Tag Archives: human/canine bond

Tricks and Treats

Photo credit: Dianne Roland

I confess that I’ve never been a playful person. Instead of interminable (to me) games of Candyland or Trouble with my son when he was young, I preferred to read to him or take him on shared adventures to the park, the toy store, or a museum. And rather than throw a ball for my dog or initiate a game of “where’s the bone?”, I choose to cuddle or go for a walk with her.

Fortunately, my husband has always made up for my deficiencies in the fun & games department. He is very playful. In fact, one of the things that first endeared him to me was when, on a date at the Bronx Zoo, we paused before the enclosure that housed four rare snow leopard cubs. We watched them for a while and they looked back at us indifferently from their perches on branches and rocks, their only movements twitches of their beautiful, long, thick tails.

Then, with no other human around to witness his silliness, Doug got down on his knees in front of their fence, propped himself on his arms and dropped into a play bow, moving his head from side to side. That got a rise out of the supersized kittens; they hopped down, stalked to the front of their enclosure and watched him, their eyes bright and their heads moving along with his, some of them even reciprocating his bow.

When our son and various dogs came into our lives, Doug was always the fun guy, while I was more the nurturer or the quiet companion.

But play is important; I know that. For growing children and animals it aids in both neurological development and socialization, as this report from NPR describes. Play also teaches young animals the skills they need for survival in the wild.

Another report from the website www.psychCentral.com emphasizes the necessity of play for adult humans. I was relieved to read that some of the things I enjoy doing — knitting, walking with my dog, noodling around on my guitar, even writing — count as play, reassuring me that I’m not a complete drudge. Nevertheless, it doesn’t escape my notice that these pastimes are all solitary.

For shelter dogs, play is invaluable as a stress reliever, a change of pace, a break from confinement and a way of keeping their minds sharp and engaged. I have already written about the benefits of group play; individual games are also rewarding. There are some small yards at our shelter where we can let a dog off leash and throw the ball for him. We can also hook a dog to a long leash (to ensure that we can get her back!) and let her chase a frisbee in the big yard.

A couple of creative shelter volunteers bring in puzzles which reward the dogs with treats. Some dogs, however, say “to heck with lifting each of the little compartment covers; I’ll just tip the whole thing over and scarf up all the hotdogs.” That’s OK, too; high-level strategic planning, doggie style.

Here’s Brian, proud of himself for acing the puzzle but also clearly signaling at the end, “So? What else ya got?”

In an effort to find out how to be a more playful dog mom and shelter volunteer, I spoke with Anna Craig, who runs a trick training class at the boarding and training facility we use. She’s an effusive cheerleader on the subject.

“Most owners love their dogs,” she said, “but many don’t play with them. And that’s a loss. Play creates a bond between you and your dog. It’s a fun way to build skills for obedience, make learning interesting. And the more you train them the more they’ll come up with things on their own.”

Shared play with people is also a way for shelter dogs to gain more positive experiences with humans than they may have had in the past.

Here are some of Anna’s ideas for fun human/canine activities that can be adapted to the shelter environment.

Find it. Have someone hold the dog while you hide treats around a room or outdoor area. Let the dog see you hide the treat, or put it in an obvious place. Then say, “Find it,” and, keeping the dog on a long leash if the area is not fenced, let him find all the treats. Once the dog is familiar with the “Find it” game, you can make it more of a challenge by hiding the treats out of his sight and letting him sniff them out.

Toss treats in the air. Or side to side. Let the dog catch them.

Throw a treat between you and the dog, call her and give her 2 or 3 more tidbits when she comes to you. Get her excited about coming to you. This builds the basis for a good recall.

Tug of war. For this game, you need to know the dog; “there are some I wouldn’t play tug with because they become possessive over it or the arousal level is just way too high,” Anna says. And she points out that you need to be the one to decide when it’s over. Teach “give” to get the tug toy back in exchange for a high value treat, but don’t use “give” every time; it’s OK if sometimes the dog wins.

Teach “high four,” shake. Mark with a clicker when she raises or gives her paw. Then rub the dog’s paws and give treats. It’s important to teach dogs to allow their feet to be handled. Do this also with her collar; touch it, put your fingers under it, and give a tasty treat.

