Sunday, January 31, 2010


Interesting title, huh? But no, I'm not referring to anything kinky. What's on my mind right now is an essay that appeared in today's New York Times magazine.

In a nutshell, a writer named John Moe says that his dog, a Yorkie, doesn't like him. The dog cowers and growls at the sight of him. Such behavior understandably hurts the guy's feelings, especially since he's the one "providing the income to make the house function." Long story short, they really don't have the sort of human-canine bond that motivates people to add dogs to their lives.

I can relate to this. For quite awhile, I didn't think Allie liked me much--and frankly, I wasn't all that crazy about her. During her puppyhood and adolescence, she never chose to be near me, and I didn't like her rough play style or her propensity for using her leash as a tug toy while we were walking. I seriously questioned whether we were a good fit. We muddled through, time passed, I let go of certain expectations, and we both came to appreciate each other. Now, I can't imagine life without her. God help me when she truly enters seniorhood.

But back to Moe and his dog, Dave. (love the name. So *not* the typical cutesy-poo name given to a toy dog.) I decided to ask some trainers what they would suggest to help the two. One respondent noted that Moe likes to wrestle with his kids and that perhaps Dave was reacting to that practice. Her prescription: have Moe feed Dave all his meals, tone down the rough play, and invite the Dave to have a belly rub at the same time Moe is snuggling with one of the kids. Another suggested that Moe be responsible for all of Dave's care (assuming that Dave was okay with that) so that the dog would realize all good things come from him.

Those are good starts. But maybe Moe is already doing some of those things. If that's the case, my suggestion would be that he pick up a copy of my good friend Victoria Schade's book, Bonding With Your Dog: A Trainer's Secrets for Building a Better Relationship. Vic's book has all kinds of great ideas for improving the relationship between dog and person. And I should know, because she worked with Allie and me. She told me then, as she says in her book, "The love between dog and guardian should happen naturally. Developing a bond takes time and attention."

I hope, both for his sake and his dog's, that Moe is willing to expend some of both. Because no one should have to live with, as he describes, an individual "in which one partner ... will scream at the other ... for no apparent reason."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dear Duke

I am the Golden Retriever to whom you charged down the street this morning after your people somehow let you out of your house. I know you're just a puppy, which is why I merely barked sharply at you to keep your distance, and why I raised no objections when you proceeded to sniff my butt without my permission.

But dude, your people need educating. This isn't the first time they've shown deficient dog care skills. Heck, just a month ago, my person (that would be Susan) intercepted you when you went racing down the street the day after the big blizzard. And Susan's lost count of the number of times your doggie sister has made a break from your yard and/or *your* person has walked your sis around the block without a leash.

I think Susan is still too p.o.'d at your person to engage with him directly. That being the case, I have some suggestions for you, which I hope (wish) you'll pass on to your person:

1. Have him tell the rest of your family to check and see where you and your sister are before they open the front door.

2. Have them teach you a cue such as "wait" or "stay" to use whenever you *are* at the front door at the same time that they're exiting said door.

3. Don't go charging down the street to meet another dog. The next dog you meet might not be as nice as I am -- especially if that dog leashed and you're not.

4. Tell your person that yelling at you from up the street to come back is not going to work. Why should you go back when you're busy trying to get acquainted with me?

5. Tell your person that yelling your name in his best drill sergeant voice isn't going to get you to pay attention to him when, again, you're busy trying to get acquainted with me.

6. Finally, tell your person that the common courtesy of apologizing is the very least that he can do when this sort of situation occurs.

Your neighbor,

Friday, January 22, 2010

Playing around

Allie doesn't always have the best timing when it comes to asking me to play. I have never, for example, been able to understand why my unloading the previous night's dishes prompts her to bring me her tug toy. Sometimes I get frustrated because, all too often, the times that she wants to play are times when I can't or don't want to. She certainly isn't a neglected dog by my standards (anyone who knows me knows I dote on the dogs I live with), but sometimes I've wondered if she thinks she's neglected.

Only in the last day or two have I begun to suspect that at issue here is not a feeling of neglect on her part but, rather, a desire to build the bond she already has with me -- or, at least, to reaffirm it.

