News: Guest Posts
On September 8th the vein on my forehead started throbbing. Garmin had posted a video ad on Facebook for its new Delta Smart smartphone-based dog activity tracker that includes an electronic shock feature.
“Your dog wasn’t born with manners,” Garmin wrote. The video showed pictures of a “mail carrier alarmist” Schnauzer, a “blinds shredder” Whippet, and a “counter shark” Border Collie, to set up the point that, with their new device, consumers will be able to use electric shocks to teach their dogs to behave. The video has since received hundreds of scathing comments and has been shared more than 2,000 times.
Though Garmin has been selling e-collars for years, the Delta Smart system has caused a community of dog lovers to speak out in protest. In fact, I created a Change.org petition on Friday to ask Garmin to remove the electric shock feature from the device. As of this morning, the petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from across the globe. (I have not received a response from Garmin yet.)
Perhaps it was the Facebook ad that called attention to this controversial topic—it was the first time I had heard that the company sold e-collars. But it might also be because the Delta Smart system pairs electric shocks with an exciting new GPS technology for dogs. Dog guardians without training will have the ability to send electric shocks to their dogs’ necks by a mere tap on their smartphone screen. They may not be aware of the fact that using such collars can have serious repercussions.
Organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Pet Professional Guild and the UK Kennel Club have all spoken out against the use of shock collars, and countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria have banned the use entirely.
“Countless evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process,” wrote Susan Nilson, Niki Tudge and Angelica Steinker on behalf of the Pet Professional Guild, “electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short-term and long-term psychology damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.”The IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) also has just issued a position statement coming out, strongly, against this device, remarking that: “We believe this device has the potential to cause harm to dogs and should not be recommended by behavior consultants, trainers, or used by members of the public. This is because both Bluetooth and smartphones have the potential to introduce excessive latency. Latency is the delay between inputting something into a system, and the system’s output.” See the full IAABC statement here..
Will Garmin remove the shock feature from its new product? I’m not so naïve to think that will be an easy sell, but whether it happens or not, at least people are talking about the dangers of shock collars. With each signature to my petition, my forehead vein throbs a little less.
Learn more at on the change.org petition.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog parks have come a really long way in the past 20 years. Once deemed a mild curiosity (and perhaps an irritant) by most city and county park departments, they are now at the top of the list of community “must-haves.” Since 2007, their numbers have grown by 80 percent, according to a recent report from the Trust for Public Lands, which surveyed the nation’s 100 largest city park systems.
As noted in their report, 2016 City Park Facts, “Nearly every big city now has at least one dedicated dog park, often with a name that reflects the creativity and exuberance of the movement. Fort Worth pups play at Fort Woof, Memphis pets frolic at Overton Bark, Dallas dogs run at My Best Friend’s Park and Atlanta pooches scamper at Freedom Barkway.”
As we all know, we’re hooked on dogs and love our outdoor R&R time with them, watching them make new friends as we share the latest with other dog folks. Park planners and advocates are catching on; as Peter Harnik, who led the study noted, “Americans love dogs, and parks increasingly reflect that fact as people want places to get outside and take their dogs with them.”
According to the report, the top five dog-park cities are Henderson, Nev.; Portland, Ore.; Norfolk, Va.; Las Vegas, Nev.; and Madison, Wisc.
We have to hand it to all those “exuberant” dog park advocates: our hard work has paid off.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
1. TOY STORY West Paw Design has a new toy in its collection. The Zogoflex Air Wox is a crazybouncing, three-legged tug; there’s always a place to grab, and its squishy texture is soft on teeth (and hands). Plus, it’s guaranteed against dog damage. What more could you ask?
2. TRAVEL TIDY Take to the hills, the beach, the park or the trail with your dog and Dublin Dog’s Multi-Purpose Field Bag. It opens like a suitcase, has lots of compartments for your training gear, and comes with a dry cinch bag that holds several days’ worth of kibble or treats.
3. POO BE GONE We all do it—walk briskly holding our dog’s leash in one hand and a full poop bag in the other. The Leash Pod, which also dispenses bags, allows us to skip the indignity. Put a full bag in the hidden bin, and when you spy a garbage can, release the bag into it.
4. HANDS-FREE FUN If you love to run with your dog and would also love to have a little more control, Iron Doggy’s Runner’s Choice bungee leash is for you. It attaches to a lightweight belt by a sliding snap buckle and has a series of knots and handles that help you keep the pup on track.
