Jan 192017
 

 

TMZ recently released a video showing a German Shepherd being forced into the water for a scene in “A Dog’s Purpose.” While we had nothing to with this production, we have received numerous requests for comment:

Let me start by saying this: I am very proud of the work I do, and would wager my soul that virtually every animal I have worked with has had a great time. The animals I know in film and television are some of the most loved and pampered on the planet, with lives rich in comfort, joy, play, adventure, health, and fun. They live longer, healthier, and happier lives than 99% of pets or wild animals.

What I “saw” on the video, taken at face value, is unacceptable. However, I do not know much about the events portrayed in the TMZ video, and neither do you. We were not there, and watching a snippet of video can be so misleading that I am reluctant to offer any thoughts because we do not know context, we did not see what happened before or after, and we have not heard the other side, so drawing any conclusions is problematic. Of course, this video looks awful, but it is a few moments edited for maximal impact. I am absolutely not defending, or attacking, the trainers involved, as I just do not know enough.

What I can tell you is how this scene would “normally” be handled:

Normally, this scene would have been prepped long in advance.  The dog would have been running into water, dock diving, swimming across rivers with more and more current. If the dog did not love swimming, a double would have been found who did. A few weeks before filming, the dog would start rehearsing on the actual set, first with no current, then gradually increasing the current as the dog became confident and comfortable. By the time this scene filmed, the dog would not merely be willing to get into the water, he would love getting in and swimming in the current. This is how it is normally done because it is what is best for the animal, and because it is what is best for the production!

As I said, I am not going to defend what happened, but here are a few ‘mitigating’ thoughts about what I observed in this video:

  1.  The guy narrating is not, so far as I can tell, part of the animal team and is not speaking for them, and what he is saying is silly and objectionable but irrelevant.
  2. I do not fully understand what I saw–no sane trainer would show up with an unprepared animal and expect to shove it into that water. Why was there no ramp in or out, what was the plan, what information are we missing?
  3. Forcing an animal to do something is almost never the best technique.  However, there are moments when pushing a dog to get into the water and realize that no harm will result can be a viable alternative to consider.  Millions of loving pet owners have enacted scenes like this trying to get Fido into the bath, or into a pool for the first time, and in 90% of those cases the animal has not suffered physical or psychological damage. When to “push” is a judgement call, and sometimes people get it wrong, or it looks wrong from the outside… Some animals, or children, pitch a remarkable fit about having their nails trimmed or getting into a crate or not getting a treat at the store, and while force is almost never the best response, one also needs to recognize that without lots more information these fits can look much worse than they are…
  4. There was a trainer in the water near the end when the dog was pushed under by current.  Why she was so far away is unclear, but it was likely a mistake —the dog had always veered to the other side before, or they misjudged the current and thought he would get more across. But again, how awful this was is questionable—many dogs love playing in the waves, even though from time to time they get dunked and rolled, but thirty seconds later they are back at it.  I used to have to drag Tillie away from the Rio Grande because she found the current exhilarating and would seek out the rapids, often getting far more submerged than this dog.  None of which makes it ok—that dog clearly did not want that experience, and it was a mistake not to avoid it—but it was likely just that: a mistake, and the dog was likely fine ten seconds later.
  5. Animals working on set are incredibly scrutinized. Not only are there trainers and AHA, but every moment we are watched and filmed.  There are millions of hours filmed every year of every single thing we do—every animal lover with a cell phone films every walk, every crate, every training session. 99% of those moments are great and never end up on TMZ.  No matter how great a job someone does with animals, there will be few moments that, without context or explanation, could be edited together to give a bad impression. The same is true for anyone who has ever owned an animal—things occasionally go awry and look awful.
  6. Sometimes, an animal can be prepped and trained and ready in every way, and things can still go wrong.  All the practice in the world does not change that these are sentient beings with moods and feelings, and sometimes an animal suddenly behaves very differently than expected.  Of course a skilled trainer recognizes this and steps back to reevaluate, but sometimes it may take a few minutes to recognize, and by then accidents may have occurred.
  7. This is not at all an excuse, but by way of possible explanation: movie sets can be almost unimaginably high pressure.  With huge financial and temporal pressures, and a powerful production team pushing and demanding, it is sometimes difficult to say “no” when one ought to.  This is why people die in stunts, or on train tracks, or driving home at hour twenty. It is perhaps the most important job of an animal trainer to stand between this pressure and their animals–to shield and protect them from production demands; and while it is not ok, sometimes people agree to ‘try’ things that they should not.

As I stated, I do not know enough about this particular situation to offer an explanation for what decisions were made or why. I do not know the dog, or the prior training, or even how the rest of the day went. I do not know what schedule snafus occurred, I do not know if American Humane was present. I do not know what shortcuts were taken or what unexpected events occurred.

What I do know, after thousands of hours on set with countless animals and other trainers, is that this video does not at all represent what usually happens on set. Virtually every trainer I have worked with is unwaveringly committed to the welfare and happiness of their animals.  In our industry, as in every corner of the world, there are undoubtedly a few bad seeds, people who are not strong enough, moral enough, or kind enough to protect their animals at all times. And certainly accidents, misjudgements, or mistakes do occur. But most of us do this because there is nothing we would rather do than spend every day playing with animals we love, and it is vital to our success that the animals also enjoy the work because our reputation hinges upon them working well which depends upon their being happy and enthusiastic.

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 January 19, 2017  Posted by at 6:33 pm Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Jun 272016
 

IndDaySlate

The Fourth of July signifies American independence, barbeques, celebration, fireworks, and unfortunately many frightened dogs. In addition to the obvious refrains about keeping your pets safe and secure, let’s talk a little about what you can do to help minimize your pets’ distress.

First, let me point out that each individual is different, and you need to figure out what is best for yours.  For some there may be little choice other than heading out of town, for some pharmaceuticals may be effective, for others a Thundershirt may be useful.  There is no single right answer, so you need to try a few options and find a combination that is most effective for your pet. And if you have a great technique, by all means share it in the comments below!

