45 posts

Pits are the pits, or not?

Three summers ago, I was mauled by a pit bull. He tried, unsuccessfully, to attack Nanook, our samoyed/chow mix. She came away with just a bruise and wounded pride, while I spent an entire day in the emergency room awaiting my 12 stitches and staring, in awe, at the three inch gaping hole on my thigh. I could actually see the fat in my leg! The dog who did the damage was a pit mix rescued from Katrina. 2 weeks after the incident, he was euthanized. My heart ached for him. You see, I don’t blame him, I blame the owner. His irresponsibility and outright ignorance of the breed caused one more unnecessary death in the approximately 970,000 pit bull euthanizations in America’s shelters in 2008. Both pure bred and mix breed pits account for 58% of all dogs put down in this country each year. By far, most of them end up at the pound because of abuse, neglect, and owners who can no longer care for them, not because of their aggressive nature.

This overwhelming statistic is almost too painful for me to consider. Although most who were in my situation would automatically take a stand against this breed, I’m torn. Torn because we have a pit mix in our home.

Meet Ugo. The love of my life. When people ask me what breed he is, I start to go down the list; boxer, German shorthair pointer, dane, and…. pit bull. And then “the look” rears its ugly head. You know, that look that says “well, he WAS cute, but now…um, gotta go!”. Some people literally back away so quickly, they trip. Others cross the street when they see him, or ask if he bites, from a block away. Truthfully, when I look at him, I can’t see the scary. He is the most gentle, loving, submissive dog I’ve ever met. His best friends are, usually, dogs a tenth his size and twice his age. With all other K9’s, he’s the awkward kid on the playground who REALLY wants to play with others, but just doesn’t know how. His blind, 11 year old “sister” Nanook, loves him like no other which is no small feat considering she is aloof, at best, with everyone else. I often wonder why not everyone is as enamored of Ugo as we are.

Then, I remember what those people see when they look at him. They see aggression, attitude and a thirst for blood. In short, they see a killing machine. They see a breed that began because of a human penchant for fighting. Not only were these dogs bred for fighting each other, but also for bull and bear baiting. Although, the latter has mostly vanished, the former is flourishing. Every year, 250,000 pit bulls are maimed or killed in dog fights (from HSUS) that earn humans millions of dollars, but are a death sentence for those unlucky enough to be on four legs.

According to Adam Goldfarb, director of the pets at risk program for the Humane Society of the United States, “Dogs are products of their environment. Dangerous dogs are not born, they are created.” Therefore, education seems to be the best, maybe the ONLY solution to end dog fighting and bring the pit bull’s reputation back to reality.

According the the ASPCA, rottweilers and pits (pure and mixed breed) account for a “majority” of the dog attacks in this country, but ANY dog is capable of sinking his teeth into your leg. Here are some statistics courtesy of the American Humane Society:

  • An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year.
  • Approximately 92% of fatal dog attacks involved male dogs, 94% of which were not neutered.
  • Approximately 25% of fatal dog attacks involved chained dogs
  • Approximately two-thirds of bites occurred on or near the victim’s property, and most victims knew the dog.
  • At least 25 different breeds of dogs have been involved in the 238 dog-bite-related fatalities in the U.S.
  • Approximately 58% of human deaths involved unrestrained dogs on their owners’ property

It seems, from these statistics, that certain rules are a MUST (for ANY dog owner):

  • Spay/neuter your dog. This will significantly cut down on their aggression and make them less territorial.
  • When using your dog for security, do not use a chain. This makes them more territorial and, therefore, more likely to strike.  Use a retractable, tethered lead that allows them to move about more freely.
  • Just because you are familiar with a dog, does not mean he/she will remember you. Always, re-introduce yourself by letting the dog smell you and remember to approach with your hand below the chin, not from above.
  • Most importantly, ANY dog is capable of biting you. Just because it’s a pocket pet under 20 lbs, doesn’t mean it has no teeth!


In no way do I expect one article to change decades of stereotype and skepticism. All I am hoping for is that my words will help shift the “blame” away from the dog and towards a solution. A solution that provides us with the tools and figures to educate each other about the proper way to care for our K9 companions.

Next time you see what you think is a pit bull, stop and ask. The owners will be grateful for the chance to crush the myth and the dog might turn out to be your friend for life….

