St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., 2010; $22.99
Adam March is having a bad time of life. So is an initially nameless Pit Bull mix sentenced to a life of dog-fighting. One Good Dog by Susan Wilson is the touching and wonderfully well-crafted story of how these two characters come together in the midst of their own respective worst of times.
Adam is living a life filled with the trappings of financial success: a high-powered job, expensive homes, a socially prominent wife and an equestrian daughter. That is, until a memory from his troubled past sets off a series of events that result in his carefully planned life crashing around him. At the same time that Adam is coping with living in a seedy one-bedroom apartment and serving court-ordered community service, the Pit Bull who will turn out to be the best part of this destiny is escaping from his own cage-bound existence. Through a realistic and suspenseful turn of events, the two at last meet, and Adam reluctantly becomes enamored of the dog he names, all too fittingly, Chance. At which point, let the healing begin.
The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of Chance and Adam, and the prologue to the novel includes a thoroughly charming bait-and-switch that instantly put a smile on my face and made me feel certain I was in excellent storytelling hands. Skillfully done, the chapters narrated by Chance never give way to cutesy or cloying. While some of the scenes in which the dog describes the squalid conditions of his young life and his training as a fighter are truly heartbreaking, Chance’s strong, clear-eyed way of looking at the world is perfectly conveyed in the way he tells his story. That’s not to say that Chance’s recounting is not above fun or whimsy. For example, Chance does not regard his vocalizations merely as barking. He yarks. When he endeavors to explain extreme intelligence, he does not cite rocket scientists nor brain surgeons but rather, Standard Poodles.
As the novel progresses, Wilson significantly ratchets up both the pace and the stakes with several new developments, including an especially tear-inducing arc involving Chance. Have tissues on hand and don’t say you weren’t warned. Ultimately, what One Good Dog manages to do so well is to create a reading journey that closely mirrors the path of its two resilient narrators: it comes this close to breaking your heart but then, at the last moment, fills it up with not only hope but also love. It’s a finely wrought story of second chances and also of the power of the human/canine bond, the amazing and myriad ways in which dogs can touch and make better people’s lives. As Chance himself so aptly puts it, “What else could I have done? I’m only canine, I had to help.”
New World Library, 272 pp., 2010; $14.95
I see The Animal Manifesto as a must-read for all high school students, especially in the social sciences and ethics, and for all who keep animals and work with them. It is also a book to be treasured by animal lovers and those concerned about animal suffering and social justice. I know readers of The Bark will love this book since, like the magazine, it embraces the vision of a deeper and more mutually enhancing relationship between humans and other animals. I’d even go so far as to suggest that they buy extra copies to give to those who do not understand how we dog lovers grieve so deeply when we lose a beloved animal because they have not yet experienced the blessing of animal communion. Those who have had such communion with animals wild and tame will enjoy the affirmation of kindred spirits cited in this book—people whose lives were changed, enriched, inspired, by a being other than a human.
Bekoff, a self-proclaimed optimist, lays out with convincing clarity why it is ultimately in our best self-interest to treat all animals, especially those raised for our consumption, with compassion. As a realist (some would say pessimist), I believe that people will not change after being shown the “big picture” of climate change, species extinction, and the suffering of farmed, circus, zoo and laboratory animals until they understand the deep links between action and consequence.
How well we treat animals and the living Earth determines, ultimately, how well we are in body, mind and spirit. This book tackles the task of breaking through anthropocentrism—with its attendant arrogance, ignorance, denial, rationalizations and pathology—to enable us to see that the way of compassion, rather than the way of domination and exploitation, is the only route to a viable future and a sane society. Enlightened dog trainers have, of course, known this for decades; in applying the rule of love over the rule of law, they teach people how to best communicate and achieve a mutually enhancing, interspecies symbiosis. At the other extreme is the invasive research being done in Tanzania on wild dogs, who are fitted with radio collars, given vaccinations that have killed them, and even captured and translocated. Such activities, undertaken by scientists claiming to be conservation- oriented and working on behalf of the animals, are in reality ways to advance their careers at the expense of one more endangered species. This is a book for them!