The treats can be small, or you can use the dog’s kibble if he likes that, and, if weight is an issue, subtract the training treats from his daily ration. Also, some dogs respond more strongly to non-food rewards: playing with a toy, pats and love and verbal praise. Anna says that she lets her vizsla, Strider (with her in the photo above), jump up on her when he has successfully completed a trick; normally he’s not allowed to do that so it becomes a powerful reward.

* * *

Seeing how happy it makes dogs to master behaviors, to run and romp together, to solve puzzles and get treats, inspires me to add a little more fun to my interactions with the shelter dogs and my own dog. After all, play shared is more fun than play alone. It’s just another of the many important life lessons I’m learning from my canine pals.

Goodbye Too Soon

To Shelley Bunting Pickett, in memory of Jessie

It was two weeks before Christmas and the early darkness turned the windows of the shelter’s Admissions department into black mirrors that reflected the sparkling colored lights of the office Christmas tree.

Through the front door came a tall, sandy-haired man in a military-style jacket. He paused inside the entry and seemed to have difficulty speaking at first. I watched him a little anxiously, wondering if he was ill, or mentally limited, or under the influence of some substance.

But then he said, “I have some things to donate. A lot of them. Beds, crates, toys.”

Darla, one of the admissions counselors, gave him a form to fill out while I put on my coat and went to get a cart from the storage room.

When he had finished writing we walked out together, me pushing the cart. As we approached his shiny oversized truck, I asked him, “How do you happen to have so many things to donate?”

“We lost our dogs. The old Bernese a little while ago. The little Shih-tzu just recently.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” He opened the door and we hauled out brand new-looking pet beds, towels, carriers, crates, bowls, sacks and cans of food, and a Hefty bag lumpy with stuffed toys. There must have been hundreds of dollars worth of premium dog supplies.

“These are all clean,” he said.

“You don’t want to keep them? For the next dog? They’re really nice.”

“No.” He gave me a tight, sad smile. “We’ll start fresh. When and if the time comes.”

As I arranged the items on the cart I suddenly heard a small sound. I looked up and saw that the man was trying unsuccessfully to suppress sobs, his face contorted with sorrow, tears running down from behind his glasses.

My mind took quick note of the deserted parking lot, the dark forest on three sides, the road that led to the deserted dump and recycling center. My heart won out, however, and I went to him and gave him a hug, which he returned, his shoulders shaking. “It’s so hard,” I said when we separated. “I’ve lost four. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” he said in a choked voice. He wiped his eyes and with an obvious effort at self-control said, “Here, let me help you take that in. It’s heavy.”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay. There are people inside who can help me.” I didn’t want him to see me rolling the loaded cart into the building, leaving him with a final image of loss. “These things will make some other animals very happy,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I hope so. You’re welcome.” He walked toward the driver’s side and opened the door, then hesitated. “Maybe I’ll be back sometime, to get a dog.” He attempted a smile.

“We have wonderful dogs. When the time is right we’ll be glad to help you find one.”

He nodded, then climbed into his truck and drove away.


In his poem “The Power of the Dog,” Rudyard Kipling marvels at why we let ourselves love these short-lived creatures when we know how the story will end:

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear…

Some people take losing their animal companion so hard that they can’t contemplate going through it ever again. But others are simply unable to bear life without a dog.

One day last summer a man came into the shelter and tearfully confided to Addie, one of the volunteer adoption counselors, that he had just had to put his dog to sleep the night before and couldn’t stand the silent, empty house, the ache of loss in his heart. Addie introduced him to Morningstar, a beautiful black pit/Lab mix who had been waiting for months for someone to choose her. In fact, we were all beginning to get worried about her, because she was changing from a playful, happy girl to one so depressed that she would not even lift her head from her bed when someone opened her kennel gate to take her for a walk.

But when this sad man met Morningstar, the bond between them was immediate and so strong that some of us speculated that God, or fate, or the universe had been saving her just for him.

