Archive for January, 2008

It Takes a Village (to save us from idiots)

Last night two dogs jumped a fence to get into a Minneapolis couple’s backyard and kill their Pomeranian. Local news reports have covered several attacks on dogs and people in recent months and the city council is preparing to approve more stringent laws relating to dog ownership.

“It comes back to personal responsibility and community involvement, with the idea that people need to be responsible for their animals, and people need to call us if we see that responsibility not being met,” explained Dan Niziolek, manager of Minneapolis Animal Care and Control.

While a recently strengthened ordinance resulted in a significant increase in fines, dangerous dog designations, and the number of animals put down, Niziolek says ‘everyone’ needs to stay vigilant. “We can’t be everywhere, we’re dependant on people, if they see problematic situations, that we know about them. If they see at large, aggressive dogs that we are made aware of it,” he said.

It takes a village to prevent dog attacks. Despite leash laws, dangerous dog laws, license laws and dog limits – dogs at large continue to be a problem in urban and rural areas across the country. Passing additional laws related to dog ownership isn’t going to fix the problem.  It’s not going to go away until people take responsibility for their dogs.  And irresponsible dog owners aren’t going to do this until some combination of peer pressure and law enforcement forces them to do so. 

Peer pressure is defined as the cultural forces that drive people to adopt modes of behavior, dress, or attitudes to be accepted as part of a larger group. Despite the strong negative connotations associated with the term, peer pressure is part of the glue that holds a culture together.

We live in a world where, for the most part, dogs are seen as fashion statements or ways to express our individuality rather than as the working partners they evolved to be. This leads to a host of problem owners who either don’t care or in denial when it comes to their dogs’ behavior. If we don’t act soon to rein this irresponsible behavior in, responsible dog owners are going to lose more of our rights. 

And that’s just wrong. Its time to change the way our culture sees dogs. Fur-kids, fashion accessories and macho emblems need to be transformed to partnerships based on communication (i.e. training) and responsiblity. If we don’t accept the responsibilities inherent in dog ownership, we’re going to lose our rights.

If you see a dog roaming off leash by itself, call the authorities. A dog roaming loose is probably more danger to himself than he is to anyone else.  A responsible owner should be grateful that you helped return their pet to them. 

If your neighbor has a problem dog, talk to him about it. Doing this without alienating him can be difficult. It is usually best to approach the situation with a mixture of kindness and firmness. If you are rude or angry, you make it easier for him to ignore you.  If you’re tentative or deferential, he won’t take you seriously.

If you come across an irresponsible dog owner on a walk (not picking up after his dog, allowing his dog to lunge at other dogs or people, allowing the dog to eliminate indiscriminately, letting a disobedient dog run loose), look for a polite way to point out why this might be a problem.

–When I see someone walk away from a mess their dog just made, I like to run up to them with a bag in my hand and a smile on my face to ask “You must have forgotten your bags, here’s one of mine.”  Most times the person looks a bit sheepish then uses my bag to pick up his dog’s mess. My goal in doing this is not only to get the person to think about his behavior but also to make him realize that other people see his actions and judge them.

 If you, a member of your family or your dog are attacked and bitten by a dog – report it to the authorities.  If your state has a dangerous dog law, follow up with authorities after the attack to make sure that the dog’s owner complies with the requirements of that law. Most serious attacks that occur are perpetrated by repeat offenders.

If you have a dog license it, train it and supervise its behavior in public. Don’t let it bark incessantly, don’t let it fight the neighbor’s dog through the fence and for doG’s sake, pick up its poop. 

It takes a village – and this village certainly doesn’t need any more idiots.

January 31, 2008 at 1:10 am 1 comment

The Jamaica Dogsled Team

In another nod to the effects of global warming, dogsled racers are turning to new styles of racing because of the lack of snow in many parts of the country.  Rig racing, canicross, dog scootering and bikejoring events can be run in areas where there is no snow at all.

So it shouldn’t be a great surprise that one of the teams competing in events across the United States and Canada this year comes from Jamaica.  Featured in the documentary “Sun Dogs”, the Jamaica Dogsled Team is made up of twelve stray mutts rescued from the streets and shelter of Kingston Jamaica.  Danny Melville, the chairman and CEO of Chukka Adventures started the team in 2005.

According to promotional material on their website, the “Sun Dogs” DVD includes four mini-documentaries: “Jimmy Buffett and the Jamaica Dogsled Team;” “How to Teach Your Dog to Pull in Harness;” “The Jamaica Dogsled Team Taking on the World;” “The Work of the JSPCA;” and “Dog-ography: Meet the Mutts.” The documentary was filmed in Jamaica, Scotland and Minnesota.