Bekoff ’s book is, in many ways, a synthesis of some of his earlier publications, combining scientific data with his vivid personal observations of animal consciousness, empathy and intelligence; accounts of how animals continue to be misunderstood and mistreated; and why and how we can make changes for the good of animals, both domesticated and wild. You will read of battles in which he has engaged to help protect the last of the wild, and you’ll enjoy insights into his life with the late Jethro, a dog who participated in his metamorphosis from a scientist into a philosopher-activist—a transformation so clearly reflected in this easy to- read, important book.
Quarry Books, 168 pp., 2009; $19.99
“So here it is,” Melanie Monteiro, author of The Safe Dog Handbook, says, “the first always-around-when-you need-it, complete safety book for dogs.” Or, more accurately, for dogs and their people. That effectively sums up this concise, well-organized, spiral-bound collection of advice, tips, suggestions, guidelines and references for pretty much anything that threatens the well-being of your dog.
Monteiro suggests taking “a dog’s eye view” of your home. Get down on the floor—see what your pup sees. See what trouble he can get into. See where his little head might get stuck or where his teeth might compromise that protective covering on power cords.
While keeping your pet safe is mostly common sense, some things aren’t common knowledge. At the risk of stating the obvious, you can’t know what you don’t know if you don’t know you don’t know it. What about all of those things no one ever told you were toxic to your dog? For example, plants. Appendix I contains about as complete a list of toxic specimens as you could ever need. Same for food. Yeast dough can literally rise in a dog’s stomach and cause blockages, and macadamia nuts can bring on vomiting, weakness and temporary paralysis of the hind legs. My dog and I love nuts, and I’m quite certain that if I look under the couch or in its cushions, I’ll find a macadamia. (Need to make sure I find it before she does.)
Oh, please learn from the experiences of others! Just because your dog has never shown an interest in something potentially dangerous doesn’t mean he never will. Dogs have the capacity to surprise us in many ways, and when it comes to their safety, those surprises can have serious consequences.
This is not the sort of book you sit and read from cover to cover—though it wouldn’t hurt to get some of its basics into your memory bank for recall when you need them. Carefully reading Chapter 5, “Emergency First Aid,” as well as Appendix I and II; posting your emergency vet’s number and the ASPCA’s poison control number (888.426.4435) near your phone; and keeping The Safe Dog Handbook handy may well save your dog’s life!
This review has been revised to correct an error that appeared in the print version.
Q&A with Karsten Heuer
On a sunny June day in 1998, a man and his dog took the first steps on a walk that would, by the time they finished it, cover 2,200 miles through some of North America’s most thinly populated landscape. Following the path of the grizzly, they and their team tested a dream against reality. In Walking the Big Wild, Karsten Heuer and Webster, his Border Collie, shared a grand—and sometimes terrifying—adventure.
Bark: You mention in the book that Webster was your “model for resolve.” Aside from bears, bugs, and burrs, what sorts hazards did he contend with? Did you find that you’d anticipated and prepared for most of them, or did you have to improvise as you traveled?
Karsten Heuer: The rivers in northern British Columbia were tough. No trails meant no bridges, and the water tumbling through the rapids was usually glacial melt. But Webster swam them with great courage. He got tangled up with a porcupine one day (which wasn’t pretty), and his paws got sore during a particularly rough section of sharp limestone (we protected his feet with makeshift booties until the going got softer), but other than that, he was self-sustaining. Oh, except for the time I felt sorry for him shivering in a cold rainstorm (sleet was more like it). I cut a piece of red nylon into a temporary raincoat for him. It worked but he looked ridiculous and he knew it. A sheepish sheepdog. And then sure enough, a few corners later, we ran into a pack of wolves! Talk about having your wild ancestors look down their noses at you. He was pretty embarrassed.
