Dog's Life: Humane
For centuries, wolves — incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent — have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.
It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog mix — or “wolfdog” — which some consider to represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.
As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolfdogs are perhaps the most misunderstood — and, many would argue, mismanaged — animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others and are showing up on breedban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”
What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for wolfdogs. While the federal government officially sees them as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk — even if he’s been vaccinated — because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine with “hybrids” (the vaccine is approved for use in dogs, cats, ferrets and horses). Euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.
Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so, they have to make a tough choice: lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone — a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.
When it comes to their legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep one as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states — Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota — a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah — don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit, or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit — the same type needed to keep a lion.
And, legal or not, wolfdogs pose significant behavioral challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, thus creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized.
“These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z. “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”
Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm, a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.
Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.
Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association, a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”
Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”
Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, a person will think he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past — maybe he had or knew an animal who he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog — and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”
Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as ‘typical.’”
“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs, or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.
“The average dog owner won’t deal with their Beagle, and can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I worked with them to the point that I could look between their paw pads and look at their teeth — and give them tummy rubs — but I never forgot what they really were.”
Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty and appeal, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolfdogs as companion animals does a disservice to both Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris as well as to the individual animal. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife are just two of many groups working on their behalf.
News: Guest Posts
This inforgraphic is a good reminder that we should consider our dogs when picking plants for both inside and out. According the ASPCA, their poison control hotline receives around 150,000 calls annually from pet owners needing assistance with possible poison-related emergencies. This inforgraphic is based on a list of toxic plants from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's most common causes of emergency calls and Texas A&M ’s “Common Poisonous Plants and Plant Parts ”. The infographic gives you a break down of the risks to your dog (and cat!) and warning signs to look out for.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Trick training in small places
Small space and active dog. This is reality for an increasing number of people who share their small city apartments with dogs. While there is no substitute for a long walk or run, there is a surprising amount you can do to keep your pup fit, both mentally and physically, in a confined space.
Tricks are the key to happy urban dogs. Trick training might once have had a reputation as dog training’s less serious cousin, but no more! It has tremendous benefits: enhanced bonding, increased canine confidence and a contained way to exercise your dog’s brain absent a yard filled with agility equipment. Trick training is also a fantastic way to build human/ canine communication skills, which will improve all areas of life with your dog. Finally, many build muscle tone and strength.
Tricks generally fall into two categories: physical movement (or manipulating or in some way interacting with a prop) and vocalization. Tricks can be fun and silly (spinning in circles and dancing) or practical (putting toys away in a basket). Essentially, anything your dog does—stretching, yawning, barking or other vocalizations—can be turned into a cued trick.
Some physical behaviors (bowing, spinning, sitting up and so forth) can be trained very easily using what’s called a luring method, in which something of high value to your dog is used to guide the dog into the desired position. Over time, a cue word is added to the behavior; then, the cue comes first and the luring is slowly phased out. The result? A polished trick.
To turn other behaviors such as sneezing, yawning or vocalizing into tricks, a technique called capturing works well. Capturing takes a little more time than luring, as you aren’t manipulating the dog into the behavior but rather, are waiting for the dog to exhibit the behavior and then offering an immediate reward. To be successful, you need to keep treats and/or clicker close at hand. (Clickers can be extremely effective when you’re starting to train tricks because they allow the precise marking of a desired behavior; they’re especially helpful when utilizing capturing and shaping techniques.)
Shaping involves working in partnership with your dog; I like to think of it as putting together a puzzle, or “building” a trick. Shaping focuses on facilitating dogs’ use of their brains. With shaping, you are click/treating (or otherwise rewarding) at incremental steps along the way to the goal behavior. Shaping is useful when training a complicated or multi-part trick.
For example: my dog knows how to “play basketball,” which in our case means dunking a ball into a little basketball hoop. In order to get to the finished trick, I broke it down into small pieces so the dog could understand what I wanted. Eventually, the different pieces of the trick came together. To shape the basketball trick, I first treated for interest in the ball, then for picking it up, then for holding it, then for moving toward the basket and, finally, for dropping it through the net.
