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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cashing Out

With my time in New York quickly approaching its end, I've been doing a lot of farewells in the past few weeks. First, I said goodbye to my airedale that I walked for 2 years. Then, I bid adieu to my whippet, which was a sad moment. This week is my last with my beloved wirefox terrier, and I don't know how I'll handle our last walk together. He's a special boy. They're all special to me, and I hope I'll get to see them when I come back to New York to visit.

This past Saturday, I went up to Green Chimneys for what may very well be the last time as a volunteer. It was not the best visit I've had; I spent the majority of the time inside the tack room, painting the ceiling. As the day came to a close, I asked my supervisor if I could take the last few minutes to make the rounds and say bye to the horses I'd been helping care for over the past several months. Of course she allowed it, and so I trekked off onto the trail to stop by each pasture.

First, I stopped by the biggest paddock with the two resident driving horses, Unar and Alta, the Norwegian Fjords, and their pathetic pasture-mate, Odessa. I say pathetic because she's the bottom of the herd. We all had a good scratch, and Odessa managed to wipe the mud from her side onto my back. Thanks for that. Next, I simultaneously introduced myself and said goodbye to the two new Norwegian Fjords, Sadie and Zipper. Beautiful mares, but I'm not sure they'll be staying at the farm long.

Then, I followed the path up to Laddie and Jackson, two handsome boys. Jackson is a young guy, and enjoyed when I scratched his mane. The flies were making all the horses crazy, so I did my best to swat them away while I was standing there. I made the last loop around to the farthest pasture where my old friends Cash and Second were hiding in the lean-to, trying to avoid the pesky flies. As soon as I got to them, I felt a wave of sorrow creep up on me. In January, I blogged about this farm and about my first barn buddy, Cash. He is such a special horse, and I can't completely describe why. The few times I got to ride him, we didn't do much, but he was the kindest, most willing horse you can imagine. I love his attitude and I love imagining what he was like in his prime: handsome and agile, eye-catching and lightning-fast.

I made my way up to Second, the other elderly horse, and said a quick goodbye. We hadn't been close, but he got a kiss on the nose anyway. Then I slid over to my main man, Cash. And it hit me. These old boys probably aren't long for this world. They are both in their mid-thirties, which is old for big horses like them. I put my forehead on Cash's, and he stood quietly, with his eyes half-closed, while I started to cry. He didn't move a muscle, or bat an eyelash. I wrapped my arms around his huge muzzle and squeezed, and he still remained motionless. Then I shifted around to his side and buried my face in his neck, crying all the while. I have no idea what came over me, or why it hit me so hard.

Maybe it was the fact that I may never see my sweet Cash again. We hadn't done much together, but he has a good soul, and you don't get to meet many horses like him in a lifetime. Or maybe it was the realization of what this farm grew to mean to me over these months. It was a respite from the city, a place of peace amid a hectic, city life. Being around horses again helped me understand how much I need them in my life, and solidified my resolve to work with them in the future. Being at a place like Green Chimneys also made me realize that I am in absolute awe of the human-animal bond, and I want to be surrounded by it in any way I can. I watched the way the troubled young children brightened up around these gentle beasts, and it made me realize that I want to help animals help people.

I don't know what my future holds beyond the next few weeks. I do know that I am going to do everything I can to ensure that my future is one that involves horses. I also know that while I may not miss the city of New York, I will miss the animals I met, and worked with, and loved. And I can only hope that my future takes me more places like Green Chimneys, so that I can meet more special souls like Cash.

Farewell, handsome boy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's Me Again...

Wow. My apologies. It's been far too long since I posted on this blog! I would try and defend myself with all sorts of excuses (thesis, other blogs, moving) but the fact is, I lost interest for a bit. Well, I guess the excuses do hold some water... I have been super busy with all three of those things, but I should have found a way to fit this blog in. After all, there's no need to write an epic every time I post- even a few words will do. The purpose of this post is to inform the 3 of you that read it regularly that I hope to pick up the writing again soon. I am winding down my time here in New York (thank GAWD) and getting ready for Move Part 1 to Northern Virginia. That comes sometime in the last two weeks of July, after my vacation to San Diego.

That being said: if any of you know of someone who lives in the Virginia/Maryland/DC area who has dogs that require some sort of training, I'm thinking that's how I'll make my money while I'm home for a while. I already have one 'client' lined up when I get back, and would love to get the word out that I'll be in the area training dogs. I'm excited to be home for a little bit. Lord knows I could use some home cooked meals, and that king-sized bed is just screaming my name. Plus, I'll be living with my two pups and kitties, and bringing my own Fiona home to add to the gang. It's going to be a very long, very slow introduction process. She'll likely spend the first several weeks confined to my room so they can all smell each other under the door. I have no idea how Fiona acts around other cats, so this should be interesting.

Anyway, I hope you all are doing well and enjoying the summer thus far. I'll drop in periodically, but in the meantime, if you enjoy basketball, you should look at my other two blogs: MavsMoneyball.com, the site I manage for the Dallas Mavericks, and SwishAppeal.com, the site I contribute for as a writer about women's basketball.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Pollution Woes?

With the way my dogs were walking today, you'd think that actual acid was raining down from the sky. The whippet cringed, as if in agony, each time a raindrop came in contact with his skin. The airedale put on the breaks and stood, staring at me, as if to say "I REFUSE." What is it with these silly dogs? They also don't realize that the sooner they do their business, the sooner I'll bring them inside. I don't like the rain either, you silly pups! *sigh*, if only they spoke English.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Perks of the Job

Sometimes things happen that give you a brand new perspective on your life. They can be good or bad, but when they occur, you feel a shift, and it changes something in you. One such thing happened over the past 24 hours to me. I received a phone message from one of the first clients I got on my own after starting my business. They are related to a close family friend of mine, and they are a wonderful family that has managed to avoid New York's tendency to make people obnoxious. Yes, they are VERY well off, and live in an incredible apartment in the heart of TriBeCa. No, they are not stuck up or pretentious. I've walked their dog (an Airedale) since she was a tiny, 3-month old pup. She'll be 2 this May. They have 3 daughters; one only a few years younger than me, one in middle school, and the youngest is 9. I recently signed on to pick her up from school during my second walk with the dog every day. They are a warm family, and they involve me in their lives more than you typically would a dog walker.

The phone message I received yesterday was from the mom, sounding a bit frantic and distracted, asking me to return her call ASAP. I did, to no answer. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that was confirmed this morning: her husband's mother had died and they had to rush upstate, bringing the dog with them. She was apologizing for having to cancel the walks last-minute, and concerned that I had already left for work (the dog is my first walk every day). It was touching that she was so concerned about me despite the family's personal tragedy. It was also startling how upset I was over the fact that she had died. I've never even met the woman, nor do I see the husband as often as I see everyone else in the family. But still, I felt their deep sense of loss, and my immediate thought was that I needed to send flowers or a gift basket. (Mind you, I don't make a whole lot of money.)

