Monthly Archives: September 2016

Why We Love Dogs, #3: They Don’t Discriminate

Mad Man. In the 1980s when we lived on New York City’s West End Avenue, the blocks just west of us had a high concentration of SROs – single room occupancy residential buildings which housed indigent people at government expense. Many of the tenants were mental patients prematurely dumped from institutions to save money. They, and assorted drunks and addicts, often hung out on the stoops of the buildings, a gantlet of unpredictability that we had to run every time we went to Riverside Park.

Once, walking outside with our big golden retriever, Miles, I was amazed when he pulled me across the avenue and down West 95th Street toward the park. Pain from severe arthritis made him usually reluctant to walk, but on that day he seemed eager, and I didn’t want to do anything to stop him.

Halfway down the block of rundown buildings with people loitering outside, a man stood on the sidewalk, disheveled and ranting loudly, cursing and waving his arms. I tried to cross the street, but my 90-pound dog had other plans, pulling me along purposefully toward the scary man. When he got close to him, Miles laid his ears back and wagged his entire back end.

I was terrified that the man would vent his fury on Miles, but instead a change came over him. His tone quieted and softened, as he growled to his unseen audience, “Damn dog doesn’t know any better. Look how he comes right up to me. He’s not scared of me. That’s a dog for you.” And he reached down and, with a grimy hand, half-patted, half-pushed a reluctant Miles on his way, repeating in a gentler voice, “Better go on now. That’s a good dog.” He never so much as looked at me.

Miles turned back for home then. I glanced around to see the man shuffling into a building, quiet now. The encounter with a friendly dog seemed to have stilled his inner demons, maybe making him feel, for that moment, like a worthwhile and attractive person, maybe recalling to him his essential humanity.

Invisible Spacesuit. I have just finished reading a wonderful book about another marginal, outcast man and the transforming power of a dog’s affection. Called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s a first novel by an Irish writer named Sara Baume, and it’s one of the best dog stories I’ve ever read, right up there with The Call of the Wild.

Its hero, Ray, is a 57-year-old man – “too old to start over, too young to give up,” but in a sense he has given up, or, more accurately, he never felt capable, or worthy, of trying for a better life. Raised in a small Irish coastal village by a single father, Ray was never told who his mother was or what happened to her. He was kept a virtual prisoner – in body and in spirit — by his father; he never went to school, made a friend, “held a woman’s hand,” held a job, or even left the house much. His father showed not the faintest glimmer of affection toward him, or ever disclosed anything of his inner life to his son.

Now his father is dead and Ray has been forced to regularly venture out into the village to apply for government assistance and obtain supplies. He feels that “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside….when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit.”

At the book’s opening Ray sees a flyer in a store window from the local animal shelter. It shows a blurry picture of a dog with a scarred, crooked face: one eye missing, a portion of his lip gone. Drawn somehow to the picture, Ray goes to the shelter and adopts the dog, whose injuries, he is told, have come from his former career rooting badgers out of their lairs for hunters.

Ray names his dog One Eye, and they become inseparable, taking walks, sharing meals, having conversations – or rather, Ray talks, and One Eye listens, the first creature to ever show any interest in what Ray has to say. For the first time Ray loves another being, and in return receives his dog’s devotion.

On the run. Disaster looms when One Eye, who still has in him the wildness of his badger hunting days, attacks another dog, and an animal control officer soon afterward comes to Ray’s house to take the offender away. Ray makes some excuse that the dog is with a neighbor – and when the officer leaves, in desperation Ray takes One Eye in the car for a meandering journey that carries them from summer into winter, or, in the language of the title, “simmer” into “wither.”

Over the course of the trip Ray tells One Eye his life story and, at last, painfully confides a terrible secret he carries, a crushing burden of guilt and dread. One Eye loves him no less for this revelation, of course. As for the reader, when we learn the details, despite our horror we understand completely why this fearful and damaged man was driven to do what he did. We still trust, as his dog does, in Ray’s essential goodness.

It’s a tough read at times – and yet there is redemption. “I wish,” Ray says to One Eye, “I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.” In a way, he gets his wish.


This book shows how dogs don’t judge on the basis of appearance or conformity with socially-approved norms. They give their devotion without conditions. I finished it thinking that, if humans could see one another the way dogs do, people like Ray and, perhaps, the scary man of West 95th Street could live free from fear, and know that in someone else’s eyes — or, one eye — they are wondrous and deserving of love.

