Thursday, January 31, 2013

Strange dogs in my yard

Liam the pug posing by a fence
Liam posing by the fence that (probably) kept our cats alive.
Even though the pug dog and I have lived in Salem for nearly four months, and I am home almost all of the time, I don't know many of my neighbors. Writing is a solitary profession that involves a lot of butt-in-the-chair work, and as a result, I don't get to canvass the neighborhood and meet all of the people and dogs around us. Most of the time, this doesn't bother me too much. I'm on a waving basis with people, and that seems to be enough. There are times, however, when it would be wonderful to know the ins and outs of the people living nearby.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Someone in my neighborhood owns two very large, very aggressive dogs, and from time to time, these dogs run wild through the neighborhood. The first time this happened, I'd been here for about 3 days, and it scared me to death. These guys are fast, and they're big, and they seem to have a deep hatred for cats. They chased poor Jasper underneath the deck, and they stayed in the yard until I banged on the windows.

A month later, it happened again, with much the same result: I am screaming, the cats are hiding. After that little interlude, my husband put up a fence to keep dogs out of our back yard. It's about 3 feet high, so the cats can jump over, but we hoped we wouldn't have to find out if dogs could do the same.

Yesterday was the big test.

Both Beorn and Jasper came flying around the corner, up and over the fence, and here came the same two dogs. Neither of these dogs jumped the fence. They did spend a significant amount of time looking at the fence and preparing to jump, however, and I think they might just sail right over it next time. Yesterday, since they couldn't come back to attack the cats, they entertained themselves by chasing neighbor cats up and down the street, attacking crows at the bird feeders and running up and down the sidewalk. They left only when I yelled and pounded on the windows.

Normally, when strange dogs come into my yard, I visit the owners later. I tell them that I have cats, as well as my own dog, and I need their dogs to stay out of my yard. The conversation isn't always pleasant, as many people seem to believe that they can let their dogs do whatever in the world they'd like to, but if I stay firm, I can get people to see my point of view. If they walk away thinking I'm a dictator, I'm okay with that, as long as their blasted dogs stay off my property.

Since I have no idea who these dogs belong to, my choices are limited to:
  1. Building a taller fence that keeps all cats in and all dogs out
  2. Calling dog control
  3. Using an air horn or pepper spray to break up an attack 
None of these options are good. I don't like to have fortress-like fences standing between me and my neighbors, and a fence like this won't protect me (or Liam) if we're in the front yard. I also don't like to call dog control, as dogs that are picked up might never be reunited with their people. Similarly, I don't like to retaliate, but these dogs are so damn aggressive that an attack on a human isn't out of the question, and I'd have to do something if they came after me. The cats are hard to catch, but if these dogs ever managed to trap one of our cats, pepper spray might be less painful than the injuries a cat can inflict. Blindness, tongue lacerations and bites wouldn't be out of the question. If they escaped unscathed but our cats died, those dogs wouldn't escape punishment, and dogs that kill other pets are often killed by animal control. It's sad, but it's true.

The best option? Someone in this neighborhood needs to keep their damn dogs under control. But until I can figure out who owns these dogs, I have no idea how to make it happen. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Horrors of a Salem pet rescue, and what it means for the future

Liam the pug in his bed
Little dogs depend on us to make the right choices.
Last week, in what's being called the largest pet rescue in Oregon's history, police raided a shelter in the Salem area and removed 149 dogs from absolutely horrible conditions. The news articles about this issue (all of which are no longer available online) are absolutely heartbreaking, suggesting that many of these dogs were housed in very small cages with no access to food, clean bedding or water. Some cages were so small that the dogs couldn't stand up at all. It's not clear how long the abuse had been moving forward, but at least one article suggests that the rescued dogs no longer have any interest in food, which seems to suggest that they'd been neglected for an incredibly long period of time.

There's a lot of soul-searching going on in my neighborhood, as you might imagine, as police officers and legitimate animal rescue agencies attempt to determine how an organization could operate like this for any period of time at all, and how so many dogs could be housed in conditions like this with no oversight at all. I would hope that the laws will change as a result of this case, and that law enforcement will have more broad leeway to step in when abuse is suspected. We need to shut these things down sooner. But in the interim, there are some lessons the average citizen can take away from this story.

Firstly, once again, this rescue came about because ordinary people spoke up and kept on talking until they were heard. People who adopted sick dogs contacted their police officers. People who saw sick dogs at adoption agencies contacted the Humane Society. People who worked next door to the warehouse where these dogs were housed spoke up. Each time someone said something, law enforcement agents had another reason to do something. We all need to speak up, loud and clear, when we see something wrong. If everyone had kept quiet, who knows how long this abuse would have been overlooked and ignored?

And sadly, we all need to think hard before we give our dogs to rescue organizations. As the economic crisis continues and people look for more ways to cut expenses, rescues are filled to capacity. If all of the reputable shelters are full to capacity, that creates space for the unscrupulous to step in. I know no one wants to give up a pet, and I also know that there are options that can help. If you can't afford your dog, can your friends house the dog for a short period of time? Can you live somewhere that's less expensive? Can you qualify for a program to help you feed your pet (see this link)?