Bark: Had you and Webster done any sort of endurance hiking together before you started your walk to the Yukon?
KH: No, but once you added up all the things his co-owner (whom I’ve always shared him with) and I had put him through, I knew if he hadn’t abandoned me by then, he never would: being tipped out of a canoe and swimming whitewater rapids … strapped to my chest as we rappelled down a 1,500-foot cliff. The list goes on.
Bark: Did this trek affect your relationship with Webster?
KH: Well, 2,200 miles is a long way to travel with companion. We had our trying moments (Webster loved the goose-down sleeping bag and was reluctant to give it up if he got in the tent first). We were very close before leaving, but the trip certainly deepened that bond. We shared some pretty special moments and some pretty scary ones as well—everything from swimming rivers and staving off a charging bear to just drinking in the view from a mountaintop while he lay looking in the same direction with his chin on my knee. And although I probably didn’t show him much he wouldn’t have otherwise seen, he certainly pointed out a lot of things to me. When he froze in that I-see-a-cat crouch, there was always something looking back at us through the trees: a moose, a deer, even a couple of bears.
Bark: Is it possible to make any overall observations about the behavior of a domestic dog (or at least, about a Border Collie) in the wilderness?
KH: I’m always cautious answering these sorts of questions because, as we all know, no two dogs are alike. Having said that, I think it’s extremely important to have a very well-trained dog if you’re thinking of having them off-leash in wild areas. Otherwise they can do a lot of damage (disturbing or even killing ground-nesting birds, for example), or get you into problems (like chasing a bear and then having that bear turn and chase your dog right back to you). When Webster wasn’t on the leash he was always on a heel.
Bark: The encounters with wolves were particularly interesting. At the time, did you have an emotional, or a purely pragmatic, response?
KH: That’s the wonderful thing about meeting wild animals: it’s ALWAYS emotional. We can’t help it; those emotions are hardwired into us from our days of roaming the savannah and interacting with animals every waking moment of every day. It wasn’t that long ago that we were living in caves, chasing after and running from wild animals in great acts of survival. And come to think of it, it wasn’t that long ago that all the Websters of the world branched off from wolves. I’m convinced this is why we love—even need—to have pets. They reintroduce what was such a big part of our behavioral history into our everyday, modern lives.
Bark: As you made your way north, to what degree were you surprised by what you found—literally—on the ground, as opposed to what you saw on maps?
KH: Well, as you know, the intent of the 2,200-mile-long walk was to assess the plausibility of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which proposes to connect existing reserves along the Rockies with wildlife corridors. I was literally trying to look at the proposal from the perspective of a wolf or grizzly bear or any of the other wide-ranging animals it’s meant to benefit. So I left with questions like: How pristine or developed are these proposed corridors? How many barriers already exist (busy highways, urban development, clearcut areas, open pit mines, etc)? How much restoration would be required?
To be perfectly honest, I was skeptical about what I would find. I expected bad news. But fortunately, by the end, I was more hopeful for the proposed reserve network than when I left. I used fresh grizzly bear sign—their tracks, scat, rub trees and, in some cases the animals themselves—as a measure of the wildness of the areas I was walking through. I assumed if there was recent sign of grizzlies, the area was intact. Well, the walk took 188 days to complete and by the time I tallied up my notes, I realized I’d seen fresh signs of grizz 160 days. That’s 85 percent of the time!
Bark: And how did the trek change your internal landscape (or did it)?
KH: It gave me hope for wildness in this part of North America, and it gave me confidence in myself. There were a lot of doubts at the beginning, and the scope of the trip was overwhelming, but bit by bit, day by day, I covered 2,200 very mountainous miles, hundreds of which without the benefit of trails.
Bark: In the ’70s, one of the iconic aphorisms of the woman’s movement was “the personal is political.” Could it also be appropriate to environmental issues?
