BSL is Bullshit

If there were fewer humans in the world, there would consequently be fewer opportunities for vicious attacks by humans; terrorism, murder, whatever.  Right?  So the solution is that we should castrate people we deem will be bad parents; or, perhaps, the mentally ill.  Good thing I don’t want children to begin with.

I mean, you can’t fault the logic.  It’s definitely true.  But does that make it reasonable?

In Canadian legislation, apparently the answer is yes.

Wait, let’s back up and swap some words.

“[T]here are now fewer pit bulls in Ontario and, consequently, fewer opportunities for a vicious attack by a pit bull.”

That is a direct quote, in a personal email to me from Premier Kathleen Wynne, when I emailed her asking her about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and the Dog Owners Liability Act (DOLA).

Anecdotally, in my work with dogs, I have only been seriously bitten once.  It was my own fault, and also, not a pit bull.  The most recent dog bite to someone I know personally was a pug, not a pit bull.

Wait, let’s back up again.  What is a pit bull?

Yeah — I’ll let you know now: “Wait, back up, what?” is going to happen a lot in the post.  Want to know why?  Because BSL is confusing, and doesn’t make any sense.

“pit bull” includes,

(a) a pit bull terrier,

(b) a Staffordshire bull terrier,

(c) an American Staffordshire terrier,

(d) an American pit bull terrier,

(e) a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of clauses (a) to (d); (“pit-bull”)

– from the Dog Owners’ Liability Act (DOLA), Ontario

Let’s play a game, called “guess who is a pit bull?” — I’m going to post a few photos, you tell me if you think pit bull or not pit bull:

Onus of proof, pit bulls
(10) If it is alleged in any proceeding under this section that a dog is a pit bull, the onus of proving that the dog is not a pit bull lies on the owner of the dog. 2005, c. 2, s. 1 (13). – DOLA,  Ontario

“I can’t think of a single law that is based on DNA testing and there are some very interesting reason for that.  One of those reasons is cost.  At about $80 a pop, it would cost Prince George’s County, Maryland, about $75,000 ANNUALLY just to do the genetic testing.  I think the second reason is more interesting—it’s specifically noted in the terms and conditions of the DNA testing company that it’s NOT to be used for that exact purpose.”, says Adrianne Lefkowitz, of the Maryland Dog Federation

“Maybe,” I thought, while working on research for this article, “there is something I don’t know here.  Maybe BSL is working in some way I am unaware of.”  I decided to ask around to experts in various fields in animal welfare.

I reached out to Bruce Rooney, Executive Director of the Ottawa Humane Society, to ask him what he thought about the subject.  “The OHS does not support BSL.  We think it is ineffective and unfair – as it targets breeds rather than individual dogs which may be problematic.”

But hang on; Kathleen Wynne told me that “Ontario sets high standards for responsible dog ownership to keep families safe and secure.”

And yet, Bruce Rooney claims, “It was mainly a Toronto problem that this government imposed on the whole province. They made no provision for enforcement.  The City of Ottawa has indicated that they are not enforcing it, unless the dog poses a risk to the community.” [emphasis is my own]

BSL
A rescue I met at the Doberman Rescue fundraiser with an anti-BSL group; she was apparently rescued from a crack house. She loves to swim.

Let me tell you this – again, this one is anecdotal: I know multiple “pit bulls”, be it American Pit Bull Terriers, English Bull Terriers (who seem like a legal gray area), and Staffordshire Terriers.  They are definitely pit bulls, born and bred.  Their vet paperwork?  It does not say pit bull on it.  Because vets know that BSL is bullshit, so they lie.  I have met so many “wink wink boxer lab” mixes.

BSL is an ethical failure. BSL is a public safety failure. – http://stopbsl.org/

The American Temperament Test Society, Inc. have thousands of dogs temperament tested.  Some statistics that illuminate how unfair the pit bull ban is:

  • American Pit Bull Terrier: out of 870 tested, 86.8% passed the test
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier: out of 129 tested, 90.7% passed the test

But, ruh roh –

  • Shetland Sheepdog: out of 502 tested, 68.3% passed the test
  • Pembrooke Welsh Corgi: out of 207 tested, 78.7% passed the test

Where is the Corgi ban?!

Failure on any part of the test is recognized when a dog shows:

  • Unprovoked aggression
  • Panic without recovery
  • Strong avoidance
I'm going to attack you... just as soon as I am done napping.
I’m going to attack you… just as soon as I am done napping.

