Thursday, February 25, 2010

Flawed Dogs

Flawed Dogs is a book by Berkeley Breathed, the Pulitzer-prize-winning creator of the comic strip Opus. I read it yesterday afternoon. (Yes, you can read it in an afternoon -- and it has some really quirky artwork.)
As with the Super Bowl ad I liked, I may get some flak for saying this, but I loved the book. It takes a decidedly twisted view on purebreds versus "flawed dogs," but it's one that equates well with how I feel about dogs.
I will admit that Mr. Breathed either doesn't know all that much about dog shows or doesn't feel a need to portray them accurately (Westminster figures large in the plot), but he gets some of the flavor right. And choosing a show-groomed Poodle as one of the villains of the piece allows him to focus on some of the more over-the-top aspects of dog shows. (Okay - may as well dive completely in. I mean, if dog shows are supposed to determine the best of the breeding stock, then what does how you trim the coat have to do with it? Or crop the ears? And that's not even getting into the hairspray and chalk!)
Anyway, a Dachshund with the Duuglitz tuft (a mythical sign of Dachshund perfection) is the protagonist, and because of the Poodle and other events, he becomes a "flawed dog." And he leads other flawed dogs in a scheme of revenge that, at the end, turns into an act of redemption.
Anyway, if you aren't too easily offended by some downgrading of the dog fancy, it's a quick and bright and entertaining little book.
Now it's back to Junk Science and my continued dismay at the state of affairs, particularly in the U.S., regarding scientific literacy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Updates on Dogs and the Law

Two items of interest crossed my desk this morning. The first, thanks to a friend in Germany, concerns Switzerland and a vote they are about to take.
I didn't know, so I expect many of you may not either, that Switzerland is a true direct democracy. Citizens can collect signatures to bring an initiative to a full vote of the populace. Some Swiss have done just that, collecting over 100,000 signatures to bring a vote on requiring domestic animals to be represented by a lawyer in court. In cases of alleged abuse, a Swixx canton (similar to our states) would have to appoint a special attorney to represent the animal's side of the matter. Supporters say the current laws aren't strong enough to secure convictions against those suspected of animal cruelty, so having a court-appoint attorney to act on behalf of the animals is necessary.
The second is closer to home. In California, the majority leader of the state Senate, Dean Florez, has proposed that animal abusers be placed on the same level as sex offenders by listing them in an online registry, complete with home addresses and places of employment. A person would have to be convicted of a felony involving animal cruelty to make the list, but would then have to register with police and provide the state informaiton as well as a current photograph.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, promoting the registry, says that there is a proven link between those who abuse animals and those who perform other forms of violence. An out-of-state attorney notes that such a list could be valuable in tracking people who run puppy mills, animal fighting rings, or who are just hoarders, as such people often just pick up and move if authorities get too close.
Mr. Florez recently helped establish an Animal Protection Caucus, and thinks he has the votes to more the measure forward. He comes from the farming-friendly Central Valley, and thinks that will also help his cause.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ban on Sales of Pets, Events at Westminster

There were two news brief items in my local paper relating to dogs.
The first announces that in West Hollywood City the city council voted unanimously to ban stores from selling dogs and cats "in a move aimed at curbing puppy mills and kitty factories." The law goes into effect in September. Pet shops will be permitted to offer animals from shelters, but not to sell pets for their own profit. The brief says 'Officials acknowledged the new ordinance would have little bite," so perhaps there are no stated penalties, or they don't plan on making any effort at enforcement.
It's not a bad idea. If people want purebred dogs, they can go to breeders, and if they just want a dog, they can go to the shelter or a rescue organization. But another statement in the brief, saying that the city "formally recognizes pets as companions and their owners as guardians," does give me pause. This is the wording of the animal rights folks, so it is possible that the city council is being lead by that agenda, and doesn't really know where they're heading.
In any event, the law itself isn't a bad one, but if it isn't going to be enforced, I don't know how much good it's going to do. And if the next step is mandatory spay/neuter for all dogs, then it's a scary start.
On a completely different note, right next to this brief was one about Westminster, titled "Top do crowned after animal rights touted." I'm sure this wasn't something that was shown on tv coverage, but just before Best in Show, two women apparently walked into center ring and help up signs reading "Mutts rule" and "Breeders kill shelter dogs' chances." Again, I'm not opposed to the "mutts rule" slogan, as I have a long line of shelter dogs myself. But the "breeders kill shelter dogs' chances" is another clever slogan popularized by PETA, who does their own fair bit of dog killing in their supposed "shelter." The brief notes that the "crowd gasped, then booed the women and cheered as security ushered them away without incident."
Both of these items point up that PETA is very good at what they do, as well as being a very efficient money collecting machine. The average dog lover needs to look a little deeper at what they support, or someday we could be legislated out of owning our beloved dogs. And yes, we do own them.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympics and Dogs