KH: I like to think so. Again, this trip proved very empowering on a personal level. And not just in terms of increasing my confidence. By the end I had proved to myself that one person (and his dog) can make a difference. Very few people had heard about Y2Y or the principles behind it before we left. We reached millions of people during the trip—thousands directly via presentations in communities, and the masses through National Geographic, Backpacker Magazine, NBC, ABC, NPR and hundreds of other media outlets during the trip. And if you’ve read the book, you’ll know we stirred up a good dose of opposition from industry interests too!
Bark: Humans seem to have a tendency to either demonize or romanticize what some call “charismatic megafauna” and others call “sexy beasts”—bears, wolves, mountain lions. What kind of impact do you think that has on the way we react to them, and the energy we put into protecting/supporting them and their habitat requirements?
KH: All the animals you list are powerful symbols that remind us we aren’t in control of everything—that we could, hypothetically, be killed and eaten. It’s a humbling sensation to be standing in front of a bear that’s popping its jaws and thrashing the ground and you have no idea what it’s going to do next. You feel helpless. Some people demonize them because of that threat. But I think having that threat in our lives is a good thing. We should celebrate it. It brings humility and balance to a modern society that is pretty devoid of both those qualities.
Bark: In one of your journal entries, you said “fear engages.” Has that sense stayed with you, or have you been back long enough for it to have faded?
KH: Fear does engage. It dusts off the senses that have been buried—that we’ve had to turn off—in our cities, towns and on our billboard-lined highways. We can’t possibly be perceptive anymore—if we absorbed every sight, smell and sound in our ad-induced, white-noise culture, we’d be overwhelmed all the time. So we quickly learn to shut off our wild senses.
I’ve tried to retain that “sharp” frame of mind—call it “wildness” if you want—as much as possible since being back. I do it by making sure I have plenty of quiet time in places where I can just sit and absorb every detail around me. It’s usually somewhere in nature, anything from remote wilderness to an overgrown vacant lot in a city neighborhood. Anywhere you can watch butterflies drift in an afternoon breeze.
Bark: What’s the current status of Y2Y?
KH: The 180 conservation groups, scientists, professors and others that make up the Y2Y network have been busy over the past few years mapping the 1.5-million-square-mile region in three layers: terrestrial, aquatic and avian habitats (land, water and birds). Then they superimposed all three layers, and the areas that came out the “darkest” (where overlap was greatest) became the priorities for conservation for the next 5 years.
Tools such as private land conservation easements, highway crossing structures, road removal and public land designation as wildlife movement/conservation areas are now being employed to make this a reality. Piece by piece, the puzzle is getting put together. I only hope it happens soon enough. There are a lot of human activities that threaten to cut off many of the corridors, and those threats are only intensifying each day we continue down this crazy economic path, whose ideology mimics the cancer cell (infinite growth).
Bark: Y2Y is a very big and “out of the box” vision. Are you hopeful that vast and entrenched bureaucracies of all stripes can work together to do what needs to be done?
KH: One thing that I see time and time again is how inspired people get when they hear about Y2Y. Just think: we can choose to keep all the native mammals in this vast sweep of mountains that were here when Lewis and Clark made their legendary expedition across the US. How many places in the world have that kind of opportunity?
I think when people—no matter their position in a bureaucracy or government—realize that what we’re talking about is keeping what already exists and not restoring a massive area, they get comfortable with the idea. And when they realize it isn’t a huge national park proposal but, instead, a way for wildlife and human communities to coexist into the future, they warm up to it even more. Who doesn’t want wildlife?
The challenge is to embrace that four-letter word we humans love to shy away from: P-L-A-N. Without good planning, we’re going to lose every existing wildlife corridor. Death by a thousand cuts is how it will happen. A highway gets widened. A gas station gets built. A mill opens up and the loggers go into the woods in all directions. I’m not saying we can’t develop. What I’m saying is we need to develop with a roadmap of how we’re going to do it AND keep wildlife. Otherwise we won’t.