I developed this suspicion while watching a video of dolphins and people surfing together off the coast of South Africa. Both the footage of human-cetacean wave-catching and the music accompanying the footage are mesmerizing, as evidenced by the fact that I've watched the video at least a dozen times since coming across it yesterday. But in his commentary, naturalist David Attenborough notes that "scientists think that for dolphins, play might have a crucial role in strengthening the social bonds within a group."

Allie, of course, is no dolphin. But like all dolphins, she's an intensely social individual. When she brings me her tug toy or drops a ball at my feet, she may not just want to play with me. She may need to play with me.

Right now she's napping across the room on my 30-year-old couch -- but, judging by the clock, she'll soon be letting me know that it's time for a potty break, after which she'll let me know she wants to play. This time, I won't say no.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dominance, schnominance

Before I married my husband 23 years ago, I slept with my dog. Molly would start the night in her bed, and I'd be in mine. But invariably, I'd wake up in the middle of the night to find my little 25-pound mixed poodle snuggled up beside me. Just as invariably, I'd smile and go back to sleep.

Flash forward a few years, to when I did marry Stan. He loved Molly, and she returned his affection. Most times we were a happy threesome, but Stan drew the line at bedtime. He did not want Molly in bed with us. I understood--after all, it was his bed, too. Fortunately, teaching Molly to stay in her own bed wasn't a problem, nor was it a problem with either Cory the Sheltie or the Divine Miss Allie, the two dogs we've had since Molly went to the Rainbow Bridge.

But today I read this post by my good friend and colleague Roxanne Hawn, and felt a twinge of envy. And while Allie has always been very good about not attempting to share Stan's and my bed, I know she'd love to be offered an invitation to do so. How do I know? Because years ago, when she and I vacationed at Camp Gone to the Dogs, Allie made it abundantly clear from the get-go that she would not be relegated to a crate or even a bed on the floor. The very first night we were there, she hopped up onto the college-dorm sized bed with me. There she stayed, and we were both blissfully content.

Yes, I love my husband. If he were not here, I would profoundly miss his presence in our bed and everyplace else. But every now and then, like today, I miss having a canine presence in my bed, too.

And to those who say that dogs don't belong in people's beds because it will give them delusions of dominance over those people, I say dominance, schnominance. There are some circumstances in which human-canine co-sleeping might not be a good idea: if the dog isn't housetrained, is a resource guarder (the bed could be a resource), or is a teeny-tiny thing that would be crushed if you rolled over. But for other canines and their people, I say let them sleep together.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


A few minutes ago, while I was idly looking out my living room window, I saw a youngish guy attempt to teach two terriers to heel on leash. We're not talking simply polite walking here; those two little dogs clearly were supposed to walk on each side of the guy, right at his heel.

One of the dogs clearly didn't get it. He was certainly walking politely, but if he ventured more than a foot in front of Nazi Trainer Dude, NTD would stop, back up several steps and wield the leash to yank the errant terrier back to him. He yanked hard, too; more than once, at least two of the dog's feet left the sidewalk. I winced at each yank.

I was too far away from NTD to do anything about this--but even if I'd been closer, I don't know that I would have. Certainly I would have wanted to. But NTD looked young and fit, and I don't know whether he'd have appreciated my attempts to help him or his dogs. A lack of appreciation could easily have turned ugly. And at 5'3" and only about 100 pounds, I'd have been no match for him.

One time, I did try to help in a similar situation. Allie and I were out walking when a leashed Great Pyrenees who was standing across the street with his owner began to bark at us. The Pyr's barking was understandable: We were across the street from his owner's property. But the owner, an elderly man, didn't appreciate the Pyr's attempts to sound the alarm. Instead, he began swatting the dog with the leash, yelling at him to be quiet. Allie, not to be outdone, barked back at the Pyr, at which point the man started swatting the dog even more. I yelled across the street, asking him to please not hit his dog, to which he responded that I should mind my own business. I got out of the area pronto (in tears as I vamoosed), but called Animal Control when I got home. Much to my surprise, Animal Control visited the man that evening and told him that he needed to find another way to discipline his dog. But for a solid year, I avoided walking by that man's house.

