Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Roll the Bones

I remember being about 9 years old and accompanying my mom to the local Ben Franklin "Five and Dime" store. I believe the company is gone now (though a few stores may still exist in small towns by that name), but younger and more urbanly hip readers are familiar with the concept of the "dollar" store, now seen almost everywhere.

It's not the same. Maybe I have a selective memory, but today's "dollar" stores seem riddled with cheap depressing crap no one really wants (including the manufacturer), while variety stores from my youth had cheap crap a lot of people actually wanted, and used.

The Ben Franklin at our local strip mall was one of my very favorite places to go. I remember buying those balsa wood airplanes every summer, and I still have a fondness for their incredibly simple, rubber-band propellor technology today. And the store itself wasn't large, but it was dark and cool, and Mom would let me wander to decide what trinket I needed to have that very minute. Meanwhile, she bought sewing notions, a hook-and-eye loop for the screen door, a turkey lifter, and a plunger. Was there something the store didn't have? It seemed to my child's imagination that Ben Franklin had tons of stuff.

But not as much stuff as one can find at most every store today. And therein lies the problem. We simply have too many choices. And having too many choices can leave us overwhelmed and anxious.

I wish I could explain this as well as Cath Duncan does in this blog post. But I can't. So go read it, and come back. Because it relates to choosing a pet.

How having too many choices relates to pet acquisition

To paraphrase Cath's post, we use our left-brain to weigh the pros and cons of daily choices, and this works well for us, unless there are too many choices. Then, we start second-guessing our choices, which actually, according to Dan Gilbert, reduces our happiness. It seems weird, but from a personal standpoint, I can totally relate.

And it can affect all parts of our lives, even down to the pet we choose in an animal shelter. Oddly, I had always thought this was because of our pesky emotions, which definitely play a part in our decisions when it comes to animals. But Cath points out that using our emotions can help when there are too many choices. I don't have hard scientific evidence to prove my hypothesis, but when the shelter at which I work is at full capacity for adult dogs, adoptions plateau, then start falling off. Price or perceived value becomes moot (because many shelters lower prices when this happens, in an attempt to "move the merchandise"), and many "lookers" actually leave having truly only looked.

If you asked people as they were leaving why they didn't adopt a pet today, "you had too many to choose from" would not be their answer. I suspect it's unconscious, actually. They felt overwhelmed, but they don't really know why.

When a number of cages are left empty, adoptions increase. There are other factors that play into it, too: weather, the economy, time of year, how many black dogs are in the shelter, and the animals' behavior, to name a few. How clean the place is also affects adoptions, and the more dogs that reside there, the harder it is for staff to keep the shelter clean.

Overall, it does seem to hold true that too many choices of potential pets will stymie the "average" adopter. It's bad enough when you are looking at cans of tomato sauce, or brands of toilet paper, but when you throw homeless pets into the choice pools, people's already frazzled emotions take a huge hit.

(I will explore this emotional link regarding shelters in a future post. I've got lots of theories about it.)

It is often said that life was easier "back in the day" (an idea that minorities would vehemently disagree with), in part because there weren't more than a couple of choices we faced every day. I can see how this might have been true. From brands of products to how to live our lives, not having to analyze everything must have been a relief.

Technology has improved our lives immensely, but at what price? If adoptions decrease when one has too many dogs to pick from, then dogs stay in the shelter longer, which increases the chances that stress will degrade their behavior and health--even in the best-run facilities.

That doesn't mean adopters should make uninformed choices, but the opposite of that is not making a choice at all. And Neil Peart very brillantly had something to say about that.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Embarking on the Obedience Train

Would you agree that stability and clear communication in relationships lead to their success? Then you should agree that trained dogs are happier than untrained dogs. Trained dogs’ lives are more stable and consistent, and they are rarely sent to shelters for behavioral problems. They are part of the family, rather than relegated to a boring backyard or crated most of the time. Since training your dog is so essential, one wonders why anyone would want to have an untrained pooch!