It is shockingly apparent, a decade into BSL in Ontario, that it isn’t working.  And everyone knows it isn’t working.  In fact, regardless of BSL (as it wasn’t a banned breed), I reported my dog bite to Toronto Animal Services, and nothing happened.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) - Toronto Humane Society
Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) – Toronto Humane Society

If BSL isn’t the solution, what is?

“The solution – if a “solution” is required – is to focus on individual dogs that are a risk – stiff fines, temperament testing, muzzle-orders,  and to educate children about being around dogs, and what to do if they feel threatened.”, says Bruce Rooney, of the OHS.

Given all of this, why has BSL not been repealed?

“Politicians do not want to look like they are soft on crime or public safety. When it comes to BSL that is already in place, it is much easier for a politician to do nothing than to repeal.”, states Adrianne Lefkowitz.

Me being smothered in kisses by Scarlett, a pit bull belonging to a classmate of mine from KPA
Me being smothered in kisses by Scarlett, a pit bull belonging to a classmate of mine from KPA

What can we do to get BSL repealed?

A photo posted by Verena Schleich (@odditvees) on

  • And, you can spread the word.  Let people know that BSL doesn’t work, isn’t fair, and that pit bulls are adorable and lovable.  (Okay, okay.  That last is just my opinion.  But that doesn’t make it wrong!)

An Open Letter to National Geographic

natgeo

I grew up loving National Geographic; back then, a magazine, not a TV channel.  As kids, we got the National Geographic Kids magazine every month – my grandma always got us a subscription.  As I got older, I got into the adult magazines – half thanks to my lifelong obsession with animals, and half because a little part of me always thought I’d grow up to be Indiana Jones (I still haven’t lost hope entirely on that one, though nearing thirty maybe I need to get a bit realistic…)

When I became an adult, still with my passion for animals and adventure, and with a love of writing, I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, with the goal of writing for National Geographic – I envisioned myself in the rain forest, or war torn areas, or even the arctic.  I even collected old copies of National Geographic – in fact, I’m pretty sure in my dad’s basement somewhere we still have some magazines from the 1800s that I found at a used book sale one time.

All of this to say that those magazines meant a lot to me – they allowed my adventurous, nerd self to thrive; they opened my eyes to creatures I’d never heard of and  cultures I’d never experience.  And, they were always scientifically interesting and factual.

Then I grew up, and became a dog trainer.  Have you guessed yet where I’m going with this?

Cesar Millan. (Photo credit: National Geographic Channels / Evelyn Hockstein)
Cesar Millan. (Photo credit: National Geographic Channels / Evelyn Hockstein)

You know who that guy is, right?  Probably the most famous dog trainer there is – the one and only Cesar Millan.  TV star of Leader of the Pack, Dog Whisperer, and Cesar911, Cesar takes on “red zone” (read: behavioural issues) dogs and fixes them.  On TV!

Here’s the thing: I get it.  Really.  I am sure his show makes a ton of money, and let’s face it: thrashing, snarling, snapping dogs make great TV.  But a trainer who makes dogs thrash, snarl, and snap does not make a good trainer.

What I do, on the other hand?  If I’m working on behaviour modification with a dog who is dog reactive, and I’m doing my job well, there won’t be a single bark or growl in a training session.  And let’s face it: that doesn’t make good TV.

What Cesar does essentially, is constantly put dogs over threshold.  He deliberately forces dogs into situations that they are uncomfortable with.  His theory, I think, is that it forces the dogs to work through their issues.  The reality is that, when a dog is over threshold, the dog isn’t in a headspace where they are able to learn.  Let’s use the analogy of someone who is scared of swimming – a good trainer might get the person comfortable around the pool, then with their feet in the pool, then in the shallow end, etc.  Cesar would throw them in the deep and hold them there until they stop fighting.  Would that make you less scared of swimming?  Or more?  But again, if it were on TV, which is more exciting?  Someone thrashing and crying in the deep end, or someone sipping a cocktail with their feet in the water?

In my view, if I threw someone in the deep and held them down, I am traumatizing that person, and likely making their fear worse, not better.

Let’s talk about dog behaviour for a second.  If my dog is scared or nervous, they’re going to try to communicate that to me.  The first ways as subtle; whale eyes, or displacement behaviours – that is to say, my dog doing a normal behaviour (yawning, shaking off) when there is no reason to (they aren’t tired, aren’t wet).  If that doesn’t fix the situation, they’ll perhaps avoid eye contact, or back away from whatever is scaring them.  If I still don’t remove them from the situation, they may try to communicate their fear by growling and showing teeth, and if that doesn’t work, they may air snap.  If that still doesn’t work, they will resort to biting.

