When I’m sitting in my gray cubicle, staring at a computer screen, I can’t help but daydream about what I’d rather be doing instead. Those daydreams usually involve me frolicking in a field with my future dog, or a whole pack of my future dogs. These are some quasi “jobs” that I often daydream about having, even though I’m sure they’re all far less glamorous than they are in my imagination:
Reinforcement trainer, a la Patricia McConnell, Pat Miller, or Karen Pryor. I daydream about this a lot. I’ve even sporadically browse the CCPDT website to read about their testing requirements, recommended reading, and timeline for becoming a certified trainer. I love watching dogs learn and teaching them–and especially their humans–how to shape appropriate or desirable behavior. I still have so much to learn in this area, but I’m looking forward to the trial-by-fire that will be coming our way this summer.
Full-time dog walker/runner, a la Lindsey Stordahl. That is one fit and adventurous woman! I say I want this job now, but in reality, I’m not sure how long I would love it, since it calls for being outside regardless of the weather (I can’t believe she does it in Fargo). Mostly, though, I’m up for it, because hardly anything brings me as much joy as walking dogs.
Agility trainer/co-competitor. (What do people who do agility with their dogs call themselves?) I am probably not as competitive as most of these people are, but everyone looks like they are having such a darn good time! I love watching agility trials and it’s a nice daydream to entertain, raising up an agility champion…
Shepherd. Or a farmer with lots of dogs, I guess. But having a team of dedicated herders at my disposal is also a nice dream.
Volunteer in some dog-based therapy program. Dog-assisted therapy is so moving and meaningful to me. I am especially fond of the programs in elementary schools, whether teaching kids how to behave around dogs or being reading partners. I also love the idea of visiting nursing homes. I wonder if I’ll ever have a dog calm enough to do either of those things…
Writing the daily blog from the perspective of Martha Stewart’s French bulldogs. OK, maybe not really, but whatever intern has that job has it made! Just hanging out around her estate, photographing the dogs doing silly things, and then writing about it? Yes, please. I’ll take that job.
Do you entertain any dog job daydreams? Or do you actually HAVE one of these jobs? If so, I envy you… in my imagination…
Throughout my young life, my experiences with animals have always reinforced the truth that animals can bring life, joy, and mercy to people in profound ways. The compassion of animals is ultimately why I volunteer at the SPCA and why I no longer feel guilty about it. I have long been interested in animal-assisted therapy and so I was excited to see this book at the library.
The book itself is pretty old (published in 1996)–as evidenced by the fact that the author had to explain what e-mail was–but the advice contained in this little book is not dated. Burch gives her readers an overview of the history of animal-assisted therapy and devotes a chapter to the types of animals that can participate. So, whether you have a dog, a cat, a horse, a llama, or a bird, Dr. Burch has some advice for you.
I was impressed by her professionalism in training and inspired by her many touching anecdotes about the changes she had seen in her years as a therapy volunteer with her animals.
The book also impressed upon me the very unique temperament and nature of a dog who would be qualified for therapy. I can think of only a few dogs I’ve met who would be naturally wonderful therapy dogs (Zoe, for certain, and maybe even Bo, once he mellows out a bit with age), but Burch helps you see that many dogs, given that they have a fundamentally stable and friendly personality, can be trained to volunteer in any number of situations. I am hopeful that we will find a dog who could one day volunteer at a nursing home, school, or hospital. What could be better than allowing others to experience the unconditional love that you receive from your dog every day?
If you’re looking for a basic primer on animal-assisted therapy, then this is a great starting place. It would be nice if it was possibly updated with more current information, but on the whole, this book has a lot of sound advice about beginning to work with your pet in animal-assisted therapy.
A few months ago, I was walking with my husband on my way to a volunteering event with the SPCA. Local charities and non-profits were setting up booths around the pedestrian mall to promote causes and garner support. The SPCA had a few tables up, and some adoptable dogs, kittens, and even two adoptable rats. I volunteered to stand there and talk to people about the SPCA and walk some of the adoptable hounds around to greet people.
While we were walking over there, my husband told me that one of our mutual friends had told him that he thought it was silly that I volunteered my time at the SPCA. This person believed that pets were a waste of time and money and that I was similarly wasting my time by volunteering at the animal shelter. Shouldn’t I be doing something more important, like working at a soup kitchen or tutoring neglected kids how to read?
I began to feel guilty as I walked down there. Was it frivolous of me to care so much about animals? To spend weekends at the SPCA, walking dogs? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to my community if I spent my little free time caring for humans instead? These thoughts began to plague me throughout my afternoon on the mall. My pastor and his wife saw me down there, holding a kitten in my arms, with my SPCA volunteer shirt on. They came to talk to me and seemed delighted that I was an SPCA volunteer, but I felt almost embarrassed to be seen there. Are they judging me for not volunteering elsewhere? I thought. For not giving my time to the homeless ministry?