5. RETRO CHIC Your dog doesn’t care what her dish looks like as long as it’s full, but you’ll appreciate Waggo’s Too Hot vintage ceramic dog bowls, which echo casserole dishes of days gone by. They come in four colors and two sizes—two- and four-cup capacity—and are dishwasher and microwave safe. waggo.com
6. TASTY TOPPER Honest Kitchen calls their Functional Liquid Treat a “treat with benefits.” The tasty instant bone broth also has turmeric, the potent kind, and can be used as a between-meal drink or to enhance your dog’s regular meals. It may also tempt picky or reluctant eaters. (Good for cats, too.)
War is hell, the saying goes, and not just for soldiers. The highly trained military dogs at their side pay an equally severe price. Sculptor James Mellick has memorialized these dogs— and through them, the soldiers with whom they served—in a series of seven life-sized works. The Doberman missing a foreleg, a German Shepherd with a prosthetic paw, a Belgian Malinois with a metal plate: as hard as they are to contemplate, these dogs seem undaunted, a testimony to Mellick’s sensitivity and dogs’ innate, in-the-moment nature. Carved from cherry, poplar, sycamore, walnut and cedar, the sculptures came to life through a long process of designing, laminating, carving and finishing. Fine details—the bone structure under the fur; the curve of a leg; expressions conveyed by the eyes, brows and ears—are informed by Mellick’s lifetime with dogs as well as his current canine housemates, a Weimaraner and a rescued Lab/Weimaraner mix.
In his sculptural work, he says, his intent is to “reach a unity of shape and content, so that the secondary forms and shapes within the body of the dog not only serve as symbols of the meaning, but are also important design elements in the composition.”
This isn’t Mellick’s first dog-related artistic foray; he’s been investigating and experimenting with dogs as metaphors for more than 30 years. His first was Stacking Dogs (1985), a 12-foot tower of dogs ranging from an Irish Wolfhound to a Chihuahua, a comment on human arrogance, he says. His Canine Allegory Series (1997) also reflects his belief in dogs as talismans. “I see the dog as a totem animal of humans, a parallel self, if you will, who has the goods on us. Think about the dog’s unconditional love, trust, vulnerability, and the therapy and healing they offer. Look into their eyes and they are either saying ‘I love you’ or ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
He displayed three of the dogs—two German Shepherds and a Malinois—at the 2015 Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Nashville. The veteran dogmen were drawn to them, Mellick says. “The dogs were a big hit, with the guys taking selfies with them, and many, many conversations took place around them. Men were wiping tears away. They released many emotions that had been locked up.” Their reactions aren’t hard to understand. Military dog-team jobs have always been dangerous: detecting explosives, scouting the enemy and taking part in search-and-rescue missions. Many don’t survive, and those who do tend to be deeply affected by the experience.
Mellick feels strongly about our nation’s ambivalent response to the men and women who serve in the military. As he told an interviewer earlier this year, “It’s one thing to be against war, but things really go south when people turn against the soldiers who serve. Young people today put themselves in harm’s way not because they were drafted but because they’ve volunteered. And because there is no draft, many of us don’t see the cost and we don’t feel the pain.”
In Wounded Warrior Dogs, Mellick makes us look straight at things we’d probably prefer to avert our eyes from—he makes us feel the pain and see the cost, both to the war dogs and their battlefield partners.
Wounded Warrior Dogs:
This exhibit has no connection to or association with the Wounded Warrior Project charity.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In her new book, Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey thoughtfully examines the history, stereotypes, fiction and societal worries surrounding a breed that was once thought to be an American icon. In this excerpt, she scrutinizes the science behind a misunderstood and complicated behavior.
The Victorian dog-show mania of the mid-nineteenth century not only created hundreds of new breeds, but also created two possible categories of bloodlines within many of them: working bloodlines, in which behaviors were most important, and conformation or show bloodlines, which prioritized appearance over behavior. The “washouts” from the conformation lines usually went on to pet homes. The dramatic increase in the number of breeders also allowed for more physical and behavioral variation within each breed, with the most popular dogs also being the most varied. Today, Labradors from American show lines are much shorter and fatter than they were even twenty years ago, while Labradors from British field lines are leaner and leggier. Dogs from these two strains may not only look different, they may also have drastically different behavioral profiles.