Here are some great links to further the cause. They make for very interesting reading:
The lone Chicago “dog officer” GRAPHIC
Pit bull Heroes

Training Corner: Appetite for Destruction

Welcome to EthologyNerd’s Training Corner. Each week I’m going to take a look at the most common behavior problems pet owners deal with and offer some solutions. This week: Destructive behavior.

It’s important to first understand why dogs chew. Basically, it’s in their genes: from an instinctual standpoint, chewing is the canine version of sucking. Wolves, hyenas and other canids do it too. When a human sucks, endorphins are released in the brain; when a dog chews, it gets the same endorphin high.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it started with bones. Bones are filled with marrow and therefore high in nutritional value. Chewing also helps promote healthy teeth and gums. Consequently, canines that were able to procure bones not only got more nutrition, but had stronger teeth, ensuring they were more adept at hunting. Those dogs were also more likely to survive and breed.

The domestic dog has a couple more reasons to chew. Puppies, like babies, explore the world around them with their mouths. As a puppy grows, they, of course, begin to lose their puppy teeth and begin teething. Teething typically occurs between 3 and 10 months of age; if your dog is older than that, there are other factors at play.

Some dogs are specifically bred to put stuff in their mouths. I’m looking at you, retrievers. Dogs like this typically have what’s called a “soft mouth,” meaning that, while they’ll walk around all day with a tennis ball in their mouth, they aren’t as likely to destroy things (although some still will). Those dogs were originally used to retrieve hunted game without mangling the carcass. Terriers, however, are born to seek and destroy. Any terrier breed, be it Jack Russell, pit bull, or Schnauzer, was originally used

IRL, he would have destroyed those ruby slippers.

to catch game and kill them. So they will delight in ripping up any toy they can; it’s pleasurable for them because it mimics the hunt.

So…neato. You have a dog that’s genetically predisposed to eating your Uggs. All well and good, but unless you have some kind of Ugg tree in the backyard, you want to stop it, huh? Well, it’s a good thing I’m here.

Put it away if you don’t want it in your dog’s mouth.

This is the number-one rule. You’re a biped with opposable thumbs, so you can open/close doors and reach high shelves. You may need to get inventive, and it may ruin your living room’s aesthetic to live for a while without those cute throw pillows, but you’ll lose them for good if you leave them lying around.

On that note, supervise your dog when you’re home. If you have to, clip a leash to your belt, or just keep them in the same room with you, door closed. This will prevent them from finding something before you can stop them.

A tired dog is a good dog.

All dogs need mental and physical stimulation. The above mentioned terriers and retrievers are full of energy. If you own a dog that is bouncing around the house and getting into all kinds of trouble, that dog is basically begging for exercise.

Aim for aerobic-level exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. If you own a Chihuahua, less; if you own a Border Collie, much, much more. Dogs also need human interaction. If your dog is alone twelve hours a day, consider a doggy day-care or a dog walker so you don’t release the Kraken when you walk in the door.

Get your dog some things he’s allowed to chew on.

Invest in some good chew toys. Puzzle toys, of which Kongs are the gold standard, are sturdy and also provide mental stimulation if stuffed with good treats like peanut butter or frozen wet food. Make sure that you never leave your dog alone with a toy that can be ripped apart and eaten, and remove any toys the dog has begun to tear up, as it can be a choking hazard or lead to intestinal blockage.

If you find little Jezebel with a knife in her mouth, gnawing blissfully on the handle (true story), don’t chase her around the house, yelling wildly. Your dog thinks this is the greatest game ever and will start to grab stuff just to play tag. Instead, find one of “her” toys and lure her into taking that; once she’s happily chomping away, praise her. This will teach her that, when she chews on the appropriate objects, mommy or daddy loves her. Also, sleep with one eye open.

Don’t expect perfection. Your dog is incapable of reading human minds (probably).

When you come home to a house that looks like meth-heads burglarized it, sigh dramatically, clean it up, and have a glass of wine. You only have a window of about two seconds to reward or redirect a dog’s behavior. So if they chewed up something an hour ago, they have no idea why you’re crying.

Many dogs chew things when they’re alone out of anxiety or boredom. Separation anxiety is a huge issue, and will be addressed in another article. Regarding boredom: if you don’t provide your dog with something to do, he’ll find something to do, and guaranteed it won’t be balancing your checkbook.

Crating with a good puzzle toy when you’re not home is the best way to ensure that your dog doesn’t get into trouble. Crating, when done properly and for appropriate amounts of time, is comforting to dogs as it mimics a den-like atmosphere for them.