That said, here is the technique I have found to be most effective with many dogs:

A couple of nights a week, for the next several weeks, go into whichever room in your home is most soundproof, and turn up a stereo as loud as you can without causing your dog any stress, introduce a strong scent (peppermint perhaps), and then play a rip-roaring game of fetch, tug, race, wrestle, rollover, etc. Play to all of the dog’s strongest drives and make the game fun.  Try to make it the most upbeat, engaging romp possible, although not so over the top that it becomes frenetic or stressful. Have a very high rate of reinforcement—lots of treats, praise, cheering, throwing, tugging… If possible, have a colleague set of a few small noisemaking fireworks outside a distance away, or have someone in another room play a recording of fireworks. Have a container of super-treats sitting nearby, and periodically make a show of running to the treats and giving one, or more, to your dog, so that the act of running over to the treats becomes reinforcing as well. You should be laughing, dancing, sweating, and generally all having a blast.

On the Fourth, and in some places a few days earlier, before the fireworks start, go into the same room, crank the stereo, introduce the scent, and repeat the same exercise.  Your dog will be somewhat trained to the desired behaviors, but even more he will be conditioned to a state of exuberance. Whenever you hear a boom over the loud music, do not react, but make sure a fun action occurs and run for a reward, so the booms start to seem like a precursor to the fun stuff.

The underlying notion here is that wild exuberance is a more immersive state than calm. Calmness tends to be fairly passive and fragile and easily interrupted by the first loud noise.  Conversely, energetic play has great inertia and is difficult to interrupt.  Exuberance also utilizes more similar chemical and neural pathways to fear, and so is more feasible when faced with frightening stimuli. And of course, the aural, visual, and olfactory cues that you have conditioned will all serve the secondary role of dampening the frightening stimuli.

Do not stress about the Fourth.  Your dog will detect your anxiety which will compound his.  Come up with a plan, ameliorate the noise as much as possible, and do everything you can to keep them safe and happy! Oh, and Happy Independence Day!

Note: before you panic about the image at the top, two things: one, do not try this at home, and two, it was shot in pieces and was very safe–there was one firework behind me when I was working the dog, and we were a safe distance and he was well acclimated. The angle makes it look closer, and then the others I photographed separately and composited in afterwards!

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 June 27, 2016  Posted by at 6:51 am Tagged with: , , , , ,
Mar 242016
 

athena1

The recent announcement that SeaWorld is ending their orca program and forging an alliance with HSUS sparked widely diverse emotional responses, from joy to despair, but most serious animal people were deeply hurt and furious.

I am not going to address the specific orca question: despite my tens of thousands of hours working with hundreds of species, I do not possess sufficient knowledge or experience with marine mammals to know whether or not orcas can thrive in captivity. This determination belongs in the hands of dedicated, knowledgeable, caring experts, and not abandoned to weekend activists, anti-animal fanatics, pre-occupied politicians, or casual animal lovers. And I am not privy to what happens at SeaWorld, so I cannot speak to the details of their care.

Nor am I going to attack those at SeaWorld for this decision.  We are all struggling to find best and most effective paths in the current world, and I do not have access to all the information they had.  I suspect it was a serious mistake for SeaWorld to become a publicly traded company, but even if they had not, no institution can long survive what SeaWorld has been facing, so they did what they believed was necessary to survive in the short term, even though doing so may well have sacrificed the future.

I want to discuss some of the broader realities and process failures that got us to this point:

It is profoundly saddening that SeaWorld has been unable to persuasively communicate the core truth that responsibly managed captivity is a great alternative in parallel with protection of wild animals. That animals can do better living with people than in the wild.  That they can be happier, healthier, and longer-lived.  That man has today claimed every inch of the planet and that the only future for most species inexorably includes human involvement. That most animals care not about the idea of freedom, but about survival, comfort, and happiness.

It is devastating that SeaWorld partnered with an organization that has shown repeatedly that it will not rest until every single animal living with man has been removed or eliminated.

It is flabbergasting that a filmmaker with no relevant knowledge, education, or experience, and a woefully lopsided, sentiment-based agenda, could produce false and misleading propaganda and raise up an army of well-meaning-but-utterly-misinformed do-gooders who—in the name of orcas—set about destroying the greatest ally orcas have ever known.

It is gravely disappointing how many excellent animal facilities have seen no choice but to die with a whimper, or hand over their soul to the devil and betray their colleagues and the truth.

It is crushing how close we are to a world in which all animals have been shoved out of our homes and lives and banished to an illusory “wild.”

It is depressing how little SeaWorld, and other animal professionals, have been able to educate the public that good animal training is not cruel, coercive, or exploitative.  That animals need, and love, to play the game, figure things out, and perform complicated behaviors.

It is unfathomable how many people embrace an agenda that they have not bothered to fully grasp, and do grievous harm to animals while passionately believing that they are helping.  How many people are certain they know best, even when they know nothing at all.

But the most frightening and saddening truth is this: science and reason surrendered to a mob of pitchfork-brandishing villagers.  Knowledge and thoughtful pursuit of truth abandoned the field to ignorance, hatred, and frenzy. However you may feel about SeaWorld, you should be very afraid of a world in which the mob can control such decisions.

Make no mistake: animals and those who love them are losing badly. Sea World’s capitulation was a grave defeat for Earth’s animals. But perhaps even worse, it was a devastating blow for mankind. Watch the responses to SeaWorld’s decision, and relentlessly you will hear people with inadequate knowledge repeat the tautological assumption—“Wild animals belong in the wild because they are wild and yearn for freedom.”  No matter how much logic and data are presented to them clearly demonstrating the fallacy of their position, they will simply repeat their impenetrable certainty.  Reason, knowledge, and discourse are little match for sentimentality, unabashed ignorance, certitude, and zealotry.

Some may not recognize the enormity of this event: SeaWorld, after all, is but one organization, and we are only talking about a few orcas. But we are not really talking about SeaWorld as a brick-and-mortar institution.  SeaWorld is an icon, a metaphor.  SeaWorld is a manifestation of the notion that enterprise, entertainment, education, and animal care can synergistically coexist. SeaWorld, until recently, generated a great deal of revenue and profit, but its managers directed a significant portion of those profits into the welfare of their animals, aiding wild animals, conducting groundbreaking research, educating the public, and generating interest and affection for marine mammals.  It is cruelly ironic that the only reason people care enough about orcas to be attacking SeaWorld is because SeaWorld brought the charismatic mammals to our focused attention, and made them into the icons we treasure so deeply.  SeaWorld was the principal global institution with the resources and commitment to stand toe-to-toe with the Animal Rights groups and say, “No! We will not capitulate to misguided sentimentality no matter how loudly you yell.”