Although they take up a little more room, tricks involving props are fun and can add a new twist to your trick repertoire. Hoopla hula hoops or broomsticks can be used to make indoor jumps (be sure to keep the height low for safety). You can also repurpose children’s toys such as basketball hoops, stacking rings, skateboards or wagons for impressive and innovative tricks that show off your training skill and your dog’s brilliance. The biggest payoff, however, is the fun you’ll have together.
Visions of Gold
To have vision, says Danelle Umstead, “is to have sight, an idea or a dream.” Her immediate vision is to win gold for the U.S. in alpine skiing at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Danelle’s husband Rob Umstead, her coach and sighted guide, will be leading the way through the courses.
Last summer, Danelle’s longtime guide dog, a black Lab named Bettylynn, developed optic-nerve atrophy and had to retire, so Aziza, her new canine guide, will be rooting the couple on in Sochi. Bettylynn, the first guide dog to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in 2010, will be pulling for the couple back home in Park City, Utah, along with their son, Brocton.
When Danelle was 13, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that eventually causes complete darkness. Her vision is “spotted,” and she can only see up to five feet in front of her. Even then, colors have to be highly contrasting for her to make them out, and she sees little to no detail. Then, in 2011, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Still, neither of these hurdles has kept her from achieving her best.
Her father introduced Danelle to adaptive skiing in 2000 and acted as her guide. She quickly fell in love with the sport—the freedom, the speed, the exhilaration. She began training and working full-time with Rob in 2008, and competitive success soon followed: Paralympic Bronze medals at Vancouver (2010), nine World Cup podiums and Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships. Her success relies heavily on the 100 percent trust and communication she shares with Rob as he guides her down the hill at top speed. It’s similar to the trust and communication she had with Bettylynn and is working to build with Aziza.
Danelle and Rob have created Vision4Gold.org as a way to mentor junior disabled athletes by sharing her story and offering encouragement. We’re confident that Danelle will realize her vision.
Dog's Life: DIY
A fun project for the whole family.
Making the Dog Shape
Lay two sheets of newspaper flat on the table, one on top of the other. Scrunch up three balls of newspaper and line them up on top of the flat newspaper sheets. Then roll the flat sheets around the balls, forming a tube shape, and tape the tube together with masking tape
Bend the tube into an L shape to form the head and neck. Use masking tape to tape the bend in place.
Shape a scrunched-up piece of newspaper into the shape of a snout. Tape the snout onto the head with masking tape.
Use cardboard for ears. Draw two triangular shapes on the cardboard, then cut them out and tape to either side of the head.
Tail and Legs
Use a toilet paper roll to make the tail and legs. Cut a toilet paper roll in half lengthwise, then roll each half back into a tube and seal it with tape to form a leg. Use another half roll to form the tail. If you’re making a larger dog, you can use an entire toilet paper roll to form each leg.
Cover Dog with Masking Tape
Cover entire dog with two layers of masking tape, being sure to cover all the newspaper and cardboard. Smooth the tape down flat, leaving no gaps or air bubbles. This will ensure that the papier-mâché paste dries hardened.
1. This is a messy activity! Be sure to cover table with newspaper, butcher paper or a big plastic bag.
2. To make your papiermâché paste, whisk together 2 cups water, 1 1/2 cups flour and 2 tablespoons salt in a bowl. Add more water if the paste is too thick.
3. Tear sheets of newspaper into long strips one to two inches wide.
4. Dip the paper strips into the paste. Slide your fingers down the paper strips to wipe the excess paste back into bowl. The strips shouldn’t be too heavy with paste.
5. Start to cover the dog with papier-mâché strips. Flatten down the strips to make your dog smooth.
6. Cover the entire dog with two layers of papier-mâché strips.
7. Let the papier-mâché dog dry thoroughly for one to two days. To avoid mold, do not let the dog dry in a humid or damp room. If possible, dry it in sunlight on a windowsill — or even outdoors.