Bring Fido? The Joys and Challenges of Traveling with Your Dog

When my husband Doug and I set out with Ruby, our 3-year-old adopted shelter dog, on a 1000+ mile car trip from our home in Tennessee to New York’s Adirondack mountains, I had starry-eyed notions. I envisioned driving along the open highway to adventure, wind blowing in my hair, Ruby’s ears flapping in the breeze, Doug and I singing a jaunty tune, maybe “This Land is Your Land.”

We didn’t foresee the challenges of finding pet-friendly hotels that would both accept a big dog (Ruby’s close to 70 lbs) and be fit for human habitation. Or of needing to locate an emergency vet in a strange city. We didn’t anticipate that, if left alone in her crate in our rental cabin, Ruby – understandably disoriented – would bark constantly, making it impossible for us to go out together since we didn’t want to disturb the neighbors who had come seeking the same peace and quiet we were.

A recent survey by the American Pet Products Association showed that 37 percent of pet owners take their animals on the road, up from 19 percent about 10 years ago. If you’re considering being one of them, I hope these tips and observations will be helpful.

Do your research. I found and to be great resources for hotels that would accept large dogs and had reasonable or no pet surcharges. Reading the online reviews of fellow travelers warned me off some places. (A step I will never again neglect after, needing last-minute accommodations in the Albany, NY area, we blundered into a downright scary establishment that seemed to double as emergency housing for the homeless and mentally ill and was so filthy we slept with our clothes on.)

Both of these websites also have recommendations for restaurants with outdoor dining spaces where dogs are welcome (Panera Bread we found to be a consistently dependable bet). These sites also list parks and trails; through BringFido I found a beautiful rail trail in Pulaski, VA, where Ruby and I had a welcome break from the car while Doug went to a minor league ball game.

Set a good example as a pet guardian. If we want more places to be pet friendly then we have an obligation to be considerate and responsible owners. This means always cleaning up after our dog, never leaving him or her alone in the motel room to bark and disturb others or get into mischief, and if something is damaged, ‘fessing up and offering to pay for it.

Bring shot records, and your dog’s health history and meds. On the third night after our arrival in the little mountain town of Wilmington, NY, Ruby – who had been clingy and holding her tail funny all day – suddenly yelped in pain when Doug came in from a walk and she tried to greet him with her usual wag. She slumped against him, trembling, as I frantically looked up vets on my iPhone and dialed several – all closed, of course, on that Saturday evening at 8:00. I left messages everywhere, and in ten minutes got a call back from Dr. Gracey Welsh of Lake Placid Animal Hospital, who agreed to meet us at her office 12 miles away. There she thoroughly examined Ruby and treated us all with patience and kindness. She diagnosed an infected anal gland; a course of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs soon got that happy tail wagging again.

No more pain in the butt. With Dr. Gracey Welsh (r), Lake Placid Animal Hospital

No more pain in the butt. With Dr. Gracey Welsh (r), Lake Placid Animal Hospital

Having Ruby’s veterinary records along greatly simplified the intake process at the hospital. If I had scoped out local vets before our trip, knowing that we were going to be in that area for two weeks, it might have eliminated some anxious moments.

Find a good daycare or boarding facility at your destination. Again, if you’re going to be in one place for an extended period, look for a kennel or a vet that will board your dog for a day or overnight. This was a happy outcome of Ruby’s health crisis: we learned that the Lake Placid Animal Hospital offers doggy daycare and overnight accommodations. It was a great relief to have a safe place to leave our dog when we wanted to spend a day sightseeing, or even just go out for a relaxed dinner without worrying about her being unhappy — and making everyone within earshot equally so.

Accept that your style will be cramped. Recognize that on the road with your dog there will be frustrating limitations. Dining options will be restricted to takeout meals eaten in the car, at a roadside picnic table, or in your motel room. You’ll need to tag-team for bathroom breaks; one of us would walk Ruby, the other would hit the restroom, and then we’d switch. I’ve thought about how I would handle traveling with my dog alone; when I needed a pit stop I would roll down all the windows several inches and put a sign on the dash saying, “Back in 5 minutes. Dog OK” so that some dog-loving vigilante wouldn’t break the windows to rescue her. Not that I blame people for their concern: hot cars become intolerable in a much shorter time than many imagine, and they can be lethal, as is sadly proven every summer when dogs – and even children – die this way.