When breeders stop pushing, the car rolls back down the hill, and canine behavior drifts back to the middle. Exaggerated traits that are not selected for and not adaptive will mellow out and disappear over time, which is what appears to be happening in both the American and European dog populations. The overwhelming majority of modern dogs live as pets, rather than workers. Great Danes are no longer used for boar hunting. Siberian huskies do not pull sleds. Rhodesian ridgebacks do not bay lions, and most dachshunds will never see a badger, let alone kill one. Rather, these animals are physical reminders of the way the world once was. As the historian Scottie Westfall says, “Dogs are artifacts.” Though it is common to attribute a dog’s behavior to the task it was historically “bred for,” many of us fail to consider that most of today’s dogs are “bred for” the work of being companions, and have been for many generations.
In 2005, Kenth Svartberg, a zoologist from Stockholm University, collected data from more than thirteen thousand dogs from thirty-one breeds that had been subjected to a standardized behavior test and sorted them according to behavioral traits such as “playfulness,” “curiosity/fearlessness,” and “sociability.” After analyzing the data, Svartberg and his colleagues found that there was “no relationship . . . between the breeds’ typical behavior and function in the breeds’ origin.” He did, however, find that dogs from working lines (not breeds, but lines) retained more of their historical working traits than dogs from show lines, leading him to conclude that “basic dimensions of dog behavior can be changed when selection pressure changes, and . . . the domestication of the dog is still in progress.”
Pit bull breeds are not exempt from this trend. Unlike pointing or retrieving, both of which increase a dog’s ability to feed itself and its offspring by hunting, fighting isn’t one behavior but a complex series of behaviors that put the animal at tremendous risk. As highly social creatures that negotiate and renegotiate their relationships over time, most dogs depend on shared resources for their survival. If removed from human society, a dog that indiscriminately attacks or kills its own kind doesn’t live very long. While it’s certainly possible to breed for certain types of aggression (toward humans or other animals), it’s much harder to breed dogs that match the profile that fighters say they want: an animal that is indiscriminately accepting of humans, selectively reactive around other dogs in a specific environment—the pit— but tolerant of dogs outside of it, one that “doesn’t signal its intentions,” and also “doesn’t feel fear or pain.” They may as well be describing the American unicorn terrier, because these are all genetic dead ends.
No researcher has yet located an “aggression gene” or a set of aggression genes, despite years of genomic analysis. While conducting his research at Bar Harbor, John Paul Scott considered aggression “a poor scientific term [that] chiefly functions as a convenient handle to relate phenomena described in more objective terms to practical human problems.” At best, today’s scientists can only make educated guesses about certain components of canine reactivity, like the startle reflex (which multiple studies indicate is heritable) and individual pieces of the agonistic repertoire (freezing, fleeing, defensive postures, vocalizations, etc.). But this requires that researchers clearly define and isolate the behaviors they are observing, which is always a challenge. It’s possible, for example, that what was once called “rage syndrome” in certain lines of the English springer spaniel and English cocker spaniel is not one condition but several that were mistakenly grouped into one category. A few studies in mice and dogs have shown that disruption of the 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors in the brain, which regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, may be linked to specific types of impulsive aggression, but in both animals and humans, the 5-HT receptors can be damaged by stress and trauma that occur both in utero and after birth. Yet even these possible neurological links have been observed only in dogs from tightly closed gene pools. They are not widely passed from dog to dog in an open breeding system, like the passing of a disease.
“Let’s assume that you and I are working to breed the most dangerous aggressive fighting dog in the world,” Kris Irizarry, the geneticist at Western University, told me. “And we want this dog to turn and attack any human being, child, or any other animal relentlessly and never stop until it dies, 100 percent of the time. That’s our goal, okay? Now, let’s make the crazy assumption that we achieve that goal, and we produce, I don’t know, fifty dogs, a hundred dogs, even a thousand dogs that all have the same amount of this supernatural trait. For our purposes, we’ll call them ‘Crazy Dogs.’”