It's awful to see a dog being mistreated, and you want to do what you can to help. But figuring out when to interfere--and when not to--is a perpetually shifting target. I wish I had a better idea of how to score bulls-eyes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hope amid the horror?

Among those who are traveling to Haiti to help that beleaguered nation cope with the aftermath of yesterday's earthquake are 72 members of Virginia Task Force 1 (VATF-1), the urban search and rescue (SAR) team of Fairfax County, VA, where I live. The team includes 6 SAR dogs and their human handlers.

I had the privilege of interacting with some of these incredible individuals during the fall of 2001, just after the September 11 attacks, for an article I wrote for The Washington Post. And when I say interact, I mean just that. At one point, I served as a "live find": I had to hide in a dirty plastic pipe so that one of the dogs could practice searching for and finding me (which he did in less than a minute, after which he proceeded to drag me out of the pipe). I'll never forget seeing that German Shepherd's huge head appear at the pipe opening, much less feeling him grab my coat sleeve and pull me out of the pipe to 'safety'.

It's hard to feel any kind of hope amid the horror of a natural disaster that may have left tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people dead. But when I remember the courage and competence of the human and canine members of the VATF-1--which departed this morning for Haiti--I do hope that some lives will be saved that might otherwise have been lost.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why, Jim, why?

My husband and I have just come back from seeing Avatar, the new James Cameron cleaning-up-at-the-box-office spectacle. There's good reason why this movie may break the financial record set by Cameron's previous epic, Titanic: the special effects are beyond incredible and the story is timely in more ways than one. For the most part, Stan and I liked it a lot. However, there was one sequence that, at least to me, made no sense whatsoever.

(Spoiler alert: stop now if you're still planning to see the movie)

The sequence involves Sam Worthington's Avatar character choosing which giant winged dragon-like creature will be his mount when he performs aerial hunts with the rest of the Navi tribe. His Navi companion and mentor, played by Zoe Saldana, explains that the choice must be mutual; in other words, the creature he chooses must choose him, too. How, asks Worthington's character, will I know if a creature has chosen me? "He will try to kill you," responds Saldana's character.

Huh? Even a female praying mantis gets it on with her chosen male before she kills him. What possible sense would it make to kill one's chosen companion before one gets to enjoy that companionship? In fact, why kill at all? Killing is incompatible with friendship, if you know what I mean. Trying to off someone isn't exactly a bond builder.

But wait, it gets worse. To tame the creature, not to mention keep from getting killed, Worthington's character must wrestle the creature to the ground in a decidedly violent fashion. The whole sequence reminded me of the bad old days in which alpha rolls were the order of the day with all dog trainers, and horses were broken rather than gentled to force their subservience to human riders. How on earth do such practices build bonds with other creatures, and what possible place do they have in a movie that purports to be all about being one with nature?

C'mon, Jim. You could have done better.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Attention, please

When contemplating the latest stunt by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA), I found myself thinking about how the standard advice for dealing with jumping dogs has changed.

Bear with me here.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, trainers advised people to curb their canines' liftoffs by doing nasty things such as kneeing them in the chest, putting pressure on their front paws, or stepping on their hind feet. Now, of course, we know better: the most effective way to deal with doggie jumping is to not give the dog the attention he's seeking. Turning away or walking away from a helicopter dog is far more effective than those old-fashioned responses. Not only are those tactics at least borderline abusive, but they also require the person to interact with the dog--which is exactly what the dog wants. And from the dog's point of view, any interaction is better than no interaction.

PETA seems to be in constant need of attention and interaction, too, as evidenced by ads that include sky-high shots of nude celebrities proclaiming they'd rather be unclothed than wear fur. But the group's latest stunt doesn't deal with nudity; instead, it involves appropriating celebrities' images without the permission of those celebrities. Among those whose images have been hijacked is First Lady Michelle Obama, as explained here.

Some folks, notably my good buddy Steve Dale, ask whether we're inadvertently helping PETA by paying attention to the group's sleazy tactics. It's a legitimate question. If one follows the withdraw-attention-from-the-jumping-dog credo, one might reasonably conclude that we should just ignore PETA's slimy end-justifies-the-means way of promoting its cause. By ignoring PETA, we'll render the group irrelevant -- or so such thinking might go.