SeaWorld was one of the last citadels protecting the ideal that animals and people can live together, and that both can be the better for it. I do not know if there is hope left, but if there is, it lies with every single person who loves animals banding together right now and saying with one voice what I wish SeaWorld had said: Enough. We will not be intimidated; we will not let you eliminate animals from our world.  We will not let you distort responsible care and love and stewardship and call them exploitation. We will not let your simplistic fanaticism crush truth. We are the true lovers of animals, the people who dedicate our lives to caring for them and learning about them. With immense devotion and immeasurable reflection and action, we have learned what is humane, what is ethical, what is best for the animals.  And while we will always welcome thoughtful, informed input into how we can do better, we shall ceaselessly strive to ensure that the animals we love always have homes in the wild and with us.

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 March 24, 2016  Posted by at 11:01 pm Tagged with: , , , , ,
Feb 252013
 

TIMG_0717his post is not a judgment of anything you may have done!  I do not know the details or variables of your decisions, nor do I believe there is a single right answer to this complex question.  I am only addressing it in the hopes that everyone will consider it:

In recent years it has become an accepted and even expected practice to drop one’s dog at the veterinarian’s office in the morning and return later that day or later that week to retrieve the dog after appropriate veterinary procedures have been completed.  Similarly, when owners are present, dogs are routinely taken to a separate room in back for actual procedures and then brought back into the exam room.

In some cases, leaving a dog is unavoidable or the only realistic option. But in many cases, I think owners fail to seriously consider their animal’s perspective, or are simply carried along by inertia and simply do it that way because that is how their vet does it.  In many cases, I believe these practices are contrary to the best interests of the animals. So I thought it might be worth enumerating some of the key considerations in deciding whether to leave an animal or stay with them.  There are tangible advantages and disadvantages that warrant consideration:

Advantages to leaving your animal at the vet office:

  1. Convenience for the owner: it is certainly easier to spend a few minutes dropping your animal at the vet than it is to spend all day sitting on the floor with them…
  2. Convenience for the vet: with animals that are left, vets can get to them when it fits into their schedule, can have techs and students perform tasks they might otherwise do themselves, can spend less time calming worried owners.
  3. Fewer distractions for the vet: even for the most skilled and experienced vet, having an owner in the room is a distraction.  The vet is thinking about perception, how to answer questions, etc.
  4. Vet not made nervous: vets are human, and having someone looking over their shoulder can make them perform less well than they would if they were alone.
  5. Some animals are better behaved when their owner is not present. Nobody likes to admit this, but oftentimes animals are much more tractable when their owner is not there to bolster their confidence.
  6. Many owners are stressed at the vet and communicate this stress to their dogs.  Particularly when needles, scalpels, blood, pus, and other medical realities are present, many owners are not relaxed.
  7. Some procedures can be better and more efficiently performed in a manner that may not appeal to owners.  Sometimes what is best for a dog may look bad, and well-intentioned but inexperienced owners may be upset by all sorts of best practices.
  8. Space is sometimes at a premium, and there just is not room for every owner to be present.

Disadvantages to leaving your dog at the vet office:

  1. Emotional support: a vet’s office is a strange and stressful place to most animals.  Being “left” alone adds to this stress. Having a skilled owner present is the single biggest thing that can be done to provide consistency and continuity. This is hugely exacerbated if the animals is sedated, anesthetized, or otherwise altered–when an animal wakes from anesthesia, it is disoriented, frightened, and generally in pain.  It has no idea what has just happened or why, and it does not understand the after effects of anesthesia. It has no way of knowing its owner will return given that this situation is so outside normal events. This is extremely stressful, and extreme stress is not only harmful to animals, it can be extremely deleterious to healing.
  2. More attention: In the post-op hours, the veterinary staff will check on each animal periodically.  If there is an emergency with another animal, an individual may well go unchecked for a long time.  With an owner present, the animal will get uninterrupted vigilance. There is simply no way any vet can provide this level of care. Even in the operating room, another set of eyes can help—on at least two occasions, my presence averted a serious mishap.
  3. Superior baseline knowledge of animal: The vet just does not know the individual as well as the owner does.  We are more able to recognize aberrant behavior.   We know which of our animals have had a paradoxical response to propofol, which has a heart murmur that is evident only when sedated, which are sound sensitive, which are reactive to other dogs, etc.
  4. Informed advocacy: Decisions may need to be made on the fly, and if the owner is not present, who will make them?  In my view, it is a team effort—the vet is the medical expert, but the owner is the team captain who knows the animal’s history, personality, and future plans.  Removing the team captain during a critical procedure weakens the team hugely.
  5. Animal handling skills: Owners are often more knowledgeable and skilled than most of the people working in a veterinary office.  More experienced with animal behavior, more aware of spinal consequences of poor lifting techniques, etc.
  6. Veterinary knowledge: much though we want to assume our vets know everything, they do not.  Particularly when we know our animal has a particular issue, we may have read every study and talked to every expert and be FAR more current than our vet.  I cannot tell you how many times I have educated my various vets on latest research on a topic.
  7. Ethical obligation: many owners simply feel an obligation to be there—we made an absolute commitment to our animals that we would take care of them, and we cannot do that if we are not present.

 

Every case is different.  The best answer depends upon many variables, in particular the abilities and attitude of the owner, the vet, and the techs; the temperament and experience of the individual animal; and the procedure being performed. If you are going to leave your pet, get him ready for it: leave him several times with a friend for a fun afternoon, leave him in a crate in a strange place for a few hours, arrange with your vet to leave him there on days when nothing happens except they give him a few cookies and pats throughout the day.  Get him used to being there, apart from you, and to the strange smells, sights, and sounds….

