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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.