Painting the Dog
You can use children’s poster paints or acrylic paint. Paint the entire body first. Once the body has dried, paint the eyes, nose, mouth and any other creative details! Send a photo of your paper dog to us — we would love to see your handiwork! email@example.com
The Bark interview with photographer Amanda Jones
In the great tradition of itinerant photographers, Amanda Jones travels from town to town taking portraits. For more than two decades, she’s used her camera to write the stories of dogs nationwide, capturing them at specific moments in their lives. For her new book, Dog Years (Chronicle Books), Jones extended the narratives of 30 of her subjects—including Bark’s late, great “founding dog,” Nell—by pairing photos of their youthful and mature selves. She shares her insights with Bark art director Cameron Woo.
The term “dog years” suggests time compressed, measuring experiences on another level. What does it mean to you?
I assume that, like me, those who have dogs come to realize that their human lifespan can accommodate those of several canines. My first dog, Lily, who is featured in the book, had a great long life with me: from 12 weeks to 14 years. She moved with me across the U.S several times, she saw the birth of my daughter, she ushered out older rescues and welcomed in new puppies. Now, she’s gone, and as adults, those “new puppies” are welcoming in new rescues. I’m aging as well, and each one of those lives—whether arriving or departing—has an impact on me and on my family.
After all this time, what have you learned about dogs and their people?
Like humans, each dog is unique. They may share many physical similarities, but even siblings from the same litter display distinctive personalities. As for the people … I’ve worked with a wide range of personalities but they all share one thing: they love their animals.
When you were reunited with the dogs for these shoots, sometimes as much as 15 years later, did any of them seem to remember you?
Whether they remembered me specifically, I can’t say with certainty. I do think they remembered the process of the photo shoot and being on the set. In each case, the second shoot seemed to work that much easier. Or, maybe older dogs allow themselves to be more easily manipulated for a treat!
When I look at your portraits, I find myself drawn to the dogs’ eyes—they’re so powerful. What do you try to capture when you photograph your subjects?
I don’t go into a shoot expecting anything specific; I tend to let dogs dictate the nature of the session. If they love balls, then we play with balls and work from that activity. If they like to lie around and be mellow, I get creative and do some interesting portrait work.
What’s it like to connect with people and their dogs over time and across the country?
I have the best clients in the world; they’re the reason I get up in the morning and do what I do. In many cases, they have become best friends. I travel a lot and, as you can imagine, each trip presents logistical hurdles. These days, I have clients who are willing to share things that make my time on the road much more pleasant: places to stay, cars to drive, home-cooked meals to eat. And, of course, dogs are the glue that holds us together. What could be better than that?
As you assembled these matchups, did anything in particular jump out at you?
As you mentioned, it’s all about the eyes. Peering into those eyes several years later, I still see that certain spark. The muzzle goes gray and the body gets lumpy and jowly, but the soul is still the same. It amazes me.
What about the dogs in your life today?
There’s Benny, a shorthaired, silver-dapple Dachshund, and Ladybug, a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix. Ladybug is a recent rescue; her photo was posted on Instagram through an NYC rescue group and the second I saw it, I knew she was the dog for our family. Social media is an amazing way to spread awareness of animals in need of homes! And, of course, I still miss Lily, who inspired Dog Years.
Dog's Life: Travel
Bozeman, Montana is home to West Paw Design one of the greenest and socially responsible companies anywhere. West Paw Design are makers of eco-friendly dog beds and exquisitely designed toys that utilize a variety of forward-thinking materials such as hemp, organic cotton and an exclusive eco-fiber made completely from recycled plastic. If you are in the neighborhood, they welcome the public to come into their Bozeman-based manufacturing facility to pick up some toys and get their suggestions about the best places to bring their dogs—including their own West Paw Dog Park at Rocky Creek Farm that’s right down the street from where their facilities. Knowing their dedication to the good (dog) life, we spoke to the West Paw folks recently about some of their favorite canine destinations …
Drinking Horse Hiking Trail: This 2.1 mile loop offers scenic views and welcomes dogs. Located close to town, it offers a great moderate-level hike for canines and owners alike.