So let’s imagine I am walking down the street with a dog, and another dog is coming toward us, and my dog is scared of other dogs.  My dog freezes and tries to back away.  If I allow us to back away, my dog learns “good, mom understands when I am communicating that I’m uncomfortable.”  If I keep trying to drag her toward the other dog, she will think, “Hm, backing away isn’t getting my point across.  How can I be more clear?”, and perhaps she’ll growl.  Now here’s a problem: next time we encounter that same situation, my dog will skip the backing away step.  She has learned that that doesn’t work, so she’ll jump straight to growling, and escalate from there.

Let’s watch a video together:

Do you catch it?  Those first few subtle cues that this is too much for this dog?  The pinned ears back, and the tightening of the lips?  That is a dog who is trying to communicate I don’t like this and instead of saying understood, let’s make this easier for you, Cesar keeps pushing.  Even still, the dog doesn’t bite yet.  She backs away, snarls, air snaps and shows teeth – still, not clear enough for Cesar, so he keeps going.  Ultimately, the dog resorts to biting.  And what does Cesar say?

“I didn’t see that coming.”

Really?  Because I did.  About a mile away.  And if I were that owner?  I’d be livid.  Here you are, claiming to be an expert, and you pushed my dog to bite – which shows extreme stress in my dog (bad) and makes her more likely to bite again (also bad).

And then Cesar clings to the idea of making this dog submissive; he is alpha, and he is dominant.  The problem? That’s not a real thing.

Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. -Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC

And a dog, like the one in the above clip, backed into a corner by a scary man?  She has no “flight” option, so she has to fight.  And when she does fight and he hits her?  And she backs away, stressed and panting?  Welcome to a concept called Learned Helplessness.  It isn’t a good thing.

When we engage in such behaviors toward our dogs, we are not telling the dog we are “boss,” instead we are telling the dog we are dangerous creatures to be avoided or fought off. There is no “dominance” in these scenarios—only terror and the instinct to defend oneself against attack. – APDT

Alright, I fell down the rabbit hole of dog behaviour and training for a second there, so let’s get back on track: National Geographic.

I get that it is good TV.  I get that it is profitable.

But given that the RSPCA has deemed his methods cruel, despite the fact that we have scientific proof that his methods are ineffective and unscientific, given that he has been sued multiple times, why is National Geographic still airing his show?  Dog training may not be a regulated industry here, but if it were, Cesar would not be qualified. Because it is a regulated industry in Germany, and he failed their test.Why has National Geographic not cut ties with him?  Is it ethical that they, typically viewed at scientific and educational, are putting this shit out there for the whole world to see?

I expected better of them.  I think a lot of us did.

Jump to 3:35 in this video regarding the RSPCA and Cesar’s methods.

So, come on National Geographic.  Live up to your 128 year reputation to “inspire, illuminate, teach”; because you do those things.  I am living proof.  But Cesar isn’t inspiring, and he isn’t teaching anything that is worth learning.  You are better than this.

Best,

Dog Trainers Everywhere

 

Cesar is a “charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior.” – Mark Derr

Today Made My Heart Happy

I’ve been walking Baboo, Sugar, Dude, and Bella for almost a year now.  Boo, Sugar, and Dude are yorkies, and littermates.  They’re little spitfires.  Bella is a street dog, and her owners rescued her from St. Lucia just over a year ago now.  They’re all freaking adorable.

11925603_1683209971891405_1905051488_n(1)
Top left, Boo. Top right, Sugar. Bottom right, Dude. Bottom left, Bella.

They can be a bit of a handful.  Boo, Sugar, and Dude are fairly reactive – they bark at other dogs with a threshold of, give or take, 30 feet.  Dude can be snappy, though Boo and Sugar are all bark and no bite.

L to R, Sugar, Dude, and Boo.
L to R, Sugar, Dude, and Boo.