As he previously pointed out, “The moment our dog mates with any other type of dog, half of that genetic material is lost, so now you have a litter that’s only 50 percent Crazy Dog. If that litter reproduces, then their offspring are only 25 percent Crazy Dog. Then it goes down to 12.5 percent, 6.25 percent, et cetera. Within only seven generations, you’re at 1 percent Crazy Dog, and that’s assuming you were 100 percent successful at the beginning, which we know isn’t true of any breeder or any type of dog. Especially when you’re talking about complex behaviors like fighting, it just doesn’t work that way. There are probably constellations of genes, maybe even hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing to that behavior. You have to get the right neuron shape, the appropriate amount of neurotransmitters, all these things.
“So,” he continued, “the idea that any dog that has an ancestor—however many generations back—that had a head shape that cast a shadow against a wall that looked like the shape of a dog that bit someone in the pants . . . the idea that this dog is now going to be biting people is absolutely ludicrous! Americans watch too many zombie movies.”
A number of other studies have confirmed that dogs lash out most frequently from fear and anxiety, not “rage.” Not every dog that displays these behaviors has been abused, neglected, or formally trained, but overwhelmingly, the factors most highly correlated with dog aggression, such as the dog’s early development, its level of socialization with people and other dogs, how it is contained, and which training methods the owner uses, are completely within the owner’s control. Research indicates that these factors are far more important than the physical shape of the dog in determining its behavior.
Our own perceptions and expectations of the animals we encounter play a role in this, as well. “Dog breeds develop reputations,” writes the biologist Ray Coppinger, “and those reputations color people’s interactions with them.”
The fearful responses of people to a perceived aggressive breed “teaches” the shepherds or pit bulls to be aggressive with people. As the dog walks the streets, some people, almost imperceptibly, will take a step back or away from the dog. In two weeks the dog can become aggressive toward people. If people treated a golden retriever the same way, in theory one would get the same results.
Are shepherds genetically aggressive? Yes! Where are the genes for aggression? In their coat color and shape. It is a feedback system, where each time a person steps back from the shepherd because of its coloring and shape, the dog becomes more responsive to the move, and the people react more demonstratively to its movement, and so on. Can you train the dog not to be aggressive once it has learned to be? Probably not satisfactorily.
Okay, then can you breed people-aggressiveness out of shepherds? Of course! I’d start by breeding shepherds to have yellow coats and floppy ears. “Gameness,” however one defines that elusive quality, has never been studied in the laboratory with other variables held constant. Nor is it defined with any consistency. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist—there’s much anecdotal evidence that it does—but we have no way of measuring it. And, as we know, not all pit bulls come from fighting stock, anyway. The Stafford and AmStaff are show breeds, as is the American bully. Most APBTs come from conformation/ pet lines as well. So, the selective pressure for “gameness” was relaxed for most pit bulls between 80 and 150 years ago. As a result, many have retained their looks but not their historical working drives.
If we want to own dogs, their teeth come along. It is up to us to learn how and when dogs use them and to keep our dogs out of situations where they feel they need to. Aside from that, we must also accept that sometimes accidents and misunderstandings, even tragedies, can happen. As much as we may want them, there are no simple answers.
Excerpted from Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Dog's Life: Travel
Pound Puppy Hikes
Red Mountain Resort and Spa in Ivins, Utah, near Snow Canyon State Park and St. George in the southwestern corner of the state, hosts adventure retreats focusing on wellness, healthy meals and exercise. In addition to the list of offerings one might expect— hiking, fitness training, biking, yoga, water workouts, spa treatments and more—this destination resort also provides another option that’s sure to bring joy to a dog-lover’s heart: opportunities for its guests to interact with animals from nearby shelters and rescue groups.
According to Tracey Welsh, the resort’s general manager, incorporating animals into the program started a few years ago, when the staff noticed that guests who brought their dogs with them were “instant rock stars”; other guests wanted to meet and pet the dogs. About the same time, one of the resort’s hiking guides became the animal control officer at the Ivins Municipal Animal Shelter. The guide-turned-officer had an ambitious goal: turn the facility into a no-kill shelter. Armed with two critical data points— shelter dogs need walks and increased exposure promotes adoptions—the new officer worked with the municipality to overcome liability concerns, and “Pound Puppy Hikes” was born. It didn’t take long for Red Mountain Resort to realize the potential benefits of the program to its guests and weave Pound Puppy Hikes into its wellness offerings.
The shelter, which is only a mile from the resort, determines which dogs are best suited to be hiking companions. The resort transports guests to the shelter, where their guide shares information on shelter history and the no-kill philosophy before they head out— shelter pups in tow—on their hike.