For the whole story, read Walking the Big Wild: From Yellowstone to the Yukon on the Grizzly Bear’s Trail by Karsten Heuer, published by The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA.
Originally published as “Incredible Journey.”
Woof and Word Press (Dist. by Dogwise), 346 pp., 2008; $49.95
Math pop quiz: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how valuable is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook with its thousand pictures? The answer is “too valuable to put a figure on it.” Nothing else out there captures so much diverse canine behavior in photographs, or has close to the quantity of photos. Handelman’s training as a photographer is clear—the composition, clarity and perspective of her dog photos are wonderful. (Though it would have been lovely if all of them could’ve been reproduced in color, nonetheless, the photos illustrate their points despite the fading and loss of contrast that results when color photos are printed in black and white.) As a bonus, the book includes many of Monty Sloan’s extraordinary photos of wolves.
If the photographs are the great strength of this book, the weakness lies in the fact that, though Handelman writes from an ethological perspective, she is not a trained ethologist. Consequently, she has regrettably absorbed and passed on ethological information that, though erroneous, is often considered correct by many dog trainers. For example, there are errors in her description and identification of fixed-action patterns, and she has a tendency to combine fear and submission into a single concept. Regardless, I’m impressed by her thorough coverage; she has capably synthesized a great deal of information, and her knowledge, which is considerable, gives strength to this wonderful book.
Handelman has done a real service to the field of canine behavior by using the comparative approach so common among ethologists. As she notes, “Prior to discovering Monty Sloan’s Wolf Park photos and the ‘Wolf Ethogram’ … [I] had not considered that there might be very close similarities between the communication signals, displays and expressions conveyed by the various canine cousins.” It is impressive that she took this idea, a staple among ethologists, and ran with it. I hope her perspective spreads through the dog world. There is much to be gained from a comparative approach to canid behavior, yet many trainers take a foolish pride in confining their interest to the domestic dog.
The book is organized and laid out in a manner that makes it a pleasure to read; it is also well indexed, which adds to its value. I like this book and appreciate what it offers: descriptions of an extensive array of canine behavior considered across multiple species, and the best collection of canine photographs I’ve ever seen assembled in one place.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Smart uses for your smart phone
Cell phones that only make and receive calls are so 2008! With a satellite signal and Internet access, today’s smart phones put the world—both yours and your dog’s—in your pocket.
1. Keep track of your pup’s day-to-day doings using the DogiDuty app; iPhone-toting dog walkers or sitters can manually file reports on her intake and output, then email them to you.
2. Pump up your walk. Map, record and share details of your canine-centered excursions at MapMyWalk.com or with your very own Google Earth Tour. As walks get longer, the Sit or Squat app, with its inventory of public bathrooms, comes in handy. Meanwhile, Eukanuba’s Off Leash iPhone app shows you the way to the nearest dog park.
3. Keep them healthy. Sign up for alerts about pet product hazards at HealthyStuff.org and pet food recalls at FoodSafety.gov. And be prepared for the unexpected—take along a Red Cross–trained assistant with the Pet First Aid iPhone app. You can also use your smart phone to store and access your dog’s medical records and keep track of appointments; the Pet Phone app puts that info at your fingertips.
4. Share a night out with your furry friend. With OpenTable.com, find restaurants that celebrate canine companions, then make your reservation.
5. Discover hidden treasures. Now that most of these phones are GPS-enabled, the once arcane (and obsession-forming) hobby of geocaching is within the reach of newbies. Get started at Geocaching.com.
6. Never miss a photo op. Capture the moment, then pep up the snaps with Shake and Bark (add your dog’s voice to her image) or Dog Thoughts (canine-themed captions).
7. Satisfy your curiosity. Use Dog-a-Log or iDogBook to help you figure out the answer to “What kind of dog is that?”
8. Focus on housetraining. Have a new puppy? With iPottyTrain, set alarms to remind you to take the pup out for a break, and log hits (and misses)—all of which keeps this important activity at the forefront of your attention.