Before you leave your animal anywhere, including the veterinary hospital, think carefully about the risks associated with doing so.  Think about it from the animal’s perspective— what are his past experiences, how will he feel, what will be going through his mind? Do not simply follow protocol—do what is right for your animal.  At the end of the day, you are his advocate, his owner, and you are the one who must make the best possible decisions!

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 February 25, 2013  Posted by at 6:35 pm
Jan 102012
 

A few weeks ago, I had one of the worst experiences of my life: my dog Sequel disappeared while we were hiking in the woods around our home, and he was missing for several days and nights.  Each moment he was gone was devastating, but daytime was more bearable—there was so much to be done running the search that it was easy to set aside any thoughts about him being injured or dead.  We had multiple teams searching the woods and updating the search map, people driving the roads and putting up signs, people going door-to-door, people calling all the shelters, vets, daycares, etc.  Busyness can be a real friend in times of anguish! Long after night fell and the searchers had gone, I would force myself to try to get a few hours of sleep, but how can you lie in a warm bed and fall asleep knowing that your dog may be lying somewhere near death hoping you will find him soon…

And so, instead of sleeping, during the long, dark hours agonizing about all the worst things that could be happening to my dog, I wracked my brain about what I should have done differently, what I would do differently when—if—I found him and brought him home.  And I returned time and again to the same surprising answer: nothing.

 

I love my dogs with every fiber of my being.  I love them enough that while it sometimes might make me feel better to wrap them in cocoons and cloister them away safely, I force myself to always try to make the best decision for them.  Insofar as it is possible, I try to give my dogs the lives I believe they would want, with the balance of safety and adventure that they would chose if they could fully understand the issues. Most of my dogs would absolutely prefer to run in the woods, to swim in the ocean, to wrestle and leap and herd and play, even if these things come with some risk.

Of course, judgment is required-knowledge of your dogs, their personality and fitness and training (I would stake my life on Sequel’s recall if he could have heard me, and as soon as I got on the right side of the creek where he could, he came immediately), and the area and all the hazards so you can make an informed decision about whether to keep your dogs on leash or a long line or a GPS collar or have them loose but call them back frequently. And no matter how careful you are, there will be some risk!  But for nearly 20 years we have taken many, many animals out to run, play, hike, and camp in our woods, and the tens of  thousands of hours of joy, health, enrichment,  fitness, and fun it has brought is more than worth the risks, and really the worst that has ever happened is a few scrapes, a few porcupine quills, and some lost sleep…Those are pretty excellent odds, and even if Sequel had died, I am certain I would feel the same.

 

Please understand, I am not advocating recklessness: I am amazed at how often I watch people let their dogs out of a car in a parking lot and then pay no attention, or whose dogs are left unattended in homes full of hazards, or whose dogs are meeting groups of large, intense dogs while the owner is 100 feet away. Vigilance and mindful awareness are almost always to be advised with animals…

 

My dog is at risk in a moving car. He is at risk fetching a stick or a ball or wearing a collar. He is at risk at home that my house could catch fire. He is at risk on a dogwalk, or running in a field that might have a mole-hole. He is at risk chewing on a toy or meeting other dogs at a park. He is at risk that some lunatic will put poison on a sidewalk. Heck, I knew a dog recently who was run over while walking on leash in town… The risks from wildlife to a healthy, medium-sized dog in most areas are statistically very, very low. (of course if you live in an area in which risks are greater, you would need to behave accordingly!)

There are undoubtedly a few dogs that die from wildlife encounters each year in this country, or that get lost while out playing in the woods, or slip and fall down a cliff, but there are millions and millions of dogs that die each year obese and bored and with their bodies, minds, and spirits atrophied.  And while you can never perfectly protect your pets from risk, you absolutely can save them from boredom.

Being a good dog owner is not about avoiding risk-it is about balancing risk with richness.  Life is full of adventures, opportunities, and experiences that make our dogs’ lives wonderful, but we must not be so afraid that we avoid them.  I certainly cannot tell anyone else how to find their perfect balance point, but I can say that for me and my dogs, we would rather be injured or die living a rich full life than sit safely at home growing old.

 

One last happy thought: pursuing a full and rich life, will often have the magical side-effect of also maximizing health and longevity.  Our dogs spend their lives sprinting and swimming and leaping and playing as hard as possible, and they virtually all live well into their teens. Flint, our Belgian/Border Colli mix, lies at my feet as I write this, 18 years old. And I can hardly remember a day in his life that he did not fling himself into the unknown with utter abandon and sometimes crazy disregard for any potential risk…

I could probably write more about this topic, but Sequel wants to go for a hike now—back into the same woods, to his favorite swimming hole, and to the meadow to play a fast game of chase with Fig. We may die while playing our favorite games, but first, for sure, we are going to live…

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 January 10, 2012  Posted by at 10:13 am
Nov 222011
 

This past week our Mal-n-Collie “Flint” turned 18, and several people asked me a question that we hear fairly often, so I thought I would address it here: what are we doing that is allowing our dogs to consistently exceed, or at least push the upper limits of, the expected lifespan for their breed?

Of course, the answer is that I do not know—we do many things, and without conducting a careful study it is impossible to know which of these things are significantly contributing to our pets’ longevity. But here, in roughly descending order of importance, are the things I believe are most important:

 

Low stress: this is perhaps the single most important ingredient in keeping your dog young.  Nearly every time I spend time around other people and their dogs, I can feel my anxiety climbing—so many unclear rules, so much correcting, nagging, yelling.  So many conflicting requirements, or vague paths to success that change depending on circumstance or mood. Be mindful of your dogs stress level.  Use good management techniques to avoid stress.

Exercise: not walking on leash, or running for a minute around an agility course, but real exercise.  Exercise that gets their heart rate to 80% or more of max for prolonged periods several times each week.  Exercise that pushes their muscles nearly to the point of failure repeatedly. Sprinting up sand dunes, swimming hard, pulling weights, tugging for all they are worth, work their hearts and lungs and large muscles and small muscles and…

Weight: study after study has demonstrated that calorie restriction is one of the greatest prolongers of life, health, and comfort. Honestly, I get so frustrated when people say their dogs are fat because they love them too much to feed them less.  Grow up and quit feeding your dog too much. Keep them lean and they will live years longer and be more comfortable.