The sad fact is that many people are more willing to give up their dog instead of putting effort into training. Perhaps they are put off by the cost or effort required (often, the perceived cost or effort is greater than the actual cost and effort), or they simply think their dog doesn’t need manners. Whatever the reason, untrained dogs are suffering because of it. Finding a trainer who will work with you and your pooch effectively isn’t difficult, but it is essential to know what you need and where to look. Refusing to train the dog is simply not an option–-if one day you can’t live with him because of his behavior, why expect someone else to?

To canine professionals, training is not a luxury. It's a necessity. We have brought dogs into our lives on purpose, and there is no doubt that they have enriched the human race in immeasurable ways. When you realize that enriching their lives by simply showing them the proper way to behave in our lives takes so little time and effort, you will wonder why you didn't do it sooner. Training provides stability and purpose for dogs, many of whom are no longer performing the jobs that they were originally bred to do. It also gives them freedom.

As for what the "right" way to train is, there is one maxim to remember: no tool or method works for every dog. Dogs and their owners are individuals working as a team, and what works for one “team” may not work for another. It may take some trial and error to find just the right tools and methods, but once you do, your dog will thank you for it, and your relationship will be much enhanced.

All dogs need a leader and a set of rules to follow in order to fit well into the household. A competent trainer will be able to match your needs and the dog’s needs to tools and methods that work best for you. He or she will also be friendly, helpful, accessible, and care about what you need and want, in addition to making sure you are meeting your dog's actual needs. Training should be interesting and enjoyable for both you and the dog. Your dog should improve after just a few sessions, and you doing your homework.

Here are some pros and cons of the four basic training setups.


1. If it works for you, it's cheapest; minimal money outlay is mostly for books/video and training tools
2. You are building the relationship with the dog; dog learns to work for you
3. It can be done at your convenience in the place of your choice and at your pace

1. The method you choose may not work for your dog; books and manuals vary widely in approach and cannot always answer your questions
2. No professional is on hand to make sure you are doing right by the dog and the dog is actually learning what he is supposed to be learning (no feedback)
3. No professionally-supervised socialization or distractions


1. Typically it's the least expensive of professional help options
2. Shows you how to teach your own dog; dog learns to work for you
3. The better ones contain a beneficial socialization component, and the added distractions of class prepare the dog for “real life” situations
4. You get to meet and speak with folks “in the same boat” as you–-you learn you are not alone, and you can meet some fellow dog-lovers
5. Allows for lots of training opportunities, including doggy sports like agility and flyball

1. The method they teach may not work for your team; instructors can vary widely in approach and teaching skills, and may forbid certain tools or methods that could work for you
2. Little individualized instruction; multiple class attendees means less attention per team
3. Not suitable for aggressive animals and won’t always work for major problem behaviors
4. Scheduling and geography may not jell with your needs

Private lessons (usually held in your home)

1. Individualized instruction is tailored to your dog’s (and your) needs
2. The dog learns to work for you with the aid of professional help
3. It can be done usually at your convenience in your home and at your pace
4. Problem behaviors have best chance of being solved

1. The method the trainer uses may not work for your dog or you (though a quality trainer will figure out the best way to get results)
2. One of the more expensive training options, and once you've paid for it, you may feel obligated to keep using the trainer even if it isn't working
3. It has less chances for socialization than classes
4. Regular “home” distractions (phones, kids, etc.) may lessen your chance of success

Board-and-train (B&T)

1. Provides individualized instruction tailored to your dog’s needs
2. Your dog gets the basic foundation from a professional, away from the distractions of your home
3. Great for dogs that need to be boarded during the time they should be getting trained (i.e., crucial learning periods)
4. Most of the "startup" work is done for you

1. It can be expensive
2. Dog is learning to work for the trainer, not you; you may not get good follow-up once the boarding has ended and find that the dog doesn’t behave at home
3. Most of the work is done for you, so your relationship with your dog is not growing
4. You cannot watch how your pet is handled or trained or socialized

When choosing trainers, ask questions! A quality trainer is one who is experienced, knowledgeable, makes you feel comfortable, likes your dog, is flexible and willing to use the tools or methods that work best for your dog and you, and who gets the job done to your satisfaction. After all, YOU have to live with the dog.