“The biggest problem is that sometimes there aren’t enough dogs,” says Welsh, adding that a few guests will sometimes stay behind to play with the shelter’s cats and kittens. “The program sets us apart,” says Welsh. “Our guests are highly disappointed if the hike doesn’t happen; it’s something people really look forward to.”
The resort also collaborates with a nearby nonprofit that rescues wild mustangs. Guests can visit the ranch, meet and learn how to lead the horses, and “experience a powerful heart-to-heart hug.”
Red Mountain Resort and Spa has always been dog friendly. According to Welsh, most guests who arrive with their own dogs are on their way to another destination, and stay one or two nights. Those who stay longer tend to have smaller dogs not into hiking; the resort makes it possible for the petite pups to safely stay behind while their people do the Pound Puppy Hike. For those who want to get out and about with their dogs, the resort provides information on nearby dog-friendly trails.
Sometimes, with the help of the resort, an Ivins shelter dog finds a new home. Guests have been responsible for about 20 adoptions since the program started in 2009. “We’ve had dogs go as far away as Alaska and Kentucky,” says Welsh. “It’s a delightful problem, to help guests figure out how to get a dog home. We feel so good about the program.” redmountainresort.com
Postscript: Another way to do good for southwestern Utah dogs is to contribute to INKAs (Ivins No Kill Animal Supporters), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that makes it possible for the shelter to maintain a no-kill philosophy by helping pay for various items and services, including veterinary care, food, medications, cages, litter boxes, bedding, harnesses and leashes. inkas4pets.org
Wellness: Health Care
As the mom of two young children, I’m always checking the weather forecast. Jacket or sweater? Rain boots or sneakers? As a veterinarian with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), I rely on a different forecast, the Companion Animal Parasite Council findings published by my veterinary colleagues, which tracks the intensity of pet diseases from year to year. Here’s what to expect for the remainder of 2016.HEARTWORM DISEASE FORECAST: STORMY
Veterinarians anticipate a rise in heartworm disease because of the unusual weather pattern created by El Niño. The warmer temperatures and wetter conditions create an ideal breeding environment for mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a dog, the larvae are injected into the dog’s skin. They migrate through the body, finding their way to the large blood vessels of the heart and lungs. There, they mature to the size of cooked spaghetti. These tangled masses of worms can cause heart failure, and even death, if not treated early.
Expect to see cases skyrocket in:
Heartworm disease is prevalent in the Lower Mississippi River region and this year it’s expected to spread to:
All dogs need to be protected from heartworms, even those who rarely venture outside. The one mosquito that flies through your open window and bites your dog just might be infected with heartworm larvae. Preventives are available in the form of pills, topical liquids and injections. All kill the larvae once they enter the bloodstream. The AAHA recommends year-round heartworm prevention.TICK-BORNE DISEASE FORECAST: PARTIALLY CLOUDY
An infected tick can spread a number of life-threatening diseases when it bites a dog. The most common are Lyme, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, and their prevalence varies by region. Some dogs with Lyme disease will run a high fever, experience painful joints and exhibit swollen lymph nodes. Others will present no signs at all. Untreated infections can lead to kidney failure and death.
In regions where Lyme has been living comfortably for years, the incidence is expected to rise. These regions include:
Recently, the disease has spread to:
These states may have a higher-than-average occurrence the rest of the year.
Historically, Lyme has thrived in New England, but, oddly enough, the incidence there is expected to fall below normal this year, perhaps because more owners are vaccinating their dogs.
If you live in an area where ticks are abundant, take precautions to keep your dogs safe. Your veterinarian will prescribe a tick preventive in the form of pills, topical liquids or collars. In areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, she may recommend vaccination.
Anaplasmosis causes disruptions in blood clotting, which results in bruising, internal bleeding and nosebleeds. Signs of Lyme disease also present in anaplasmosis.