Ultimately, channeling destructive behavior into a lovely evening with a Nylabone takes time and patience; if you have a young dog, I promise it gets better.

Please, feel free to share your ugliest destruction stories in the comments. If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.


Behave Yourself In an Animal Shelter

This is (hopefully) the first in a series of articles about animal welfare and animal care. More and more people, and it seems, a lot of Crasstalkers, are opting to rescue dogs or cats. This is fantastic. However, in every shelter I’ve worked in, I have seen some of the most ridiculous behavior ever…and not by the animals. Wanna adopt? Great. Here’s how to make sure you actually save a life instead of making a shelter worker’s miserable.

1) Come in with an open mind

Maybe you’re looking for a specific age/breed/color. A lot of shelters have online request forms you can fill out and be notified when an Afghan hound puppy is available for adoption (hint: you will be waiting a while in that case). Maybe you don’t know what you want, but then see a dog that is just adorable. Either way, keep in mind that the way an animal looks or behaves in its run or cage is in no way indicative of its behavior outside of it. Staff members often know these dogs and cats very well. They’ll try to help you find a good fit.

That said, be realistic about your lifestyle. If you want a dog that will sit on the couch while you comment on open threads all day and a volunteer tells you that young Meth Lab needs 2 hours of aerobic-level exercise a day, take them at their word. Otherwise you’re going to need a lot of Xanax. For you and the dog.

2) Do not complain about the adoption fees or the adoption process

Almost every shelter is either city-run or non-profit. No matter which type it is, the animals aren’t eating filet mignon and playing with solid gold Kongs. In one shelter I worked at, the adoption fees literally did not cover the cost of caring for the animal during its stay. If there isn’t a vet clinic on site, you may be asked to pay for the spay or neuter, typically at a reduced price.

I say this in the nicest way possible: Shut your mouth. You’d pay thousands of dollars at a pet store for a mentally and physically unsound dog. You’re paying two hundred dollars for a dog that’s likely been vetted and temperament tested. Plus, you’re giving a homeless dog a new start. That’s worth it.

And the adoption process? There’s probably a form to fill out. Less complex than a 1040EZ, but more complex than grabbing a kitten and leaving. There are a lot of reasons for this. Firstly, just like at your job, records are kept. Secondly, we want to make sure you’re not starting a dog-fighting ring. There may be an interview, or a home visit, or a vet check. Again, this may be annoying if little Jazzlyn wanted a kitten for Christmas and it’s Christmas Eve, but Jazzy will have that cat until she drops out of Bennington after that debacle with her professor. She can wait two days.

If you don’t have thirty cats, keep your pets’ vaccinations up-to-date, and have good intentions, you’ll be able to adopt. The procedures probably aren’t in place because of you, but we don’t know you. So humor us and be patient.

3) Ask questions, and don’t tolerate rudeness

Lots of shelter workers and volunteers are overworked, and the phrase “I hate people” is only heard more often in the back of a restaurant. They see things…terrible, terrible things. So they can sometimes be abrupt or rude. That is not a reason, however, to allow yourself to be bullied, condescended to, or rushed through an adoption process. A medium-sized dog’s life span is, on average, 10-12 years. A cat, 14-16 years. That’s a hell of a commitment. So if you have questions about temperament, habits, health, or anything else, don’t hesitate to ask.

Tell the staff what your deal-breakers are (scratching? Biting? Barking? Jumping the fence?). They may not always know an animal’s background, but then you can take into account just how many unknowns you’re comfortable with. Any issue that concerns you is an issue you should address before you find out the dog they said was “kinda housebroken” is actually not. The staff says the dog you’re looking at is destructive? Ask NOW what that means. If it means the dog is going to claw a 3′ x 2′ hole in your bathroom wall, decide how much spackle you’re willing to purchase.

If the person you’re working with is nasty, ask to talk to someone else. And if everyone is unhelpful, go to another shelter. If they don’t take the time to help you find the right match, another shelter will.

4) But do understand the staff does know quite a bit

“I’ve had dogs all my life.” “My cat didn’t have a urinary tract infection so of course I didn’t take it to the vet; it wasn’t using the litterbox because it was angry with me.” “Rubbing the dog’s face in its poop is the only way they’ll get housebroken.” Okay…no. Along with keeping an open mind about which animal you adopt, keep an open mind regarding any advice the staff has.

Some shelters are volunteer-only; volunteers may still be a valuable resource for information regarding animal behavior and medical care. If you like a dog that isn’t housebroken, but you have no idea how to house-train, they can tell you how to do it, and reputable shelters will still help you with questions and concerns even after the adoption.