Word-of-mouth referrals are the best way to find a good trainer. Ask for references, length of experience, and what types of dogs and behaviors they've dealt with. Avoid a "high-pressure" tactic to get you to sign up, and avoid franchises with "too-good-to-be-true" guarantees. These often mask a lack of experience, and can inflate the training's price--and may do you absolutely no good. Caveat emptor.

P.S. Remember to take what you see on TV in regards to dog training with a grain of salt. Some of it works, some of it is just for show, some of it isn't even training. Plus, you don't know what ended up on the cutting-room floor. Though TV would like us to think differently, problems are never solved in one hour or less.

Training takes patience and time. Good training is efficient, but it cannot be rushed. Your dog has had weeks, months, or even years to build up his habits. It may take some time to erase them, and replace them with better ones.

If you don't have the patience for this, you should have gotten a cat. Or a guinea pig. Or a hamster. Or a fish. I'm just sayin'.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I love Max and Maira

"I want to say
That wonderful ideas
Can come fom anywhere.
Sometimes you make a mistake,
or break something,
or lose a hat,
and the next thing you know,
you get a great idea."

~Max Stravinsky

Max is a poet, and a dreamer. He is also a dog.

Max is the hero of several children's books by the witty and wonderful Maira Kalman, whose drawings have appeared on the cover of the New Yorker for years, and hilariously decorate the pages of The Elements of Style (apparently, she went into a store one day, picked up a copy of the book, and decided that it needed pictures), as well as non-Max books and several lovely year-long blog projects for the New York Times (I am so hoping she will revive her blogging). The most recent is "The Pursuit of Happiness," from 2009. It will be released as a book this year.

Max is the dog everyone wishes they could be. That's why I love him.

"Good things come out of incomprehension." ~from "Illustrated Woman" TED video, October, 2007

Maira doesn't believe in talking down to kids. I don't have children, can't have them, and have never wanted them, but the fact that she doesn't talk down to them gives me hope. Most kids are way smarter than given credit for. Many parents think they have to "dumb things down" for their kids, but I find that to be tiresome and pedantic. I think children should be exposed to things that make no sense to them yet. I think it widens their brains. Like puppies, they are sponges, soaking up the world in little bits and bytes. You never know what will stick.

(That said, my never-to-be-born children would have grown tired of me, always offering them art and literature that was too advanced for them, and expecting them to like it. "Just because you loved Romeo and Juliet when you were 11 and practically memorized the whole play doesn't mean we have to. I wanna play Pokemon!" I would then grumble and sigh and say something like, "When I was your age..." and they'd tune me out. So, better to be sans children--I'm sure their taste in art would have bored me.)

Readers understand the incredible power of literature, and I do believe that kids reading a bit over their heads makes them better readers, and enjoyers of the printed page. Kalman's "Max" stories are poetic and use words most kids (and many adults, albeit typically not the ones reading her work) don't hear on a daily basis--words like pluperfect, ruminations, and debonnaire. Her character's names are delicious. (I so hope one day to meet a Mr. Hoogenschmidt.) One has the lovely moniker Ferrrnando Extra Debonnaire....great name for a dog.

Speaking about the seminal writer's style manual for the ages, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, she muses,
"E.B. White wrote a number of rules which can either paralyze you and make you loathe him for the rest of time, or, you can ignore them, which I do, or you can, I don't know what--eat a sandwich."

Kalman's text in her kid's books scrolls wildly on the pages, too, which has a certain "to hell with you, typesetter" quality to it. It wraps dangerously around her drawings, clinging to them precariously on some pages. I LOVE THIS. It satisfies me like a nice rare steak at the end of an emotionally trying day.

You know what else I love about Maira? She takes photos of oddities, or everyday objects, and then draws pictures of them and thinks up captions. I can't paint, but I do like oddities, or the art of the absurd.

She uses words purposefully, and yet, with abandon. If I was ever able to meet her I would surely babble like a schoolgirl and bow down like a subject humbled before the crown. I'm embarrassed just considering the thought.