Sypes Canyon: Located in the Gallatin National Forest, this 5.8 trail through a shaded forest follows a creek-fed canyon that will quench your dog’s thirst. 2 miles in there’s an overlook with a great view of the Gallatin Valley. Don't be surprised to see horses on the trail.
Hyalite Reservoir: A 30 minute drive from downtown Bozeman, this getaway offers endless opportunities for hiking, breathtaking waterfalls and lakeside camping.
Pete’s Hill: A quick and convenient trail for downtown dwellers.
Cooper Park: Consensus selection of the most dog-friendly park in town, located in a historic residential area.
Bozeman Pond Dog Park: Awesome beach for dogs accompanies the one-acre off-leash area. Plus, an on-leash trail nearby.
Many of the city’s restaurants have outdoor seating in the summer and early fall, allowing dogs to hang with their owners al fresco. A few favorites: Naked Noodle, Plonk, Nova Café and Starky’s.
Even the apocalypse can’t keep good dogs down.
You wouldn’t think dogs and post-apocalyptic horror comics would go together, but you’d be wrong. In Avatar Press’s six-issue series, Rover Red Charlie—now available in collected form—writer Garth Ennis and artist Michael DiPascale put our best friends in the worst of circumstances: at the end of the world. Well, the human world, anyway. Fortunately, these canines are more than up to the challenge. Rover Red Charlie offers an uncanny insight into dogs and what life must be like from their point of view.
The comic features three dogs—Rover, Red and Charlie—trying to survive in a world in which all the humans have gone crazy and become violent for unknown reasons. We’re immediately shown the terrible predicament of seeing-eye dog Charlie: his leash is wrapped tightly around his owner’s hands, and his owner is on fire. Charlie is rescued by Red and Rover, who chew through the leash.
Rover, a Bassett Hound from England, is the cynic of the bunch; this character allows Irish writer Ennis to utilize plenty of appropriate slang. Red (a Red Setter) is the dumb, sweet, brave one who is also obsessed with the smell of his butt. Charlie, a Collie, is ever-proud of his guide dog vest and, as the most trained of the three, least equipped for the chaotic new world. The three pooches band together to survive and explore this new environment, meeting a variety of dogs and other critters in a cross-county journey from (as the dogs put it) the big splash to the bigger splash.
In Bleeding Cool, Ennis—well-known for classic runs on Marvel’s The Punisher and creator-owned Preacher—explained that the story “was inspired by an old painting that used to hang on the wall of my grandparent’s kitchen and now hangs on the wall of my office. It’s just head shots of three dogs. I think it was called ‘Faithful Friends,’ and I guess I waited 40-odd years to send them on an adventure. The other inspiration was when I figured out what dogs were saying when they barked.”
Ennis decided that barking means, “I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” This refrain is used powerfully throughout the book, with a few humorous variations, such as puppies yapping “I’m a pup! I’m a pup!” and an oddball Dachshund proclaiming “I’m a fish!” For Ennis, doglish is English plus these dogs’ own distinctive vocabulary, in which people are feeders, cats are hisspots, a heart is a thumper, the ocean is the big splash, fire is the burn, chickens are bork-borkers and Chihuahuas are me-dogs (because they bark “What about me? What about me?”). I’d buy a companion glossary to this comic in a second.
Our three heroes have differing views on the feeders and this changed world. Red and Rover are more accepting of the new state of affairs; Rover expresses a thought all dogs might have if they could put together a sentence: “Any time I got near anything interesting, I hardly had time for a sniff before I heard—Rover! No!” Charlie, the service dog, has more trouble letting go. He doesn’t want freedom, even when the three dogs pretty much have it made on a farm. The saddest words in the book might be Charlie’s plea: “I just want to be told what to do again.”
