Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Not-so-Great Dane video: Patience ≠ Permission

Before reading my post, please watch this video, (sorry I’m unable to embed here for convenience.)

To summarize the video for those that couldn’t see, it shows a great dane being used as a piece of furniture by a toddler.  She crawls around on him, playing to the camera, digging her elbow, feet, knees, hands and butt into the dog while she mumbles and her parents record proudly.  The video is called “Why Great Danes are Great!” and the description says: “One very patient Great dane and one adorable little girl. Listen for her to sing her Bumble bee song.”

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.  This dog is indeed very patient, and very tolerant.  That doesn’t mean that the poor thing is okay with what is happening to it.  In fact, from the very beginning of the video, the dog looks uncomfortable.  He is offering stress signals as though he is reading them from a text book.  Initially, he blinks, looks away, and then starts to pant rapidly.  Throughout the video, the dog avoids eye contact with the camera/mother and the child.  His ears are drawn back.  He yawns.  The little girl tries to grab his face to give him a kiss and he pulls away- gently, but deliberately.  These are clear signs of distress.  As he tries hard to convey his discomfort, the mother says, “wanna try and give him a kiss again?”  At this point, the little girl stands and kneels on the dog, her knee jamming into his back as she steps on his hip/haunch with her other foot.  The response from behind the camera? “Climb careful.”

At this point, the dog would be completely within its rights to bite this child.  The fact that he doesn’t speaks volumes for this dog’s temperament.  The little girl now sits on the dog like a bench and slides her butt across his ribs, scooting closer to his face.  The dog freezes, lips tight, head down, moving only his eyes to make indirect contact with the offending toddler.  She bends forward and gives him a kiss on the head while he is in this state.  This is so dangerous.  A dog that freezes has moved beyond simple stress signals.  Freezing is a WARNING sign, and is often followed by fight-or-flight type response.   The family continues to give her instructions on what to do next, and she begins using her bottom to rock back and forth on the dog’s ribcage as she plays with his ear. “Dane,” the dog, is holding his breath.  This lasts for around a minute, the dog staying frozen in place as the girl’s parents tell her to move closer to his front, and then she starts singing and clapping her hands with her arms outstretched fully, right in the dog’s peripheral vision.  He yawns, tightens his ears closer to his head, and begins panting again.  He looks away, pulling away from her clapping hands.  His brow is now significantly furrowed as he looks back and forth.  The little girl eventually climbs onto him entirely, laying on him like he’s a mattress, while still fidgeting so that her legs are rolling around on his ribs.  He has now frozen again, brow still furrowed, ears pinned, lips tight, holding his breath. She digs her elbow into the base of his neck and then puts her face against him.  She sticks her foot in between his body and his haunch (I call this the “legpit”) and pushes into it.  He does not move.  The father says “say nighty night,” and shortly thereafter this 2 and a half minute dog torture session comes to an end.  I shuddered at the words “nighty night” because it was clear that this family had no idea that they were putting their child at risk by allowing this behavior.

I’m not sure which is more abusive, the physical discomfort that this dog has to be going through because dogs are not pack horses and are not meant to be sat on, ridden, stood on, etc, and great danes in particular are prone to a lot of pain-riddled health issues like dysplasia and arthritis; or the blatant disregard of the dog’s gestures meant to put an end to this uncomfortable situation.  I am concerned about the behavior that this little girl believes is acceptable due to the encouragement of her parents and how this will progress into more painful abuse of the dog, but more importantly, I’m concerned that the dog will be pushed beyond its tolerance threshold one day and will respond naturally, only to be euthanized as a “dangerous” dog.  In the case of great dane vs. toddler, could mean serious or even fatal injury to the girl.

Body language is so important to dogs.  They can’t say, “I am uncomfortable with this” in English.  This dog spends the duration of this video using stress signals because it is the only way he knows how to convey that this situation is upsetting him.  When you ignore- or are simply ignorant about- the signals a dog gives to you, sometimes it creates a scenario where the dog now feels as though he must increase the level of his signals.  This could mean that he escalates to a growl, or it could be a snap- with or without body contact.  Sometimes, though, the dog simply feels compelled to attack- and why shouldn’t he?  Obviously his signals are not working, and he has to protect himself if his adult caretakers will not take action to defend him.  The family will then say, “he just TURNED on us.  He was always so good with her… he even let her climb on him.  This was totally unprovoked!”

Don’t let your dog or child pay the ultimate price.  Learn about canine body language and how to read the signals your dog is sending.