If you haven't seen her work, you are missing out. Besides the Max adventures (including my favorite, Swami on Rye: Max in India), check out Smartypants: Pete in School and Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman. The Principles of Uncertainty is a classic.

.(above) From "The Pursuit of Happiness" blog.

Kalman's bibliography on Amazon

Definitely worth a watch: Maira Kalman, the illustrated woman | Video on

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rescue Remedy

"Better to light a candle for one lost dog than to curse the darkness of man's indifference. Saving just one dog won't change the world, but it surely will change the world for that one dog." - Richard C. Call

Given the vast numbers of homeless dogs in this country, one understands why there are countless groups who are trying to help them. There are thousands of shelters or rescue groups in this country (no one knows how many for sure, as there is no agency that unites them all--despite the Humane Society of the United States' ploy to make their donors think there is). Some operate shelters, others do not. Some set up shop at local pet stores and other venues in an attempt to place dogs. Most utilize foster homes and large networks of volunteers to do, ostensibly, what’s best for dogs.

But sometimes, people look past the forest and see only the trees. Not all rescues or adoptive agencies are the same. Some are great places to get a “recycled” dog, and others should never be handling animals at all. This latter group includes shelters or rescues who do not put an emphasis on temperament, and therefore adopt out (or keep caged for life) known aggressive animals in an attempt to “save them all”; who do little or no screening of adopters, or are too strict and unyielding in their screening of adopters; who do not understand how to run nonprofit organizations, and therefore waste money and time; and who are “all about the dogs” while treating most people with suspicion or utter contempt.

A friend of mine was once refused adoption of a dog that would have been perfect for her because--I am not making this up--she “might decide to get pregnant one day and have kids,” and the dog was distrustful of children. My friend is not even in a relationship, and has no intentions of having kids—now, or ever. But the “rescue group” was adamant. Apparently, the fact that she has ovaries and a uterus was enough reason to deny her (silly women...always changing their minds, and stuff).

This is utterly ridiculous, and my friend is not alone. I have heard stories like hers numerous times. “Perfect homes” simply do not exist. When you are dealing in a commodity (dogs) that is utterly expendable in many people’s eyes, and you have a surplus of these animals who are dying everyday for lack of homes, you can be choosy to an extent, but being overly picky and unrealistic costs animals their lives.

Spending precious resources on dogs who will not be acceptable pets in most homes is also killing nice, adoptable dogs. Adopters are not usually professional dog trainers. They do not want a “project.” They want a pet! They want a dog they can touch, and train, and have around their kids and their kids’ friends, and make part of their family. In an attempt to “do right by the dogs,” many adoptive groups simply do not get this. Every time an aggressive dog is adopted out, all dogs in rescue and in shelters suffer the consequences. The adopter has a bad experience, and that bad experience leaches into the community like toxic waste into the water table. It is unethical to pass marginal or known aggressive dogs into the community by way of adoption. This is really also true for terrified or extremely shut-down dogs who will never be comfortable in their own skin, for they can become aggressive quite easily. Even if they never bite a single soul, seriously flawed dogs will try the patience of even the most stouthearted of kindhearted adopters. Most people, after 10-15 years spent with a seriously flawed animal that is supposed to be a pet but is instead a frightened, antisocial, unable-to-be-boarded-or-medicated dog will not make the mistake of adopting a "used" pet ever again.

Frankly, you can't blame them. But countless holier-than-thou types in the animal welfare business do just that every day. It's called "blaming the victim."

It’s time for “rescue” groups and other animal adoption agencies to wake up and smell the coffee. This “business” is as much about your potential adopters (the humans) as it is about the dogs. If you are not a “people person,” you don’t belong in animal rescue. If you are too emotional to understand that some dogs will not ever be good pets, you do not belong in animal rescue. If you think that your actions do not affect other dogs in rescue, you are wrong.

It has been said that only about 10% of animals in homes are from shelters or rescue. If rescue groups want to increase this number, they must be friendly, open, ethical, realistic, and a source for only the best-tempered dogs they can find.

Homeless dogs deserve nothing less.