What You All Want to Ask

Koala, a black labrador, wears a life jacket. She sits on a chair with the ocean behind herThe night before their cruise, many of the 29 guide dogs teams stayed at the same hotel. These dogs got a head start on greeting old schoolmates, as their humans met or caught up. Many of the teams had been at the Continuing Education Seminar couple of years earlier, or had been in training together, or had met at other events.

Portable dog toilet area on ship deckThe next day, the teams, along with several hundred other passengers, boarded a huge ship. Naturally, they all wanted to know the same thing you’re now wondering: Where do the dogs go to … you know?

In the case of this group: Deck 10, near the front of the ship, just off the main elevator lobby. For some dogs, that was a very long trek from where they were bunking.

The crew set up about 10 potty stalls. Some were plastic containers topped with astro-turf. Others were large metal litter boxes with, yes, dog litter. Not to be confused with cat litter, dog litter consists of hard, absorbent pellets. The astro-turfed boxes seemed to collect the pee. In either case, the dogs’ humans were expected to pick up solid waste.

Ship staff did an admirable job of keeping the place clean-ish.

“Ish” because of many issues.

Foremost, it’s windy on a moving ship. It’s hard to balance. The astro-turf rugs shifted in the wind. Some dogs flat-out refused to try the doggy port-o-potties. Others tried, but got rattled when the astro-turf rugs slipped and slid as they crouched. Many of the refusers visited the nearby deck floor instead.

Also, the human partners, coping with their own balance issues on the moving ship, along with their dogs’ skittishness and their inability to actually see where their dogs had eliminated, sometimes failed to thoroughly clean up.

Koala took it all in stride. She’d visit several stations, and, having caught up on the news, would take care of business without a fuss.

sign reads "service / working dogs are not pets and should not be petted or talked to at any time."Carnival, the cruise line, deserves special mention for the ways the dog teams were accommodated. Outside each dining area, and in other prominent places, staff had posted large signs telling people not to pet or talk to the working dogs on board. Many passengers who talked to guide dog partners mentioned the signs or said they knew they weren’t supposed to talk to the dogs (though most proceeded to do so anyhow …).

The staff ran a private safety briefing for the guide dog teams, and the leader had clearly undergone training on working with blind people. His descriptions of how to find a life jacket, what the front and back would feel like, and how to find and secure the clasps and belt were clear and full of rich description. Each guide dog had her (or his) own life jacket!

Carnival even hired interpreters for members of the group who are have both visual and hearing impairments. Through the magic of something called protactile communication, the interpreters provided a more complete experience for these passengers. Protactile communication uses touch to convey information beyond an interpreter relaying what another person is saying; it includes description of what is going on in the environment and allows for deeper two-way communication.

 

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Ice Cream Season

Cali loves her ice cream.

By the time I realized our new home was a few blocks from the Big Dipper ice cream stand, it was too late. We were committed. Cali cannot believe that they are not open at 7 am. She wants ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Year-round. It never occurred to her that people might not want ice cream when it’s 10 degrees below zero outside. What’s the connection?

It warmed up, briefly, here and we celebrated by going to the Big Dipper. Of course!

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The (free!) dog cone was so tiny and perfect, we just had to take a picture. Well, as the pictures show, we took a little too long — and someone couldn’t wait for her treat.

If the spring ever shows up for real, I am sure that Cali will get many more tiny dog cones.

 

Distracted Driving

SleepyPod's large and small crash test dogs
SleepyPod’s hard-working crash test dogs

How do you keep your dog safe in the car?

On long trips (anything involving a freeway), I use a dog seatbelt. Koala likes to ride on the floor, in the footspace behind the front passenger seat.

Since I have a run-of-the-mill dog seatbelt restraint, neither of these options is particularly good. Better than letting the dog sit in the front seat or, worse, on my lap. And way better than letting her ride, loose, in the back of a pickup — all things I see often.

The issues are both her safety and mine. A dog can be distracting; I’ve driven dogs who pace on the back seat. And if I have to stop suddenly, the dog can fly off the seat and get hurt. In an accident, the dog could fly through the windshield or crash into the driver or a passenger. Or escape and get lost or hurt.