Bella is scared of everything.  Or she was; she’s improved by leaps and bounds this past year.  The story goes that her owners found her in the woods, near death, while on vacation.  They won her trust (no small task, if you know this dog) and she won their hearts.  Thousands of dollars, several weeks, and lots of paperwork later, she arrived in Toronto to cold winter.  Trusting them was the best decision she ever made.  When I first met her, she’d barely take food from me, and I couldn’t touch her.  Now, indoors she’s like any other dog.  Outdoors, she’s still constantly alert and scanning her environment, and she is jumpy at the tiniest noise, and terrified of strangers.  She’s the least “reactive” dog I’ve ever met; she just hides and cries.  To get her tail out from between her legs on a walk is a small miracle.  She’s learned to love me though; I get face kisses and tail wags.

A photo posted by Verena Schleich (@odditvees) on

In the above photo, poor Bella backed up onto my lap and had her best whale-eyes going, just because it was a windy day.

When I quit dog walking, I gave up 16 dogs to a new walker; these four, though, I couldn’t.  So, despite now working at When Hounds Fly, I still go visit Boo, Sugar, Dude, and Bella just about every day for a walk.

I’ve been working on some training with Bella, which is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  She had zero trust, zero confidence, and zero training until this past year, and she LOVES training.  I pull out my clicker, and her tail just starts going.

And yet, I’d never had them meet Athena.  Despite my love for (and borderline unhealthy obsession with) my dog, and despite my love for these dogs, I worried it would be a disaster.  Bella is so nervous; Boo, Sugar, and Dude so dog reactive.  I didn’t want to set them back, and I didn’t want to traumatize Athena.

Today, I decided to bite the bullet and bring Athena with me – with the four dog’s mom’s permission.  “If it’s a disaster I won’t bring her again,” I promised, “but I’d love if they could become friends!”

And here’s the crazy thing:

They did.

Bella was unsure at first, and Boo, Sugar, and Dude barked up a storm for the first five minutes or so.  And then, like magic, they just settled.  By the time we finished our hour walk, Athena and Boo were chasing each other in the grass, Sugar was giving Athena face kisses, and Bella was walking right next to Athena and taking treats next to her with no issue.  It was so, so heartwarming.

 

It was such a welcome reminder that despite some horrors in the world, despite sad times, despite illness, and despite heart break, some things just work out.  And are happy.  And everything can just be good.

It’s important to remember that.

Tell Me Again, Why Do We Have Zoos?

Humans seem to have an obsession with boxing up nature for leisurely spectacle.  From ant farms to aquariums to animal death camps popularly called zoos, we seem to delight in watching nature squirm in our grasp.  For animals, a zoo just might be the most blighted place on Earth, where they don’t go merely to die — but to dance, sing and cry for their supper.

Everyone Loves Marineland.
Everyone Loves Marineland.

And what sort of supper is that?  Well, it’s the kind millions of people bring every day when they pay to see such painful pageantry. Because, for some reason, zoos still draw crowds — in some cases, of record-breaking magnitude.   Yes, zoos are still bringing home the bacon.

Even if they don’t paint a pretty picture of animals. Or us.

Let’s start our tour in southern Ontario, where the Bowmanville Zoo has been churning out dubious thrills since 1914. Along the way, it has racked up an impressive rap sheet of offenses against its inmates.

“We are inspected twice a year by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” zoo director Michael Hackenberger told local reporters recently. “We are an accredited zoo under the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.”  Hackenberger was responding to a recent spate of protest after getting caught on live TV abusing a baboon.

Let’s face it. You know there’s a problem behind the scenes when a zoo director calls a baboon a ‘cocksucker” on live TV. All because, apparently, the simple simian fell off a miniature pony.
Just a couple of years earlier, the zoo was declared the second worst in North America for elephants, thanks to its dismal efforts to keep its lone pachyderm reasonably alive.  In bestowing the distinction, In Defense of Animals (IDA) claimed the private zoo imposed a “cruel sentence” on 50-year-old ‘Limba’.

​“Limba is living a life of solitary confinement,” the California-based organization’s Nicole Meyer told the Toronto Star. “That’s very harsh for an animal like an elephant, who is extremely social and intelligent.”

Most recently, seemingly unable to stay out of the news, Hackenberger was filmed whipping a tiger, and swearing up a storm.  When the same “zoo” keeps showing up for cruelty, time and time again, with different animals, you have to start asking questions; not that asking questions will lead to consequences, it seems.

And the worst zoo in North America for elephants?

Well, that brings us, pun intended, to Number Two on our tour: Edmonton’s River Valley Zoo.  Another Canadian facility, the zoo has staunchly rejected calls to make life a little better for its feature attraction — an elephant named Lucy.

