Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Twas a Good Year

I can’t believe another year is almost over. I know, it is such cliché talk, but it’s true. Time flies. At least for us it does, perhaps because we are so busy. Although there are days I wish had more hours in it, I am thankful that everyone in our family has work; enough income to pay the bills with a little left over. In today’s world, that and health make any year a good one.
Of course, there were ups and downs. It is life. Losing our beloved Aussie Davie to cancer in March was a big blow that still sideswipes us periodically, especially when something strongly reminds us of her – a certain place, or a song that has a special meaning. Last week our favorite grocery store played Robbie William’s version of “The Things we Used to Do”, which was Davie and my Freestyle song we danced to. Happy-sad moment.
The highlight of the year was in August, when our daughter who lives 5000 km away came for a visit. We had a wonderful time exploring Cape Breton and traveling one of the most beautiful coastal highways in the world. Of course Will came along.
The remainder of the year was journeying a smooth path, spotted here and there with interesting dog-related information and products I want to share with you.
My favorite new walking tool is the Freedom Harness I discovered recently thanks to dog guru Pat Miller. I already mentioned it in my post "Tools of the Trade", and the more I use it, the more I like it. You can check it out at Wiggles, Wags and Whiskers.
Another product that really works is the Wysong Denta Treat Powder - I get mine at the Bark and Fitz in Halifax. It is an oral health- promoting supplement for canines and felines that is sprinkled on kibble. I skeptically started using it for our 10-year-old Will in September, and am amazed by the results. Her teeth are visibly cleaner, whiter and gums healthier.
The Lickety Stick caught my eye last month while shopping for dog food and training treats at Global Pets in Truro. If you picture a roll-on deodorant you get an idea how it functions, except instead of a pleasant smelling stink neutralizer it releases a natural tasty liquid the dog can lick. I can see it work nicely with polite leash manner training, but also to change a nervous dog’s mind about a hand reaching for him. Many of my consultations involve dogs that bite, and specifically hands. Dogs, it seems to me, are increasingly more suspicious of hands and I believe that is because the famous Dog Whisperer demonstrates that hands should pin and poke, not gently stroke and deliver a food treat or toy. Even though I like the Lickety Stick, I won't use it much, because it is made by PetSafe, the leading shock collar manufacturer, and that puts me in moral conflict; enough to stay away from their good products as well.
Those are the things that stuck out, but I also found a bunch of mention-worthy information. There are many websites that advance the gentle and dog friendly treatment of our hairy sidekicks, but two I especially liked: is based in the UK and has really good video clips, including one on how to desensitize a dog to a wear a muzzle, and one how to teach “drop it”.
The other,, is an international directory of, as the name implies, truly positive dog trainers. Unlike some other groups and associations that don’t always screen if everyone follows their mission statement, or are all-inclusive to begin with and accept anyone who can hold a leash regardless how aversive the method is they use, joining this one is by referral only. Yours truly made the cut, but is not yet listed because, I was told, the site is managed by volunteers and updating can be a tad slow. Understandable, but I hope they’re finding the time so that more and more dog owners can locate a truly positive dog pro in their area.
And of course there were books. There are always books. My favorite one this year was “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg. It is actually not about dogs, but an African Grey Parrot, Alex, and Dr. Pepperberg, a scientist curious about bird brains. Alex stands for Avian Language Experiment. I loved the book because it is science-based and therefore the findings documented and verified, while at the same time it is written in a conversational and easy comprehendible style. Alex’ level of cognition astounded many, even critics, and because he was able to use English words proving what he was capable of was easier than it is for our dogs who can’t speak our language. I often wonder what they would tell us were they anatomically equipped to talk like we do, or Alex? I mean, their communication is quite clear, but still, it is not our own and we can never be 100 percent sure if what we think our dog thinks is accurate.
“The Scent of Desire” by Rachel Herz is also not about dogs, but about the sense of smell. I was surprised how intensely it impacts so many aspects of human life. How much more important must it be for dogs who have a much keener sense of smell than we do. Especially the chapter on pheromones was super interesting. It explained how they affect the selection of a genetically perfect mate to increase the chance of healthy offspring. How many female dogs are allowed to freely choose their mates these days?
A much anticipated book I just finished reading is BAT by Grisha Stewart. This one is about dogs, not bats. BAT stands for Behavior Adjustment Training, and is geared to help reactive dogs. In a nutshell, it teaches people how to use functional rewards, namely distance, to reinforce socially acceptable behaviors in the presence of a trigger. I love and apply the concept since I saw Suzanne Clothier demonstrate something very similar a few years ago. Grisha makes a reference to Suzanne Clothier and Ian Dunbar in the book’s appendix, and also to CAT – Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider’s Constructional Aggression Treatment, which also uses distance as functional reinforcement, but with the distinct difference that the trigger moves, not the dog.