Hence the seatbelts.

AAA recommends restraining pets inside the car, in the back seat, using either a seatbelt attachment (like mine) or a crate, which is itself strapped in. These take care of the distraction issue and would provide some protection from a hard stop or mild fender bender.

The advice to let dogs ride only in the back seat is significant. It’s not only about distraction. If you are in an accident that causes the airbags to go off, your dog is very likely to be severely injured or killed by the airbag. That is why small children cannot ride in the front.

A small dog dangles from a car seatback, held by a Rocketeer harness
Rocketeer for small dogs

There’s a more secure option, one that also dramatically improves the pet’s chances of surviving an accident safely. There’s an organization called the Center for Pet Safety that tests (among other things) pet seatbelts and rates their performance.

They paid for extensive crash testing, and came up with a (very) few certified harnesses: three. These are the SleepyPod Clickit Sport and Terrain and the ZuGoPet Rocketeer.

The Rocketeer is for dogs up to 25 pounds only and is sort of like a baby carrier that you wear on the front. Only the car seat back wears it. A little weird.

You can actually watch video of the crash tests on the CPS website.

They are pricey: The Rocketeer starts at about $100, and the SleepyPods, for dogs 18 to 90 pounds, start at $70.

Duke, the new-and-improved crash-test dog, works hard to make SleepyPods safe (if you believe the video on the company website). The video is scary. Cali might be getting a brand-new, Duke-approved harness before our next road trip. Frankly, I’d feel safer if Duke came along for the ride as well!

 

So Cute in that T-shirt

Cute in her post-op T-shirt

“Your dog looks cute in that T-shirt,” Cali’s little friend said. We walk past a school-bus stop every morning, and some days, we beat the bus there. Two young children, themselves owned by a handsome male golden retriever, often ask to pet Cali. “But why is she wearing it?”

The little girl who asks a lot of questions is probably around 7, her quieter brother even younger.

“She had a tiny lump on her side,” I said. “It was removed, and she has stitches, but she’s fine.”

“So the shirt protects it?”

“Yes, it keeps the stitches clean and keeps her from licking it.”

“Oh.” My questioner nodded knowingly. Her dog has had stitches too.

We chatted for another minute, until the bus pulled up.

Deni and I talk about Cali’s “quarterly de-lumping” in resigned tones. Lots of golden retrievers are little lump factories. So far, Cali’s have all been benign fatty cysts, but … she’s a golden. She’s over 6 years old. I know the statistics.

That’s why Cali is in the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Cali’s personal physician, Dr. Jani Zirbel, also has a golden in the study. He’s about Cali’s age, a tall, gorgeous boy. She always says that I can leave the lumps and see if they grow, but I like to know that they’re benign.

I know it will only be a matter of weeks until I find the next little bump. But so far, Cali is fine.

She came home from her minor outpatient surgery a little groggy from the sedative and with a tummy ache. She had not fasted and did not have anesthesia, but after her procedure, the vet techs fed her. (Cali does a very convincing impersonation of a starving dog.) Whatever they fed her did not agree with her tummy …

Other than that, she recovered quickly and was delighted to run outside in her beloved yard the next day. And she does look cute in that T-shirt.

 

How Low Can You Go?

A tiny black lab puppy learns to sit on cue
Not a pet-store pup!

Puppy laundering. Really. Some people will stop at nothing to make a few dollars.

Kudos to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is suing a pet store and a group that claims to be a rescue for puppy laundering.

What, you ask, is puppy laundering?

California has a law that aims to put puppy mills out of business by drying up their markets. It’s illegal in California for pet stores to sell cats, dogs, or rabbits unless they are sourced from a rescue organization or shelter. This new law is in addition to a federal law that bans most online sale of dogs and puppies.

Yet, the lawsuit alleges, Animal Kingdom pet stores was purchasing puppies from “Bark Adoptions, an organization that purports to be a rescue but is allegedly engaging in ‘puppy laundering’ on behalf of commercial breeders, and then providing those puppies to Animal Kingdom.”