Diet: we feed a very carefully planned natural diet with minimal grains.

Minimal vaccinations: not only are multiple vaccinations implicated in many ailments, but also the adjuvants contained in most vaccinations are detrimental to health.  This is not to say that you should not vaccinate, but you should utilize the fewest number of vaccinations that is likely to provide adequate protection in your circumstances.

Minimal toxins: we are very mindful of toxins.  We live way out in the woods away from urban poisons, our dogs drink well-water, we use almost no herbicides or other toxins on our property, we almost never put topical flea or tick treatments on our dogs, we feed from inert bowls, we use least-harmful cleaning products and do not let our pets near them.

Diverse Enrichment: have you ever noticed that some people as they age just get bored and lethargic and sit in their comfortable chair waiting to die, while other people are still active and engaged?  And the lethargic people generally wither away, while the engaged people stay younger longer…  A similar phenomenon seems to occur in animals.  I often go over peoples’ homes and their dogs are lying in the same spot, going on the same walk, essentially experiencing the same day over and over and over.  Sure, they are still eager to go for a walk or get dinner, but there is very little novelty or excitement. Give your dogs new experiences, new treats, fun games.  Give them challenges to overcome and puzzles to solve. Maintaining neural plasticity protects youthfulness.

Joy: being happy is a powerful energizer.  Play with your dogs, wrestle with them, have them chase you.  Laugh and smile and be happy together.

Temperature/climate: in general it seems that dogs who spend most or all of their time outdoors age more quickly. So I would suggest keeping them inside, particularly when the temperature or weather deviates more than a little bit from ideal.

I genuinely believe that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to life.  However, for the most part, pursuit of either results in an increase in both.  So give your pets low-stress, healthy, rich, and happy lives, and they will live the longest they can…

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 November 22, 2011  Posted by at 7:14 am
Mar 252010
 

Parasite prevention is a very circumstantial endeavor.  What works perfectly in one situation may fail completely in another, so it is  impossible to offer universal advice.  Furthermore, we have been fortunate enough, or perhaps wise enough, that we have always lived in a part of the world where these parasites are a mild nuisance, not a plague, so our advice may not be valuable for people who live in southern states or other parasite-friendly climates. Each person needs to reach their own conclusions concerning insecticides, and I am in no way judging anyone else who has come to a different conclusion!

That said, every spring we stock up on our chosen weapons to do battle against these little buggers, and I thought it might be beneficial to some of our readers to share what we have found most effective in case you have not thought of some of these tools.

There is one misconception that I find troubling: many people seem to believe that topical pesticides are essentially unavoidable given the fact that not using them allows for the transmission of lethal diseases and therefore obviously insecticides are a better choice than death, even if they cause some degradation of overall health.  These people (and institutions) simply douse every pet with Frontline, Advantage, Revolution, or a similar product every month because they are afraid that otherwise their animal might get a flea or a tick. In my opinion this is misguided, although it certainly makes the companies selling the products quite happy! The truth is: depending on where you live, there is a chance that your dog might contract from fleas or ticks a disease that might be serious or lethal and using insecticides reduces but does not eliminate the risk of these diseases.

No question, fleas and ticks are undesirable and can carry disease, so I am not suggesting that anyone simply live with them.  I am suggesting that in many parts of the country, topical insecticides can be used far less often or eliminated altogether by using some less harmful tools as a first line of defense. Constantly applying toxins to avoid fleas or ticks is a last resort to be utilized only when less harmful alternatives have failed.

You must balance two unknowns: how much damage will be caused to your animal by administering toxins versus how likely it is that your dog will contract a disease and how damaging that disease will be.  You need to research your region, and your dogs’ lifestyle and make the best possible decision, and you need to refine that decision over time to make sure it remains the healthiest all around solution for your pets.

Here are the main tools we use to keep parasites at bay:

Swimming is great for less traditional pets too!

  • Swimming—there are a few things in life that are genuine wins, and swimming is certainly one of them.  During the warm months, we swim most of our dogs several times a week.  This cools them off, exercises them, and removes the majority of external parasites.  We vary between fresh pond water, salt water, and pool water, but most days we swim some and delight in knowing we are reducing parasites without harming our pets!
  • Borax—another truly wonderful tool.  We sprinkle borax on our floors, let it sit overnight, and vacuum it up, and we do this several times a month.  Borax has very low toxicity to mammals, but is extremely effective at eliminating fleas.
  • Food grade diatomaceous earth—this is sprinkled in the area around our house, and essentially performs the same purpose outside that the borax performs inside.
  • Vacuuming: do not forget this simple piece of the puzzle.  Frequent vacuuming (and either immediate bag disposal or inclusion fo some borax or flea toxin in the bag) can be a hugely effective tool in eliminating fleas.
  • Laundry: wash dog bedding and any other fabrics often.
  • Guinea fowl/peafowl/chickens—these guys all eat ticks, what could be better?  Depending on your circumstances, if you can populate your property with some of these, you can reduce the tick population.
  • Sheep/goats with frontline: these help to eliminate ticks in two ways.  First, by eating down the brush they reduce the appeal of the environment for ticks, and second if you apply a topical insecticide to your livestock, they are out there all day attracting and killing fleas and ticks.
  • Combing—frequent grooming of your pet will not only help eliminate fleas and ticks, it is also essential to your knowing whether or not your tools are succeeding.
  • Bathing—in addition to swimming, the occasional soapy bath obviously helps.
  • Herbal repellents—there are many concoctions of essential oils that can be misted onto your dog before walking through the woods to help discourage ticks.  Some of these seem to be very effective.  Remember that herbal does not mean non-toxic, so research the ingredients and make sure that whatever you are applying is not harmful.
  • Flea traps—commercial flea traps, or a bowl of soap water under a light, are another useful way to eliminate fleas, and also another diagnostic tool that lets you know when fleas have circumvented your control methods.
  • Nematodes—so far we have never needed to add these to our arsenal, but they are certainly a viable option, and some people have reported excellent results. It seems that soil conditions play a significant role in determining nematode efficacy, and I am not nut sure if the nematodes can survive diatomaceous earth.
  • Carpet spray: I try to avoid using pesticides, but in case of a bad infestation where none of the other options are proving effective, spraying a long lasting IGR type spray along baseboards and in other nooks and crannies around the house can be helpful.