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The team, led by mushers Damion Robb, Devon Anderson and Oswald “Newton” Marshall, has competed in several major events where they have finished as high as second place. This year they are attempting to qualify for the 2008 Yukon Quest International – a harrowing 1000 mile mountain race.

To purchase the documentary or other nifty Jamaica Dogsled gear; check out the teams racing schedule or find out more about the Team visit their website at www.jamaicadogsled.com. A portion of the sales proceeds go to the Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

There’s a lot of interesting information on the website, including a short history of the sport of sled dog racing. Kudos to this group not only for taking in a pack of stray mutts and turning them into a competitive dog sled team, but also for promoting the plight of stray dogs without falling into the animal rights movement’s party line of bashing the sport.

January 30, 2008 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

Natural Security vs National Security

“A new book due to come out shortly caught my eye today. Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, is the result of more than two years of investigation and debate by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and security experts lead by Duke University’s Raphael Sagarin and international security expert Terence Taylor. 

The book explores the myriad ways that biological organisms have found to protect themselves from the threats posed by predators, disease, and other dangers in the environment.  “Arms races among invertebrates, intelligence gathering by the immune system and alarm calls by marmots are just a few of nature’s successful security strategies that have been tested and modified over time in response to changing threats and situations,” Sagarin said. “In our book, we look at these strategies and ask how we could apply them to our own safety.”

According to early reviews the book explores how evolutionary models and ideas can be applied to threats ranging from terrorism to natural disasters and the spread of disease.

It sounds like a fascinating premise and I look forward to reading the book.  I think that the current popularity of popular books on cross-disciplinary studies is a wonderful thing. My bookshelves are full of books like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked; Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and more.  

We’ve reached a wonderful point in world culture where the proliferation of new knowledge and ideas combined with the searchability and availability of information are coming together in an absolutely wonderful way. Not only are we discovering more pieces of information every day, we also have a much better ability to see how they fit together. 

And the fit is often surprising.

A report last year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed what most Americans already suspected. Despite heightened awareness and tightened restrictions, “the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cannot possibly control all potential threats to airport security. According to Raphael Sagarin “Biological organisms inherently understand this. They realize they can’t eliminate all risk in their environment. They have to identify and respond to only the most serious threats, or they end up wasting their resources and, ultimately, failing the evolutionary game.

Here’s the important thing folks, right from the expert – Mother Nature.  It is impossible to eliminate risk.

So why is our society so obsessed with doing just that? From soccer moms to news reporters and trial attorneys, eliminating (not minimizing) risk is the key issue in modern life. We worry that satellites will fall on our heads, pit bulls will attack us or that we’ll die of bird flu –  when it is far more likely that we’ll die on the toilet, be killed by a loved one or succumb to a common flu virus (even though statistics say that the latter three are much more likely than the first). The unknown scares us. This is an evolutionary advantage, or at least it used to be.  But that fear of the unknown is an ancient piece of our psyches that we focus too much on today, largely because politicians and the media find it convenient to hype issues that focus on fear rather than facts.H. L. Mencken had it right when he said that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”There’s a great quote in this new book that hits this issue head on: “Whether you’re dealing with al Qaeda or an emerging pathogen, studying animal behavior teaches us basic principles of survival,” Sagarin said. “You can’t eliminate all risks, so you have to focus on the big ones, while adapting to minimize risk from the rest. You have to be aware of your environment, understanding that it’s constantly in flux. And when it comes to adapting and responding to threats, a centralized authority can get in the way. Individual units that sense the environment, with minimal central control, work best.” Are we the enemy, or is the enemy a government and media that control us by playing on our fears?

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January 29, 2008 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

“He Just Attacked Out of Nowhere!”

As a dog trainer I’m frequently called on to help people deal with aggressive dogs.  It is some of the most difficult, rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking, work I do.  Dogs evolved to be our companions in life – but they can also be very dangerous. 

If you have an aggressive dog in your home, do not try to fix the problem yourself.  Dogs can be very dangerous, even small dogs. Earlier this month a 6-month old child in Lexington, Kentucky was killed by a Jack Russell Terrier.

Don’t risk your life, or worse yet, a child’s life, by ignoring aggressive behavior or trying to trying to fix it on your own. And don’t make the dog someone else’s problem by dumping it with a rescue group without telling them the real reason you are getting rid of him To fix a problem like this you need to hire a dog trainer who has experience working with aggression.  We suggest you look for one who is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals or the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors.