Addie posted a picture of the two of them on the shelter’s Facebook page; in it, the man is holding the dog in his lap and the mix of emotions on his face is unfiltered, plain for all to read: lingering sorrow filling his eyes, hope and joy radiating from his unsteady smile. As for Morningstar, she looks perfectly at home, draped across her new person’s legs and enfolded in his arms.


As another Christmas approaches, I think of the grieving man who donated so many wonderful toys and supplies to the shelter dogs, and hope that he has found a new dog to share his life with. Because for many of us, the only consolation after loss is getting another pet to love, no matter the future cost. As Kipling put it:

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

It Takes a Village

Montana’s story began when an animal control officer at Northside Animal Shelter got a call about a stray “aggressive pit bull,” and went to the tough neighborhood that the caller described. There the officer found a medium-sized dog with big ears, a face that was terrierlike — long nose and a dark brown mask bisected by a white stripe — and a white, freckled, pudgy body.

The dog was nearly feral in her aversion to humans. I imagine it took fast work with the catchpole to capture her and get her into the truck, but the officer succeeded and brought her to Northside. She was admitted with the new name Montana.

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

She was given the systematic series of behavioral tests that all incoming dogs receive to assess their fitness to be adopted. Sadly, she failed body handling. She shook violently, and jerked her head around at every sound, touch and movement. She didn’t bite, but it seemed she might at any moment. That, plus her heartworm-positive status, almost sealed her doom.

But one of the assessment team asked her colleagues to wait, give the dog a few days to calm down and readminister the test. The next time, Montana squeaked by.

The life-saving efforts didn’t stop there. Montana was spayed, started on the costly regimen of treatment for her heartworm, and was finally released into one of the adoption wards.

That’s where I met her, when I arrived for my volunteer dog-walking shift on a hot July day. The ward caregiver, Marci, pointed the new arrival out to me as someone in need of TLC. I went over to her kennel and looked in. There, back in the shadows at the rear of the run, a dog lay curled on her bed. When our eyes met, she gave a long, low, rumbling growl.

I was all for dispensing TLC, but not if it was going to get me bitten. I went on to the next kennel, thinking gloomy thoughts about the poor, defensive animal’s chances.

Over the next few weeks, however, Montana ventured out of her shell. This was no doubt thanks to Marci’s ministrations. The young caregiver was a true “dog whisperer.” Shelter caregivers’ jobs are hard, dirty and constantly demanding, but Marci always made time to sit in a kennel with a dog in her lap, patting and talking softly to the animal.

The first time I cautiously leashed Montana for a walk, she came along with what seemed like a sigh of resignation. We circled the big exercise yard a few times, then she pulled me determinedly to the exit gate and all the way back to the safety of her ward, having had all the TLC she could stand for one day.

After that, I walked her every time I went to the shelter. Gradually, trust grew between us. I began getting a tentative wag. Then she started barking when she saw me, front feet lifting off the floor with every vocalization as she demanded to be taken out. I began to spend extra time with her after my regular dog-walking shift was over. Something about her company was deeply calming.

One day in the exercise yard, with her lying at my feet, I decided to take a risk. I reached down and pulled her up into my lap, all 40 pounds of her. She went rigid at first, but I held her firmly, and gradually I felt the weight of her settle onto me as she relaxed.

We stayed like that for maybe 20 minutes, taking in the languid activity of the summer afternoon: insects whirling, a mockingbird perched on top of the shelter’s chainlink fence trilling through his varied repertoire, traffic passing. As I stroked Montana’s warm coat, I felt that the two of us were enveloped in a timeless peace.

I was losing my heart to her. But my affection for Montana couldn’t result in a permanent relationship. I had already persuaded my husband to adopt one shelter dog, our pit-boxer mix, Ruby. Doug loved her, but wanting the freedom to travel he drew the line at any more dogs. So I did all I could to try to get Montana adopted.

In this effort I was just one of many who were working hard on her behalf. A shelter photographer took pictures of her, and a fellow volunteer who designs colorful, creative Instagram posters for all the shelter’s adoptable dogs and cats made a charming one for Montana. Another volunteer who keeps our Facebook page current featured her in one of the weekly updates highlighting a dog who had made remarkable progress.