You’ll see places on the road that you’d like to explore but can’t with a dog, unless one of you agrees to stay with the pup while the other checks out the attraction. Thus, bringing Fido can sometimes feel sort of like being tethered to a ball and chain. We had planned to visit our son in Brooklyn on the way home, spending the night in his apartment, but regretfully decided against adding the stress of New York City to the already considerable challenges of this trip.

Ultimately, though, we felt it was well worth the hassles to be able to share relaxed time in a beautiful environment with our Ruby.


However, for next time I’m fantasizing about…


At last…the definitive word on pit bulls

Most of the shelter workers I know love pit bulls. Many – myself arguably among them — have chosen these dogs for their own family members. (I say “arguably” because, although my Ruby has the broad jaws and wide smile of a pitty, science has proven that visual breed identification is wrong as much as 87% of the time. For this reason, Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer and adopted Ruby, has joined the growing trend among shelters that refuse to give dogs breed labels.)



I and my colleagues at Northside lament the prejudices that we hear from shelter visitors who respond, when asked what kind of dog they’re looking for, “Nothing with any pit in it.” The majority of animal advocates today deplore breed restrictions. This book will arm would-be defenders of pit bulls with all the evidence needed to refute the myths, the hype, the misinformation. For those who may have doubts – and, as I wrote in my post “The Pit Question,” I once was one of them — Bronwen Dickey effectively lays them to rest.

“Undogs.” “Frankenmaulers.” “Sharks on paws.” These are just a few of the damning labels that have been inflicted on the pit bull, a dog that was once, as the book’s subtitle says, an American icon. Helen Keller had a beloved pit bull companion. The dog that won America’s hearts on “The Little Rascals” was a pit bull. Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, James Thurber, were just a few of the celebrated Americans who owned and loved the breed. Pit bulls were movie stars; they were widely enshrined as college mascots; they accompanied troops into various wars and served heroically and loyally. Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century they were, in short, beloved, and believed to represent the best of the American spirit, so much so that they were nicknamed “Yankee terriers.”

But over the past roughly fifty years, a media blitz fueled, as Dickey painstakingly documents, by faulty science and outright sensationalism recast the pit bull as a monster. Breed restrictions proliferated so that pit bull owners could not find rental housing and in some cases had their dogs seized from them or were forced to surrender them. Insurers refused coverage to homes with pit bulls. Shelters, unable to adopt out these dogs, euthanized them on arrival.

Just what is a pit bull? The term includes dogs of the bulldog, bull terrier, and Staffordshire terrier breeds. But confusion abounds. “The latest genetic research,” Dickey writes, “indicates that many mixed-breed dogs identified as ‘pit mixes’ actually aren’t. ‘Pit bull,’ as it is most commonly used, has become a slapdash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth coated mutt – or a ‘dog not otherwise specified.’”

This difficulty of precise identification hasn’t stopped the media from making definite assertions about supposed members of the breed. Such as, that pit bulls are inherently dangerous dogs. “A 2011 Canadian study found no significant difference in the behaviors of forty pit-bull-type dogs adopted from animal shelters and forty-two dogs from other breeds,” Dickey notes. “Pit bulls scored slightly higher than average on aggression directed toward other dogs, but several other breeds, including dachshunds, equaled or surpassed them on that scale. The pit bulls were well within the range of normal.”

As for the misapprehension that pit bulls are responsible for the majority of dog bites, a panel of veterinary experts, animal control officers, animal behaviorists and humane advocates convened by the dean of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine came to the conclusion that “the available data did not support the claim that pit bull terrier-type dogs were overrepresented among biting animals.”

The media myth machine. So how did pit bulls become “Frankenmaulers” in the public mind? Dickey documents that other dogs throughout history have been similarly vilified: German shepherds, spitz-type dogs, “Cuban bloodhounds,” dachshunds, Dobermans, Rottweilers.

The difference is, these panics “occurred before the technology existed to put frightening images and gory details on a constant loop in the public’s mind.” Combine a “dramatic increase in the speed of information” with “the precipitous decline in critical thinking” among the American public and you have myths proliferating, such as that the pit bull has a hinged jaw that opens extra-wide and won’t let go. And that the pit bull’s teeth can exert pressure of (the figures vary widely, from 740 pounds per square inch compared to the 45 or 50 psi of a German shepherd’s bite, to even more stratospheric claims). And that the pit bull’s front teeth hold on while the back teeth operate independently to gnaw and shred. All utterly false.