“Lucy is a shell of an elephant and the zoo continues to condone her suffering,” Toni Frohoff, a scientist with IDA, told the Edmonton Journal.Indeed, Lucy has even inspired a grassroots movement to ease her burden. Last winter, ‘Friends of Lucy’ raised funds to buy Lucy a winter blanket — a gesture that was rejected by the zoo.

“Lucy’s barn is spacious and warm with a heated padded floor. This is not an item required for Lucy’s well-being or care,”Zoo spokeswoman Debi Winwood explained to the CBC.

bob barker
Bob Barker meets Lucy the elephant at Edmonton’s River Valley Zoo on September 17, 2009. Animal welfare groups fighting to see a lone elephant at Edmonton’s zoo moved to a sanctuary in the United States have been dealt a blow by Alberta’s top court, Thursday Aug., 4, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson

And yes, that’s Bob Barker visiting the zoo, coming on down to the zoo in 2009 to essentially ask, what the fuck is going on here?

Well, that’s enough for the so-called civilization of Canada. Let’s take this tour to Afghanistan next, where the mighty KabulZoo looks to someday, somehow thrill the entire family like it once did.

A story, recounted in Vice, sings a sad song about a lion named Marjan — once the pride of the entire zoo. When a celebrated mujahedeen fighter stepped ito the great beast’s den, he was eaten with very little ceremony.

“The next day,” zookeeper Sheraq Omar told Vice, “The man’s angry brother threw a hand grenade into the cage. When Marjan pounced on it, thinking it was food, he lost one eye and 95 percent of his sight in the other.”

The tale of Marjan the lion became an entry point for many Americans in understanding the larger story of Afghanistan. It was a narrative of war, hardship, and survival presented through a battle-scarred symbol of the Afghan people, their outlast-them-all, last-cat-standing, grenade munching, mujahideen-eating Marjan. – Kevin Sites, Vice

As war chugged on — whether it was with the Soviets or the Taliban — more and more of the zoo’s attractions ended up as someone’s dinner. Many more simply starved to death. Today, the zoo is looking to make a rebound, welcoming donations from around the world. But it remains a bleak dismal place, hope having long sprung from this concrete coffin.

People who like animals tend to strongly dislike the San Antonio Zoo — where some 3,500 animals lay their heads. And we hang ours even lower. In shame. The animal-lovers at One Green Planet hail the venerable zoo as one of the worst in North America.

Some of the low-lights, according to the website, include 9,000 animals crammed into a measly 56 acres and tiny enclosures allowing little interaction with other animals. Ostensibly this allows for visitors to get a unique, up-close-and-personal vantage of an exotic beast slowly going completely mad.

And many humans seem to love it. Just pop into TripAdvisor where it’s always sunny in the San Antonio Zoo.“So many animals to see,” writes Rafael T. “I can stay several hours and I always leave wanting more. I never get tired of visiting the San Antonio Zoo.”  Karl R. raves thusly: “Plenty of animals, free parking, overpriced drinks and eats. you can spend several hours here.”

Visitors bray on and on about the delights of the San Antonio Zoo, making one wonder if we will ever evolve beyond the thrill of imprisonment.

Well, maybe it’s our nature to control things. Maybe we like to keep things, because we, in turn, are kept. Someday, perhaps, we might discover that existence is an infinite series of Russian dolls. You know, those wooden Babushkas that nest inside one another, becoming ever tinier along the way?

Imagine existence at a subatomic level as a zoo. Now imagine that humans and their zoos are nesting inside someone else’s zoo. A zoo within a zoo within a zoo within yet another zoo — ad infinitum.

And, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsch, the zookeeper is dead.


Christian
Christian Cotroneo (@Groane)

Former Toronto star reporter, former Huffington Post editor.  Now, working for animals at The Dodo.  In between, I traveled the world, lost my way, met some nice people and even nicer dogs.

Speaking of Death…

Speaking of Death…

death1

…what about when a pet dies?

 

Wait… cats can die??

 

 

 

Artwork by Chris Gugliotti

Yep, they can… that’s life.  And death!

But should you get your pet cremated?  Seems like no; seriously, this is worth a listen. Freakonomics is amazing.

I know, I know.  That’s a whole lot of content that isn’t mine.  But, hey; know your strengths.  They all say it better than I could!

If You Like Puppies, Don’t Go To India

Before you visit India, a lot of people will tell you things. Stereotypes mostly. Lots of warnings about how dire poverty can be in places.