Here are some resources to help you:

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary guide to help demonstrate dog body language.

Dog bite prevention post by Dr. Sophia Yin.

This excellent post by my friend Tena uses photos as a guide to help understand ways a dog may signal that it is uncomfortable.

Books on canine body language:

Canine Body Language: a Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff.

Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Dog Behavior by Roger Abrantes (note, I have had this one recommended to me but have not read it)

Canine Behavior: a Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman (tons of photos, I’ve not read the whole thing but lots of good information.)

If books aren’t your thing or you want to see dogs in action displaying different behaviors:

The Language of Dogs: Understanding Canine Body Language and other Communication Signals (DVD) by Sarah Kalnajs



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Defining success: I didn’t go to college

Some classrooms don't have a blackboard.

Recently I was asked if I would consider going to college, and told I should look into it.  This is something I’ve heard repeatedly over the years.  I knew when I was in high school that I didn’t want to go to college.  I don’t deal well with social situations anyway, typically, but I especially didn’t want to spend so much of my time with people I didn’t know, in a culture I didn’t care for, to get a degree in something I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue.  I had been accepted to an art school when I was sixteen, but due to family finances and my parents telling me that I would have trouble making money as an artist, I had to turn that down.

As a high school freshman, I began working in a retail store locally. I was pretty good at my job, but it was an easy job to be good at.  I was placed at the service desk  often where I really enjoyed helping people. I was lucky to have that job, even if it was only a tiny bit above minimum wage, but eventually I started feeling  disconnected from it.  I knew that this job was just filler, not a career. A year and a half or so after high school graduation, I saw a listing for a part time kennel worker at the Humane Society, and thought that I would really like to try it.  When I was told that I had been chosen for the job, my heart sang.  I really wanted to try this.  It seemed like a dream job.  I worked morning shifts and some weekends at the shelter and continued working at the retail store part time.

I discovered pretty quickly that working at a shelter really isn’t a dream job.  Some days it’s a nightmare.  What it is, though, is fulfilling.  Even on the sad days, you know you’ve made a positive impact on the lives of animals- and often people- that need you.  This isn’t enough for some folks, and shelters have a high turnover rate because of that.  I couldn’t imagine not working with the animals, though.  I loved my job, even though I was underpaid, stressed out and had to say goodbye to animals that I loved and cherished.   I realized something then: for better or worse, this is what I want to do with my life.  I’m good at it.  Maybe it’s my calling, if you believe in things like that.    From the moment I cleaned the first cat cage at that shelter in 2003 until present day, I have been completely immersed in my work, helping homeless animals.  I was only 22 when I founded my animal rescue.  In different paid shelter positions as well as my position in STAR, I have spent a lot of time educating pet owners and even other rescuers because of the knowledge and experience I’ve obtained over the years- much of which couldn’t have been learned from a professor.  If I had gone to college, would I have taken the path that I am on?  Would it be better if I wasn’t?  I sort of get the feeling sometimes that it’s what people think- that I could be something different, better, had I chosen another route.

I realize that business classes might make me more efficient at what I do, or that having any career would help me earn money to take care of myself and the pets here so my husband wouldn’t have to support us- but our financial situation is our business, no one else’s.  At the end of the day, does my level of education or the wages I earn (or rather, don’t earn) really make me less of a person?

So have I “thought about going to college?” Sure, and I’ve decided it’s not something I want to do.  I know that questions like this are meant to be thoughtful and caring, and that people that ask them are doing so because to them, there is significant value attached to going to college and that it could help me to “do more,” somehow.  My husband has a college degree in a field that he didn’t pursue.  Five years of schooling, thousands of dollars that we’re still paying off and probably will be for years, and he found a job he enjoys that his degree has no bearing on.  No, I didn’t go to college, and I don’t plan on it.  You don’t have to believe that I took the right path.  I will continue to grow and hope that if I become successful, it is in doing something that I love and that makes a difference.

And though I may not know the answers,
I can finally say I’m free.
And if the questions lead me here, then
I am who I was born to be.
Susan Boyle, Who I was Born to Be

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Life for a rescue foster

Recently, we have had to deny some applications.  These people are nice, caring folks who, for one reason or another, didn’t meet the criteria for the pet in particular they were interested in adopting.  Two of these applicants were sure to tell me that they were disappointed by my selfish behavior, denying my fosters a “chance at a loving home.”  One suggested that I didn’t actually want to find homes for the animals in my care, and another asked “isn’t any home better than staying where she is?”  One applicant wasn’t denied, but she withdrew her application because I asked questions that weren’t on the application.