Paid employees are trained to do this for a living, and while they make less than McDonald’s employees, they do know a whole lot more. If they suggest that adopting a three-month-old puppy is not a good idea because you are working eighty-hour weeks, listen. If you come in espousing corporal punishment for your dog (or cat-I have heard that one too), and you are completely adamant that there is absolutely no other way to teach an animal, you are not going home with one. Guaranteed.

5) Be honest

This last one is more of a moral issue, but lying results in the worst kind of experience for both staffers and potential adopters. If your dog hasn’t gotten a rabies vaccination in five years, tell us. We’ll find out when we call your vet. If you’re honest, and get them up-to-date, you’ll probably be able to adopt. If you have four cats but say you have two because you think you won’t be able to adopt another one, and then we find out you lied, you’re not getting that cat. If you’d been honest and your town allows five cats, you would have been able to adopt.

If your last five pets got hit by cars, or you gave them away, say so. I’m not going to lie (see? I’m so MORAL!): you probably won’t be able to adopt, but you also need to step back a bit and think about whether making a lifelong commitment to the health and welfare of a pet is something you’re able to do right now.

If you get caught in a big lie, and it’s been made clear that you won’t be able to adopt a pet, graciously see yourself out. Fervent begging will not help. Yelling obscenities or threatening anyone will result in the police showing up. For God’s sake, please don’t just head to the shelter down the street. Lots of shelters share their “Do Not Adopt” list with each other, so we’re on to you. Instead, go get a fish, and work your way up from there. When you are ready to accept the responsibility of pet ownership, be honest and explain how things are different. We really do want these guys to get adopted- even the nicest shelter isn’t a home.

Oh, and don’t come in drunk or high. We’ll mess with you and make fun of you the whole time.

Get to adopting!


The Spirit of Animals

“May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their pain. May those frightened cease to be afraid, and may those bound be free. May the powerless find power, and may people befriend all life. May those of all species who find themselves lost, the young, the aged, the unprotected, be guarded by beneficent celestials, and may they swiftly attain Buddhahood.”

—Buddhist Prayer for Peace


I received an email from a dear friend this week informing me that six weeks ago, she had to have her precious 9-year-old Silky terrier – a joyful little girl named named Mattie – euthanized, due to multiple health problems. Although it had been years since I’d seen Mattie, I wept for half an hour straight. They were tears that hadn’t come that forcefully since I had to have my rescued Schnauzer Lucky euthanized at the age of 2, also due to multiple, unresolvable health problems, last August.


When I finally thought I had composed myself enough to call my friend Bobbie, I found that I was reduced to tears again at the sound of her voice. Then she cried, as she recounted the excruciatingly difficult journey of losing her beloved and devoted pet child. Through the tears and commiserating, I came to an insight that has stayed with me: the only reason I can think of that precious animals should have such short lifetimes is so that we may be able to love more of them: to provide uniquely loving homes for the animals who are meant to be our companions. In my case, I have a passion for supporting animal rescue, since so many are unwanted, but no matter where an animal comes from, the important thing is that he or she is adored and cared for throughout whatever time it has on this earth.


So I invite each of you who are present or past pet-parents to join with me in a timeless prayer for the spirit of animals, in memory of all beloved animals who are no longer physically present with us. Rest in peace, precious Mattie (12/20/01-1/10/11).


“Hear our humble prayer, o God, for our friends the animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry…. We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity, and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words. Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.”

– Albert Schweitzer

(pic of Mattie courtesy my friend Bobbie’s Facebook page)

Sleepies with Sophia

I understand that there are some animals that actually like to be outside in the elements.  Cats are so much smarter than that.  I am Sophia, a connoisseur of comfort.

Today I had Maggie wake up Mummy by purring in her face while I relaxed on the big chair.  Maggie thinks she’s the boss of this house, but she isn’t.  I allow her to do the dirty work because it makes her feel useful.  After gushy noms and crunchies were passed out under my strict supervision (seriously, I love my Mummy, but she is forgetful about the crunchies sometimes and I have to remind her) I settled down on the cozy blankets on the sofa.  I slept there for a while and then got up for some leftover gushies. Then I settled into the big side chair for a long afternoon nap.  Mummy keeps a lot of cozy blankets around to snuggle in.  She’s a useful creature, this human.  In some regards.

Why on Earth would any animal in their right mind want to leave the couch?