You’ve probably heard them.

I’ll tell you something no one has likely told you before. How about, if you go to India, get ready to see dead puppies.

All over the streets. Behind dumpsters. Underfoot. Under tires.

Dead puppies.

Think about that. In Canada, where I lived, a puppy on the streets was a cause celebre. A lost puppy in Canada is a viral dynamo.

Where did this puppy come from? We MUST find this puppy a home.

We’re suckers for puppies.

Maybe because we grew up cartoonishly coddled, divorced from real-world realities, in a first world bubble. We’re all still just children, and to us, all that is good and soft and sweet in the world is a puppy.

Feeling blue? Take a puppy. Heart broken? Puppy. Suspect your life may be completely void of meaning? Puppy.

In New Delhi, puppies were a nuisance, an inconvenience, a roadblock. People seemed to busy for other, more pressing realities. Puppies didn’t solve homelessness. Or hunger. Or disease.

So visitors from the West are occasionally staggered by the surreal sight of a litter of puppies in the middle of a street, still sucking the teat of their smushed mother.

While traffic pays no heed at all.

And sadly, you can’t blame anyone for that.

Their parents, the ones who survive puppyhood, grow up hard. Every street dog I’ve ever met bares its teeth at first. Then he shows you his belly.

I had beautiful friendships with many of them.

And these dogs do not give a flying fudge about fleas.

In fact, they all wore jangly necklaces of dried ticks. Those parasites had sucked them dry and died of old age long ago.

Show one of those dogs an open hand, and they will sidle up to you. Be patient. They get kicked and jabbed with sticks daily. Then they instantly transform into the kind of dog we recognize as an actual dog. Our best friend. Old Yeller. Lassie. That sort of thing.

These dogs drop their mighty, battle-scarred heads in your lap. They don’t want you to move. Just stay there forever, even as the city swarms and beeps and hollers and screams around you.

Because these dogs are starving for so much more than food.

But you can’t stay there forever. The locals will look at you like you’re mad. There are lepers on these streets. People suffering from tuberculosis. Children defecating in the streets.

What are you doing fussing about a damned dog?

So you move on. The dog follows you until he can’t any longer. Then, he just stands at the gate and stares.

Needless to say, during my two-year residence in India, a lot of dogs laid their head in my lap. Of course,  the locals thought I was a fool. Even mentally unwell.

It was out of this wilderness, while driving in the back of a taxi, that someone rammed a puppy in my face.

Two puppies, actually. One was golden and bright-eyed. Something like a lab, I guess. The other was black and, for a puppy at least, not terribly adorable.

“They’re sisters,” the man leaning into the window, told me. “A hundred rupees each.”

Despite the fact that puppies were as plentiful as pigeons in New Delhi, this enterprising street vendor thought he could earn something, anything, by selling cuteness to a Westerner.

He was right. I had reached a point where, despite being totally incapable of owning a dog while working as a journalist in South Asia, I needed a puppy. Like, the way Westerners need a puppy.

My heart had been taking a beating in India.

“Will you take 40?” I asked.

“Which one?”

“The black one.”

He dropped the confused, mewling puppy in my lap. She must have been a month old.

A little over a month later, I called Canada.

“Mom, I’m sending you a puppy.”

Delhi the Dog
Delhi the Dog

Sending home a street dog from India is no easy affair. I’ll save you the bureaucratic details. They basically think you’re smuggling drugs in the body of a street dog.

The puppy, named Delhi, of course, landed in Toronto. She was covered in piss and shit. And, somewhere along the 20-hour journey, she may have even lost her mind in that box.

I can’t believe she survived. I was completely in love with her.

My mom fell hard too, instantly.

Today, Delhi lives on an acre of land in the quaint southern Ontario town of Fenwick.

She barks at strangers. Kills birds. And has nothing but contempt for any other dog.

But her love for my mother and I? I’ve owned so many dogs growing up. All of them formidable love batteries.

For a dog that was given no love as a puppy, I am always amazed by how much love she gives.

When I visit, she cries while licking my face. I can’t even stand up for a good five minutes.

She just cries and cries and licks and cries.

They say when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. I’ve always thought that was such an insignificant price to pay for a dog’s heart.

But in New Delhi, I lay down with battered puppies and old, traumatized dogs riddled with disease.

And yeah, I woke up with fleas. I also, just woke up.

Dead puppies are real.