Volunteers walked her and played with her regularly, brought her to offsite adoption events, took her to “Dogs on the Diamond” at the local baseball stadium and on hikes in local parks where she sported an “Adopt Me” vest. Staff members cared for her with skill and, more than that, love. She completed her heartworm treatment and was pronounced cured. The adoption team promoted her to any likely adopter.

Montana was getting first-rate treatment, but as her time in the shelter lengthened I started to worry. She was still wary of strangers; she would lie on her bed in her kennel and fix passersby with what one staff member humorously, affectionately described as her “I hate you, world,” expression.

When, I wondered, would the right people come, who would recognize this dog’s sweetness and want to give her a kind and loving home – no doubt her first?

Montana's reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

Montana’s reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

I left in late August for a two week vacation and tearfully kissed Montana good bye, hoping that she would have been adopted by the time I returned, but also knowing that I would miss her terribly.

While I was away I got an email that brought tears again — happy ones. Montana had found her family. From the attached photo they appeared to be a sweet young couple, earnest and trustworthy-looking, smiling with Montana leaning against their legs.

There was also a photo of a crowd of shelter staffers who had gathered to give this much-loved dog a rousing sendoff. Looking at the faces in the picture, so genuinely happy, I was moved to think of the enormous amount of commitment, work and expense that had gone into rehabilitating this dog, who had come so close to being deemed a hopeless case. Montana’s transformation from fearful, mistrustful stray to loving family pet was nearly miraculous.

Even more miraculous, though, is the fact that Montana’s story is not unique. Far from it. Every day at our shelter, staff and volunteers are restoring broken bodies and spirits and hearts to wholeness, one by one. The result is thousands of animals saved each year. That’s the power of a village of caring.

Montana, home at last

Montana, home at last

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.

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

Why We Love Dogs, #1


Just look at this sculpture of a dog from the Eastern Han dynasty of China (AD 25-220). You can tell by the playful expression that the sculptor loved this creature. In fact, our species has loved the canine species since we crouched together in caves by flickering firelight, sharing bones and listening for saber-tooth tigers outside the cave entrance.

Why has this intense bond grown between dogs and people? Over the next several months I’ll post some of my musings. Here are some of the first reasons that come to my mind:

Nothing gets old for them. They are as enthusiastic about your walking through the door for the thousandth time as they were the first few. They love to play the same games over and over. They greet each meal with the attitude: “Oh, boy! Dog food again!”

They make us laugh. We were trying to get a roof leak fixed, and the handyman couldn’t figure out where the leak was coming from. He had tried a few remedies without success. Finally he told us, “You need a roofer.” And on cue came the tap of claws over the tile floor of the kitchen and our golden retriever, Rufus — the “Roofer” — appeared, having heard what he thought was his name and come to see what was wanted of him.

They are delightfully shameless. Not only are they totally accepting of their own, and our, bodies and natural functions — they are downright enthusiastic about them.

A woman I met, on learning that I volunteered at the shelter, told me about her rescue dog’s intense separation anxiety. “Finally I figured out that if I put a pair of my used underpants in the crate with her, she would calm right down.”

They forgive and forget. She came to the shelter close to death, her heart clogged with worms, her ears scarred by fly bites — a dull- coated skeleton of a pit bull whose blocky tan head looked outsized for her wasted body. Her story was sad but all too familiar: chained outside, seldom fed and never enough, repeatedly bred. She delivered litter after litter of pups and let them suck out her strength, as mothers will do.

But one day her luck changed. A Northside animal control officer spotted her in the yard, cut her chain and brought her to the shelter. She was given the name Praline, and a fluffy comforter printed with Disney princesses to cushion the cement floor of her run. She was fed three times a day and gradually gained a layer of fat over her bones. Her tan coat and her eyes began to shine. She was cured of her heartworms.

Throughout it all Praline was friendly, affectionate, as if she had known nothing but kindness. She loved walks, she loved to snuggle and give kisses. The shelter had begun a program, “Dog Days at City Hall” ; once a month my husband and I would bring a shelter dog to Mayor Cary Lewis’s office to spend the day with him and his staff, and hopefully get adopted when the dog appeared on the Mayor’s Facebook page. Praline, the third dog we took, was a perfect lady and won hearts all around. She didn’t get adopted that day, though.