It occurred to me that as a dog walker, I get a little sneak peek into people's lives that not many other professions get. I come into these people's homes every day, and because most of my clients tend to work from home (I'm not entirely sure why that is...) I get to chat with them while they're going on about their lives. Maybe it's because I care for their dogs, who are extensions of their families, or maybe it's just the kind of person that I am, but I feel like my clients open up to me more than they do with other people. I've found myself occasionally complaining to friends that I wish my clients had normal 9 - 5 jobs so I didn't have to stand around and make small talk with them, but I'm starting to realize that I'm fortunate to be able to share in these moments. When they are excited about new job prospects, they include me in their excitement. When they are concerned about their children, they ask me for advice (which is silly, since I'm the same age as some of their kids). These people are not my "friends", because we don't hang out or grab dinner, or talk on the phone about the latest gossip. Our interactions are limited to the context of my job, but our relationships go much deeper. It's as if they are paying me to walk their dogs, and I'm throwing in therapy for free. And somewhere along the way, I've started to like that feeling of being able to help them with more than the occasional extra walk.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spooning Old Men

I'm in the last hour of a pet sit for a client I've had for about two years. When I first started sitting for her, she had two dogs, but one of them died (of old age, bless his heart) this summer. Now I'm left with a funny little terrier mix who was rescued and has his own set of issues. He's about 12 or 13 years old, which is not actually that old for a terrier, and he takes Prozac every day for his mild anxiety. He gets territorial over the bed sometimes, and he doesn't like to be handled in certain ways. He was debarked, and for some reason he has a number tattoo on the hairless area on his abdomen. I don't know his story, but he tickles my funny bone because he looks like a crotchety old man. This was just an overnight stay, but it was quite pleasant for a change. Previously, when I had both dogs, I was sharing the bed with two fidgety sleepers, the older of whom suffered from incontinence (at my expense). Last night, it was just me and the remaining dog who slept much quieter than last time, curled in a tiny little bundle of pup next to me the whole night. He used to get upset if I moved around or got up in the middle of the night; not so this time. He just looked at me, turned in a little circle and got comfortable again.
I grew up with large breed dogs only, and I still think I'll want a big dog when I can finally have one of my own. But after last night, I realized one reason why people love small dogs. Few things are as sweet as curling up to sleep with a tiny old dog nestled in your knees or spooned against your tummy. It's especially endearing when they tuck their noses under their paws- I can hardly stand it. In my experience sleeping with my own large dalmatians, there's no room left on the bed for me, and in what little room I have, I spend the night getting kicked and shoved. It's not relaxing in the least. So maybe I'll lay off the prejudice against smaller breeds, after having spent such a lovely night with a sweet old terrier.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poop Scoopin' Boogie

I am a dog walker. If you haven't figured this out by now, you haven't been reading very carefully. I don't want to walk dogs for the rest of my life. If you haven't figured this out by now, you're not very smart. Just kidding. But seriously. Dog walking provides two very different lifestyles: there are those who are like me and are doing this as a way to earn money while doing something else (like school) and working towards something 'better' (like a real career), and then there are what I like to call 'career walkers'. These are the old men and women who may have started out on my path, but ended up getting stuck. They are (generally speaking) very difficult to be around, either because they lacked the social skills to succeed in another field, or because they are bitter about still walking dogs past the age of 40. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule; I happen to know an incredibly successful, incredibly cool dog walker who supposedly makes six figures, and she's perhaps the nicest, most socially capable person I've ever met. But I digress. My biggest fear, it turns out, is getting stuck in this job for far longer than I intended.

I will say, there are not many dog walkers with degrees. I'm not sure about college, but I seriously doubt there are many with graduate degrees. Maybe a few who started out wanting to be an accountant or something boring but realized they wanted nothing to do with a 9-5 desk job. But not many. Once I finish my thesis (which I am FINALLY working on again) I will have a Master's degree in ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. With that kind of credential, I really should be aiming higher than a professional pooper scooper. My supportive boyfriend has been coaching me on how to expand my walking business into a training business, but I have this ethical aversion to charging people for something in which I have no "official" training. I will say, I'm darn good at training dogs. My clients appreciate my skills, and tell me so quite frequently. But then they also flip out when I express even a flicker of an interest in leaving my dog walking business. What to do, what to do?

IF (and it's a big if) I decide to stay in NYC long term and develop a dog training business, it would behoove me to get certified as a trainer so I could a) sound more impressive and b) charge more. Alas, in order to become a certified trainer, you already have to be a professional trainer. What a circular situation THAT is... So in essence, I need to work for someone else first so I can get experience teaching classes, or I need to bite the bullet and offer my services privately without any official certification. My encouraging boyfriend wants to build me a professional website with my own domain name and a list of services offered (with prices, of course). The whole idea of having a legitimate, registered business scares the poo out of me, but also excites me. Not many people get to set their own hours, rules and salaries. But at the same time, there's a greater risk of failure. Am I willing to take that risk? Or am I going to keep applying for so-so jobs with organizations I believe in, hoping that at SOME point I'll be qualified enough to be hired? Or, will I get stuck in an eternal hell of needy clients and dog shit? Oh the possibilities...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Horse, of Course.

On my way home from Green Chimneys today, my friend Tova (also my ride!) and I were discussing, among other things, the interesting fact that the children who attend the school tend to pick a favorite animal with whom they form a special relationship. For some kids, the goats have a certain appeal. For others, the chickens make them the happiest. Tova relates best to the pigs, and I, of course, adore the horses. I mentioned that it would be interesting to find out what it is in each animal that the child most identified with. I think that would provide a great deal of insight into these troubled children, and possibly aid in their treatment. Then, the discussion moved to what it is about our respective animals that appeals most to us. With some thought, I decided that what I relate to most about horses is their social nature.

People generally see horses being ridden by themselves, or out in a pasture grazing, maybe with some horses nearby, but that's about it. Unless you really know horses, and have spent some time around them, you wouldn't really get to see their intensely social lives. Even when it looks as though the horses are ignoring their neighbors in the paddock, they are keenly aware of every other horse; how she's feeling, what she's doing, and if she's feeling safe. Prey animals, such as horses, thrive in groups which offer protection. Horses were designed to flee at the first sign of danger, so the more eyes keeping a look out, the better. They are incredibly intuitive as a result, and not just about the needs of their herd mates. One of the reasons horses are so valuable as therapy animals is because they are quickly able to assess the moods of people and often react in a way that will help people identify their own emotions as reflected by the horse.

I often joke that I decided to study animal behavior because I'm not fond of people. That's only partially true. While I do get frustrated by mankind as a whole, I love my friends and family. I like the idea that I have a safety network- that, if I'm there for my 'herd', they will look out for me. I'm ok by myself, I'll go out and do things on my own, but I prefer to be in the company of those I love. So it's probably no wonder that I feel so close to horses- I understand their need to be surrounded by comfort and safety, and I do my best to provide that for them whenever I can. Is there an animal you relate to in a special way?
Dreamer, the love of my life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stealing this from the ASPCA...

