitting on the grass with her nose up, sniffing the air—and it’s our responsibility to them not to pollute their environment.

West Paw Design
Spencer Williams, President
Based in Bozeman, Mont., West Paw Design is committed to the sustainable manufacturing of safe, fun and durable pet products.

On our symbiotic relationship:
It’s my belief that dogs remind us how connected we are to nature—they promote the fact that nature exists. That connection to the earth reminds us that we need to take care of it. Also, dogs don’t have a choice in where they live; they are at the mercy of the environment their people create for them. More people understand that the choices they make affect their dogs.

On the definition of “green”:
“Green” embraces a plurality of views—looking at the whole, broadening definitions of safety, origin and manufacturing. In West Paw’s case, most of our products are made from plastic. Some people might ask, “How green is it to make things out of plastic?” They may look at the carbon footprint and think, “This is a petroleum product, so it can’t be green.” It’s a challenge to overcome. If companies spend lots of energy to create long-lived products from recycled material, that's a step forward, and it’s sustainable. If you compare our beds, which are made of recycled plastic, to those made of cotton you might ask “Is it worth all the water it takes to grow the cotton—is that a good use of resources?”

On going green step by step:
Not to get too philosophical, but if you look at the concept of peace, you can say peace starts in your home, or peace starts in your community. You can’t solve the world’s problems, but you can decide how to live your life day-to-day in a way that furthers peace. I think the green movement is very similar. The complexity is enormous, and the challenge is to become informed enough to understand the ramifications involved and not be dissuaded from making the effort.


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Culture: DogPatch
Video: Why We Love Cats and Dogs
PBS's Nature ponders furry soul mates, best friends and surrogate children

If you turn to Nature for images of hyenas glimpsed through night goggles and God's eye views of great wildebeest migrations, you might be surprised on Sunday night, when the featured animals will be dog and cat lovers. "Why We Love Cats and Dogs" provides a serious and moving glimpse of the remarkable bonds we forge with our companion animals. Curl up with your furry buddy and discover the lengths to which other folks will go for their best friends. (Premieres Sunday, 2/15/09, at 8/7 p.m. central on most PBS stations.)



Culture: Stories & Lit
An Emotional Rescue
Katrina puppy shows couple the way back.

My husband and I live in an exclusive gated community.

We’ve recently taken up residence here, but it’s not where I envisioned we’d be at this point of our lives, him just months into his 50th year and me hot on his heels. For our gated community is a 20-by-14 rectangle with a metal gate on one doorway, an uncooperative wooden gate on another, and an old Playskool plastic fence on the third. Inside is our eat-in kitchen, and our new puppy.

We have friends enjoying gated communities luxuriously designed to encourage couples’ recreational time together—on Kiawah Island, off the coast of Miami, in the Bahamas. They have golf courses, salty oceans and fresh breezes. Outside the sliding glass door of our gated community here in Massachusetts, we have the puppy’s potty spot, way too much rain and snow, and science-defying breezes that render our entire yard downwind from that aforementioned potty spot.

Are you nuts? friends wanted to know. You’ll be looking at colleges next year with your son; why are you tying yourselves down now with a dog?

I wondered that myself. My husband and I were in striking distance of the life I’d seen in those television ads—attractive smiling couples with silver hair, feeding each other strawberries on a picnic blanket, hitting the open road in new cars, kissing and embracing over sparkling jewelry. All that freedom, that space to do whatever we want; why toss it away in a furry brown-eyed moment?

Because we didn’t need more space. We needed less. Independent spirits, my husband and I had maintained perhaps too much space throughout our married life. We’d lost each other in it. While we were working and parenting, and generally “getting ahead,” that space had devoured our easy sense of camaraderie, our safe harbor in each other’s presence, our once very present desire to simply be together.

Our at-home conversations had been streamlined to alluring one-liners thrown out in passing: “You need to break down the boxes for recycling,” “Why haven’t you talked to the accountant?” and “When are you going to do that dark wash?” Not exactly Tracy-Hepburn material. Yet I didn’t question our undying love for each other. We’d just gotten into a rut, taking care of the business of life and not taking time for the fun of it.

Enter one yellow Lab “mixed with something small.” But not because I’d figured out I needed her yet. She arrived because I was still taking care of business, upholding my end of an old, off-handed agreement. My husband, for the first time in our 19 years of married life, would not be traveling regularly for work. In fact, he’d be working from home, and at some point over the years, he had gotten me to agree that if he was ever home to help take care of a dog—yeah, right—we could get one.

I was cornered, period.