The misconception that animals in rescue are in need of rescue is one that I hear all the time.  When you adopt a pet from my organization, you’re not rescuing it from me.  You’re contributing to the rescue process, an admirable and fantastic choice, but please stop to think about what you’re implying when you suggest that foster care is a bad thing.

Noble and Sully were cats that lived outside on a hoarder’s property, eating cat food that was dumped on a piece of vinyl siding every several days. They’d never seen a vet, had to find their own shelter under broken-down cars or in the neighboring woods, and went without food for sometimes days.

We arranged for transport and the cats were removed in the nick of time.  The hoarder that owned the animals was so distraught when the first group left that she refused to let rescuers back to remove the rest of them.  I drove almost two hours to meet Noble and Sully’s transport, picking them up at around midnight.  They had had accidents in the carrier they were brought up in, and so in the back of my car I moved them to clean bedding in new carriers, and settled in for the drive home.  Once I got back, I was tired but had to clean them up before I could go to bed.  I bathed both cats with Dawn to kill the fleas and ticks that were on them, then again in a soothing oatmeal shampoo.  I cut their nails and gave them exams.  The Siamese was underweight by a few pounds and missing some teeth.  He had an upper respiratory infection but all things considered, he was strong and “healthy.”  The orange cat was another story.  He is a tall, large cat but he stood in front of me as a skeleton.  Emaciated, he weighed less than five pounds.  He was so thin that I could close my thumb and middle finger around his waist.  I found that he was missing almost all of his teeth, his eye socket was infected, and a film covered his remaining eye.  He appeared to be blind, though over the weeks we realized that he does have vision in that eye.  I set the cats up with high quality canned food and kibble, started them on antibiotics, dewormer and ear mite medication, and I fell into bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning.  They remained quarantined in our large bathroom for the next month or so.

Noble before and after

Sully quickly recovered from his respiratory infection, gained back his weight, and kicked his parasites.  He was neutered and had a dental cleaning.  With two more feedings per day than the rest of the cats in the house, Noble has DOUBLED his weight and is still lean but a healthy and sleek body shape, and his infections and parasites are gone.  His right eye wasn’t missing but instead, underdeveloped, and so it was removed when he was neutered.  He continues to do well but seems to have irritable bowels.  We were hoping this was a result of his starvation and that good diet and some steroid therapy would help him on the right track, but we are still managing it and attempting to get it under control. Both cats tested negative for feline lekemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. They are now up to date on vaccines and have been microchipped.

Sully recently, looking the picture of health!

The boys now live with our cats, freely roaming our home, getting attention when they seek it, playing with toys, getting into trouble (I’m-looking-at-you-Sully,) and enjoying a life they might never have had otherwise.  Sully spends every night plastered to us like static cling, and Noble takes the morning shift.  They have pet beds scattered throughout the house, play and receive enrichment daily, and they are cared for as we care for our own pets.

Rescuers are, with few exceptions, just doing the best they can to find permanent homes for the pets in their care.  When we take in these animals, care for them as though they were our own,  spend money from our pockets and time from our days to be sure their needs are met, we aren’t fulfilling our own agenda.  We don’t know you personally, you are strangers to us.  If we don’t approve your application for Sully because we don’t believe cats should live outdoors and you prefer yours to live that way, I’m not making a judgment of your character, it simply means that we are not a good fit for each other.  If you are denied for one of our pets because you don’t believe in going to a vet, I’m not snubbing you.  I’ve seen the good that comes from routine exams and medical care and that is what I want for my rescue’s pets.  When I ask questions, please don’t take it personally, I just want to get to know you.  They’re not numbers whizzing through a facility, in danger of euthanasia any day.  Foster homes are not your standard dog, cat, guinea pig, rat, etc. lovers.  We have created a lifestyle around caring for animals that needed advocates, giving them our time, money, and our hearts.  I care about you, and what you are looking for, but that can’t be my first priority.  Maybe my decision has caused us to miss out on a fabulous home- yours- but please understand why I’d rather pass up a good thing than make a decision that could result in stress or tragedy for our fosters.