Ringling Bros. to March Elephants into NYC

At around midnight on Wednesday, March 24, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will host its annual “elephant walk” through Manhattan to Madison Square Garden. The Asian elephants will disembark the circus train in Queens and walk into Manhattan through the Midtown Tunnel, then across 34th Street to Madison Square Garden. MSG is hosting the circus from March 25 through April 4.
Although the sheer oddity of seeing elephants walking our city streets compels many to stay out late to watch the spectacle, the ASPCA would like to remind New Yorkers of the inherent cruelty of circus life for wild animals. The abuse of elephants by the Ringling Bros. circus has been caught on tape by animal welfare organizations and documented by state humane agencies and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.
To attend the elephant walk is to endorse Ringling’s ongoing mistreatment of these intelligent, sensitive and endangered creatures. We urge compassionate people to avoid this event—as well as the circus itself, which subjects its animal performers to inhumane training methods and unnatural periods of confinement.
Instead, we ask that you:
  • Talk to your friends and family, especially your children, about why you will not be attending the elephant walk or the Ringling Bros. circus. Check out our list of cruelty-free circuses—ones that don’t feature animal performers.
  • Write to management at Madison Square Garden: feedback.msg@thegarden.com and let them know that by hosting Ringling Bros., they are supporting cruelty to animals.
  • Contact local newspapers, blogs and television stations to inform them about the cruelty inflicted on circus animals. 
  • Fight animal exploitation and abuse by taking the ASPCA’s Pledge to Fight Animal Cruelty.
To learn more about circus cruelty, please visit ASPCA.org/circus.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Care to Share

Yesterday I went up to the shelter where I volunteer for the first time in about two weeks, and I spent the majority of my time sitting on the floor, loving on some kitties. There are literally hundreds of cats there, most of them sitting by themselves in tiny little cages. It breaks my heart that they have to live like that, but I will say that these 'kitty condos' are like luxury apartments compared to the ones in most other shelters. My own Fiona lived in one of those things for two years before I took her home. It may seem like a trivial thing, to come and cuddle a cat, or even to let her out of her cage to stretch on the floor. But let me assure you, it's vital to the adoption of these cats. They more they are handled and loved, they happier they are, and the more likely they are to show themselves in a positive light when a potential adopter stops by to say hello. So if you live near a shelter, please become a volunteer. Don't let these poor animals waste away without someone to love them. Who knows, you might fall in love and bring one home with you :)

Monday, March 8, 2010

I'm back!

Hello friends!
I don't know if you noticed, but I've been on vacation for the past week.
I'm back and working again tomorrow (Tuesday) so expect a new post!
Hope you weren't too bored without my clever writing to entertain you!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ban Breeds? Bite Me.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are somewhere around 77.5 million dogs owned in the US. Almost 40% of US households own at least one dog. That means there are a lot of big jaws full of teeth out there. The CDC estimates that there are about 4.5 million dog bites every year, and about 1 in 5 of those require medical attention. In 2009, 33 dog "attacks" were fatal. So far this year, three people have been killed by dogs. As you may have guessed, I'm writing this blog in response to the recent death of 'Ax Men' star Jesse Browning's 4-year-old daughter at the jaws of one of their family Rottweilers. Tragic under any circumstances, the death of a child due to a family pet always seems to make for sensational headlines, and always seems to draw an outraged response from the public. I am always upset by this type of news, but for different reasons than most. It's headlines like these that cause breed-specific legislation and unfair public attitudes towards dogs that I know and love, and it frustrates me that no one publicly stands up for them.

My blog, my opinion.

I did some online research into dog bite statistics, and found that a few studies have been done. Sadly, there is no registered database that can be accessed with complete information regarding breeds involved in non-fatal bites. Since there are so few fatalities, all of them show exactly what kind of dog was involved, as well as the dog's history. And, you guessed it, most of them involve breeds like pit bulls, Rottweilers and German Shepherd Dogs; three of my favorite breeds. One study I read covered a 24-year span of dog attack deaths and maiming in the United States and Canada. It had some interesting numbers. Yes, 409 of the recorded deaths or maiming were caused by Rottweilers, but 31 were caused by Boxers and 36 were caused by Labradors and Labrador mixes. Labs are supposed to be the quintessential family dog, so it just goes to show that just because a breed is supposed to be a certain way, doesn't mean it always will. In fact, even the researcher raised some good points about why certain attacks happen that are not solely the fault of the dog.

Merritt Clifton, the author of the study, noted that often times the dog has given warnings, clear as day, that an attack is imminent, but those signals were either ignored or unreadable. For example, dogs with docked tails (such as 'fighting' breeds) no longer have that long flag on their behinds to display their emotions. Tails speak volumes to how a dog is feeling, and a poor Rottie, with barely a nubbin, has to resort to other methods of communication. In addition, children (who are by far the most bitten population) often accidentally provoke dogs by simply being children. A screaming, running child can potentially be terrifying for a dog, and if that tornado of toddler spins too close, the dog may feel threatened enough to lash out. In other cases, the nature of the dog breed is important to consider. For example, German Shepherd Dogs are, as the name implies, bred to be herding dogs. They instinctively have three mouth-related reactions to danger. The guiding nip is a gentle bite, with just enough pressure to redirect a sheep (or child), the grab-and-drag is when a dog holds on to a lamb (or child) in an attempt to pull it out of harms way, and the reactive bite is in defense of territory, be that a place or a living thing. Believe it or not, Rottweilers were bred to be herders too. In fact, they were one of the earliest herding breeds, and were used to protect stock on the way to market. What could possibly be happening is that a family dog is holding on to a child to guide or protect her, but the child may panic, causing the dog to panic and bite reactively. With jaws as powerful as a Rottie's, the damage done can be catastrophic.

Does that mean we should punish the breed, or other similar breeds? In my humble opinion, absolutely not. In fact, the owners should be held solely responsible. All too often, a severe or fatal attack could have been prevented by better training (of dogs AND children) and more vigilance. A second study I looked at examined attributes of dogs having bitten someone, as reported to Denver Animal Control in 1993. This study was enlightening because it didn't just look at breed, but it looked at animal history (where it came from) and owner responsibility as well. What I found most intriguing was that, when comparing dogs that bit to the control set of non-biting dogs, owners of the biting dogs were TWO TIMES as likely to have neither licensed nor vaccinated their dogs in the past year. And even more illuminating: TWO TIMES as many biting dogs as non-biting dogs were not neutered. So what does that say about the care provided for these dogs? Clifton's study also mentions the fact that, all too often, the 'dangerous reputation' of a breed makes it extra attractive to a specific population of people who are less likely to be responsible, dog owning citizens.

I believe the onus of responsibility lies on the owner, and on the people who provide the public with dogs. This includes shelters, private breeders, and yes, even puppy stores (even though I think puppy mills/stores should be abolished completely). The process to adopt a child is mind-boggling. The process to adopt a dog should be no less so, especially in the case of a breed with fighting or herding ancestry. Any dog, in the hands of the wrong person, can be a bad dog. On the same token, any dog, in the hands of the right person, can be a spectacular pet.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


I'm currently snuggled in on my couch, with a cat curled up next to me, watching USA battle Canada for the Olympic Gold Medal in hockey. I had a thought about the Olympics, albeit the summer ones (which I prefer). The events in both the summer and winter games include individual and team sports, but only ONE includes a teammate with four legs. I think it speaks volumes to the human/equine connection that equestrian events have been in every summer olympic games since 1912. They aren't the most-watched events, to be sure, but they're my favorite. For the uninitiated, I will provide a brief description of the three equestrian events at the sumer Olympics.

The most intricate of the three events is dressage; a precise, complicated style of riding where seemingly invisible aids from the rider cause the horse to exhibit highly athletic movements. One of the most important things a dressage judge looks for is the appearance of effortless movement and the horse's willingness to perform. So while the rider is the wizard behind the curtain, the horse's performance is what is heavily judged.