Back at Northside, she gave a wag to every person who passed by her kennel, or a courteous touch of her nose on their offered hand. The weeks passed. Until one Saturday, Courtney, a young administrative assistant on the Mayor’s staff, brought her husband to the shelter.

“Ever since her visit to the office, I just can’t stop thinking about Praline,” she said. Her husband instantly fell in love with the dog and they adopted her as a companion for their other pit bull, a big male named Tug.

Over the next several months, whenever we brought other dogs to City Hall I heard glowing reports from Courtney about how Praline – now Angel – was getting along. Once Courtney showed me a picture of the four family members, canine and human, curled up together on the couple’s bed.

And then there were five, when Courtney had a baby girl in December. The photo she sent with her Christmas card showed Angel lying on a blanket close to the infant, like a little mama to this strange smooth puppy. “Darby’s guardian Angel,” Courtney had written.

Next: Through the Eyes of Love

The Poop on Puppies


It’s puppy season, and no sooner do the little round-bellied, bumbling bundles of cuteness appear on our shelter’s adoption floor than they are snapped up by starry-eyed new owners. Unfortunately, many of the adopters have no idea what they’ve signed on for.

When I took the training to be able to finalize adoptions I was told, “When you’re counseling people who want to adopt a puppy, it’s a good idea to go right up to the line of almost talking them out of it.”

Recently the shelter’s Adoption Supervisor made this plea:  “The best feeling in the world is seeing one of our babies going to their ‘furever’ home! The worst feeling in the world is seeing them being returned.

Our counselors work hard to tell you this is a huge commitment; you need to work with puppies; no, they can’t be outside for 5 hours, nor crated for 8  while you work; yes, they are going to pee and poop; yes, they are going to chew; yes, they are looking to YOU to help them learn.

“Please, please, adopt responsibly.  Returning a puppy for being ‘a puppy’ is heart-sore to all of us.”

Even worse than seeing a puppy come back is having one of our former babies returned to the shelter as an unruly, unsocialized adolescent, having been banished to a chain in the backyard once he became too big to handle and no longer “adorable.” The chances of that dog’s being adopted again are not great.

I have often thought that we should have a handout at the shelter entitled something like, “So You Think You Want a Puppy.” It would lay out all the realities of infant-dog-rearing, such as:

  • Your puppy will quickly stop being deep-down-squeezably-soft, and will nip and scratch. He will become stronger and harder to deal with, especially for young kids. He will have to be patiently and consistently taught manners.
  • She will pee and poop in the house. These will be accidents for which she should never be punished, only quickly caught so that she can be redirected outside and lavishly praised and given treats when she potties [as we say in the shelter] where she should.
  • He will chew as he teethes – and won’t discriminate between a Nylabone and the leg of your coffee table or your best shoe.
  • She will whine and bark and need to be trained not to.
  • He will pull on the leash, or grab it between his teeth and wrestle it.
  • She will need to go out every two hours until she’s around four months old, and then, from about four months to a year, in the morning, once at midday, in the evening after supper, and again before bedtime, so if you work or are in school you’ll need a dog walker or a reliable neighbor.
  • Yelling and hitting are not effective dog-training strategies. Neither is confining the young animal for long periods, or banishing him outdoors because you just can’t deal with him. Patient, daily work; constant supervision; love, praise and rewards are essential to turning an unruly pup into a well-socialized canine family member.
  • A crate can be an invaluable training tool, teaching the pup to wait to relieve herself because her animal instinct will make her reluctant to soil her den. The crate should never be used for punishment, but should be a positive place, which you can reinforce by feeding the puppy inside with the door open. It can become a welcome refuge for the young animal from kids or other pets. It’s also a safe place to put the pup when you can’t actively watch her.

Which brings up the last point: A friend of mine in New York, who trained guide dogs, told me the advice that her organization would give to families who took puppies into their homes to prepare them for guide dog instruction:  “When your puppy does something wrong, like peeing in the house or chewing a precious item, go get a newspaper. Roll it up tight into a good sturdy rod.

“Then hit yourself about the head and neck with it for not watching your puppy!”

Next: Why We Love Dogs, #1