Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Allie the therapist

Some people have suggested to me that Allie would make a wonderful therapy dog. And I see their point. Allie adores any and all human beings. Sometimes, though, she adores them just a little too much.

A case in point is our mail carrier: if Allie sees a Postal Service truck and/or the mail carrier making his deliveries, her overriding goal becomes getting to that mail carrier, even if she has to drag me halfway down the street to reach him. I can just see her wanting to reach a patient in a hospital or nursing home and knocking over another patient's walker in order to arrive at her destination. Note, too, that Allie already has earned her Canine Good Citizen certification, which contains 10 of the 11 elements needed to receive certification with Therapy Dogs International. That 11th element, saying hello without going bonkers, would be tough for her.

For that reason, I don't see formal therapy work in Allie's future. That's not to say, however, that she doesn't serve a therapeutic role for some people. Two of those people will have a chance to benefit from her talents over the next couple of weeks.

One of those people is my daughter. She's a 21-year-old third-year college student, consistently on the dean's list, happy and self-sufficient. That said, she's missed Allie more since she's been in college than I think she expected, and got a chance to explain why when she was interviewed for this article. So tomorrow evening, when Julie comes home for spring break, it's a safe bet to assume that the first family member she'll look for will be Allie, and that Allie will be wagging her tail so hard that the entire back half of her body will be in motion. Then, for the next few days, Julie and Allie will be best buds--until Julie hauls out her suitcase to pack for the trip back to school, and Allie performs her usual you're-leaving-me-again body wilt.

The other person is my mom. She loves dogs, but hasn't had one for more than seven years; after that dog (an unforgettable Dachshund named Mimi) passed away, she and my Dad decided that they could no longer handle taking care of a dog. My dad had just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and they both worried that a dog would be lost in the shuffle of caring for my dad as his illness progressed. My father succumbed to complications of Parkinson's a year and a half ago -- but at this point in her life, my 82-year-old mom is unwilling to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog.

That's where Allie comes in. My mom will be visiting here for nine days or so starting just after Julie leaves -- and with Allie here, Mom will get her dog fix. Allie will pay plenty of attention to her: cuddling, paw nudging, nose bopping and, if all else fails, amping up her usual level of doggie antics. Mom will get to re-live all the joys of living with dogs, but not have to deal with any of the hassles, such as taking the dog out on a rainy day for a potty break. I guess having a grand-dog is like having grandchildren: you can enjoy their company, but when it comes time for nitty-gritty care, you can hand the dog or child back to the parents.

And that's just fine with me. Allie probably won't ever be a certified therapy dog, but she provides the best kind of canine therapy to two people who are among those I love best. I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The bond, redefined?

Allie is very food motivated. This characteristic is often a good thing, because she's easily rewarded when I teach her new cues. But the same characteristic can also be a bad thing, because she will do just about anything to score an edible goodie. At times I have felt that Allie only loves me for the treats that I offer. Say what you will about behavioral science. I am human, and I want her to love me just because I'm me.

So what happened last night really amazed me.

Stan (a.k.a. Dear Husband) and I were eating dinner in our family room so that we could watch TV. I was trying out a new dish (which, by the way, was amazing). Just as we were about to sit down, though, I needed to use the bathroom. I asked Stan to watch my food, so that our canine food opportunist extraordinaire -- I mean, this dog once snatched a piece of Indian bread right out of my hand -- wouldn't scarf down my dinner before I could even taste it.

But to my amazement, Allie paid no attention to my food. Instead, with wrinkled brow, she followed me to the bathroom. Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but I had the feeling she was worried about me. (I was fine.)

So, could a definition of a strong human-canine bond be that the canine eschews tasty food to check up on the human? I should put that question to the author of this book.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dachshund delights

These days I'm all about Golden Retrievers, due in no small measure to the fact that Allie is a stellar representative of that breed. But my childhood dog was an unforgettable Dachshund named Casey, and my parents shared their lives with two successive Dachshunds after Casey died. Consequently, I've got a real affection for the breed, not to mention experience in living day to day with these inimitable canine characters. Whenever I have the opportunity to write about wiener dogs, I jump at it.

That's why I'm now thrilled to be writing my second book for TFH Publications: an opus called Dog Life: Dachshund. I just finished the first chapter -- which actually will probably be one of my favorites, because I got to look up all kinds of breed-related trivia. That's because I needed to include information about notable Dachshunds and their people. During the course of my research I discovered that:

-- Tough guys like Marlon Brando and Napoleon had soft spots for Dachshunds.
-- Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst eulogized his late, great Dachshund in a newspaper column.
-- Despite the breed being out of favor due to its Germanic origins, General George S. Patton enjoyed the company of a Dachshund named Ryan during World War II.
-- Although they're small in size, Dachshunds have big-dog attitudes, and have been known to alert their people to fires and intruders.