Overall, I think the coverage of these winter Olympics has been rather poor. They show one pair skate, break for commercial, come back for their scores, break for commercial, whip you away to some snowboard event, break for commercial, do a taped piece, and on and on. You sort of lost the drama of competition because they dilute it to last all night.
But that has nothing to do with dogs. I have noticed that in their little "get to know the athletes" pieces, dogs are mentioned rather frequently. A skier lives on a farm with his four dogs, another skier named her dog for a past competitor she admires. But here's the one that really caught my attention. American pair skater Jeremy Bennett (I think I got that right) has a scar on his left cheek. The commentators noted it, and said that when he was a boy, the family Greyhound bit Jeremy in the face. His parents were going to put the dog down, and young Jeremy proclaimed that he loved that dog, and he would run away from home if his parents had it killed. The dog was spared.
I was bit by a dog when I was young - not my own dog, because I wasn't allowed to have one, but one of the many neighborhood dogs I associated with regularly. (I was also bitten, more severely, by a horse, by the way.) It did nothing at all to put me off of dogs. In both the dog and horse bite cases, I tried to hide the damage for fear that my parents would take the next step of forbidding me to associate with animals.
This is a testament to how strong this human-animal bond can be -- it can't be damaged even by "attack" by one of the partners. I think some people just innately understand that animals do us a world of good, and will do all they can to keep associating with them.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Super Bowl Ads

One of the first ads out of the gate once the Super Bowl got started was a Doritos spot featuring a young male sitting on a park bench eating Doritos, and a dog wearing an anti-bark shock collar. For anyone who didn't see it, you can take a look a But this is the gist --
The dog comes up to the guy, begging for a Dorito. The guy notes the anti-bark collar, holds up a Dorito, and says "You want this? You have to speak." The dog wisely does not oblige, but does move off, take off the shock collar with his paws (in an anatomical impossibility, of course, but hey, this is fantasy), then moves behind the bench and puts the shock collar on the guy. The dog then barks, which shocks, the guy, he falls off the bench, and the dog has his head in the Doritos bag, eating happily. When the guy starts to get up, the dog barks again, and the guy flops around on the ground like a fish.
This was a big hit in my household. I don't know what the ad agency intended viewers to think (other than buy Doritos), but I view it as a perfect example of the just comeuppance of the unthinking young male who thinks it is funny to shock the dog. I am not painting all young males with this brush, but there seems to be a substantial segment who find great humor in things like shock collars and potty jokes (reference the popularity of any number of recent Adam Sandler or Jack Black movies). And having a dog turn the tables, get what he wants, and shock the offending human in the bargain was pretty funny to me.
I have heard from others that they were offended by the violence, or upset that this was meant to be humorous. And I can't help them. If you're offended by this level of violence, with it happening to the "right" party, then how do you exist in the world? And if you can't see humor as an effective weapon against things such as shock collars, then you're missing the boat. I mean, come on, I had a very small part in writing for M*A*S*H, and that was humor used to the utmost advantage to lampoon war.
Of course, the less controversial animal ad was the annual Budweiser Clydesdale feel-good entry, this year with a young Clydesdale befriending a Texas longhorn. That was pleasant. The Denny's screaming chickens got to be annoying by the end of the game, I thought.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dogs' Place in Society