My favorite event, show jumping, consists of riders guiding their horses through courses with 10 - 16 jumps, measuring up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height and width. The horse must clear the obstacles without any penalties (knocked down rails or refusals) within the allotted time to win. The horses are magnificent athletes, and the riders are absolutely fearless.

The third event is a combination of the other two events, with an added element of cross-country, a jumping course set on a natural surface over a long distance (2 3/4 - 4 miles) with 24 - 36 intricate, natural-looking obstacles. One rider competes in all three elements on the same horse, so the animal must be an incredible athlete with all-around knowledge.

Generally speaking, the order of events is dressage, cross-country, and finally show jumping. Don't worry, the horses are thoroughly examined by a veterinarian before the final event to ensure that he or she is fit to continue. It's a grueling competition that takes place over the course of several days, and it's a thrill to watch the relationship between horse and rider as they compete for their country.

There are some pretty bizarre and obscure competitions in the Olympics (hello, curling, anyone?) but they all seem to involve humans and their high-tech tools. I love that my favorite animal, the horse, is the only four-legged creature to compete in the great battle of nations. Maybe someday they'll include Canine Freestyle, or Frisbee Dog competitions. Not sure what you could do with a cat... power nap competitions? If that ever happens, Fiona and I will be competing for sure.

Friday, February 26, 2010

I'm Tired. Enjoy.

Today was a snowy, wintry wonderland. Yes, I braved the flakes and walked all my dogs in the city today, despite my general aversion to inclement weather. I must say, today's precipitation was much more tolerable than yesterday's, and I rather enjoyed myself playing in the snow with my pups! What follows are some pictures from today's festivities!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Free Willy? It's Not That Simple.

So the whole 'educated' part of the title of my blog refers to my Master's Degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation (still in progress, of course). I reiterate this because I want to, for the first time, emphasize the conservation aspect of my studies. While my main focus is behavior, it's important to understand the relevance of conservation because there are so many species on this earth today that we may never be able to study, thanks to the disturbing rates of extinction. I bring this up in response to the recent ordeal at SeaWorld involving the death of an experienced trainer. There are varying depictions of the scene, but the general idea is that she was killed by Tillikum, a massive bull Orca, after a show. Responses to this event have been varied as well, and I've seen a lot of comments saying that zoos and aquariums are cruel and ought to be closed. Comments along the lines of 'wild animals are wild' and whatnot. While I don't necessarily disagree entirely, I would like to speak out in defense of these incredibly important establishments.

The last course I took for my degree was also my favorite, entitled Applied Animal Behaviour (my professor was British...) and Welfare, and the main focus of this course was the study of animal welfare in the captive environment. We learned appropriate methods of determining welfare in various environments, including farms, zoos and the average household, as well as methods of improving welfare in these places. While it may be hard to think about the mighty rhinoceros or the majestic elephant pacing in an enclosure for lack of stimulation, it's also critical to remember the status of these animals in the wild. Thanks to human overpopulation and the ravaging of natural resources in the habitats of many wild animals, the only chance we have of preserving some species is by maintaining breeding stock in zoos and aquariums with the eventual hope for reintroduction into the wild. It has worked with species such as the California Condor and the Black Footed Ferret, and we hope it will help save dwindling populations such as tigers and red wolves.

When it comes to animals of the sea, there is a multitude of issues to consider when keeping them in captivity. First and foremost, sea mammals are, for the most part, quite large. When you live in an environment as big as the ocean, you have room to grow. Orcas (killer whales) can grow up to 32 feet in length, and weigh in at up to 6 tons. This is a serious issue when you consider how little space these giant creatures are given when in captivity. Simply put, we don't have enough space on land to comfortably accommodate these giant sea mammals. Does this mean we shouldn't keep them in captivity? That's a tough question to answer for me. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists Orcas as 'Data Deficient' in terms of their conservation status. This means that, though the large dolphins (yes, they are technically dolphins) are extensively studied, scientists are unsure how many 'subspecies' of Orca their are, so it is impossible to assign a level of threat. They do know, however, that the depletion of prey and the level of pollutants in the sea could potentially cause up to a 30% reduction over 3 generations. Whether this means that Orcas wont survive without us keeping a captive breeding population remains to be seen.

My point, through all of this rambling, is as follows. When tragedies such as this happen, the public is quick to blame zoos and aquariums for inhumane treatment, or insufficient care of their wild animals. And while it is fair to say that these are wild animals and should be treated as such, it is not fair to call for the elimination of these institutions. Without them, so many species would no longer exist on this planet. Instead of blaming the programs that work tirelessly to preserve species that we, as humans, have caused to decline, we should blame the lack of funding that prevents these facilities from reaching their true potential. Some zoos, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., do not charge admission, and require donations and memberships to survive. I grew up going to the National Zoo, and I can't imagine life without it. The funds don't just go to support the physical zoo itself, they go toward research projects and missions aimed at conservation. I'm not saying you should become a member, or even donate. I'm simply saying that if money we spent on unnecessary war or wasted in inefficient healthcare systems was redirected towards zoos and aquariums, the animals could live the way they were meant to, and contribute to the conservation of their species in the most humane and natural way possible. Maybe that way, parks like SeaWorld wouldn't have to make money by making giant, majestic Killer Whales jump through hoops for hoards of screaming children.

For an EXCELLENT read about conservation, I recommend 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth's Most Endangered Species by Jeff Corwin. I saw him speak about it (and met him... swoon) and it's incredibly moving and oh so important.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Guiding Light

Just a quick little ditty tonight before my beloved Dallas Mavericks take on the Los Angeles Lakers...

On my way home from volunteering at the shelter tonight, I watched as a steady German Shepherd Dog led her charge, a vision-impaired older lady, down the stairs into the subway. That dog guided the lady through unbelievable foot traffic and navigated down to the correct platform without so much as a wrong step. Granted, both the dog and the woman were following another vision-impaired gentleman (I say vision-impaired because I have no idea how blind they were) with a guide stick, but it was still a sight to behold. It made me so emotional that I started tearing up. I know that these dogs are rigorously trained before they are given to a disabled person, but guide dogs, assistance dogs and therapy dogs truly are special creatures. They quietly aide their 'masters', without question, for as long as they are able. And best of all, they expect nothing in return except a grateful pat, good food and a warm bed at night. We could all stand to learn a little from their attitudes about life.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Anyone Hiring?

I need a new job. After spending the day walking around in the rain, I've decided I really need an indoor job for a while. Is anyone hiring for animal-related careers? I've almost got my Master's in Animal Behavior and Conservation... just have to finish this darn thesis. I submitted my cover letter and resume to a well-known dog trainer in the city for an apprenticeship, but haven't heard back yet. It sucks that dog walking pays so well... pretty much anything at this point will be taking a pay cut. I guess I could just stick it out until the spring comes...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Scratch That...

My boyfriend and I just finished trimming our cat's nails. Fiona is a 4-year old calico adopted from the ASPCA, where she lived for 2 long years. Miss Fiona was a difficult cat to place because, well, she was a jerk. The day I went to adopt, I naively asked for a cat who was having a hard time finding a home, since I consider myself to be pretty adept at handling/caring for animals. When they told me she'd been there as long as she had, I simply couldn't walk out of the shelter without her. This was despite the fact that the few moments I'd spent with her involved her sniffing and subsequently biting me. She was almost 20 lbs, hefty from inactivity, and her coat was unkempt. With some TLC, and several band-aids for my cat scratches, we slowly turned her into a social, beautiful, healthy cat.