If the above are not adequate, there are of course many environmental and topical insecticides that you can use as needed…

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 March 25, 2010  Posted by at 11:46 pm
Dec 242009
 

Titan0480We have been caring for a young Bengal tiger named Titan.  He was 8 weeks old and 15 pounds when he arrived, and around 22 pounds eight days later. He has around 500 pounds still to gain. He is on his way to a new and exciting life, and is here for some additional socialization.  We are quite fortunate to have some wonderful colleagues who sometimes send animals here which allows us to keep learning and experiencing new individuals, and benefits the animals by exposing them to new experiences with trainers who are good at showing them that the world is a wonderful place.  While with us, Titan will get to meet a wide variety of “other” animals and have different experiences.  One aspect of training animals for film is that a wide variety of animals either live here or have visited, so all of our animals are quite welcoming towards visiting creatures.  Last summer we had a baby camel in the kitchen and I opened the door to let the dogs say hello, and they walked right past her as though a camel in the kitchen was utterly expected…

I thought it might be interesting to share a few observations and images of his stay. Of course, this post will be mostly video since I am pretty sure most people would rather watch a tiger than read my observations!

Anytime you are raising an animal that will grow up to be easily capable of killing a human, the question of bite inhibition and boundaries becomes critical.  If you raise a dog or cat that mouths too hard, jumps up, or is a little headstrong, it is not the end of the world.  A lion, tiger, or grizzly that has those traits is very different.  Not only is it dangerous, but it ends up having a much less rich life than it could have because it cannot be safely handled.  At the same time, the process is slightly complicated because they are not domestic and are far less eager to please or willing to concede leadership. This makes for an interesting balance: you want to avoid conflict but at the same time you need situations to Titan0149reinforce that you are the leader.  I find that some people are far too permissive, and the animal learns that they can do whatever they want, and other people are far too proscriptive and the animal is essentially being told “no” all the time.  I really try to set situations up where there are many obvious paths to success, so there are few rules, but then be absolutely clear about those rules. I also start right away by teaching a fun and positive game that is easy and gets a reward—usually put your feet on a mark.  I make this a super fun game, so anytime the animal wants to do something I do not want I can tell him to go to the mark and suddenly he has a clear path to success.

Titan is an absolute gentleman about his bottle.  He is good about keeping his feet on the ground, and if he does put a paw on you he is very gentle and keeps his claws retracted.  At this point he is consuming both milk in a bottle and meat in a bowl. If anyone is curious, the milk is a combination of goats’ milk, Esbilac, vitamins, amino acids, probiotics, etc. And the meat is primarily turkey for now, along with some liver and other organ meats.

It is winter so we did not get to play in the pond, which is too bad since tigers are one of the few cats that enjoy water, and I would really like to play with him in the water… We did play in the bathtub a few times. (Of course the raccoon likes to bob for mussels and carrots in that bathtub, and was not sure a tiger was the best partner for that activity!) We did get a little time outdoors when the weather was reasonably nice:

At first blush, Titan was NOT impressed with the idea of a canine buddy.  He had surprisingly strong prey drive for his age (even for a tiger!), so I decided to start by introducing him to a calm but large dog whom he could not possibly perceive as a snack.  First I played with Titan for a good while so he was not too rambunctious, then I fed him a meal so he was not too hungry or cranky, and then I brought Ansel into the room while Titan was in his crate, and let them sniff for a little while before I opened the crate door.  Titan came out, looked at Ansel, and hissed loudly.  He then lay on his back, but let out a loud staccato roar. Ansel was impressed and left the room… I will not bore you with all the details, but I worked on this for the next couple of days, and now Titan loves all the dogs, including Ansel, and spends several hours a day wrestling and playing with them:

Because it was drizzly outdoors, we spent most of our time indoors, playing, training, eating, napping, working on agility, generally suffering the misery of captivity.  We took Titan as one of the demo animals for a seminar on craniosacral osteopathy which is a great opportunity for socializing, and he played with lots of people and animals:

Titan is on his way now to a new home.  He is a wonderful tiger, and we will miss him greatly.

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 December 24, 2009  Posted by at 7:19 am
Dec 092009
 

sampsonbedToday was one of those days when you try to stay inside.  We mulled cider, finished decorating for Christmas, and played fetch in the living room. When we had to go outside to do chores we bundled up with mittens and hats. This is the first truly cold week of the season at our facility, and it has me thinking, again, about how technology benefits animals.

The most obvious benefit is simple heat—whether a propane heater, a wood stove, a baseboard heater, radiant flooring, or even just a roaring fire, how grateful we all are to be inside and warm. We take the dogs out for exercise several times a day, and they absolutely enjoy it, but after an hour they are back at the front door imploring us to let them get back to their comforters and heaters!

Closely related to warmth is dryness.  Each of our animals has somewhere dry at all times, usually up to their knees in soft dry bedding—woodchips to straw, hog fuel to mattresses, pillows to down comforters.  Even the luckiest wild animals are lying on frozen ground that melts and soaks their fur, leaving them with little protection against the cold ground that sucks the energy out of them.anniebed

Water is perhaps the hardest thing to ensure during the winter.  Trough heaters and constantly running hoses, and we still end up carrying buckets of hot water several times each winter to keep warm water available. In the wild, outside of the fast moving rivers, there is just no water.  The deer are licking a few drops of moisture off rocks, hoping to get enough to stay alive till the next thaw. This is particularly hard for ruminants whose stomachs do not do well with cold water.