Aggression is part of animal life and although there are many ways that animals express aggression, some features are common to most aggressive actions.  One of these is escalation.  Aggressive encounters usually start with a low risk, low intensity exchange of aggressive displays.  If these initial displays don’t end the encounter, increasingly intense – and progressively more dangerous – patterns of behavior follow.  If neither animal backs off, the encounter will eventually end with the most potentially damaging behaviors the animals are capable of.  This progressive increase in the intensity of aggressive behavior is called escalation.

Emotional aggression arises from impulsive actions and is therefore less affected by weighing risk against reward than resource-based aggression is.  Because of this, emotional aggression tends to escalate far more quickly.  A dog that is reacting out of fear, frustration or other emotional triggers will typically escalate more quickly than one who is calmly defending his territory. 

Dogs are masters at emitting and reading subtle contextual cues; most people are not.  The first signals a dog emits when he is aroused are usually very subtle and can therefore be missed by an inexperienced or inattentive person (or dog). When those initial, subtle signals are not acknowledged, the dog’s actions will escalate, especially if he is emotionally aroused.  I believe that this is why many people describe aggressive encounters with dogs as occurring without warning.  The warning was there, but it was so subtle that the person missed it. 

Escalation is a vital factor in canine aggression. The first step to curing problem aggression is being able to recognize key signals the dog exhibits early in the process. If we interrupt the dog at an early stage in arousal, it is usually easy to redirect him to more appropriate behavior. But if the dog has escalated to an overt threat stage by the time we try to intervene, we are far less likely to be successful – and far more likely to be bitten. 

Another key factor to keep in mind when you are faced with an aggressive dog is changes in rates of behavior.  When most people observe an aggressive dog, they look for specific reactions and postures (growling, bared teeth, stiff movement, etc.). These changes of the dog’s outward state are important, but we should also look for changes in rates of behaviors.  Escalation to the next level of aggression is often indicated by changes in rate of behaviors like pacing, panting, blinking, wagging, or other repetitive actions. For example, you may see a dog suddenly start to pace more quickly right before he moves into the next, more intense stage of aggression. 

When you observe a change in the rate of an action like pacing in an aroused dog, make a mental note of the postures, expressions and movements the dog displayed right before the change occurred. Some of these are likely subtle signals of aggression that you’ve missed in the past.  If the dog is still in an early stage in the process, it may be possible to divert his attention and redirect his behavior to another outlet.  If he is strongly aroused, there is more warning to avoid additional conflict or injury.

It is also important to realize that arousal happens quickly and calming down takes time.  Aggressive reactions are physiological, not just psychological, reactions.  Changes like increased respiration, heart rate, elevated adrenaline levels and other factors take more time to abate than they do to begin. To prevent an aroused dog from re-escalating, you should take him away from the source of his arousal and give him a chance to calm down. 

And remember – UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERIENCED, PROFESSIONAL DOG TRAINER – do NOT try to work with an aggressive dog yourself.  This article is purely informative.  It is not intended as a guide to working with aggressive dogs.

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Links to three photos illustrating increasing levels of aggressive display.  In the first, Zorro is giving subtle signals (intent gaze, head positioned over Audie, tight lips) to young Audie to back off.  The second photo shows Zip intent on taking a toy from Audie.  The intense stare, prominent whites of her eyes, open mouth and ears aimed forward indicate she is in a higher state of arousal than Zorro was.  The third photo shows Aussie Roo (RIP) telling three much larger dogs to back off in no uncertain terms.  The completely bared teeth, tight forward-pressed lips, wide open (almost bulging) eyes and stiff forward posture are warning them that her next step will be to bite.

January 28, 2008 at 5:59 am 4 comments

Winter Fitness For Dogs

Here in Minnesota, unless you’re a musher, winter is probably not your favorite season spend time outdoors exercising with your dog.  Snow, ice and below zero temperatures can dampen the enthusiasm of even the most dedicated dog owner. 

But your dog still needs exercise – and so do you.

Yoga, spinning and swim aerobics are fine for humans; but how should we exercise our dogs when the thermometer bottoms out?  

Be creative.  Long walks and fetch games are great when the weather is good.  When its not consider taking part in some alternative activities with your dog.  Hills nutrition recently publicized their PetFitTM program.  The information on their website includes streaming video of physical trainer Gunnar Peterson coaching you on several conditioning exercises you can practice with your dog.  Its great information – and its free!

The website also provides information on healthy lifestyle habits and weight management.  I admit that I’m not a fan of Hill’s Science Diet pet foods, but the information they present in this program is good stuff.  The only problem with it is that, unless you have an enormous, empty house (or a convenient heated training building), you’ll find that most of the PetFitTM program is best suited to outdoor activities.