But these feelings of guilt began to dissipate as the afternoon wore on. The pedestrian mall is often filled with homeless people and others who are sick, disabled, and mentally ill, who beg on street corners and hold up cardboard signs. They are often ignored and everyone else does their best not to make eye contact with them. As I stood there at our booth, though, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon.
These homeless or mentally ill people would go from booth to booth, but the organizers behind the tables would never look at them or speak to them. It was evident that these people were in no state to contribute financially to these organizations; it was questionable if they could even carry on an intelligible conversation. They were plainly ignored. Volunteers looked straight through them, as if they weren’t even there.
I watched this happen again and again. But then I realized that all of the homeless and mentally ill were at our booth. Why? Because the dogs greeted them and kissed their hands like they were anybody else, like they were “normal.” The dogs didn’t discriminate against their housing status or their mental health. For once, they were shown mercy and acceptance. And it was coming from the dogs.
I particularly recall a mentally ill woman who stayed at our table for almost an hour. The dogs patiently submitted to her hugging their necks, to her persistent petting. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, but she had a huge grin on her face the entire time. She looked up at me and said, over and over, “See, he likes me. See, he likes me. See, he likes me.”
As I reflected on this day on my way home, I was nearly brought to tears. These animals did something for the most marginalized in society that no people could do for them. These homeless dogs were extending unconditional love to these homeless people. That is a gift well worth sharing, an extension of compassion that no human could faithfully replicate.
And that’s why I volunteer at the SPCA and why I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.
I think what my weekend at the SPCA taught me is that the smart dogs are often the difficult dogs. The ones who are the quickest to learn also tend to be the ones that are the most challenging to handle. To explore this notion, I’m thinking about three dogs that stood out to me from my back-to-back days of dog walking this past weekend.
Jim Bob is the unfortunately named darling, whom I don’t have a photo of, because he very fortunately got adopted on Sunday! I had the pleasure of working with him on Saturday and fell in love with this little guy (which ever increased my anger that someone would give this beautiful little dog such an undignified and unsuitable name).
Jim is a small (20-30 lb.) black sheltie/spitz mix with a TON of energy. The kid could jump six feet in the air from a standing position. I noticed him anxiously jumping and pacing in an outdoor pen while I was walking the other dogs. He was very vocal about his unhappiness of having to stay in that pen while everyone else got to walk around. From time to time, I’d stop at his pen, let him greet the other dog I was walking, and slip him a little treat. He sat very politely and waited for me to hand the snack over before snatching it out of my hand. I was impressed with his manners, which, for a shelter dog, are quite rare. I also admit I was quite taken with his good looks.
Later in the afternoon, I found out he hadn’t been walked that day and got to take him out. A band of volunteers were repairing the trails and the wheelbarrows and rakes made Jim very nervous, so I decided to take him into the fenced-in agility ring on the SPCA property. I had a feeling that this little guy would be an agility star. He was whip-smart, extremely agile, and had a TON of energy! Plus, he followed commands very readily. To my delight, he soared over the different jumps next to me and seemed to love every minute.
As I walked him back, I thought about the right home for Jim. From my half hour with him, I felt sure that he would be best in a home with someone who would be willing to give him a lot of time and energy. Otherwise, this smart but inherently nervous dog could turn out to be a domestic nightmare. I’m happy that he got adopted. I just hope his new family will give him all of the love and attention that he deserves.
I try to be gentle with every dog I encounter, but I’ll admit that Cory really tried my patience. I noticed that when I walked up and down the kennel run, he was exhibiting a worrisome stereotypy of bounding from one wall to the next with his front paws. He did this without ceasing as long as someone was near his kennel door. From just a glance, it was evident that he was a very anxious and mentally shaky dog. I certainly felt for him.
When I finally got to his kennel to take him out, he was extremely difficult to wrangle. The hardest part of dog walking at the SPCA is just getting the dogs out of the kennel! Putting an Easy Walk harness on a highly reactive dog in a tiny, urine-splattered kennel is not a lot of fun. Cory proved his point. As soon as I stepped in there, he latched onto my leg and started humping me. This was not a huge concern, as he is a fairly small dog (30-40 lbs.), but it was annoying and instantly frustrating to me, because whenever I pushed him off and turned around, he just jumped on again. When he wasn’t humping me, he was biting my hands and snapping at my face. I could tell that none of this was done aggressively; the dog was just so damn excited to be going on a walk that he could not control himself.
Even knowing this, however, it was hard to keep myself from being very irritated with Cory. I tried waiting to see if he would calm down. Not going to happen. I also had about two dozen other dogs who hadn’t been out yet, so I couldn’t wait for him to sit still all day long. When I finally got the harness on him, he shot out of the kennel door like a rocket and pulled me into a fence. I really wanted to curse at him.