DiPascale’s art is naturalistic, kinetic and humane. You can tell he’s spent a lot of time around dogs because he nails not just the specific breeds, but dogs’ distinctive body language. Whether they’re feeling playful, confused, scared or defiant, DiPascale puts them in poses dog owners will recognize as true. There’s also a visual sense of humor to match Ennis’s wit: for example, the way he draws Rover running—flying folds of flapping flesh—is both true-to-life and funny. The real triumph of DiPascale’s beautiful painted art, however, is the faces, which are equally cartoony and realistic, expressing openness and honesty. Even if these dogs weren’t born charmers in terrible circumstances, you’d love them just for their mugs.
I asked Ennis by email why comics about dogs are so appealing, and he guessed anthropomorphism, adding, “…watching a dog sniffing around, frowning and shoving his nose in things, you can't help but attribute human motivation to him. Logically you know he's thinking—food, food, food, food, water, food, food, food—but your mind automatically comes up with thoughts that appear to match his expression and actions.”
A warning: This series isn’t going to work for squeamish readers. It is a horror story, and there is some gruesome violence, some of which happens to dogs. That’s usually a dealbreaker for me; I stopped watching the TV version of Fargo after a gratuitous dog death. But the violence in this comic is necessary for the horror genre, and without spoiling things too much, I can say the ending is far from a downer.
In fact, the ending is pretty damn inspiring: it makes you think that if we feeders were gone and the world literally went to the dogs, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A therapy dog overcomes her own fear and helps young patients gain invaluable insights.
Holly looked down into the swimming pool, paws extended over the edge, intently watching as her ball on a rope floated away. Head and shoulders thrust forward, she wanted desperately to retrieve it, but not at the risk of leaping into the air with an uncertain landing. The adolescents of 2 South called, “Holly, get it!” She had a strong prey drive, and would chase anything moving: a leaf, a ball, a bird, a squirrel (her favorite) or my slipper tossed across the room. She rocked precariously on the ledge as if she was about to let go and take the plunge. But then she backed up, and looked at me with that helpless stare.
It was summer now; the days were warm, and the outdoor swimming pool of the psychiatric hospital was open. Gail, the recreational therapist, invited me to conduct animal-assisted therapy sessions at the pool instead of in the hospital, and I accepted these invitations gladly. After all, Holly was more than just a therapy dog. She was a Retriever, bred to leap into ice-cold streams or lakes; mouth the bird shot out of the sky without injuring a single feather; swim to the shore and carry it to her companion, the hunter, presenting an unscathed bird. I had a water dog.
With a swimsuit underneath my slacks and a blue UCLA jacket, I came fully prepared to get wet along with Holly. Gail—whistle on a lanyard around her neck—looked like a lifeguard when she met us on the pool deck. The kids were already splashing around, some playing volleyball with a freedom of movement they didn’t show inside the walls of the hospital. The water seemed to calm and soothe them.
When I unhooked Holly’s collar with its jangling tags and untied her blue-and-gold UCLA scarf, her behavior also changed. She was no longer the calm therapy dog who worked in adolescent psychiatry. Excited, she ran joyous “victory laps” around the pool. Removing her “uniform” signaled that she was off duty, no longer a working dog. The sight and sounds of water added to her frenzy, and I had to hold onto her with both hands.
UCLA People-Animal Connection director, K.C., always concerned about safety issues, warned that the kids couldn’t be in the water at the same time as the dog. She recalled nearly drowning when a swimming dog accidentally placed a paw on her shoulder, pulling her underwater. When I made the disappointing announcement, the kids groaned and booed. “I want to swim with Holly,” yelled Jason, a 10-year-old with attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, as he circled the pool in loud protest. I had to be as creative as possible to make the session work.
I asked the teenagers to wait on the steps of the pool, where each would have a turn to throw a ball attached to a rope as far as they could into the water. Holly was to swim out and retrieve it, hold it in her mouth, then swim back and return it to the thrower. Eddie tossed the first ball; the wiry 11-year-old was so nervous about being first that he dropped the rope behind him twice before he finally figured out how to swing it in the air and hurl it forward. The ball landed at the deep end of the pool. Good throw!