But enough of my bragging. Getting back to the topic at hand, claw care for cats! There's a commercial on TV for the Emery Cat, a scratching post made of emery board to keep kitty's claws filed. I personally wouldn't waste my money when a free scrap of old rug would probably appeal to my cat more, but if you have trouble trimming nails, check it out. Cats need to scratch. They have to keep their claws sharp and ready for the kill. Unfortunately for us silly humans who tried to domesticate them, cats will scratch on anything that provides nice resistance, regardless of whether or not that carpet or sofa is priceless. Lucky for me, Fiona doesn't scratch too badly on our couch and carpet, and it helps that the combined cost of both was $150 (the carpet was free from my parents...). But she does occasionally use my leg as a sharpener, so we have to keep her nails as short and harmless as possible.

Somehow, with all her pent up anger and her tendency to stalk me for no reason, Fiona is a dream when it comes to clipping her nails. My boyfriend holds her like a baby while I clip her back claws, and she pulls them a little, but she doesn't struggle or get upset. For her front paws, since they're so much closer to her needle-like teeth, he holds her under the armpits and stabilizes her head so she can't try to bite. In all, it takes us 3 minutes to clip her nails. My sister's cat, Spike, was a different story altogether. I had to scruff him under my arm while she sped through each paw because that cat could turn around inside his own skin, and often did, while we tried to clip him. He'd never had a bad experience- he just didn't like the idea of being restrained.

The other day when I was volunteering at the shelter, a gentleman came in to return the cat he had adopted because "he sheds too much". While the patient employees discussed his unrealistic expectations of what having a cat involved, they mentioned clipping his next cat's nails, and he looked at them incredulously and asked, "can't I bring him here for you to do it?", and I realized further how good we have it here with Princess Fiona. But I also realized how often people buy or adopt pets without really understanding how much time and effort they require. Sure, you can go a whole lifetime without trimming your cat's nails as long as you've provided a good surface for him to maintain them. That is, if you don't mind getting impaled every time the cat jumps off your lap, or gouged when your kitty gets overstimulated while playing. Oh, and for the record, there are few things more cruel than declawing a cat. If they're too difficult for you to trim yourself, make an appointment with your vet or a groomer who will probably do it for a small fee. In the long run, it will save you countless headaches over ruined fabric and painful scratches.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

So Long, Daddy

For those of you who watch or have ever watched The Dog Whisperer, you will be sad to know that Daddy, Cesar's right-hand dog, passed away yesterday at the age of 16. That's an incredibly long life for a large dog, and it just goes to show how happy and healthy he was. Aside from being such a helpful dog for Cesar when he rehabilitated other pups, Daddy was a shining example of what a pit bull is supposed to be like. Gentle, quiet, and fiercely loyal. It brings sad memories of the day that my family put our first family dog to sleep. Even now, 13 years later, I still get an empty feeling in my gut when I think about Cindy the Wonder Dog.

Her name was Cinderella because she was all black, and looked like she had rolled in soot. She was half German Shepherd Dog, half Golden Retriever, and all love. You've never met a smarter dog in your life... not only could she understand English, she could speak it. I swear that dog could say 'out' and 'bone'. Ask anyone in my family if you don't believe me. She loved nothing more than to roam around our neighborhood, visiting her dog friends Buck and Buff. If something smelled foul, she'd find it and roll in it to her heart's content. She flunked out of obedience class as a puppy, but was the most well-behaved, civilized dog in her adult years. She was terrified of the car. She trembled for the entire trip, no matter where we were going, but once we got there she was happy to see whoever we were visiting. Except maybe the vet.

She adored our cat, Whiskers (aka Kitty). They were both jet black, and they grew up together. When Kitty would saunter by on her way to her food bowl, Cindy would ambush her with an emergency ear-cleaning. She'd hold Kitty down with her paw and lick her ears until she was sopping wet. And those two loved each other. When Cindy got liver cancer, our family was devastated. Losing a pet is perhaps one of the most important life lessons for a child. Cindy was the first living thing I had been attached to that died, and it was because of her that I was able to deal with the family and friends that I lost later in life. I still have dreams about her, and I miss her with all my heart. So to Cesar, and to anyone who has ever had to say goodbye to a furry friend, I feel your pain. But I also know it eases with time, and the best way to honor their memories is to open your heart to more animals who need your loving care.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Scaredy Cat... It's Just a Dog!

Over the last few years, I've had the unique opportunity to do some extra special people-watching on the streets of New York City. I'm always fascinated and occasionally annoyed by how people interact with dogs. More specifically, I'd like to do a study on children's reactions to strange dogs they pass on the sidewalk. This morning I watched a little boy wave to my airedale client from a distance, but when she approached and turned her muzzle towards him to sniff, he jerked his hand back and leaned into his mom. Then later I watched an older girl nearly climb over her mother to avoid walking within 3 feet of my whippet. Are they really that terrifying?

Where I grew up, in the super-suburbs of Northern Virginia, most of the neighborhood dogs roamed around off-leash. Everyone had a collar and tags, and most of the kids knew every dog by name. We weren't scared when the black dog came wandering up- we knelt down and gave Shadow a good scratch behind the ears. We weren't afraid to meet new dogs, and somehow we all knew the proper etiquette (see earlier DO(N'T) post). No one got bitten or scratched. My parent's dogs were trained with an electric fence, but they don't wear the collars anymore, and they excuse themselves politely when they have to pee or poop by heading through the doggy door and out into the woods. I realize this idyllic situation isn't possible here in the concrete jungle, but there is no reason for so many children to be so terrified of dogs.

Honestly, I think it's a cultural difference. Where I was raised, we all had dogs. Here in NYC, those who can afford the luxury (it's EXPENSIVE to keep a dog here) have dogs, and many people don't feel they have the time or space to commit to a four-legged friend. But I think it's a damn shame that these pet-less people raise their children to be frightened of animals, and yes, I blame the parents. I watch mothers yank their children's arms to keep them a "safe" distance from my clients. I appreciate parents who don't want their kids waving their fingers in front of a mouth full of sharp teeth, but come on. I hear moms saying, "yes, thats a huge doggy. Look how big!" about my 60 pound airedale. Lady, you ain't seen big. When parents are smart, and ask me if their curious/nervous child can say hi, I go out of my way to make it a positive experience.

For some reason, dogs can sense if you don't want them to come close. Their reaction, however, is to investigate. So those people who cringe away end up getting more upset when my quizzical pup asks, "HEY. Why are you running away from me? I'm friendly! See?" I guess I also tend to take it personally. It's almost as though the parents, or children, don't trust that I will keep my dog next to me. If I were walking a dangerous attack dog, I wouldn't have a casual, relaxed hold on the leash. I would speed that sucker past any crowd we approached to avoid an encounter. Then again, I suppose we could blame THAT fear on the scores of bad dog owners/walkers who let their dogs jump up on people and lunge at passing dogs. I guess it's a complicated relationship between dog people and non-dog people. Either way, it's interesting to see how varied peoples' reactions are towards strange dogs. As a general rule, though, everyone needs to just calm the frick down.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dog Sh*t Barbie?!

I just saw this commercial on the Disney Channel (Tarzan is on... leave me alone) for Barbie Potty Training Pups...
When you lift the boy dog's leg, he pisses.
When you make the girl dog squat, she pisses.
When you squeeze the third, gender neutral dog, he shits on the paper.
This is the weirdest toy I have ever seen.