Anaplasmosis shows moderate to high activity in:
Ehrlichiosis displays signs similar to both Lyme and anaplasmosis along with eye, liver and spleen infections. Above-normal incidence of ehrlichiosis is expected in:
Just like the human flu, canine influenza is spread by one infected dog sneezing or coughing on another. Two strains of canine influenza are present in the U.S. H3N8 has been here for years, but a vaccine has kept it at bay. A new Asian strain, H3N2, hit Chicago last spring, causing a local epidemic; dogs didn’t have a natural immunity to the strain and there was no vaccine. Since then, H3N2 has infected more than 1,000 dogs in more than 25 states. Fortunately, H3N2 vaccines were developed not long after the outbreak, which likely curbed the spread. It’s difficult to predict how the flu season will play out for the rest of the year. With so many dogs on the move with their owners, and not all of them protected by vaccines for the new strain, the disease could spread quickly. If you plan to travel with your dog, visit your veterinarian for a vaccine protocol.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Excerpt from The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene
A German Shepherd mix slated for euthanasia watched Karen Shirk from behind the bars of his cinder-block cell in a cacophonous county animal control building. With his long black muzzle and imploring brown eyes, he looked at her with that heartbreaking shelter-dog mix of worry, fear, confusion, and hope. “This is a good-looking boy. Do you know anything about him?” Karen called from her wheelchair to a nearby worker. “Can he sit? Can you sit, boy? Sit.”
The dog sat. His haunches trembled with the sincerity of his “Sit.” He tentatively raised one paw a few inches above the floor, in case the stranger also wanted “Shake.” She didn’t say “Shake,” so he lowered his paw quietly and put his whole focus back into his excellent “Sit.”
He was an “owner-surrender,” though there was no coercion or “surrendering” about it: his people, for reasons unknown to the shelter, had brought him here to be disposed of. In crowded shelters, owner-surrenders are among the first to go: without the required ten-day “stray hold” bestowed upon lost dogs or cats for whom someone may be searching, the owner-surrenders quickly join the ranks of the sick, the injured, the elderly, the pregnant, the nursing mothers and their newborn litters, and the defamed pit bull breeds—no matter how gentle—to be euthanized one by one by one, usually by lethal injection …
The scrape of shovels and splash of water and the homesick yelps of imprisoned dogs ricocheted around Karen and the German Shepherd mix as the dog sat for her on the cement, making worried eye contact, in the most important and possibly last audition of his life. Did the shelter dog understand on any level that he had won Karen’s attention, however briefly? As he gazed unflinchingly and longingly into her eyes, was he aware that he’d captured the attention of a human being, something in scarce supply in a county animal shelter? Of course he knew. He was begging her, with his eyes, not to leave him.
“I’m going to give him a try,” Karen said to an employee. “Let’s take him outside.” The worker stepped into the pen and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.
On the way down the cement hall toward the steel exit door, the shepherd, leashed, stayed beside Karen’s wheelchair, but his paws moved double-time, like a speeding cartoon character whose legs accelerate into wheeling blurs. Outside, the dog blinked in the sunlight and barely knew which way to run first. Just in case, he briefly sat again, tremblingly, joyfully. When the passenger door of the van opened to him, he bounded into the seat, wiggled in happiness, settled in, and never looked back. He moved into the cabin with Karen and her own dog, Ben, and soon began training for Karen’s first child client, a twelve-year-old girl with paralysis. Soon two rescued Golden Retrievers joined them, one for each of the adult women who’d requested dogs. It was a happy messy life for Karen, the start of her finding a way toward the life she wanted. The hospitalized preteen squealed with joy when she saw the German Shepherd mix for the first time and named him Butler—“because he’s going to be like my furry butler!” When his mobility training was finished and he was placed with the family at home, Butler broke the no-child barrier among service dog agencies, among the first service dogs in the world to be trained for a child.
He was a great success! He heeled beside her wheelchair, slept on her bed, and always sat up extra straight and tall when told to sit, since this was evidently his winning skill. The girl’s laughter rang through the house again whenever Butler, unable to contain his love and happiness, stood up, propped his front feet on the armrest, and leaned into the wheelchair to lick her cheeks.
“Am I too old for one of your dogs?” strangers phoned to ask Karen. “Is my child too young for one of your dogs?” “Am I too disabled?” “Am I disabled enough?”
Karen told everyone the same thing: “If your life can be improved by a dog and you can take good care of a dog, I’m going to give you a dog.”
A couple with a ten-year-old son with autism phoned to say that their boy constantly ran away and they’d hoped a service dog might keep track of him, but the service dog agencies had all denied them. This was again new territory. Karen knew that placing service dogs with adults with invisible disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or seizure disorder, was the cutting edge of service dog work, but it hadn’t yet been tried with children. It was a tall order, quite different from training Butler for mobility work with a child.