Holly never took her eyes off it. I released her and gave the signal, “Holly, get it!” She raced down the steps, pushed off the last one and, treading smoothly through the pool’s blue water, reached the floating ball. She mouthed the rope attached to it, and with the ball dangling, turned back toward Eddie, holding onto her prey without so much as a splash.
“Look at her feet—she swims like a duck,” he called, watching her glide through the water. Reaching the steps, she dropped the ball into his waiting hand. Everyone applauded. Eddie smiled proudly at his accomplishment. Most of the kids had never seen a Retriever’s webbed feet gliding through the water with the ease and grace of an amphibian. “She was born to swim,” I said. But not in a pool!
At the beach, Holly would race from the sand into the surf chasing her yellow tennis ball, and when her feet could no longer touch bottom, she would propel those athletic legs through the water like paddles. Undaunted by turbulent tides, she would disappear under a crashing wave and surface again, never losing track of her prize. She would reach for it with her mouth, turn and swim back to me, drop it into my hand, and then stand in the shallow water, poised for the next throw.
When she started pool retrievals, she had to learn to use the concrete steps to get out. Initially, she would swim in circles, growing tired as she searched for the non-existent shoreline. The kids would sit on the steps calling, “Holly, here,” and she soon discovered which way was out.
But the one activity that still eluded her was jumping off the ledge of the pool, a drop of several feet, into the water. Now, she stood there staring as the ball drifted away, while we all yelled in chorus, “Holly, jump!” She turned to look at me, her eyes asking for help with this dilemma.
Holly looked to me for everything she wanted. I was the keeper of her ball, toys, food and water, her walks, her comfort or discomfort, her freedom or confinement. I was responsible for her survival. If she hurt her paw, she would hold it up and look at me pathetically. It was not surprising that as the bobbing ball moved farther away from her, she stared hard at me. But this time, I did not help her. She would have to jump into the pool and retrieve it for herself. She had to face her fears just like the rest of us.
In adolescent psychiatry, fear was a powerful motivator. Angry and defiant, 12-year-old Patty usually sauntered into group sessions ready for battle, fists clenched and poised to kick anyone in her way. She would be removed within minutes of her tirade, fighting and swearing at the staff as she was taken back to her room. She was never present long enough to interact with Holly Go Lightly, the canine therapist. Typically, Patty hid away, avoiding all social contact.
But in the swimming pool, Patty took on a different demeanor. Floating on her back, isolated from the group, she appeared peaceful, without “oppositional defiance,” as her behaviors were described in clinical reports: standing when told to sit and throwing her books on the floor when asked to open one. The water was therapeutic for her. There was freedom here. She didn’t show the aggression that had landed her in a psychiatric residential setting.
Patty had been expelled from public school and labeled as having a “conduct disorder” because she fought with everyone and incited brawls on the school playground. In class and in therapy, she refused to follow rules and procedures, walking out and spewing obscenities at her teachers and therapists alike.
While Holly stood at the edge of the pool testing her confidence, I seized the opportunity to talk with the group about being afraid. They knew about fear—Patty especially. I learned that she had suffered physical abuse from the man her mother lived with. Patty’s mother, who was unable to control her behavior, described her simply as a “bad kid.” Child Protective Services finally removed her from the home and, since she was out of control, referred her for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. With nowhere to go, and little change in her behavior, she was still in residence at the hospital.
I didn’t ask them to talk about what made them afraid. My technique was always to use Holly as the facilitator, keeping the focus on the child’s relationship with the dog.
“How can we help Holly overcome her fear of jumping into the pool?” I asked. Several children spoke up. Fifteen-year-old Alan said, “Throw her in … she’ll get over it.” An older girl, Barbara, about l7, said, “No, just pet her and be kind to her, and she’ll act brave.” Unknowingly, they were talking about how they dealt with their own demons. Alan showed bravado, suppressing any doubts or anxieties he might feel; it was difficult to relate to him, so protective was his cover. Barbara was withdrawn. She needed special attention before she would engage in most activities. She did little on her own without someone to encourage her.
Patty spoke for herself.