Our puppy began, before we’d even met her, by bringing my husband and I together in social accord; we could offer this small help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She and her brother and mother had been picked up off the streets in Louisiana a few months after the destruction. Spending a couple of weeks in a shelter there, she and her brother then traveled on a transport truck making stops all along the way north, to finally be delivered at the very last stop—a foster mother with a Golden Retriever rescue group in Augusta, Maine. Here is where we met her, became instantly besotted, signed the papers and brought her home.

With the very first wag of her wand of a tail, Abby began to shrink the spaces between my husband and me. Into our production-oriented lives had exploded this antithesis of business, on four wobbly legs.

My husband and I suddenly discovered that we wanted to talk all the time—about her. There had never been a cuter puppy; her rambunctious silliness was, of course, irresistible. We began joining each other in the kitchen at odd moments throughout the day to sprawl out on the floor between the gates with our new four-legged family member. And every time we joined her, Abby would wiggle her little cuddly body back and forth so hard, eyes brown and liquid—and then, in ecstasy, collapse against our legs, shove her moist nose into our hands, give us licks, and as soon as we sat down, tumble into our laps. Anything just to be close. Crazy, wonderful animal love.

Animosities had to crumble in the face of such pure and joyful adoration as Abby offered. My husband and I found it impossible to maintain our pattern, not always happy, of space and distance. We began doing more and more together, the three of us, just for fun—taking walks in the nearby field, sitting back with lawn chairs and a tasty bone to watch our son’s baseball games, clambering over the rocks at a friend’s ocean-front home to enjoy a swim. Prancing and pouncing and dog-paddling, this canine Tinkerbelle began to magically guide us … back together? I think it’s forward, together.

In shelter vernacular, our little female is called, not a rescued pup, but a rescue pup. How appropriate. For my husband and I didn’t just rescue her; she clearly rescued us, and she continues to make sure we stay rescued, every single day. Our gated community won’t show up in any glossy brochures—the now-wrinkled curtains wrapped high over the rods so she can’t chew them; the plants removed to expose bare corners; the wooden floor displaying fresh scratches, dirt, dog hair and a smelly chew bone—but it’s the only one we want to come home to.

Culture: DogPatch
Dog Star
Susan Orlean’s quest for the truth about Rin Tin Tin

What Susan Orlean knew about Rin Tin Tin in 2005 wouldn’t fill a sticky note. What she learned when she embarked on a story about Hollywood animal stars and their trainers for The New Yorker magazine is now filling a book. Rin Tin Tin: His True Story sprang naturally from that assignment, says the New York–based writer, discussing how she happened onto her forthcoming “biography” of the canine actor. “It was kind of accidental—one of the better ways to get onto any project.”

As with her best-seller, The Orchid Thief, Orlean has a knack for bumping into good ideas. She is known for overturning the quiet little story that might have simmered away unnoticed—the obsessive subculture of orchid-collectors, how Americans spend their Saturday nights, the life of a female matador. She has also co-authored a cookbook for dogs. So what captured her interest in such a tried-and-true subject as a pop culture star with a fan club?

Orlean attributes it to the discovery, one surprise at a time, that her assumptions about Rin Tin Tin—whom she knew only from a ’50s kids’ show—were wrong. “I thought Rin Tin Tin was just a TV figure, and had no idea he was a real dog with a real life and a real history. Every bit of reporting I did continued to surprise me on that score.”

The heroic German Shepherd, who starred in 26 movies before his death in 1932, has become more enigmatic with the years. “There are many refuted histories of Rin Tin Tin, many versions of who and what he was,” she says. What didn’t vary, from the original dog to each of his successors, was “a fixation on the character as something almost magical.” Orlean recognized in his human entourage the same “monomania” she’d encountered in the plant enthusiasts she met while working on The Orchid Thief. She became intrigued by Rin Tin Tin’s magnetism, which inspired not only his handlers, but generations of admiring fans. Was it the animal himself, or something he represented, which was also embodied in his string of successors—perhaps the enduring loyalty of an intelligent canine?

So began her three-year quest to untangle his legacy.

Her subject’s almost one-hundred-year history kept Orlean busy traveling—but the travel was “through time more than through places,” she says. Hours spent sifting through archival material made this “a very different project for me,” says the author, who is known for her intensive, in-the-moment reporting. “I did a fair amount of historical research on Orchid Thief, but never in this concentration. The main source has been all the history, the records, all the notes—more than a person.”