Commercial breeders — puppy mills — often keep dogs and puppies in cruel, unsanitary conditions; breed unhealthy dogs; fail to socialize puppies; fail to provide sufficient food and clean water; and generally are about profit, not healthy dogs.

Puppy laundering is apparently a national scourge.

So, it cannot be said often enough: Do not buy a puppy from a pet store. Do not shop at pet stores that sell puppies, kittens, or live animals of any kind (other than maybe some species of fish). Just don’t. Ugh.

What’s your dog’s name?

It’s hard work being a guide dog!

What’s your dog’s name?

It’s a normal enough question. The kids in my neighborhood ask me that all the time, especially when we’re standing in line at the (world’s best) ice cream stand, just down the street.

When I am out with Cali, whose mission in life is to meet every human on the planet, it’s not really a problem.

But many people who work with service dogs dread the question.

What usually happens after the questioner gets an answer is that he or she then … calls to or greets the dog. For someone who’s working with a service or guide dog, the distraction is problematic.

Yes, most guide and service dogs are very well trained and are generally focused on their work. But they’ve also been taught to be responsive to their names. People calling their names might provide enough of a distraction that the dog misses something important.

Most working dogs are taught to greet people politely when their human partner says they can but not to solicit attention. The repeated cycle of strangers calling the dog’s name and getting excited when the dog looks or approaches them rewards the dogs for paying attention to people other than their partners — while working. This is also problematic, especially since many service and guide dogs are naturally very friendly. Not greeting approaching people already demands self-control. They’ve already got a lot on their plates. Why push it?

The bottom line is that calling to or petting a working dog makes the dog’s task harder. So while it’s natural to want to ask the dog’s name and you’re just being friendly — if you’re chatting with a person who’s working with a service dog, please don’t.

Can my dog be vegan?

Cali turns away from her food bowl and faces a fence
Cali doesn’t want to be vegan!

I’ve been asked several times whether I think it’s OK to feed a dog a vegan diet. The short answer is that dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet, but it’s not easy and it’s not the optimal diet. Cats cannot be vegan, by the way.

A recent article in Wired addressed this question from the perspective of dog owners’ conflicting beliefs: They are vegan because they oppose using animals for human benefit but they also want to provide the best lives for their dogs (which means letting the dogs eat meat …). I understand the dilemma.

Premium pet food companies understand the dilemma, too. More and more, they are advertising the humane and sustainable nature of the ingredients they use. Is the advertising accurate? I don’t know; my hunch is that some companies are better than others, as with human food producers. Maybe the Whole Dog Journal will add sustainability to its list of criteria in future dog food evaluations (wouldn’t that be great?).

From a nutritional standpoint, I’d advise choosing this path very carefully. Consult with a canine nutritionist or a vet who has studied pet nutrition extensively. That is not a given; many vets take one or no courses on nutrition in vet school and many vet schools receive a lot of funding from large pet-food companies. That is to say, what many vets “know” about nutrition is heavily influenced by the makers of often not very good kibbles. I’ve gotten truly terrible nutritional advice from many otherwise excellent veterinarians.

If your vet is on board and knows a lot about canine nutrition, you can probably work out a vegan or mostly vegan diet that will work for your dog. But it’s not something to do casually; don’t just switch to a vegan food and forget about it. For example, your dog might need more frequent blood work done to test for key nutritional elements, as the recent scares over taurine levels illustrates.

One hypothesis with the many dogs showing low taurine levels is that foods with high levels of vegetable-based proteins and low or no carbohydrates made it harder for the dogs to get full nutritional benefit from the meat-based proteins in those foods. While I haven’t yet seen a definitive answer to that question, it suggests that boosting the amount of plant-based proteins in a dog’s diet has implications beyond whether she’s getting enough protein … which means going vegan or mostly vegan could have health effects that you’re not anticipating, and that even if the dog is a healthy weight and seems to be fine, serious problems could be developing.

So. The long and short answers get us to the same place, which is this: If you’re serious about moving your dog to a more vegan diet, proceed carefully and make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable vet’s supervision and guidance.