“Well, we need to show her that it’s safe.” This was an answer made in heaven, and coming from this child, it was profound. I jumped at the chance to use it.
“How can we show her it’s safe?” I asked.
“She can watch me,” she said, and in that instant, the young girl stood next to Holly at the edge of the pool and leaped into the air as if from a diving board, coming down feet first, straight into the water, splashing everyone around her. Now she began paddling about, watching the dog’s reaction. Holly just stared.
One at a time, the other kids followed Patty’s lead, showing Holly how it was done, until the entire group of nine children had landed in the pool and were splashing and thrashing around in the water. Some of them swam back and forth in front of Holly, calling her name. The Retriever inched forward, paws hanging over the edge. Still, she hesitated.
They began calling in unison: “Holly, jump! Holly, jump!” Patty grabbed the roped ball, threw it across the pool and swam after it, modeling for Holly what she was supposed to do, while the kids continued chanting. Holly leaned over and stared straight down as if she was measuring the distance of the drop into the water. She was almost in, and they continued to coax her.
It had become a group project, and it was thrilling to see these children, usually isolated and depressed, now smiling and calling and encouraging this hesitant and fearful dog to take the risk —to let go. They were working together as a group. The therapist was speechless. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Not only was Patty part of the group effort, she was leading it. Socialization was the primary goal for these teenagers, and they were achieving it.
Finally, Holly could wait no longer. She let go of the safety of her concrete perch and, like a bird leaving the nest, dove into the air and hit the water with a resounding splash. She sailed after her ball as if it were alive. The kids cheered. The staff cheered. Even the pool manager cheered.
Holly captured the prey, the object of her courage, scooped it up with her mouth, and headed toward the steps of the pool, where Patty now sat waiting for her. She released the ball into Patty’s hand, following the protocol of retrieving to the thrower. In those few moments, this child had become the leader of the pack. Holly flashed her famous Golden grin as if she knew she had fulfilled her legacy. She had conquered her fear of leaping from a high ground into a body of water, a skill that all working Retrievers must have. I underlined this occasion.
“You taught her not to be afraid,” I called out to the group. Every child smiled with pride.
And then I looked at Patty, sitting on the steps, hair soaked and face glowing. Her arms were wrapped tightly around the wet dog’s neck, and she nuzzled against Holly’s head.
I said directly to her, “And you showed her how to do it—to just let go and trust the water.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “I showed her it was safe.” Patty turned and kissed the top of Holly’s head, right on what I always called her “smart bump.” The kids splashed their way over to the pair and proceeded to pet and hug the dog, telling her how brave she had been. There was lots of chatter and laughter and celebration. We would all remember this day.
The kids from 2 South had become empowered by the simple act of bravery by an animal, paired with the cooperative effort of the group. The water was a metaphor for facing their fears. In helping Holly let go and jump, perhaps they would find their own courage.
After that day, the therapy dog was willing to jump into the pool without all of the hullabaloo. Just the throw of her beloved tennis ball and the words, “Holly, jump!” and she would leap into the water with confidence.
Patty left her room to come to all of our therapy sessions in the hospital or at the pool, to check on Holly. She needed to make sure that Holly was no longer nervous or afraid.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
No-fee housesitting is a boon for the adventurous animal lover.
Dot, my new roommate, and I just returned from a walk in the woods around the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While I stumbled over roots, Dot reveled in the fresh smells of a muddy creek bed, hid behind me when approached by a large dog and snuffled with delight through a pile of pine needles.
Dot is a 10-pound Jack Russell named for the single brown splotch on her right hip. I moved into her home two weeks ago, settling in for a six-month stay. Her people—Shari and Mark—are exploring India and I’m occupying their house while they’re away as part of a year-long house-sitting adventure, moving around the country in search of a permanent location.
It’s a no-cash exchange that suits all of us. I get to stay in their lovely home with its wraparound porch and wood-burning stove while becoming more familiar with this part of the country. They can rest easy knowing that their property and companion animals are well cared for. Best of all, Dot and her three feline buddies are able to remain at home in familiar surroundings.