If you’re interested in an indoor exercise program and don’t mind spending a few dollars, Christine Zink and Laurie McCauley (who are both DVMs) have an excellent video called “Building the Canine Athlete”.  All of the exercises presented in the video are suitable for indoor work and many of them can even be done from a wheelchair.  The video is available from our friends at Tawzer Dog Videos.

If you’d like to learn more about physical training for your canine partner, Tawzer has other videos by Dr. Zink as well as one from Dr. Pat Perkins, who provides helpful information on chiropractic, acupuncture and pre-performance stretching in a full day video presentation.

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The Kids – Audie and Zip, working out at the training center.

January 26, 2008 at 12:32 am 1 comment

Weather Report

The batteries in the outdoor transmitter for my weather station quit functioning at 10 o’clock last night shortly after it registered a temperature of -10 oF.  Zorro woke me up at 5 this morning and managed to convince me that he really did need to go out and pee.  While we were out I checked the thermometer at the training center and it read -21 oF.  We’ve had more cold weather (i.e. below zero) this year than we’ve seen in a while.  Rumor has it that we’ll see much warmer temperatures for the rest of the week, so I’d like to celebrate what I hope is the worst of the cold with this bit of below zero trivia:

  • Packed snow begins to squeak underfoot at about 5° F. At about -5° F, it squeaks with a distinct hollow sound.
  • At below zero temperatures the air is condensed and sounds are amplified.  This makes them carry farther than they normally do.  Last night I could hear my neighbor – a quarter mile away across the creek and through dense hardwood forest – softly talking to his dogs as they took their last break of the evening.
  • When temperatures fall below zero, the inside of your nose freezes as you breathe in.  If its not too far below zero, it thaws again as you exhale.  The resulting feeling is oddly invigorating.
  • Cold sinks. The dogs and I walked two hundred yards down to the creek last night (about an 80 foot drop in elevation).  It was quite noticeably colder there, maybe partly due to the fact that that part of the creek sits in a small, confined hollow surrounded by hills on all sides.
  • Batteries are affected by cold.  According to information provided by AAA, at -20° F, battery power is reduced by 50%.  This explains why my weather station quit working.
  • Once temperatures drop below 10° F, road salt doesn’t work.  If icing is a problem, MinnDOT adds calcium chloride or beet juice to the salt.  Those mixtures quit working at temperatures of 10 to 15 below zero.  We avoid this problem in our long driveway by using sand or ash spread on top of the snow to add traction.  They work at any temperature.
  • Ice fog forms when air temperatures drop into the double digit below zero range.  The air is so cold that any vapor present condenses almost immediately.  Ice fog is most common in and around urban areas where moisture from heating systems, auto exhaust and breath provide moisture.  We’re in a rural area a few miles outside a small town.  We don’t see it much here.

January 24, 2008 at 5:40 pm Leave a comment

Foreclosures a Threat to Pets – or Donations?

Bankruptcy and foreclosure rates are up across the country.  The number of homes in the U.S. that are in some stage of foreclosure in 2007 is more than twice the number seen last year according to RealtyTrac, a company that tracks mortgage data.

According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, in recent months authorities around the country have reported numerous findings of cats, dogs, birds, horses and other animals at foreclosed houses and farms.  

With this potentially high profile issue in mind, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) issued a public statement this month that it’s “worried about the situation.” 

HSUS must be worried that with increasing bankruptcy rates, donations will be down this year. They’re certainly not worried about the pets or pet owners affected by the situation. Here’s a quote from Wayne Pacelle, President of HSUS: “One generation and out. We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding.” 

We got this from the folks at Activist Cash: 

Despite the words “humane society” on its letterhead, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is not affiliated with your local animal shelter. Despite the omnipresent dogs and cats in its fundraising materials, it’s not an organization that runs spay/neuter programs or takes in stray, neglected, and abused pets. And despite the common image of animal protection agencies as cash-strapped organizations dedicated to animal welfare, HSUS has become the wealthiest animal rights organization on earth.

HSUS is big, rich, and powerful, a “humane society” in name only. And while most local animal shelters are under-funded and unsung, HSUS has accumulated $113 million in assets and built a recognizable brand by capitalizing on the confusion its very name provokes. This misdirection results in an irony of which most animal lovers are unaware: HSUS raises enough money to finance animal shelters in every single state, with money to spare, yet it doesn’t operate a single one anywhere.

Yes, the HSUS, is not, despite what you might think, in the business of operating animal shelters.  This multi-million dollar organization spends much of its vast amounts of cash on warm, fuzzy, heart-rending ads encouraging you to give them even more money.  They spend the rest on political lobbying efforts to pass state, local and federal laws that would force us all to be non-pet owning vegans.

January 24, 2008 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

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