Here you have it: a quick review of my rather good year. Perhaps one or the other item finds itself on your wish list, and if you’re not done Christmas shopping yet, maybe you just found the perfect gift for a loved one.
I leave you with my best wishes for a Merry Christmas, or whatever it is you are celebrating this time of year, and even-keel sailing in 2012.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

All I Want for Christmas

Is a puppy dog. That was the only thing I ever wanted when I was growing up – and never got because my parents didn’t want an animal in the house. In hindsight, it was good that they so stubbornly refused to give me what I longed for most. Good for the dog, at least. My family put the “dys” into functional, and life in our house would have been very stressful for any poor pooch.
Kids grow up and eventually make their own decisions, and as soon as the time was right mine was to finally make my wish come true and get meself a dog, and then another one, and…
So, these days I am as happy as a human can be, and the only reason why I am boring you with my miserable, dogless childhood is because “a puppy” is a repetitive plea on wish lists to Santa.
Profit-driven breeders and pet stores are well aware of that, and gear up production for the Holiday Season. What parent doesn’t love to see their offspring’s face light up as bright as the tree on Christmas morn’? What parent doesn’t want to fulfill their child’s dream? Because commerce plays on that, advertises and supplies the goods, every December many a youngster is given a leash, and a whelp at end of it.
Unlike folks whose priority is the bottom line, non-profit humane societies and rescue organizations put animals first and were, in the past, by and large against adopting dogs out shortly before Christmas. Their explanation was that: a) they didn’t want the animals in their care to be a last minute, emotional-based or spontaneous acquisition that might be regretted soon after, and b) they wanted to prevent that a dog, likely already somewhat stressed by the shelter environment, won’t be more so when exposed to all the commotion that is typically part of the festivities.
That position has changed a bit in recent years. With the Iams “Home 4 the Holidays” program and alluring tagline: “What better gift can there be during the Holiday Season than to save the life of an orphan”, more and more shelters join in with the goal to adopt out as many of their charges for Christmas as possible. Sounds like a noble enough move, doesn’t it? Well, I am not so sure. I know that I might be paddling against the current here, but whenever meeting a projected quota and dogs are in the same sentence, I become worried.
Since "Home 4 the Holidays" inception in 1999, 5.7 million families worldwide found a new family member, and this year’s goal is 1.5 million, with 3.790 shelters participating. Impressive numbers indeed, and reading them automatically evokes an image in our mind of a white picket fence family and a once lonesome, sweet dog who is now, cause adopted, eagerly fetching a ball or peacefully sleeping in his doggy bed by the fireplace. Except, do we have any evidence that confirms what we see with our mental eye? Do we actually know how many dogs are still in those homes after 6 months, 1 year, or 2? Is someone checking how many live inside and call that soft cushion to sleep on their own, are supplied quality food, are loved and cared for the way they should? Maybe there are follow-ups. I don’t know. If there are, I’d be interested in those numbers as well.
Of course, statistics that show how animals make out in a home long term are important regardless when in a year they are adopted out, but more than any other season the Christmas one takes advantage of people’s open hearts and warm, albeit perhaps vulnerable, emotions. In that sense, is the Iams campaign any different than the pet store’s front window and breeder’s website home page, both littered with darling cute puppies ready to go for December 25?
I get it. It feels good to believe that every homeless person will have turkey dinner, and every lonely dog a home, but life is not a Hallmark movie, and more not always merrier. My fear is that once new year reality hits, a good number of pets invited in from the cold by people who were sad, in a temporary fuzzy-giving mood, or wanted to make Christmas especially memorable for the kids, find themselves returned like undesired presents exchanged at the local mall. Or, when the new owners realize that the pooch means time and work, might not be house trained or has separation anxiety, are exiled to a solitary life in the yard or on a chain. People might opine that any home is better than no home, but I disagree. Some dogs are better off at a shelter where friendly volunteers take the time to walk and talk to them, and perhaps even allow playtime with compatible friends.
Said all that, I am not categorically against adopting before Christmas. Any effort that places an animal in need of a home into a good one, including during the month of December, is fabulous. If a family unanimously agreed to open their door and hearts to a dog all along, if the decision to choose a homeless one was well thought through, if the expectations are realistic, and if the pooch they all fall in love with is confident enough to handle a festivity-busier-than-normal new environment, it would be senseless to leave him lingering in a shelter cell longer than he has to.
But all those criteria have to be in place, otherwise "Home 4 the Holidays" is nothing more than clever PR for Iams, with little regard for the animals. The question I am pondering over is if participating shelters, during a busy adoption drive, are able to evaluate potential owners with the same scrutiny they apply at other times. If yes, then that is wonderful, and the campaign also is, and I am all for it.
Another thing that is wonderful, and has to do with Iams, is their Local Heroes Contest that was seeking life saving success stories. The competition was open to shelters and rescue organizations across Canada, and I can proudly say that our Nova Scotia Provincial SPCA in Dartmouth won for their palliative foster care program that places old animals, and those with compromised health, in loving foster homes. What I think about human scum who ditch their old or sick pooch is another topic, but I am glad our shelter was recognized with an award for their compassionate care for animals that otherwise would likely have to be euthanized.
And also wonderful is the Hallmark movie “A Dog Named Christmas”. If you have the chance, watch it, but for dog’s sake don’t let your children talk you into a family member you don’t want for the next decade or so. Taking responsibility for a pet is an adult decision – one of the rare mature ones I can give my parents’ credit for making.