We’re part of the new sharing economy energized by the Internet. Sure, house-swapping has been around for decades, but the Internet allows homeowners and house sitters to connect much more easily. The desire for in-home pet care is the major factor driving the trend.
“The most important thing to most homeowners is that they have happy pets cared for at home,” says Andy Peck, founder of the London-based TrustedHouseSitters.com, one of the websites I’ve used to find assignments. “Eighty percent of the people looking for a house sitter have pets. More and more people don’t want to use kennels.
“It’s a win for both parties. The sitter goes the extra mile—it’s not liking asking a reluctant nephew to do the job. And a lot of people genuinely love looking after pets while having a ‘staycation’ in a great place, a vacation where they can live like a local.”
North Carolina was my third house-sitting assignment in 2014. I spent 10 weeks in the spring in Bethesda, Md., and two months during the summer in Santa Barbara, Cal. After talking with Shari via Skype, I drove from Bethesda to Chapel Hill to meet her and her husband. In-person meetings aren’t necessarily the norm; Peck says that between Skype interviews and reference checks, many homeowners know more about their house sitters than they know about their neighbors. But in my case, the visit sealed the deal, primarily because Dot took to me at once. Within days of my arrival, she was giving me a nightly signal that it was time for us to repair to the bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed next to mine.
References definitely play a part. On TrustedHouseSitters.com, for example, they’re sent directly from the homeowner to the website; the sitter doesn’t have the opportunity to modify them. Some sitters also provide police background checks. However they’re handled, responsibility for checking references belongs solely to the homeowners, and snafus are not unknown. A sitter or homeowner can cancel at the last minute, leaving both parties in the lurch.
Some match-ups are better than others. I read listings carefully, looking for clues to the homeowner’s personality and expectations. One listing, for example, sought a sitter with an “alpha personality” to deal with their dogs. Not me! And sometimes, it’s the homeowners who are unreliable, as a friend discovered when she accepted a month-long assignment and the electricity was turned off for non-payment the first week she was there.
Assignments range from a few days to a few weeks, or as long as a year, and the listings are often mini-biographies that, though brief, reflect the homeowners’ love of their dogs.
“We are in our very early 70s and would like to go to the UK to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with friends and family,” wrote a French couple recently, looking for house sitters for a week. “Both of our dogs are rescue dogs and we are reluctant to place them in kennels. … We live in a large renovated farmhouse with pool. No neighbors, but not isolated.”
Another couple wrote: “We live in Southwest Calgary, about a half hour from the downtown core. We are looking for someone to feed our dogs and give them lots of attention as well as take care of our home, water plants, etc.”
That listing (which, by the way, also mentioned wi-fi, cable television, a home gym and an infrared sauna as well as proximity to ski areas) included pictures of a doleful English bulldog, Ginger, and a very perky Coton de Tulear named Willow. Browsing the pet photos alone is enough to make me smile.
House sitters and homeowners alike tend to be baby boomers who want to indulge their lust for travel, says Peck. These no-fee house-sitting arrangements significantly cut the costs of travel for both, allowing them to fulfill their dreams of traveling during retirement. Not to mention that some assignments involve staying in luxurious properties—sometimes quite decadent luxury.
Ocean-view estates in Costa Rica; country mansions in Great Britain; and apartments in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco are frequently among the thousand-plus listings in 60 countries on TrustedHouseSitters.com and other sites. There are always lots of listings for Australia, New Zealand and Canada; house sitters just have to keep local weather in mind. Australians flee their country during its torrid summers, while Canada has the most listings during the winter months (great if you’re a skier).
Everyone whose home I’ve cared for has introduced me to friends and neighbors. Interacting with locals makes for a more personal experience, sometimes one that’s life-changing.
“We got a letter from a widow who said she decided she could travel on her own as a house sitter because she would have the companionship of the homeowner’s dog,” Peck recalls. “She was out walking the dog and got invited around for coffee with a neighbor—they are now romantic partners. She found love through housesitting.”
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