Bow to Your Partner!

While I was home in Virginia this weekend, I spent some time reading my mom's magazine, Scientific American Mind, and I came across a great article on canine ethics and how it relates to human morality. It's a quick, easy read, so do yourself a favor and learn a little!

This morning, as I stood in the swirling snow in a dog run in TriBeCa, I watched my airedale client frolicking with her golden retriever pal and was reminded why I love studying animal behavior. Dogs don't have language in the sense that we do, but they still communicate with one another constantly. The most recognizable and understood signal that dogs display is the "play bow", as illustrated by my client below. This tells another dog (or person) that the dog who is bowing is ready to play, and any action that follows the bow is meant in good fun. That way, if she bares her teeth and barks and growls, her playmates will know she isn't serious. It's an adorable stance, and if you're ever attempting to get your own dog to play with you, I suggest getting down on all fours and giving it a try. You'll be surprised at how quickly your pup will translate your action into dog language and start playing along.

"Get up, old man! It's go time!"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Outlook Not Good

I was planning some educational blog entry for today, because nothing really inspired me to rant. That is, of course, until I scrambled onto the Queens-bound N train and found myself looking at a 4 month old pit bull pup. There are a whole lot of reasons this rant ensued.

First of all, there are laws in NYC about animals on the subway. They are in place for several reasons, and I'm sure safety is at the top of that list. Sanitation is probably up there, too. Dogs are supposed to be confined in some way (crate/carrier) to prevent any dangerous encounters and of course, to prevent pooping on the train. This little "blue nose" pit was wearing a collar that was just a tad too tight, and his owners had him on a chain leash. That's it. I watched other straphangers watching him with caution because, as I've mentioned, pit bulls are a maligned breed here in New York. I'm sure they were imagining scenarios involving blood and snapping jaws.

Another reason I'm so riled up is because the dog was CLEARLY stressed out. He was yawning up a storm, his tail was low and between his legs, and at one point his whole body was shaking. The subway is a scary place for just about anyone. There are people running and moving and invading your personal space. Now imagine if you had to experience that from just 2 feet off the ground. It's terrifying. Dogs don't understand why the ground beneath them is vibrating, or why there's a deafening roaring sound as the train speeds through the tunnel. His ears were probably popping from the pressure change, and no one could gently explain to him why. At least if he had been confined to a bag or crate, he could have felt safer. But no, he was out in the open, surrounded by agitated travelers.

The last thing that upset me is probably a bit more controversial, but this is my blog so I get to say what I want. The two kids who had the dog could not have been older than 18. They were a young couple, and young kids with baby pit bulls always make me nervous. These dogs have a bad reputation because  people raise them wrong. The chances of this dog having a positive upbringing are limited, and just watching how these two handled their dog made the outlook even bleaker. He was nervous and tense and reluctant to walk when they changed trains, so they literally dragged him down the station stairs by his neck. They took turns holding the leash, and they wrapped the thin chain around their forearms until he had barely enough leash to keep his front paws on the ground without choking. If someone got too close, they yanked him by his throat to reposition him out of the way.

I just have this awful feeling that some day soon I'm going to see these people trying to surrender their dog over to the shelter because he's too much for them to handle. I know pit bull puppies are cute. I played with a particularly delicious one just before I left the shelter tonight. But they grow into big, strong-bodied and strong-willed dogs who need hours of exercise and consistent training. All too often that cute, wiggly little puppy grows into an unmanageable beast who ends up on death row simply because his owner thought it would be 'cool' to have a pit bull, but never really understood what she was getting into.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Seeing Spots!

I'm going home today. I don't live far from NYC... Northern Virginia is only a few hours by bus or train. My whole family will be there to celebrate Valentine's Day, and we aren't all together in one place very often so I'm quite excited. My parents just got home at 12 this morning from Florida... they were snowed out! Yes, there is apparently an absurd amount of snow at home. Our pups and kitties were all safe, thanks to our generous neighbor who made sure that everyone was taken care of in my parents' absence. Before I show off my family's menagerie, I want to make sure everyone (including myself) puts together a preparedness plan in case you ever can't get home. Leave a key with a neighbor. Give someone your phone number(s) if they notice something while you're gone. Put signs on your doors or windows for the police or fire departments with how many pets you have inside in case there's a fire. The scariest feeling is not knowing if your pet is ok, and not being anywhere nearby to make sure.

And now, without further ado, here are my our babies :)

Daisy the Dalmatian

Daisy thinks she's small...

Angie the Dalmatian/Something else

Angie thinks she's a person!

The girls watching over their domain

When we first got Spike (tabby) and Ducky (black)...

And how the brother and sister look now!

And now for a laugh...

Daisy the Bulemic Dog.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Evil Doers

I received an email today from one of my clients that was forwarded from one of the private dog runs that she belongs to in the West Village. It was warning of a post on craigslist (possibly a hoax) that threatened to place poison in or around New York City dog runs. Of course this email warned run members to be extra vigilant when entering dog runs by scanning the area for anything suspicious, and if they should come across something that could be poison, to call the police ASAP. They didn't describe what form the poison might be in, or what people should look for, just told them to be on the lookout. 

There are so many things about this email that bother me, not the least of which is the fact that someone would threaten to poison strange dogs for no apparent reason. In addition, without providing any details, the management has now managed to put their run members into a panic, essentially because they warned them of a danger without actually describing anything. They refused to pass along the craigslist post because it may interfere with the police involvement, so the dog owners are left being nervous and not knowing what the heck to do about it.

This isn't the first email I've been sent from frantic clients, sadly. In the past I have received warnings about tying dogs outside stores (NEVER EVER DO THIS NO MATTER WHAT) because people were biking by with razors and slicing the leashes to steal the dogs. Whether they were stealing fancy dogs to sell or small dogs to use as bait for fighters was never really determined, but regardless, who would do such a thing?! 

I check all sorts of websites for headlines every morning, one of which is digg.com. This website mostly has silly links and funny pictures, but occasionally it has pieces of news worth of sharing. This morning, I read an absolutely appalling story about a 17-year old girl who is facing jail time for animal cruelty. And not run of the mill, throwing pebbles at a squirrel animal cruelty. This girl, along with her friend, broke into an apartment, put a kitten named Tiger Lily into the oven, and TURNED IT ON. They left the apartment with stolen items, and left the innocent kitten to die. On top of all of that, she felt absolutely no remorse whatsoever. And on top of THAT, she had been charged with animal cruelty BEFORE this!

What is wrong with people? Why are strangers trying to poison city pets? Why do thieves steal people's dogs? Why on EARTH are young children driven to torture innocent animals? For the life of me, I can't think of one legitimate answer. It's tempting to blame the upbringing, or the parents, but no one teaches a teenage girl to bake kittens. That's a sick, twisted mind that needs to be locked up and kept from procreating. She can rot in prison, right next to the jerk who beat up Dusty the cat.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day But Today!

That was for my fellow Rent-heads...

Anyway today's 'blizzard conditions' in New York City meant that I had to violate my dog walker's oath and stay inside. To my fellow walkers who ventured out today (you know who you are...), thanks for making me look bad.

In honor of the fluffy white stuff, I thought I'd post some pictures I'd gathered over the past few years of my clients in the bad weather!