When I get to ferret out stuff like that, I really love my job. And just so you know: Casey, Lola and Mimi -- this book's gonna be for you.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Clueing in the clueless

On this gorgeous day, with temps around 60, I decided to take Allie for a long walk. We both were having a good time -- me enjoying not having to avoid snowpiles and Allie checking out the new pee-mail --until we encountered an elderly gentleman and his dog.

Allie generally isn't thrilled with meeting other dogs when she's on leash. And even if she were, I'm hesitant to permit such encounters because unknown dogs, leashes and social mis-cues can lead to spontaneous canine combustion way too quickly. That's why, when we first saw the gentleman and his dog from across the street, Allie and I kept moving and I had treats at the ready. (A little vension jerky seems to keep my girl mellow -- or at least diverted -- when other dogs make the scene). We all moved on, and all seemed to be well.

But a little while later, we saw the pair again, and this time they made straight for us. The dog was barking and giving Allie the eye. Allie and I backed away, but Mr. Clueless either didn't understand or chose to ignore the signals we were attempting to send. He and the dog just kept right on coming. Finally I said, "Keep your dog away from my dog, please."

Mr C looked at me blankly and kept coming. I repeated my request in a louder voice. "Oh -- okay," he said. He looked a little puzzled, but he and the dog moved away from us. Allie and I walked a few more blocks; all the while I was inwardly composing yet another rant for this blog about idiotic dog owners.

And then we saw Mr. C and his dog a third time, again across the street. The dog resumed his staring behavior, so I started orienting Allie to me with more venison jerky. As I did so, Mr. C watched us with apparent interest. Then he spoke.

"Why are you afraid of my dog?" he asked. "He's friendly."

Huh. At least he's asking a question, I thought. "That may be," I said. "And I'm not afraid of your dog. But he *was* barking and staring at my dog, and my dog doesn't react well to such behavior. I just didn't want any trouble."

He nodded, slowly. I decided to push my luck, and added, "It's usually a good idea to ask the other person if they're okay with your dog approaching their dog."

He nodded again. "Okay," he said. "I didn't know that."

Will he act on his new knowledge in the future? I hope so.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A hero passes

Riley, the Golden Retriever whose calm demeanor while being ferried across the ruins of the World Trade Center epitomized the heroism of search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs, died on February 26. He was 13.

His owner and handler, Chris Selfridge, says that while Riley had aced a physical this past December, a mass was found in his abdomen on February 20. Surgery to remove the mass took place on February 24, but Riley died two days later.

Chris and I exchanged email last fall when I was writing my book about Golden Retrievers and wanted to feature Riley as a representative of the breed. At that point, Riley was still enjoying chasing Frisbees and had helped to welcome a new puppy into the family. He clearly was enjoying his retirement from SAR work -- and, as seen in the video below, which was shot two days after the twin towers collapsed, few dogs have done more to earn that retirement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Confession time

A recent essay by Susan Orlean in the The New Yorker really resonated with me. She confessed that, despite her belief that people have no business capturing orcas for their own entertainment (the validity of which became abundantly clear after an orca at Sea World killed a trainer last week), she loved seeing orcas perform there. She also acknowledged that she'd begged for the opportunity to pet another orca, Keiko, while researching a story about him a few years ago.

I can relate -- because ever since I can remember, I've wanted to meet dolphins. Every time I hear of a program that offers an opportunity to even just sit on a platform and see a dolphin up close and personal, I consider signing up. My most recent fantasizing in this regard took place only a week ago, when my family and I booked a short trip to Bermuda for later this year. At the island is a facility called Dolphin Quest that I've known about for years, so after we flexed some plastic for our plane tickets and hotel, I logged over to the Dolphin Quest website. There I read the description of the program and decided that I could somehow justify paying a few hundred bucks for one of the cheaper packages. Then I read the guest reviews.

Oh, dear.

Some people raved about the experience, but plenty of others complained. Some simply said that they didn't get much dolphin contact for their money. But others reported that the dolphins are kept in very small tanks. I could just see myself plunking down the money, getting to the facility, bursting into tears when I saw those tanks, and high-tailing it out of there. I've had a similar reaction every time I've considered doing such a program. If the size of the tanks doesn't worry me, it's my thinking that I can choose to see the dolphins but the dolphins have no choice with regard to seeing me. Either way, I'd be setting myself up to feel guilty, all to satisfy a selfish fantasy.

That's why my efforts to find a guilt-free dolphin encounter program for the masses are at an end. For me, I don't think there is such a program. On the other hand, I'd love to do this.

Susan Orlean's article is here.