The stigmatization of the pit bull began, Dickey says, in the 1970s, with the exposure of high profile dog fighting cases in which pit bulls, the victims, were portrayed as the aggressors. This reputation caused them to be “exiled to the most turbulent margins of society.” The unspoken ugly truth beneath the media hype about pit bulls, Dickey maintains, is that it is a not-so-thinly veiled expression of anxiety about race and class.

She concludes: “There never was a ‘pit bull problem.’ What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared most was one another.” Her bottom line: “Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just…dogs.”

Thanks to Dickey I am even more confident about telling prospective adopters, “All dogs are individuals. Any kind of dog can be a loving and wonderful companion.” And then, perhaps, I’ll add, “Here, let me introduce you to the biggest cuddlebug in the shelter…. ”

Big Cheese 2

Lifers, Part 3: Sweetpea: Love at Last

Home free!

Home free!

“You’re not going to believe who adopted Sweetpea,” Becky, Northside Animal Shelter’s adoption supervisor, said to me. “Look at these pictures.”

I took the iPad from her and swiped through the photos, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. There was Sweetpea, the wildest dog in the shelter, a spring-loaded large Lab/pit mix who jumped and barked and pulled mercilessly on the leash. The photos showed her in one of the meet-and-greet rooms with a frail-looking elderly lady. The woman was elegant with gray hair neatly styled and the attire of a well-to-do matron: shocking-pink tailored jacket, chunky string of pearls against a black shell top, crisp white pants, black patent leather shoes.

I scrolled through the pictures, with Becky looking over my shoulder and commenting. “They just fell in love,” she said. “Look at the way they’re looking at each other.” Sweetpea had her face tilted up to the lady’s and their eyes were locked in apparently rapt communication.

“And look at these,” Becky said. She swiped through a sequence that showed the lady sitting on the tiled ledge that formed the seat in the visiting room. Sweetpea was beside her, lying full length on the ledge with her black head on the woman’s white pants, fast asleep, in frame after frame. The woman’s ringed hand, the knuckles swollen with arthritis and the nails beautifully manicured, rested protectively on the dog’s side.

“She could have slept like that all afternoon,” Becky said.

I was full of questions. Sweetpea was one of the longest residents at the shelter, one of the sad group I had nicknamed “the Lifers.” Volunteers and staff had worked with her and an outside dog-trainer had even been hired, all in an attempt to help her learn manners that would make her more adoptable. Sadly I had seen no change as a result of all these efforts.

“Can that fragile lady handle her?” I asked. “Won’t Sweetpea knock her over and break her hip?”

Becky was convinced that there was nothing to handle. With this woman, she assured me, Sweetpea was a different dog, calm and gentle.

“But what about walking her?”

“She won’t need to. She has a fenced yard.”

I pondered all this. “Here I had been thinking,” I said, “that the only hope for this dog was some young, strong guy who would wear her out with running for miles beside his bicycle, and train her like a drill sergeant.”

“I thought the same thing,” Becky said. And then she added, “She’ll be going home tomorrow.”

This was Friday, my last shift at the shelter for the week. Before I left the main building to go back to the wards to walk dogs, I went to say good-bye to Sweetpea. She sprang up when she saw me and as usual barked and lunged at the glass door of her kennel, and kibble from her overturned bowl skittered out under the gap beneath the door.

“It’s okay, girl,” I told her. “I see now, you just needed love, and to feel safe. Glad nobody relied on me to decide what was best for you.”

I reflected that I never would have dreamed of introducing this dog to that woman, and if the lady had insisted, having perhaps seen and liked Sweetpea’s profile on the shelter’s website, I might have discouraged her. Thus, though with the best intentions, I could have obstructed one of those serendipitous matches we all hoped for, that this dog had waited so long for. (That it was a happy adoption was confirmed a few weeks later, when I saw on the bulletin board near the break room a photo of Sweetpea cuddling on a couch with a young girl; the note pinned below the picture said, “She’s settling in so beautifully. Here she is with my granddaughter. We all just love her.”)

The realizations about the limitations of my understanding were coming hard and fast, just like the barking and bashing on the other side of the glass.

“You be happy in your new home,” I told Sweetpea. Then I turned away and went off to learn from my four-legged teachers what dogs so often know better than we humans: that nothing — not age or health or status or behavior or past rejections — matters when love is real.

Next: Book Review: Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

Pit Bull book