There is a long article in the current New York magazine (don't ask why I read it) entitled "A Dog Is Not a Human Being, Right?". The author, John Homans, subtitled it "The increasingly twisted relationship between man and his best friend." Inside, it's titled/subtitled "The Rise of Dog Identity Politics: Dogs are increasingly rootless souls, country bumpkins in city apartments. But is a vegan pup still an animal?" I started reading with some trepidation, but it turned out to be a fairly balanced article. Mr. Homans lives in the city, and wonders if that is an appropriate life for his Lab mix Stella. "Guilt, along with plastic bags of dog poop, is pretty much a constant in an urban canine-human relationship. Is this any kind of life for a dog?" he asks.
He quotes James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania, with whom I've had some interesting conversations. Serpell notes that, as detailed in the book Bowling Alone, people are living more isolated lives, marriages break down regularly, and all of this coincides with a sharp upswing in the pet population. He says we're using animals to fill the gap in our lives.
Serpell also cites research from Japan that showed an owner's oxytocin levels rise when their dog gazes at them. Oxytocin is a majorly important social-bonding hormone, and a great stress reducer.
Homans notes the industry that has built up around dogs, and notes the financial empire of Cesar Millan (though he refers to his view as "an elaborate fantasy"). He backs that up with a quote from Patricia McConnell that Millan's is a very simplistic view. Then he goes on to reference Peter Sing'ers Animal Liberation, and from there to Ingrid Newkirk and peta. He says plainly that peta dreams of a world in which pets have been abolished, and brings in Nathan Winograd, a no-kill advocate, to debate her. He sees the animal rescue movement as an offshoot of the civil rights struggles of the sixties, a final frontier for universalist ideals. He also notes that despite all the bluster about the need for mandatory spay/neuter laws, euthanasia figures are well down. In a year in the mid-80s 12 million dogs and cats were euthanized, according to ASPCA figures. Now the figure is 3-4 million a year, about half of those dogs. Of course that's still far too many, but look how far we've progressed. Homans reveals Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS as animal rights, calling Pacelle "the silky pony of the animal-rights world, a Yale graduate who looks tremendous in a suit."
Back to Serpell, who notes "The thing about mandatory spay-neuter is that those who are most willing to have their dogs spayed or neutered tend to be responsible people. And often, their dogs also happen to be nice animals in temperament. So what you're doing essentially is taking those dogs out of the breeding population."
Homans notes that the AKC's breed rules are strictly visual, having drifted into the vagaries of fashion rather than usefulness. And he wraps up with a look at euthanasia and the extreme measures that can be undertaken to keep a dog alive.
It was quite an interesting piece of reading, and I commend Mr. Homans for a thorough and thoughtful piece of writing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

DNA Testing for Mixed Breeds

I'm sure you know that there are several tests available now for mixed breed owners to learn the breeds that went into their dogs. The Wisdom Panel test from Mars says they have the most breeds in their DNA databank - 175 currently, I believe. That was the test used by the lecturer at the AVMA Convention who had attendees look at short video clips of mixed breeds and try to identify their breed heritage, then compared it to DNA analysis through the Wisdom Panel.

As I mentioned before, some of the results were pretty surprising, and no one did all that well at getting them right. But I didn't know those dogs, and I assumed that the testing was more accurate than the guessing.

But now I've sent in my Nestle's DNA sample using the Wisdom Panel and recently got back the results. They didn't show any major breed (25% or more of DNA), but they showed two significant breeds (12-1/2% or more of DNA). Unfortunately, those two breeds have made me question the validity of this entire process. The breeds they noted as "significant" were Shetland sheepdog and Boston terrier.

Understand that I'm fully aware that a 4th or 5th generation mixed breed may have a dozen or more breeds intertwined. But this is still a disturbing result. I could maybe fathom a Sheltie somewhere in Nestle's family tree. They are of the herding family at least, though his size, coat, and markings show nothing of a Sheltie heritage. But Boston terrier? Way too small, completely wrong conformation, wrong coloring, to say nothing of temperament.

My guess at Nestle, based on personality, appearance, and size, has always been herding dog (perhaps Kelpie or Border Collie) and sighthound (he looked SO much like a Basenji when I first got him, has outgrown that, but still shows a lot of sighthound characteristics).

So for this analysis to be correct, the remaining 75% of his heritage would have to be a blend of no more than 10% of any one herding and sighthound breed, but be mostly of those two groups to make him what he is. Given that sighthounds are not the most common breeds out there, this seems rather far-fetched.

I still have a Wisdom Panel test yet to do - of Nestle's companion, Diamond - later this month. If those results come back German Shepherd and Irish Setter, I'll know that there's something wrong here!