I didn’t adopt Delhi because I thought I could make some small gesture for one of those puppies. I did it for me. I needed to love one of these puppies.

And I did it for my mom. Her old dog had just died. She needed a “puppy.”


Christian

Christian Cotroneo (@Groane)

Former Toronto star reporter, former Huffington Post editor.  Now, working for animals at The Dodo.  In between, I traveled the world, lost my way, met some nice people and even nicer dogs.

Dogs and Death

For Christmas, my mom got me a copy of What the Dog Knows, by Cat Warren.  It is about her journey with her dog, Solo, a cadaver dog.  I just started it, and it is, so far, really good; I literally don’t want to put it down.  The second chapter of the book, entitled “Death and the Dog” touches briefly on dogs and death rituals, dogs in mythology.  I read it, and thought “I could read a whole book about this!”, but the chapter, alas, was only 13 pages.

I have long since been fascinated by death and death mythology; right out of high school I began a degree in Medieval Studies, mostly hoping to be able to spend all my time studying mythology and people long gone.  For a while I thought I wanted to be a mortician for a living and, while I didn’t do that, I did discover the Order of the Good Death, which looks at death in a way that makes sense to me, rather than in the typical North American way (ie. fear and avoidance).

Obviously dogs have become my passion and my career, and mythology and death have become simple hobbies.  Cat Warren’s book was an inspiration for me to marry the hobbies with the passion in this post.

Mythology and Superstition

Dogs are said to have supernatural vision; they can see faeries and sprites, and even Death himself, and bark to let you know they’re near.  Witches were said to be able to transform into dogs, or send dogs to do their evil bidding.  Welsh Corgis are said to be the steed to faeries, who ride them around like horses.  Hellhounds are evil spirit dogs, and anyone who sees them will die.

corgi_and_fairy_by_sandara-d5vh6by

A dog’s howl was said to predict death in many cultures; Egyptians, Hebrews, Irish, Romans, and Greeks all have ominous associations to a dog’s howl – especially at night.  This could tie into the idea above that they could see Death.  Dogs were also sometimes viewed as guides to the afterlife.  Mayan remains have been found buried with dog remains, their dog a faithful guide to the end.

On the other hand, a stray dog following a person is said to be an omen of good luck, and a baby who is licked by a dog is said to be a fast healer for all their life.

Famous Dogs of Myth:

In history and mythology, dogs have long played a role.  We see them a lot as gods or guides in the underworld.

Cerberus:

Cerberus

Perhaps the most well known dog of myth, Cerberus was known as the hound of Hades – Hades, of course, being the god of the underworld in Greek mythology.  Cerberus is a huge three-headed dog who guards the gate to the underworld, letting the dead in and making sure they stay in.

Anubis:

© Asaf Braverman - Anubis Reconstructing Osiris (1350 BC, Tomb of Ramses 1, Egypt)
© Asaf Braverman – Anubis Reconstructing Osiris (1350 BC, Tomb of Ramses 1, Egypt)

Anubis is an ancient Egyptian god, with the body of a man but the head of a black dog – black for the colour of death.  He was known to be an embalmer and mummifier, and also helped guide souls to the underworld.  Furthermore, he was often present at the “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony, in which a heart of the deceased would be weighed against a feather, deciding their fate in the afterlife.  He was also known to protect the dead.

Xolotl:

Xolotl

Xolotl is the Aztec dog myth.  In a similar vein to previously mentioned myths, he guides the dead to the Aztec afterlife.  He is also the god of lightening, and he is Venus in the night sky, a guiding light.  He guides the sun through the underworld every night.

Cŵn Annwn:

The Cŵn Annwn are a Welsh myth.  They are ghostly hounds, members of the Wild Hunt, known to predict catastrophe – death, war, plague.  Sometimes they are also said to guide people to the underworld.  If fact, one of the days they’re known to hunt is on the New Year – happy December 31, dear readers!

A Cŵn Annwn’s goal in the Wild Hunt is to hunt wrongdoers into the ground until they can run no longer, just as the criminals did to their victims. – Matthews, John; Matthews, Caitlín (2005). The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures

Real Life Dogs and Death:

So do real life dogs understand death?  Do they mourn?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I’m not a scientist or a behaviourist.  I try to avoid anthropomorphising dogs, I think it’s a dangerous habit to get into.  It’s a nice thought though, isn’t it?  That they mourn and feel loss deeply for us, as we do for them?  Or is it kinder to wish them a blissful ignorance?  There is certainly lots of anecdotal evidence of dogs mourning lost owners, but beyond that… I don’t know.  It seems possible, I’ll say that much.