Enjoy! I know they did.

A Norwich Terrier enjoying the start of a snowstorm down on the Lower East Side

A French Bulldog romping in the white stuff on the Upper West Side

An Airedale Terrier with 'snowplow muzzle' (Thanks, Heather)

A Whippet tolerating his raincoat near Union Square

And last but not least, my kitty Fiona, watching today's blizzard from her warm perch!

With the permission of his mommy, I wanted to post the picture of one of my clients who is no longer with us... in honor of Fletcher, the greatest English Bulldog in all of Manhattan.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On the Mutt Soapbox

I have just a quick little opinion piece for tonight. Every so often I look down at the dogs at the other end of my leash and have a sad thought: I only walk purebred dogs. It's not that I have anything against the breeds themselves. I wouldn't personally own any of the three I currently walk (Airedale, Wirehair Fox Terrier and Whippet) but they're all great dogs. No, what bothers me most, is that they all three came from breeders, outside the state of New York. This is hard to reconcile with the fact that there are hundreds upon hundreds of dogs, right here in this very city, who may not be pure of breeding but are pure of heart.

When I walk through the shelter where I volunteer and I see the 'Pitbull Terrier Mix' next to the 'Shepherd Mix' next to the 'Lab Mix', and I see the eager faces staring back at me, tails wagging, I get very frustrated with our culture as a whole. Who decided that dogs were representations of status? They used to sleep outside on the porch, faithfully watching over their families. It didn't matter if the dog was pure or not- if he did his job, he was worth his weight in gold. So why now, when we get dogs so that we can have constant companions, do they have to have a fancy title with a hefty price tag? I'm not saying there aren't risks that come with getting a shelter dog versus a dog from a breeder. Supposedly, dogs from breeders come with proven histories of temperament and health, whereas shelter dogs come at face value. But what I am saying, is that if breed weren't so very important, we wouldn't end up with all these puppy-mill and pet store throwaways in the first place.

I'm quite sure that I'm preaching to the choir here- if you're my friend and you're reading this blog, chances are you understand where I'm coming from. But if I can convince just one person to consider adopting a $75 shelter dog instead of importing a $2,000 purebred puppy, then I will consider my life having been worth living.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Here's Some Dog Sh*t!

I like learning about animals from as many different sources as I possibly can. Now I know that many people in the animal behavior world are not fond of Cesar Millan (I know this because I've gotten in many arguments about him with classmates) but even if you don't entirely agree with the man's methods, you have to admit he has a way with dogs. I've seen him in person... he's just got a way about him in general. I once sent an email to the website (I don't remember why) and that placed me on his email list, so every Sunday I get a newsletter from The Dog Whisperer with all sorts of stories and tips. Well wouldn't you know it, this weekend the newsletter was all about dog emotions! It's like he read my last blog and decided to chime in with his two cents!

Not really, but I thought the timing was nice, so here's a little snippet from his email that I felt was appropriate to the situation:
There's no doubt in my mind that dogs have emotions. They feel joy after a job well done. They feel sad when a pack member passes away. And they feel love for their family members – their pack.
However, it's important to remember that those emotions are different from our own. The feelings that dogs experience aren't connected to complex thoughts. They don't have ulterior motives or doubt. Their emotions are pure and honest. Your dog isn't lying to you when he communicates that he loves you.
So there you have it, The Dog Whisperer himself doesn't think dogs are capable of spite, because it requires an ulterior motive. So I suppose my pooping pooch is just desperately trying to spend more time outside by holding it in as long as possible. I'm hoping that this means that once he's back to his regular hour-long walks with plenty of play time, his poo habits will return to normal!

I know you all are just thrilled to read yet another post about the bowel movements of my dogs, but hey. I write about what I know. And apparently, I know shit.

(Just for, well, shits and giggles, this site also seems to know a LOT about poop... The Poop Report is an hysterical website my friends at the shelter and I stumbled across the other day. Don't worry, it's SFW, just kinda gross.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

What is he Thinking?

So I'm having a bit of a debate with myself.

Yes, I do this often. Get used to it.

I'm trying to decide the motivation(s) behind the recent actions of one of my doggie clients, hopefully so I can figure out a way to remedy them. This requires a tiny bit of back-story before I get to the debate.

I walk a disturbingly cute Wire-haired Fox Terrier, who is rambunctious and silly and quite clever. I've walked him since he was a tiny lad, and I think I know him pretty well. But recently he's thrown me and his mom for a loop, and I am trying to figure out if he's being as clever as his mom thinks he is. You see, a few weeks ago he came up lame. He was limping, heavily favoring his right front paw. We gave him a few days to see if it went away on its own, but when it didn't he had to visit the vet. They diagnosed him with a sprained toe, and recommended rest.

After still another week of bad limping, he went back to the vet so they could put a little cast on it, thinking he was just too bouncy for his own good, and a cast would at least slow him down enough to heal. Well, he ate that cast off in no time, and the limp didn't get any better, so his mom took him to a specialist veterinary hospital, where the vet there said, "Hm, maybe what's causing the pain is the puncture wound here in his toe!" So the vet, his mom and I somehow all missed that he had a boo boo! They x-rayed it to make sure there were no foreign bodies still in the wound (there weren't), and sent him home with strict instructions to limit his walks to peeing and pooping trips only. Here is where the drama starts, and where my debate begins.

Since his bed-rest, so to speak, began, the pup has taken to pooping in the apartment. Not just once. He's done it 4 times in the last week with me, and a few other times for his mom. When I arrive, the whole apartment reeks and he's sitting quietly surrounded by little piles of feces. Now he's had accidents in the past that are clearly because he's not feeling well. This poo, however, is totally normal, and positioned under chairs and tables, as though he planned where to go. On top of all of this, he gets regular walks, at least 4 times a day (once with me around 1pm). According to his mom, she takes him out for 30 minutes in the morning, and he just refuses to poo! Then he leaves it for me to clean up when I arrive. Not my favorite task.

The pooch's mom has a theory. She thinks that he's just plain upset that he isn't allowed to run and play outside, and has figured out that he is generally brought back inside after he poops. She thinks he's going inside out of spite. Now I am guilty of attributing all sorts of thoughts and emotions to animals, so don't get me wrong. I'm not saying dogs can't feel spiteful. But it is a very complicated emotion that not only requires forethought, which dog's aren't great at, but also a sound understanding of how an action will make someone feel, and I'm not sure that dogs are aware of this. So my debate is this- has the dog learned through simple operant conditioning that pooping means coming right back inside, so he will not poop to avoid going home? Or is he legitimately planning to anger his mom and me by holding it in and doing it inside so we have to clean it up? I'm not sure there's any way to scientifically support either notion, so for now this will remain a conundrum. But in the meantime, he really needs to stop because I am a dog walker, not a housekeeper.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Do You Have Any...

Volunteering at the shelter while doing my thesis has been both incredibly rewarding and constantly entertaining. The promise of a low-cost adoption brings in all types, and I can't remember an afternoon spent there without at least one good laugh. One of my favorite pastimes is recounting the various dog breeds people invent when calling or visiting the shelter with the employees and other volunteers. Sometimes it's just a simple mispronunciation of a foreign breed, but sometimes people really get creative. What follows is a list of the ones I can remember, paired with their ACTUAL breed names and a picture, so we can laugh and learn.