I know it’s not his fault. I’m guilty for not being more patient with him. But I have to wonder: With limited time and resources, what could I have done better with Cory? Any advice?
Finally, I got some quality time with Phantom, who is quickly becoming a favorite. You might remember Phantom from an earlier post. I can’t believe this handsome guy is still in the shelter. As you can see from the photo, he’s very attractive and fit. He’s also extremely smart. He knows how to sit, lie down, stay, and shake, which is four more commands than almost every other dog at the shelter. Under different circumstances, I think I would have been extremely tempted to take Phantom home myself. He’s just an all-around great dog.
Phantom loves to fetch and run and he still likes to hide things, as I mentioned when I first met him earlier. On Sunday, he hid a brand new tennis ball that I gave him to play with in one of the fenced-in enclosures. I promised him I wouldn’t watch where he was hiding it, because every time he saw my gaze on him, he’d move to another location. Silly puppy.
My best guess as to why Phantom hasn’t found a home yet is because he’s a pretty intimidating guy to walk past; he has a loud and boisterous kennel demeanor. Let me explain my theory on this. I feel like kennel demeanor is one of the things that can make or break a dog’s chance of adoption. I only wish I could tell the dogs this. A dog like Pooch, for example, could be very misleading. Unlike all the other dogs, Pooch does not bark or jump at you when you walk past his door. He sits very quietly and just looks at you. He looks like a complete gentleman and the perfect picture of calmness. But the second you snap that leash on, BOOM! The dog is dynamite. He has more energy than almost any dog at the SPCA, but you’d never know it unless you took him on a walk.
Phantom has perhaps the opposite problem with regard to his kennel demeanor. He barks wildly with excitement when you approach his door. He also shows a lot of big, gleaming teeth when he barks and has a very deep, imposing voice. To most people, I’m sure that he looks like a pent-up dog full of aggression and anger. But nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a complete sweetheart and he walks beautifully on the leash. He’s very attentive to people and isn’t a pain to walk, like Pooch can be. I just hope someone will give Phantom a chance sometime soon.
Your weekly roundup of interesting dog-related links…
In Focus: Dogs. In this post, the New Yorker’s photography blog collects many critically acclaimed photo series featuring dogs. Some of my favorite canine photo shoots are included here. Enjoy the art–and the puppies. (Photo Booth, The New Yorker)
Paws to Read. I really hope there is a chapter of a group like this in our area. I would LOVE to train our future dog to work in schools with a program like this. After all, programs like Paws to Read combine three of my all-time favorite things: Dogs, kids, and books! (The Bark blog)
Dog Helps 15-Year-Old Rape Victim Testify. Rosie, a golden retriever, is the first dog approved to comfort victims of sexual assault as they testify in court. My heart breaks over this story, but it illuminates how deeply our lives are enriched by dogs. Here, a dog is doing something for that girl that no one else can. (New York Times)
Portland, Oregon, Named Top Pet-Friendly City. Agree with this list? Ever lived in some of these cities? Frankly, I’m surprised to see Washington, D.C., on there. I haven’t ever lived there, but I feel like owning a dog that was any larger than a handbag would be a huge hassle. (Dog Tipper)
The Mystery about Muzzles. I have always wondered why greyhounds wear them. A famed greyhound guardian and blogger explains. (Tales and Tails)
Lure Coursing. So, now those muzzles make sense. Some great photographs of a lure coursing event. Many gorgeous sighthound breeds represented! (Paws on the Run)
Afghan, 1931. Two photographs of an Afghan hound in 1931. So regal, even with that shorter coat. I think I like it more than the typical Fabio-esque waves. (Desert Wind Hounds)
Reclaimed Wood Dog Feeders. These look really awesome. I wonder if my husband could build these from some scavenged lumber… (Dog Milk)
As you probably know by now, I’m very fond of the herding breeds. My top three choices for a dog right now would be a German shepherd, an Australian shepherd, or a rough collie. These are all very intelligent breeds with a well-deserved reputation for being high-maintenance dogs. Not high maintenance like a pampered Maltese, though. These dogs are high maintenance because they were bred for their considerable intelligence and their overpowering drive to work.
If left to their own devices, GSDs, Aussies, and collies become difficult, destructive, and occasionally dangerous dogs. In all of my reading and my interaction with these breeds, I’ve come to learn this full well. I know that most herding dogs come with a caveat emptor.
The standard advice for someone planning to get a high energy dog is to be sure to have “a job” for the dog to perform. I’ve heard this a lot and I often repeat it to other people, but if I’m honest, I don’t always know what that means. Since I don’t have a flock of sheep handy, what qualifies as a “job” for my future herding dog?