9. Entertain yourself. During those quiet moments while waiting for the vet to arrive in the exam room, test your dog knowledge with Dog Trivia or play with the Obama’s Bo via The First Dog (at the time of release, a portion of the download fee was donated to the HSUS).
10. Carry a spare. Admit it—sometimes you go out with your dog but without your clicker. With the Clicker app, this training tool is always at hand (assuming you don’t also forget your iPhone).
Dogwise Publishing, 200 pp., 2009; $15.95
As our shelters fill to bursting with dogs surrendered due to their “out of control” behavior, Nan Arthur’s new book, Chill Out Fido! How to Calm Your Dog, arrives like a mercy, offering an understanding of why some dogs act wild and crazy and what you can do about it in order to live peacefully ever after with your canine friend. Even if your dog is already the epitome of a mellow fellow, there is still much of interest and importance in this book, too much, in fact, to do justice to in a short review. Far from a how-to manual on teaching basic obedience skills, Chill Out Fido! is a guidebook to the foreign culture that is canine. The book is divided into two parts: Part One identifies 14 possible causes of a dog’s disorderly behavior, ranging from poor early socialization or the wrong diet to insufficient or (gasp!) too much exercise. Part Two takes a look at the tools necessary to uncover the well-mannered dog our rambunctious pooches are hiding on the inside. Arthur presents 11 exercises, each of which builds on the previous one, designed to teach your dog to relax and to focus on you, including—among other important skills—choosing to relax and greeting strangers calmly. The book is full of fascinating information, backed by scientific research, that occasionally contradicts commonly held beliefs. For instance, many of us have been taught that exercise, exercise, exercise! will result in calmer behavior in our dogs, but Arthur writes that we need to give our dogs the right kinds of exercise for them, and that “high excitement and overly aroused states such as those seen during hard play or extensive exercise … can force dogs into an overactive stress response.” And stress, as we well know, does not lead to a calm, focused individual. Another example: Did you know that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that, using common-sense precautions, early socialization is more important than sequestering a puppy to guard against the risk of infection from other dogs? This is the first book from Arthur, who is a faculty member of the Karen Pryor Academy and owner of Whole Dog Training in San Diego County, Calif. According to her bio, Arthur’s “quest”—in her work as a trainer and animal-rescue worker as well as in this book—is to “help pets stay in their homes,” and that, it seems to me, is the backbone, the beauty, of this book. I predict that it won’t be long before Chill Out Fido! becomes one of the books most commonly recommended by trainers and behavior consultants for their clients with problem-behavior dogs. We would be doing well as a “humane” society if Chill Out Fido! became required reading for dog guardians everywhere. It’s a simple premise with an enormous reach.