This is a super short overview, but if anyone feels up to writing a whole book on the subject – or pointing me to a good one, if there already is – I’d love to read it!  Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any cool myths, histories, or superstitions.

When Hounds Fly Staff Picture – my new crew!

One Chapter Ending

When I started dog walking, my intention was never to do it forever.  It was to stop working in a bar, and start working with animals; to start building up my “thousand-hour eyeballs”, so to speak.  I already knew at that point that I wanted to train, and walking seemed like a really good jumping off point while I saved up for tuition and then worked my way through school.

Ethologist George Schaller has written that to really understand what an animal is doing, you need thousand-hour eyeballs; that is, you must watch the animals for that long before trying to draw conclusions.  – Reaching the Animal Mind, by Karen Pryor

I was lucky, in that I knew Andre, who put me in touch with Rebecca, who hired me and has honestly been the best boss I’ve ever had.

The thing about dog walking is that you can’t complain about your job.  At the end of the day, you get fresh air, exercise, and you get paid to hang out with dogs.  It’s a pretty sweet gig, and anyone in a “normal” job will roll their eyes at you if you complain.  Which is fair enough – I’ll take dog walking over just about any other job.

Jax, formerly "Jax Six-Pack" in his racing days.
Jax, formerly “Jax Six-Pack” in his racing days.

 

But here’s a dirty little secret: sometimes, it sucks.  Like on those days when it is pouring rain and you are soaked to the bone, or those days where you can’t feel your toes and your pedometer clocks in at over 25k and need to thaw in a hot bath for an hour when you get home just to get rid of the chill.  Or those days where a dog tries to eat something weird and you reach down their throat to pull it out, to find your hand covered in a combination of poop and drool, and the dog, rather than being grateful, is trying to snap at you and bite you for stealing it’s precious piece of poop.  There are the days when there is just something in the air and every dog you walk is just on their worst behaviour and you want to cry.  And then there are the clients who treat you like a servant, or who tell you their dog is just perfect, when actually it has multiple reactivity issues and triggers (pro-tip from me to you: if your dog is reactive, I will still walk it.  I promise.  I just need to know in advance to keep our walks as safe and pleasant as possible!  So please, just be upfront about issues your dog has).

Sugar gives the best kisses!  (don't think about poop, don't think about poop, don't think about poop...)
Sugar gives the best kisses! (don’t think about poop, don’t think about poop, don’t think about poop…)

But for all that?  There’s also way, way more good.  There’s the days where the sun is shining and the breeze is blowing and you realize that your “office” is a walk along the boardwalk by Lake Ontario.  There’s the days when all the dogs want to do is give you face kisses, and you can’t help but laugh and feel happy, and push that “remember that time I pulled poop out of their mouth” thought as far from your mind as you can.  There are the clients who treat you like family because their dogs love you so much, who leave you baked goods or tea on the cold days, who leave you cards signed by their dog’s name just to make you feel appreciated.  There are the days where you take your own dog to work with you, and see your baby get along with all these other fur kids you walk.  There are the days when you realize that, other than their owners, these dogs love you more than just about anyone in the world; a dog walker is like the crazy aunt, you see?  We dog walkers get to give kisses and treats and fun and then send the dog home before doing anything more serious.  There are the days where you’re so grateful that you can wear sweatpants seven days a week and no longer own mascara, and no one cares.

Pints, the golden doodle puppy, sweat pants, and fuzzy socks; how I start my average day.
Pints, the golden doodle puppy, sweat pants, and fuzzy socks; how I start my average day.

And so here is the truth: I’m going to miss dog walking, a lot.  I didn’t know if I would, but as my last day draws nearer and nearer, I find myself feeling more and more sad.  Unlike a lot of jobs, I’m not leaving paperwork and a desk behind, I’m leaving real lives and friends behind.  And unlike coworkers, I can’t call them up for hang-outs down the road.  Sean, who is taking over my route, is really great.  The dogs will love him.  And I’m so grateful for that, but I’m also… jealous?  Because they won’t miss me nearly as much as I’ll miss them; they’ll have Sean.

I am really excited for my next chapter, what I’ve been working for all along.  But all the fur friends and lovely clients I’ve met along the way?  It’s hard.

It isn’t like leaving just any job behind.