If these steps don't work, make a commitment to thoroughly check out your rescue. Go and visit the place where your dog will be housed, and ask for references and the names of others who have adopted from this organization. Offer to take the pet back if a suitable home can't be found. Check back in frequently, to ensure that your dog is safe and sound. This level of supervision is no less than your dog deserves, and it might help to ensure that poor rescues don't get new dogs to abuse.

Finally, try to adopt from a rescue if you can, and make a commitment to spay/neuter your animal before even one litter is born. When dogs can be treated like garbage, it's clear that there are too many of them available in the world today. Take in a dog that no one else wants, and perhaps we can reduce the number of dogs in shelters and ensure that all of the creatures that are here are warm, fed and wanted.

This story is sad, but let's hope it's the last one we hear about. We all need to work hard to make sure that this doesn't happen in the future.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Puppy boot camp: A solution when good dogs go bad

Liam the pug looking up
Even this wee guy can get willful.
When I feel sick, upset or stressed out, my pug dog is my go-to therapist. Whether I'm sitting quietly and petting his silky ears, or I'm watching him run around the living room at top speed with an expression of sheer joy on his face, Liam is sure to help lift my low mood. Unfortunately, he *is* a dog, and if my bleak feelings stay in place for a bit too long, his inner dictator comes out and he makes a grab at power.

Naturalistic writers are quick to suggest that dogs like stable packs, just as wolves do, and a sick human at the top of the pack causes distress for the rest of the group, forcing one underling to take charge and put things back in order. I'm not so sure that Liam channels his wolf when I am a little under the weather for a day or two, but like most dogs, he is quick to take advantage of the situation. My normally obedient dog "forgets" his commands, terrorizes the other pets and begins to pull on the leash while we're on walks. This is mild dictatorship only because I tend to move fast when I see it happening.

Dogs seem to like to win a series of tiny challenges, allowing them to build up their confidence and power one small step at a time. Forcing a dog to lose some of these battles can stop an emerging problem from escalating. For Liam, this means entering Puppy Boot Camp, and the rules are pretty strict:
  1. Liam must sit before all open doors and let me walk through them first.
  2. Liam must let me go up or down the stairs before he can do the same. 
  3. Liam must sleep on the floor, in his bed.
  4. Liam must be invited to sit on my lap while I'm on the couch. 
  5. Liam must not pull on the leash, or he'll have an enforced 1-minute "sit" break. (This can make walks take an eternity.) 
  6. Liam must sit and wait for 1 minute before eating the food in his bowl. 
  7. Liam must do a trick before I will throw the ball. 
All of these little draconian rules are designed to reinforce that I am in charge and I am the top of the pack. After a few days of this, Liam usually gets the picture and he's once again a cheerful and obedient little guy, but it doesn't work on all dogs. My Boston terrier, for example, needed about a week's worth of Puppy Boot Camp before he would cede control to me, and he would sometimes escalate his power grab in the early days. Small refusals to follow commands would suddenly erupt into growling sessions. Thankfully, Liam doesn't seem to want to be in control all that much, and a few gentle reminders of the order of things seems to do the trick.

From time to time, people ask me how to get a handle on a dog's poor behavior, and when I start to outline some of these steps, people look at me as though I was some kind of horrible dog abuser. It's hard not to find that reaction a little amusing. Dogs really LIKE to know who is in charge, and they only act up with willfulness when they think the humans aren't doing a good enough job of controlling the world they live in. By taking control, we're doing dogs a favor and allowing them to be just dogs, not Protectors Of All Things. It's really the nicest thing a person can do.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

5 ways to help very sick kitty

Eamon the cat sleeping on top of the heating vent
Eamon blocking the heating vent with his body.
Sadly, I think I know more about sick-cat nursing than anyone else on the entire planet. Eamon has been sick so many times in his 11+ years that it seems like I am always trying something new to keep his heart beating for another day. While I can't say that I'm an expert at babying all sick cats, these are a few things I've found helpful in assisting my own kitty when he's a little under the weather.

1. Crank up the heat. 

Sick cats can't seem to get enough of heat sources, but my cat won't hang out in his bed when he's sick. Using heating pads or heating disks is worthless when the cat avoids the beds like the plague. Heating up the house seems like a better option, as it allows the cat to choose where he'd like to recuperate.

2. Swap out the water. 

Cats need a LOT of water to stay healthy, and a lot of cats are really picky about the water they'll deign to slip into their mouths. When Eamon is under the weather, I try to help by changing his water daily (instead of following my usual twice-weekly routine).

3. Warm up the food. 

Cats seem to prefer wet food that's a little bit stinky, and warming up wet food in the microwave is a great way to up the stink factor. Use caution, however, as food that's heated too much can become too hot for a cat to snack on. A few seconds is really all it takes.

4. Avoid incessant checking. 

When Eamon is sick, I am tempted to poke and prod at him all of the time, just to make sure he's still alive and well. However, the more I poke at him, the more he becomes nervous and unable to relax. I strive for drive-by checks, where I get a visual on him but keep my hands to myself. This seems to be an okay middle ground for us.

5. Call with questions. 

Hopping on the Internet to diagnose a cat illness is never a good idea. I always emerge from these research sessions feeling much more upset than I was before I turned on the computer. Veterinarians are the best source for health information, and if the cat is punky, a call is in order.