But here's the thing. The jumping dog does so in all innocence. He has no awareness that he's doing something wrong. He just wants to get closer to the person he's jumping on. After all, when he was a puppy, his people loved to pick him up and snuggle their faces close to his, right? Why wouldn't those people want to engage in similar snuggling now? And why not make it easier by meeting those people face to face, so to speak?

PETA, however, is not so innocent. The group knows full well what it's doing. In his blog, Steve notes that PETA prez Ingrid Newkirk admitted to appropriating Obama's image without her permission, and said that Obama's consent wasn't sought "because they know she can't make such an endorsement." (emphasis mine) If PETA knows Obama can't do so, why are they pretending that she can? Why are they deliberately misleading people? And, given that the group is misleading people, shouldn't they be called on it?

I think so. Sleaziness for a cause one believes in is still, well, sleazy. In order for PETA to become irrelevant, people need to know that the group employs misleading, slimy, unethical tactics. Only when enough people understand that will there be the critical mass needed to consign PETA to the dustbin of irrelevance. If Steve and I and other writers can help bring about the latter outcome, then let the typing begin -- or, rather, continue.

Meanwhile, keep turning and/or walking away from your helicopter dog. Sooner or later, if you're consistent, he'll come in for a landing. I promise.

Update: Apparently PETA's not alone in its White House image hijacking. Weatherproof, an outerwear company, commandeered the President's image for a Times Square ad. More here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What if the dog says no?

In the current issue of the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) Chronicle of the Dog magazine, renowned trainer and animal advocate Sue Sternberg contends that most dogs really don't like being in dog parks and would benefit greatly from becoming involved in organized dog sports such as agility, rally obedience, tracking, and dog-powered activities (e.g. weight-pulling). I almost completely agree with her.

Unfortunately, Allie doesn't -- at least the part about dog sports.

Allie's been exposed to doggie day cares, dog parks and dog sports. She appeared to enjoy the first two activities when she was younger, but as she's matured she repeatedly expresses a preference for the company of humans over the company of canines. And since she's no longer a rowdy puppy who keeps me from getting any work done, I don't need to take her to day care, and I'm glad not to have to run her over to the dog park. Plus, like Sternberg, I've got some substantial concerns about the way many people supervise their dogs (or, more accurately, fail to supervise their dogs) when they're at the dog park.

But Allie doesn't seem to like dog sports any more than she likes dog parks and day cares. We've tried several such activities: agility, rally obedience, competitive obedience. Although she proved physically adept at these activities, she didn't seem to really enjoy learning about them. After she'd take her turn performing in class, she'd bark at me and just generally act up. I'd be so busy trying to keep her attention and keep her from disturbing the other students that half the time I missed what the instructor was saying. Eventually, I concluded that this wasn't for her and I gave up. But every now and then I feel guilty: here is this gorgeous Golden with a pedigree full of dogs that have not only conformation but also performance titles and the best I could do with Allie was to help her earn a CGC.

The attitudes of some trainers don't help ease such guilt, either. Prime example: a few months ago, I heard a trainer say with more than a little derision that people who don't engage in organized activities with their dogs "aren't as committed to their dogs" as those who do. Because I was a guest at the event where this remark was made, I kept my mouth shut. But I've been more than a little annoyed about it ever since.

Fortunately, though, I've recently read a rash of articles and blog posts that help me feel better about my decision to respect Allie's role in deciding whether we would pursue organized dog activities. I offer these missives now for your reading pleasure:

-- "A Decision That Two Must Make" by JoAnn Turnbull;

-- "The Right Stuff: Every Dog Has Her Place" by Patricia McConnell

-- My friend and colleague Roxanne Hawn's blog, Champion of My Heart, which is all about the adventures of Roxanne and her Border Collie, Lilly: a dog with not only talent that could enable her to excel in performance but also issues that prevent her from realizing her talent, but who is clearly also taking both herself and Roxanne on a journey that may prove far more satisfying in the long run.

To those who do compete successfully with their dogs, you have my admiration. But to my own Golden girl, who's currently snoozing under my desk, I offer my gratitude for being the dog I've needed, even though I didn't know that was the case.