Keeping them from slipping is also a challenge.  On icy days we bring everyone inside—in the house or in stalls on rubber mats with bedding.  Every spring, the first time we hike up our creek, we find the bodies of wild animals that tried to get to water and slipped and fell down the steep embankment and lay pitiably for hours with shattered limbs before being eaten or dying.

chirobedI write this article cuddled in my warm bed with dogs and cats while sipping cocoa.  Looking over at Sequel, hogging the down comforter as always, I smile.  Long ago, on a cold night like tonight, his ancestor took the first tentative steps out of the lonely dark to join my ancestor by the fire, and we are both immeasurably thankful. Our animals are all asleep; warm, with blankets and water and full stomachs.  But I look out the window towards the woods and think about the many wild animals suffering.  Some of them will find their way into our home, our pastures, or our vehicles, and some will have the reserves to endure the long bitter winter, but many will simply die—unable to find enough food or water and eventually succumbing to the brutal cold.

I wonder if our animals dream of going to live in the wild, or if the wild animals dream of coming to live with us….

macbed

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 December 9, 2009  Posted by at 8:24 pm
Dec 012009
 

Every conscientious animal lover wrestles with the question: what is the best, happiest, longest, richest life for an animal? Parents, zoos, Disney, rehabilitators, rescue groups, and July09PlaygroundTrip002animal rights organizations have relentlessly asserted that, “Animals belong in the wild; nature is beautiful, peaceful, and good; captivity is bad; if you love animals, leave them alone; animals are happier in the wild than in captivity; animals need freedom to be happy; if an animal ‘must’ be in captivity, the highest goal is to recreate a wild life as faithfully as possible.”

Animal lovers should set aside such propaganda and honestly examine this issue and decide for themselves what is truly best for each animal. While a “natural” existence is one possible life, in many cases humans can provide a better life for an animal in our world than it could enjoy in the wild: not merely an acceptable alternative, but a better life.  Recreating nature should not be our objective: nature is brutal and unforgiving, and most wild animals live harsh, brief lives fraught with danger, hardship, and pain. Long ago man came in from the wild, sacrificing some theoretical freedoms for safety and comfort in a civilized world. Almost immediately, animals began following us, and most animals if given a choice will elect to live with man rather than in the wild.

If a person cannot provide for an animal a life that equals or surpasses the life it would live in the wild, then he should not commit to possessing the animal. The only intrinsic difference between a wild animal and a pet is that the pet has a caring, competent person dedicated to tending to its every need.  Keeping most animals in an authentically “natural” way – even if such a thing were possible – would be neglectful, abusive, and unconscionable. We can and must do better than “the wild.”

Furthermore, because man has overrun the entire planet, “the wild” is essentially a thing of the past, a haunted memory.  There are grievously few authentically wild places left on the globe, and many species are near extinction for the simple reason that there is no wild place left for them to live.

We should carefully study natural existence as a starting point from which we create optimal lives for our pets. We must set aside human preferences and rigorously evaluate every decision from the animal’s perspective.  We may like cleanliness, but pig will rarely prefer a clean enclosure.  We may like bright colors and lights, but many animals do not.  We may like fluffy fabric beds, but furred animals may not care about texture and would prefer a material that is cooler and cannot harbor parasites. We may like the notion of an animal lounging comfortably in an huge meadow, but the animal might prefer to be in a small cave. What is ideal for one animal might be miserable for another. Forget about what you like, or what you think will look good to your friends, and focus on what is truly best for the individual.

Two primary arenas demand our attention in animal care: the physiological and the psychological.

Ensuring excellent physiological care is relatively straightforward: wild animals are inundated with fleas, ticks, intestinal worms, heartworms, flies, mosquitoes, and other parasites from which our pets should be kept free. Wild animals spend much of their life without enough food or water, or drinking brackish filthy water; our pets should have clean, fresh water at all times along with high quality balanced meals and vitamins, supplements, and treats to ensure maximal health. Wild animals are shot, poisoned, leg-trapped, and struck by vehicles. They are under constant stress and are held captive by geographic boundaries or other animals’ ranges. They are hunted and killed by animals of other species and regularly dominated or attacked by members of their own species in territorial or mating disputes; our pets should have ample space without threat of predation or injury and appropriate companionship. Wild animals are uncomfortably cold and wet or hot most of the time; our pets should be kept close to an ideal temperature at all times, and have access to dry clean bedding and shelter. Wild animals are unvaccinated against even the most common diseases and their injuries and illnesses go untreated and are often agonizing and eventually fatal; our pets should be given excellent preventive care, any injury treated immediately, any pain carefully managed, and as appropriate they should receive massage, chiropractic adjustments, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc. Our pets should receive well-planned exercise and regular grooming. Consequently they live an average of two to three times longer than their wild counterparts, and for much more of their lives they should be healthy, robust, and comfortable.IMG_2049

For some animals, particularly some fish, reptiles, and amphibians, meeting all of their physiological requirements may suffice to ensure an excellent life, but for many animals it is every bit as important to consider their psychological welfare. Our pets’ psychological needs are often subtle, and meeting them requires thought and careful observation. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting an excellent wolf facility with fabulous enclosures: acre upon acre of beautiful and natural space, regular natural food, wolves in pairs with virtually all of their requirements met.  They were free to lounge where they wanted, had virtually no demands made upon them, and had hardly any stress in their lives.  At first blush, it seemed excellent.  Yet I found myself feeling profoundly sad as I walked around and looked at the animals. They had not found a home in man’s world; they were captive wild animals, caught between two worlds, living in extremely nice cages. Our host carefully explained that these were not pets, but I found myself wondering, “Why not?”  Why not welcome them into our world and cherish them and give them the very best of both worlds? Their lives seemed empty: comfortable and safe, but with little purpose, little joy. (I was only there for a few minutes, and they may have great lives at other times; I am not commenting on their existence, only on my “feelings…”)

Driving home, I thought at length about why those animals’ lives did not seem rich to me, and I kept returning to the same notion: for millennia, canids have spent much of their time struggling: hunting, searching for water, digging a den, trying to cross a river, courting a mate. Their bodies, their minds, their endocrine systems, even their “spirits,” have evolved in the fire of struggle, and their health, fitness, and happiness are all linked to meeting and overcoming challenges.