Da Capo Press, 212 pp., 2008; $25.95
Lost in the hubbub over the First Puppy’s privileged origins and his new owner’s subsequent donation to a humane organization is the fact that coveys of committed volunteers have always formed the backbone of the rescue movement. Their labors of love are performed on the “micro” level, far from institutional concerns that can cloud the lifesaving mission. Often impelled by life experiences, rescuers find unanticipated rewards in the work—the redeemed animals provide comfort, joy and deep meaning in the lives of their saviors.Such is the message of Saved, a compilation of 28 vignettes describing the lives and deeds of a diverse group of these animal “activists” (in the truest sense of the term). We meet Randy Grim and Quentin, a dog who survived the local shelter’s gas chamber and now helps Randy patrol East St. Louis, Mo., looking for strays who might otherwise not be so fortunate. And Lori Sarner, of Palm Springs, Calif., who founded the Pegasus Riding Academy for riders with disabilities, and her horse, Cimmaron. There are also legal advocates, such as the Virginia couple who lobby their legislature to end the annual shelter killing of 135,000 dogs and cats in that state. Or the late Mary Warner, who, through dogged determination and advocacy, shed light on organized animal theft rings and their trafficking of people’s pets to unscrupulous labs. Then there’s the tale of Maricopa County, Ariz.’s, controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his program to rehabilitate stray animals, teaching employment skills to inmates in the process. Tough-guy Joe is shown in a photo, clearly smitten, cradling a kitten. Say what you will about his general approach to civil liberties, in this case he appears to be on to a program that is crucially helpful to all concerned. Saved also contains smaller stories that are no less meaningful. There’s Elton Ackers and the canine PeeWee, who help each other recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and Walt Kuchler finding solace in his formerly abused horse: “I lost my boy to drugs, and my horse saved my life. Animals are God’s gift to us.” For all the poignancy of its content, the book’s emotional impact is undercut a bit by the author’s journalistic style. There is much good reporting on these pages, but less storytelling. A poem (“A Dog Sits Waiting”) inserted into one of the sketches was much more moving than the worthy tale itself. The common thread of the book, woven across species, purpose and geography, is that the humans who have reached out to animals in need have found themselves rewarded in great and sustaining measure. They are united by the purity of motive, the guilessness and emotional clarity of the animals they help. And they all find therapy in the connection. As Jane Goodall writes in her foreword: “I well know the healing power of animals … My own life has been enriched by a long succession of rescued dogs. How rewarding they have been.” There may be inspiration in these stories for folks who have considered helping in this work. Numerous ways to do so are illustrated here; innumerable other possibilities await the energies and particular talents of passionate volunteers. As Saved amply demonstrates, the rewards will be bountiful, and surprising; they far exceed the effort.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
To mark the end of summer’s dog days, we’re sharing a few of the products that have kept us company all season long.
Kangaroom Pet Pouch
To Go Bowl XL
Healthy Motion Powder
Pawduke All Natural Treats
The canine supernanny
She likes to drive black convertible sports cars decked out in a black outfit and wearing driving gloves. She talks to the camera in a stern tone while shifting gears. And even though she was probably the best thing about The Great American Dog Show (which I stopped watching halfway through the season because I couldn’t figure out how being unafraid of an elephant would be an indicator of a dog’s greatness), I thought less of her for participating. So why would I want to watch Victoria Stilwell train dogs?
Well, it turns out, because she’s very good at it. It’s Me or the Dog was a successful half-hour show in the UK before it came over here to Animal Planet and was extended to an hour. I’ve watched both, and the longer format serves the show and Stilwell much better than the shorter version. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her methods are not nearly as harsh as she likes to appear and, indeed, Stilwell knows her stuff. From “bite inhibition” to “desensitization” to “stress signals,” she clearly understands a dog’s mind and is determined to stick to positive methods no matter the issue.
These kinds of shows tend to be deceptive because they must be manipulated to entertain, and training is not usually entertaining (it is to me, but I’m weird)—things are speeded up with strategic editing, which ends up making training a dog seem like an easy task. But this show, which focuses on a household’s problems with its dog(s), works hard to stress the effort involved, and often illustrates how long it can take to teach a dog to respond.
For example, in one episode, a Toy Poodle with an attitude was terrorizing the man of the house. When he tried to get in bed with his wife, the dog—who was on the bed—would growl at him. Stilwell recommends that the dog be promptly put on the floor every time she growls. The husband walked into the bedroom over a dozen times (they actually counted it down) and each time he approached the bed and the dog growled, the wife (who was holding the pooch) set her on the floor. Finally the dog got the message and, voila, she stopped. Stilwell’s advice worked, and what a great feeling of accomplishment you shared with that family when it did. Stilwell also convinces a naïve single mom who bought a Mastiff mix for protection to neuter the dog when the mom admits she’d like to breed him because “he’s pretty and he’d make a good daddy.” I don’t know how Stilwell keeps from screaming at these owners sometimes … oh, yeah, sometimes she screams at the owners. Not sure what’s with the car and gloves, but, hey, they look good.
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