Lucky for Orlean, Lee Duncan, the American serviceman who brought the original Rin Tin Tin home after World War I, kept lots of notes, including carbon copies of many of his letters. “I feel in my own way I’ve gotten to know him,” Orlean says. “All the flotsam and jetsam of his life.”

Duncan found Rin Tin Tin as a pup in 1918, in a bombed-out kennel in France. He named him after a puppet called Rin Tin Tin that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck. When the war ended, the pup returned home with him to Los Angeles, where Duncan later taught him tricks that included scaling a wall nearly 12 feet high. As the story goes, his owner believed he was destined for fame.

When Duncan’s protégé successfully filled in for an unwilling wolf in the 1922 movie The Man from Hell’s River, Hollywood producers took notice. The dark-hued Shepherd would be cast as a wolf or wolf-hybrid many times after that. With his starring role in the 1923 silent film Where the North Begins, “Rinty” earned a new nickname, “the mortgage lifter,” as he rescued Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.

From 1930 to 1955, his character was heard in three different radio series, beginning with The Wonder Dog, in which he performed his own sound effects. With his death, his son, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., took over, also appearing in several short films in the 1930s. In 1947, Rin Tin Tin III starred in The Return of Rin Tin Tin, while Duncan’s Rin Tin Tin IV appeared in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, an ABC television series that ran from 1954 to 1959.

His financial success inspired imitators from other studios. “There were dozens and dozens of German Shepherds making movies in the ’20s and ’30s,” Orlean says. This copycat trend reflected “the way people consumed culture from many fewer outlets back then.” Rin Tin Tin: His True Story will cover all of the dogs—every German Shepherd actor surrounding his legacy. “He was a “huge profit machine,” she notes.

The profits didn’t end with his death in 1932 at the age of 14. Nor did the colorful stories. Of the many colliding versions of his life’s events, Orlean finds the one about his death most striking. (One of the most-cited tales has the celebrity dog cradled in the arms of actress Jean Harlow.) “There are what seems like a million stories of how and where the original Rin Tin Tin died. They get quite dramatic and extreme, and the truth is probably much more ordinary.”

As one of the first canine actors, Rin Tin Tin was considered remarkable. By today’s standards, his skills might seem less so due to developments in training techniques that have led to more believable performances. However, in her book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger devotes a chapter to Rin Tin Tin that suggests otherwise: “The astonishing thing about watching Rin Tin Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act,” she writes.

But animal acting was hardly what it is today, with agencies in place and even a “Dog Actors Guild” with a database, searchable by breed, where those with aspiring canine actors post resumes. Another development is the American Humane Association’s involvement in monitoring the welfare of animals during the production of films and television programs. The AHA assumed this role in 1940 with the creation of its Film and Television Unit; acceptable movies and television programs now receive the “No animals were harmed” credit at the end.

The original Rin Tin Tin, though “hardly a model of breeding,” Orlean observes, was saved from genetic oblivion after the death of Lee Duncan in 1960. Earlier, endorsement, breeder Jannettia Brodsgaard had purchased several direct descendants from Duncan in an effort to maintain the line. After her death in 1988, her granddaughter continued the lineage at “El Rancho Rin Tin Tin” in Latexo, Texas.

Rin Tin Tin’s descendants are also trained as service dogs to assist special needs children. Ironically, the breed is being dropped by one major guide dog training school in favor of Retrievers, and has also been targeted in some places for breed bans for being “overly aggressive.” The Shepherd has “more connotations than many other breeds,” notes Orlean. These are, of course, undeserved stereotypes. But Orlean considers it all part of what makes Rin Tin Tin fascinating. “Collies are straightforward. They don’t have as many complexities as the German Shepherd.” And, she adds, “Labs don’t have that kind of history.”

As a child, she was obsessed with German Shepherds—“there was hardly a kid alive who didn’t want one.” But today, she says, “My taste in dogs has changed.” While we are talking by cell phone, her breed of choice bounds out of the bushes and frightens her. “It could’ve been a bear!” But in fact, it’s just a dog—Cooper, her handsome red-and-white Welsh Springer Spaniel.

Has Orlean managed to find the “true” story of Rin Tin Tin?

“I think the true story is that there is no true story, ever,” she says. “There is a story that I think is closest to what really happened, but I think much of what I’ve learned from working on this book, and much of what it’s about, is the frail and faulty nature of memory, and that truth isn’t an absolute.”

What endures is the ideal—and the longing.

“Rin Tin Tin was the ultimate in terms of embodying steadfastness, wisdom and devotion. That’s a pure emotion that people wouldn’t be able to embody, so he represents something even better than human.”