1. Shissoo, aka Shih Tzu
EVERYONE wants Shih Tzus. They are probably the most requested dog, along with Chihuahuas. For some reason, people don't mispronounce that one.

2. Rockweiler, aka Rottweiler
I would imagine a Rockweiler enjoys Aerosmith and ripped jeans.

3. Lapsa Apsa, aka Lhasa Apso
Not many people come in asking for these, most likely because they assume it's a Shih Tzu.

4. Pibble, aka Pit Bull
Pittie pups are the most common dogs in New York City shelters. They are fantastic dogs, but not really made for the city lifestyle. Sadly, most people either come in asking for Pits for the wrong reasons, or specifically say they would NEVER want one. Poor, maligned breed.

5. Thoroughbred, aka Purebred (any breed...)
Yes folks, a thoroughbred is a horse. A purebred dog is one of pure lineage. The two terms are not interchangeable.

And my personal favorite, heard only a few hours ago:
6. Charles Henry Dog, aka Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
She knew there were multiple words in the name, one of which was Charles. That was about all she got right. I had to keep from laughing in her face.

If anything, these past 6 months have been a lesson in self control. People don't appreciate it when you mock their lack of knowledge. Then again, not everyone spends their spare time reading breed books and researching them on wikipedia. I admit. I'm a loser.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Little Something New...

I'm going to try a different tactic tonight. A lot of you out there in the real world tell me you're reading my blog, yadda yadda. Well I want to see some audience participation. So I'm going to tell you a story, and then pose a question. I expect responses. You will be graded.

No, not really. But I would love to get a nice little conversation going with the class, so comment away!!

This morning, I had a lovely discussion with one of my clients about her dog's supposed musical inclinations. She's convinced that he squeaks his different toys because he enjoys the melodious sounds, and that he's secretly composing his own symphony. I'm making her sound crazier than she is- he really does seem to enjoy the various squeak pitches and there's something musical about the way he plays. That got us talking about cognitive abilities of dogs. In my various animal behavior classes, we were reminded to always take stories about seemingly human-like behavior in animals with a grain or two of salt. After all, our theories about the mental processes of animals can really only be surmised from our understanding of their outward behavior, and how it compares to that of humans. It's always possible that the reasoning we are attributing to animals is overly complicated, and a true behaviorist will be able to refute any cognitive theory with some drab simple behavioral explanation.

I was reminded of an incredible video I saw about Donnie the Doberman who appeared to categorize and arrange his toys. Every so often, stories like his come along that make me question how much we really know about what's going on inside our pets' heads! So the question I pose to all of you is this: what is your favorite example of an animal showing incredibly human-like thinking? It can be about your pet or just a story you saw online. If there are videos, post links so we can all see!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Today's DO(N'T): Stranger Danger

DO ask permission from both human and dog if you want to say hello, especially if you've never met the dog before.

The polite way to ask the human is to say "do you mind if I pet your dog?" ALWAYS do it before you even reach out towards the dog, because you never know if the dog is fearful or stranger-aggressive. Today, a gentleman on the street was the perfect example of a dog savvy person. He asked me first, and then asked the dog by putting his hand out, level with my pup's nose, with the back of his hand toward the dog. Once my guy had sniffed and shown his acceptance by moving towards the gentleman, he slowly rubbed under the dog's chin before moving his hand gently over the top of his head. He didn't linger too long (mostly because the light changed) but also because he was considerate and knew we might be busy. There's nothing worse than being in a hurry and having to deal with a person who wants to have an extended conversation with my charge.

DON'T solicit money from dog walkers.

This one is kind of a rant against people who get paid to stand on the streets of New York City and make me feel guilty about not saving all the poor children of the world. So if you read my blog, and you happen to be one of those fundraising people, please take note. Dog walking, though not conventional, is in fact a job. I am being paid to give dogs my full attention while they both relieve themselves and get exercise. Not only is it rude to my clients to stand and listen to the hour-long spiel that these people give about homeless children who have no food and need just pennies a day from me to survive while I'm on the clock, but it's also not fair to the dog, who has to stand quietly and wait for no discernible reason. The other problem is that the people (specifically, I'm referring to the fundraisers for Children International) line both sides of the street, so you can't walk by without being accosted. The fact is, I tend to walk down the same streets multiple times on the way to and from my dogs' apartments. And I get asked every time, by a different person. I only know so many ways to politely say no. And finally, I'm a dog walker. I'm not an investment banker. I have about $35,000-worth of student loans. I am a starving child. In fact, you should be raising money for me.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Heaven is a Big, Red Barn

Two semesters ago, one of my animal behavior classes took a field trip to a farm in Brewster, New York called Green Chimneys. It's an incredible place where kids can go to learn when traditional teaching environments have failed them. Not only are they stocked with incredible staff members and teachers, they also have some extra special residents equipped with fur, hooves, talons and wings. Green Chimneys is a farm where many animals come to live out their days in peace while also helping these troubled kids learn compassion and acceptance. Nestled in the beautiful scenery of New York State, this farm is lush and green in the summer and painted white with snow in the winter. It's quiet, save for the sounds of rescued birds of prey and farm animals.

After only a few hours in this place, I knew I had to come back and spend more time surrounded by the magic. So I applied (through a rigorous screening process) to become a volunteer at the horse barn, where many semi-retired and gentle horses serve as therapeutic mounts for the resident kids. The staff like to have volunteers, who can ride, take a test to be a 'barn buddy' so that the horses can get some regular schooling. Horses are smart animals and they need to be challenged, and therapy horses often just spend their days walking in circles. As a barn buddy, I get to give the horses that extra mental stimulation and keep them from losing their manners, so to speak. My first buddy was Cash, a tall, handsome Chestnut gelding who once served as Mrs. Bloomberg's fox hunting mount.

He was a willing old chap, but couldn't do much more than walk and trot a little. When the equine dentist came to float the horses' teeth (file them so that there are no sharp points) he determined that poor Cash was actually significantly older than they'd thought, and probably well into his 30s. That's quite old for a horse, so they decided then and there to retire him for good. He'll stay at the farm for the rest of his life being pampered and loved, but that left me without a buddy. My new mount, and the fellow I rode today, is Chewie, short for Chewbacca. You can see the resemblance.

Chewie is an old man as well, and he can only walk when I ride him, but we do challenging patterns and work on his ring manners. Truth be told, even though I am a fairly advanced rider, I'm so happy to be sitting on a horse that just walking quietly with Chewie in the big indoor ring is perfectly acceptable.

In recent months, thanks to a light work schedule and a rough economy, I've had to cut back on my visits to Green Chimneys. After all, it takes a Metro North train and a $15 taxi ride (each way) to get to the farm from Queens. I have to wake up at 6:30am to make the 7:47 train, and I get home around 6pm, utterly exhausted. I spend the days shoveling saw dust, mucking stalls, scrubbing manure stains from the stall walls, hauling hay bales, sweeping the aisles and hayloft, moving horses from place to place, and completing various other odd jobs. What many people get paid for, or do in exchange for board, I essentially pay to do. When I'm waking up in the dark, piling on my layers, I often ask myself why on earth I'm volunteering if it's such a hassle. But then I get to the farm, and I'm greeted by the sight of the huge red barn nestled in the rolling hills, and a sense of pure joy rushes over me and I remember why I do this. These horses feed my soul. The least I can do is feed them lunch.