One more thing- now that you know this, please don’t think that these animals don’t need adopted and that you are better off going elsewhere.  Foster homes often help animals that aren’t ready for adoption, and so adopting from us means opening up space and giving another animal a chance that they wouldn’t have.  Those fearful dogs that have never stepped outside puppy mills, animals like Noble who have health issues that need sorted out, they need foster care.  Adopting from a foster home benefits you in that you have a first-hand account of your new pet’s behavior that you probably couldn’t get from a shelter, and it opens up space for animals that need the specialized care a foster home can provide.

Thank you to everyone that fosters, adopts, or applies to adopt.  You are part of the rescue community and you are making a difference.  I’m sorry if it didn’t work out between us, but I still wish you the best.

Noble supervises from the arm of my recliner while I write this blog post!

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Filed under Make a Difference, Pets, Philosophy, Rescue

2011, a year in review

Tumors, cancers, kidney issues, death. New family members, awards, media attention.  New car, trying to get rid of the old house.  Attempts to turn the corner to a new life with our animals and rescue work. Two-thousand-eleven was too emotional. I’m hoping for more peace and calm in 2012.


Started the year on Jan 2nd with our first rescue intake: Willow.

Adopted JB, Linus and Hurley from Small Angels (my first pet rats!)

Linus was diagnosed with advanced scarring from a mycoplasma-related respiratory infection.

Jonas came back to live with us after being in a home with a good friend for three years.


L’orange was diagnosed with cancer.

Bunny went missing from her “forever” home. My heart broke irreparably; I haven’t been able to pick up the pieces.

Launched into action to try and maximize the chances that we would find her (and her companion, Brock) but they were never seen again. STAR made two papers with the dogs’ story.


JB the rat developed a tumor.

Dover was the last of my dogs to receive his Canine Good Citizenship certification!

I was interviewed for a local paper for the rescue!

Cody, a mixed breed dog, was pulled from a shelter to go to an aussie rescue that agreed to take him.  He stayed here for a week before going to rescue, and four days later, they gave up on him.  We placed him in a new home to become (hopefully) a search and rescue dog.


Sowen was hospitalized and had emergency surgery for urinary tract blockages.

Murphy was returned to the rescue after a serious dog bite in his home of over three years. We strived to give him sanctuary here.

I was featured in another newspaper article.


Murphy’s dog aggression was severe and we felt we couldn’t house him here permanently.  He was euthanized.

JB was euthanized due to his tumor.

L’orange continued to go to the vet regularly.

Barney the basset/beagle with an injured leg arrived from Kentucky, at the time it was the longest transport into rescue that we’d ever had.

We took in Maia and Maddox as an emergency, dogs with porcupine quills that had been found at a gas station.

Hailey arrived.


We bought our first new car, Scooby the Subie Forester.

Lots of vet trips, as usual.


We acquired Yoda the degu.

Hailey was a demo dog in a Patricia McConnell seminar. I got to accompany a few others for dinner with Dr. McConnell that evening, one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.

I attended a Dr. Dodds seminar the next day.

Eleven fantastic lab rats came to live with us.

Linus lost his fight with his respiratory problems and he was euthanized.

Gale and Zephyr, two foster pigs, became permanent after Gale developed cystic ovaries.


Seminar with Nicole Wilde.

Mom had surgery on her leg and did just fine.

George broke his leg somehow…

Girlfriend passed away at the vet. She wasn’t sick until the day we took her in. Appeared to be kidney issues.

Performed a small miracle to get Frawley the English setter up here from Alabama, and it worked!

Noble and Sully’s transport came together and they were brought up from a horrible neglect situation.

Saw Phantom of the Opera as it toured for the last time.

Neville joined the family.

Moo was diagnosed with kidney disease.


L’orange was also diagnosed with kidney disease, just a few days after Moo.

Saw Wicked the musical.

We lost Ross’s maternal grandmother, Elsie.She was so full of love and light, and is sorely missed.


I had a photo shoot for Pittsburgh Magazine because of the 40 Under 40 Award that I was chosen to accept.

Peanut the rabbit was returned to the rescue with a severe head tilt and transferred to Rabbit Wranglers for rehabilitation, and we got Bugsy in exchange.

We began house hunting, sort of.


Sweetpea, one of the lab rats, passed away.

I was honored with the Pittsburgh 40 Under 40 Award for public service.

Milo was returned to the rescue for a bite, and is getting the chance we couldn’t give Murphy earlier in the year.


Frawley was adopted!

Peachblossom, another of the lab rats, passed away in her cage.

SERIOUSLY started looking into house hunting and a new home. Applied for loan pre-approval.  Wish us luck, our goal in 2012 is to move on to the next chapter of our lives- somewhere else!

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