Here are some of the little “jobs” that I’ve been contemplating teaching our future dog, in the absence of actual herding:
Agility, if the dog is so inclined. There are a number of agility classes around here. I know that Aussies often excel at agility, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a GSD or a collie in an agility trial.
Retrieving games. So long as the dog enjoys retrieving, we will have him retrieve everything: Tennis balls, toys by name, his leash, our slippers, etc.
Obedience trials. This might not qualify as a job, but regular and ritualized obedience training would at least give his mind something to do.
Therapy work. I would love to be able to train a dog to visit schools or nursing homes.
Does your household (non-working) dog perform any jobs? If so, what are they? Any you would recommend? I’m all ears!
Reasons to Buy a Dog vs. Rescue a Dog. A thoughtful and helpful post from a dog trainer on why she tends to rescue rather than buy dogs. I think she does a great job of showing both options without casting judgment on either side. (That Mutt)
Best Jobs for Dogs: Wet Nose Tutors. I love these reading programs and I’m seriously considering training my future dog to participate in one. This article mentions Dog Tales, a program in Newport News, Virginia. I wonder if there’s a similar project in my area… (Grouchy Puppy)
Haddie. Our wonderful wedding photographer is also a celebrated pet photographer. Here are some beautiful shots of her new neighbor, a totally adorable and fluffy puppy named Haddie. To die for! (Meredith Perdue)
On Friday, I volunteered for the Charlottesville SPCA during an adoption promotion event on the downtown pedestrian mall. It was the 35th anniversary of the mall’s creation and the streets were packed with people. I was helping walk dogs (including Elizabeth, featured above), handle kittens, and talk to people about adoption.
When I got there, I was feeling kind of uneasy about my role as a volunteer. My husband walked me over there and as we walked, he mentioned that one of our mutual friends harbors some disdain toward me for my dog obsession (OK, that’s fine; it is a bit out of control) and for being a volunteer at the SPCA. This person thinks that pets are frivolous and unnecessary and that people should never own domesticated animals. Accordingly, this person believes that it is silly and wasteful for me to give my time to dogs at the SPCA.
Naturally, I disagree, but I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as I went over there. Should I be volunteering at the homeless shelter instead? Serving food at the soup kitchen? I do believe that people are more valuable than animals, but I’ve never felt called to work with the homeless. I don’t think I’m gifted in that kind of ministry. Thankfully, there are many people around here who are capable and motivated to work with the many homeless people in our community. I’m just not one of them.
Somewhat troubled in spirit, I arrived at the SPCA’s table and was handed the leash of a large, placid lab/hound named Thurgood (not pictured, because I think he was adopted this weekend!). Our area was mobbed with people, especially parents with children. Animals act like magnets to most kids. The cat pen was packed with little kids who were squeezing kittens and the three dogs that we handled were constantly being hugged, petted, and ambushed. Thankfully, the shelter staff made a good choice by bringing Thurgood and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a senior hound who is extremely patient and slow-moving; she’s friendly to everyone, especially those who smell like food. Thurgood is a youngish, steady lab/hound mix and I worked primarily with him for a few hours. He was stubborn, but very gentle and submitted to the attentions of every type of person who rushed up to him.
The dogs were showing signs of exhaustion and stress–especially the third dog, Benny, who was unable to cope with the crowds and had to be walked away from everything–but they never showed signs of irritation or aggression. This alone taught me a lot about patience. I think I would have snapped at someone if I had armies of squealing children sticking their fingers in my eyes and mouth. But the dogs took it all in stride.
One of the biggest lessons the dogs taught me that day was about unconditional love. As I’ve already mentioned, our table was very popular with all of the children on the mall that day. But I also noticed that we drew a steady crowd of homeless and mentally handicapped adults. These people were more or less ignored by the other booths. It was assumed that they weren’t capable of supporting any of the neighboring causes or even carrying on a rational conversation about a business or a fundraising campaign. Other people would just look right past them when they approached, as if they weren’t there at all. No one paid them any attention. Except for the dogs.
The dogs treated them like everybody else. These socially marginalized people found attention, respect, and love from these animals, who did not discriminate against them based on their appearance, mental ability, or class. I will particularly remember a mentally handicapped woman who stayed at our table for almost half an hour. She kept stroking Thurgood’s head over and over, bending down to hug his neck, and kept excitedly saying to me, “Look, he likes me! Look how much he likes me!” I reassured her that he did like her. Because dogs don’t lie.
If I ever had to give an answer as to why I love dogs, I’d tell this story. The unconditional love of dogs is one of the primary reasons why they matter. It’s the motivating reason why I think we should do everything in our power to give these homeless dogs the best life possible. They have done so much for us and we have done so little for them. Just watch a dog lavish love on a complete stranger. I think that should be proof enough that dogs are valuable.