Back to an animal shelter she went. Despite the forbidding prison-like appearance of the place and the collective hysteria of the stressed and frightened dogs, Karen knew there had to be animals there with high intelligence and fine dispositions. The problem was that their panic at the harsh, crammedin, and grating conditions of captivity concealed their true natures. The confinement in cement cells with industrial drains in the floor made the dogs seem ferocious, impossible to tame, even insane. They bared their gums and barked in fear, scaring away adopters.
As Karen wheeled through the cat room on the way to the dog kennels, cats stuck their forearms through the bars of their stacked-up cages, waving their paws around in blind search for human contact. Karen stopped to stroke the arm of one cat; the lean middle- aged tabby instantly withdrew his arm and flipped onto his side in the cage in winsome appeal. He’d waited so long for a tummy-rub! He stretched out and began to purr. But Karen couldn’t reach that far into the cage and had to move on. She knew that virtually none of these adult cats would see daylight again.
Tail lowered, ears flattened, face downcast, Patches, a Beagle mix, managed just a couple of tentative halfhearted tail-wags from the back of his cell. His overtures hadn’t beguiled anyone in the nearly twenty-one days of his captivity and his time was up. Karen positioned her wheelchair outside his cage for a closer look. Every morsel of emotion rushed into the dog’s moist trembling nose. He approached and shyly pushed his nose through the chain-link barrier.
“Okay, boy, I see you,” she said. When he was led out of his cage by a handler for one-on-one time with Karen, the little dog was so excited, shaking so hard, he couldn’t avoid peeing a little on the cement f loor. Like Butler before him, he left the shelter riding high in the passenger seat of Karen’s van, his mouth wide open with happiness, his ears rippling in the wind he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Before pulling onto the state road, however, Karen sighed, stopped, wheeled around, pulled back into the parking lot, and called out her window to a staffer to bring her the middle-aged tabby cat.
Patches, the rescued Beagle mix, became one of the first dogs in the world (similar work was beginning in Canada at that time) trained in autism assistance. He may have become the first dog in the world trained to track a single child. Now when their son disappeared, his parents cried: “Patches! Find Kevin!” And Patches took off to find the boy, wherever he was. One night he tracked him to a stranger’s backyard three blocks away. The land sloped down to a stream; Kevin, in his pajamas, was peering into the water when the dog interrupted his reverie. “Patches just saved our son’s life again,” the parents emailed Karen.
The cabin filled up with rescued dogs. “It’s a wonderful feeling when we see one of our animals adopted by 4 Paws!” said Mary Lee Schwartz, executive director of the Humane Association of Warren, Ohio. “We’re happy when a dog gets adopted to a normal home, but when one gets adopted to a home when he’s going to help someone, we’re thrilled! I can’t think of a more exciting thing to happen for a dog, especially one on Death Row.”
Another shelter worker commented: “People are surprised that we have such highly talented dogs coming through our shelter, capable of performing the functions of service animals. But of course we do.”
All shelters have them: indescribably marvelous animals just waiting to be given a chance.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
It’s springtime, the warm weather and longer days give us time to see how our gardens and yards can be made more dog-friendly. One way is to make sure they’re free of plants that might make them sick; another is to add a few small amenities they’ll enjoy more than digging up the flower bed. Here are some ideas from Maureen Gilmer, landscape designer, horticulturalist and dog lover. More can be found online at moplants.com, where you can also download The Dog-Scaped Yard: Creating a Backyard Retreat for You and Your Dog, the eBook from which these were adapted.
Warm Weather Flop Spot
A Disguised Seasonal Dipping Pool
Al Fresco Nibbles
Wheat and oat grass dog patch. Fresh wheat grass juice is a popular drink for humans. Wheat and oat grass are also good for dogs, in moderation. They will naturally graze on it when they need the nutrients it contains, rather than browsing through your flowers. If you have a dog in a small city yard, consider planting wheat grass in an outdoor patch. It grows great in low, wide troughs. Most pet suppliers sell the seeds in small quantities. For a sizeable dog patch, save money by purchasing your oat and wheat seed in quantity at a health food store. It’s free of chemicals and ideal for large plantings.
Keep Your Yard Foxtail Free
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