When we take care of an animal, we remove danger and challenge in its life, but in doing so we risk removing most of the joy that comes from accomplishment.  This may sound a little anthropomorphic—that animals would share our sense of joy at having achieved goals. But if you carefully observe an animal for a protracted period, it seems clear that they relish accomplishment.  Solving a puzzle to get food, chewing through something large, dragging a log up a bank, catching a fly, digging a hole, winning a wrestling match – these are favorite activities of most canids. If you have ever watched a goat or a squirrel eating, you may have observed that they will often forgo easy food in preference for identical food that is more challenging to acquire.

Truly excellent animal care balances comfort and safety with challenges, obstacles, and activities that fulfill the animal’s nature, preclude boredom, promote exercise, and develop confidence. Be creative, and think about what would genuinely stimulate your animal.

Here are a few suggestions. Not all of them will fit your circumstances, but hopefully they will get you thinking about how to enrich your animal’s life:

First, some general concepts to remember:

  • Safety: observe anything you give and make sure it is safe and does not overly stress your animal. Anticipate any way he could ingest, get stuck, fall, etc.
  • Change: anything new and different is enriching.
  • Response contingency: one of the best things your animal can learn is that he can influence the environment to cause a desired outcome. This decreases stress and increases learning in new situations as well as decreasing boredom!
  • Stress: too much stress can be bad, but that does not mean all stress is. Fear and stress at reasonable levels are natural and healthy.
  • Problem solving: many of these ideas are based on this notion.  Create a problem and a motivation to solve that problem, and you have enriched their day.
  • Physical challenges: resist the temptation to make life as easy as possible. The point here is to make things challenging.
  • Learning: grasping new concepts and new games, remembering tricks and outcomes, these actually develop new neural paths. This not only increases your animal’s knowledge, it increases his confidence and willingness to try new things and his capacity to experience the world.
  • Habit forming: everything you do is teaching habits and reinforcing behaviors, so consider what you are training with any new activity.

And here are some specific suggestions:

  • Training, Training, Training!!  You teaching new behaviors is the single greatest source of novelty!  Not just obedience, try freestyle or teach a few tricks.
  • Play.  Remember, play is a great stress reliever, so spend time each day consciously playing with your animal. Wrestle, play chase, etc.  If appropriate and safe, also let them play with other animals of their own and other species.
  • Varied feeding times, locations, and quantities.  Searching for and securing food is one of the primary activities of any wild canid. It is a good thing if your animal is hungry sometimes!
  • Kong stuffed with treats. (Stick a Nylabone in the end to make it last longer)
  • A fountain that sprays for five minute after animal presses a large button.July09PlaygroundTrip105
  • Chicken broth giant ice cubes–these can be given to the animal, or hung so they drip all day.
  • Buster cube or any object with food that comes out a hole.
  • Large hard Plaque attacker. (observe for the first few days make sure no large pieces are being removed and eaten)
  • New locations: rotate their enclosure, build separate play yards they can go into, take them to new places—beach, mall, mountains, car rides, etc.
  • Hanging tire.
  • Tug toy from a rope attached up high to a rubber spring or you play tug with them yourself.
  • Knuckle bones.
  • Wobble board or large ball on which you teach the animal to balance. (Great for proprioception)
  • Treadmill or underwater treadmill.
  • Loose crickets, mice, or rats. (assuming your stomach and ethics do not object)
  • Feeder fish in pool. (assuming your stomach and ethics do not object)
  • Container that has food inside.
  • Different surfaces– bark, sand, rock, grass, astro-turf, metal, tile, plastic, etc.
  • Button to press that plays a song.
  • An endless pool.
  • A wind chime hung high.
  • Some little mirrors or a disco-ball hung high that will make lights move around as they blow in the wind.
  • Tunnel.
  • A sprinkler or other water-spraying device, especially if the water moves.
  • Hang food where they cannot get to it, and give them a platform they can drag and climb on to get the food.  It is even ok if sometimes they cannot succeed. Failure and hunger are parts of a full life too.
  • Sounds– sometimes play stereo or TV, sometimes sounds of nature or dog shows.  Make a loud noise, put food next to it, and let them spend the day working up the courage to get near it.
  • Smells– sometimes spray a new cologne at the base of a tree or other object. Place in their pen a blanket from another animal.
  • Set up an aromatherapy infuser.
  • Water in which to play.
  • Visual barriers.
  • Boomer balls.Annie9weeksold128
  • An animal in an adjacent enclosure.
  • A slide with treats at the top.
  • A hole to dig in.
  • Nylabones slathered in cream cheese.
  • Do not feed in the morning and hide food around enclosure. (bury some and put some up high, etc.)
  • New foods- broccoli, bananas, beef, even hot peppers or other things they may dislike.
  • Big branches or old dead tree.
  • Beam or plank on which to walk.
  • Device that blows bubbles.
  • Massage or T-touch.
  • Big wooden box with various openings leading to food–some should have screw on lids, others sliding lids, others the food should be out of reach, etc.
  • Buy or build toys with sliding doors that have to be moved to get to food. (Like tic tac toe)
  • Build device that requires several steps to get food– pull one lever than go to other side of run and pull another and get treat.
  • Vertical levels– build platforms at different heights and with ramps and steps, hammocks, etc.
  • CHANGE– move stuff around, add stuff, take things out, etc.

Caring for any pet is a profound responsibility.  We must constantly, objectively, and without ego, defensiveness, or self-interest, examine the lives we provide for our animals.  We need to look at the whole picture and question whether the job we are doing is sufficient.  At the end of each day we need to evaluate that day from our animal’s perspective: Was it perfect?  Was it good enough?  Can I do better tomorrow? Did they get enough attention, ideal nutrition, optimal exercise? Were they lonely or bored?  Were their brains and hearts engaged?  Were they comfortable? Was their day better than it would have been in the wild?

Ask friends with differing experience and perspectives to visit your home and provide input on any areas in which your animals’ lives could be improved, and be open to their suggestions.

Some animals live in the wild. Nature and chance dictate the quality and duration of their lives.  Other animals live with us, filling our lives with wonder and joy, and it falls to us to ensure that those animals have lives that are not only safer, more comfortable and longer than they would be in the wild, but also richer and fuller.

July09PlaygroundTrip234

Note: As published in “Wolfdogs” magazine.

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 December 1, 2009  Posted by at 7:54 am