Friday, September 26, 2008

Reading with Dogs - Great Programs for Children

I love to read. It has been one of my favorite pastimes since I was a child. My mother used to read to me and taught me to read long before I went to school. Not every child has that sort of interaction and not every child feels comfortable with books, with reading aloud in the classroom, sounding out the words, enjoying the stories. 

One way to facilitate childhood reading, especially for children who are shy or have problems with reading, is to bring a dog into the classroom and have the child read to the dog. The dog, unlike a human, doesn't criticize, doesn't pass judgement, or cause the child to feel uncomfortable in any way. Studies have shown that reading to a dog reduces stress. This can help facilitate reading. 

Reading programs that include a dog have proven to be very successful.  Therapy Dogs International has a reading program (, as does Therapy Animals ( whose program is called R.E.A.D. - Reading Education Assistance Dogs.  There's Reading with Rover ( and there are more.

These programs are community-based, facilitated with local dog/owner teams who have passed tests for going into schools and/or libraries and allowing the children to read to their dog. 

What do the children read? They read a variety of books but I've discovered one new series that is geared to dog facilitated reading programs. Written by Robert J. McCarty and illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty, the Planet of the Dogs series is geared to children of all ages. 

The first in the series, Planet of the Dogs is the story of the very first time that dogs arrived on our planet to teach people about love and to save the farmers of Green Valley from the invasion of the Stone City warriors. Castle in the Mist is the 2nd book in the series. In this book the dogs return to earth from out in space, on the other side of the sun. This time they arrive to prevent war and free kidnapped children from the Castle in the Mist. 

Coming in October is the third book in the series, Snow Valley Heroes, which is the story of how the dogs saved Christmas.

This delightful series, published by Barking Planet Productions, can be purchased separately or together for use in a reading program or at home. More information about these books can be found at:

Any one of these books would make for a delightful - and one would assume cherished - gift for any child. All three would be an amazing reading adventure.

The books are available from your favorite online bookstore. Find the reading program nearest you. If a reading with dogs program doesn't yet exist in your community, you might want to work towards that goal. 

Every child deserves the magical escape found in a good book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Puppy Mill Awareness Day

Puppy mills. I've talked about them before. The dogs are bred nearly to death, puppies are raised in cages, crammed together like badly treated livestock. Actually, that's what they are, they're certainly not beloved housepets or family members. They live in wire cages, eat there, eliminate there and live in filth, seldom having human touch or caring. Certainly there is no socialization. Puppies are then taken away from mothers too young by "bunchers," put into trucks and taken to pet shops. Sometimes they don't make it and die in the truck. Often they're sick and die at the pet shop or soon after they are sold at an inflated price to a new owner.

The price is what they think the market will bear, with markups for the buncher, the pet shop, etc. They are sold for more than a pet quality puppy from a reputable breeder, or for the same price. What you won't get from a puppy mill pup is a chance to meet at least one of the parents, see proof of health screenings before breeding, you won't have a healthy, well-socialized pup well on its way to being housetrained. They have every chance of having behavior problems. In fact, it's the rare puppy mill pup who won't.

Some pet shops are fancier than others and they talk about getting their puppies from "breeders" but look at the registration papers and see where those pups originated. Chances are very good that it will be one of the hearts of puppy mill country.

September 20, 2008 is Puppy Mill Awareness Day. I wish every day were Puppy Mill Awareness Day. Here are two websites where you can learn more about it:

I hope you'll take time to think about this issue, learn more about it. Don't be fooled by the puppy mill, the backyard breeder, or the commercial breeder who claims to do testing and have "socializers." There is nothing like a dedicated breeder, one who does all of the testing, knows their pups well, start housetraining and often simple behaviors like Sit, Down, Stay, Come before the pups go to their new homes. They lose money on every litter. The pups are family members and are matched to their owners.

Most people spend more time learning about cars before buying one than they do about dogs and puppies. Take time to learn and be sure you and your new pup are off to a good start.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dispelling Some Old Cat Myths

I don't know why but people attribute all sorts of things to cats that simply aren't true. They're "Old Wives' Tales" (or should we say "tails?") and I'd love to know who started them and why! It's all patently unfair.
The biggest myth about cats, across the board, is that they're solitary creatures who can take care of themselves and don't need much attention if any at all.  To which I can only respond: HUH?!  Are you kidding??!  Let's get this straight right now: Cats are solitary hunters but they are very social. Observing feral cats it has been found that they group together in what is called a "clowder." Yes, dogs form a "pack,' cats form a "clowder." When we bring them into our home we become their family, part of their clowder.  
Cats love attention and affection but they're not exactly like dogs which is where people make a huge mistake. Cats don't want to be stared at or approached first. They want to observe and make the first move. Look away.  Put one finger out and down at the cat's level and let the cat sniff it. This is polite behavior to a cat. 
Cats need attention, affection and interaction. Use an interactive toy to play with your cat and be sure to put it away between play sessions so your cat won't get into trouble with the string or any feathers or wires.
Another myth is that cats need to be outdoors. That's one of the most dangerous myths because your cat can be attacked by another animal, hit by a car, or otherwise be endangered. Your cat belongs in the house with you with lots of vertical space to go up, a nice view from at least one window, a scratching post and a cat tree, each with a sturdy base that won't tip over, fresh water and fresh food and clean litterboxes. Experiment with a variety of toys to see what your cat likes best. Some like balls, some like pipecleaner toys, trackball toys, soft toys to carry around, etc. Most like a variety from which to choose.
Leaving your cat alone for the weekend is not a good idea from a safety standpoint as well as the fact that he will be lonely. Just because you don't have to take him out for a walk doesn't mean that he doesn't need attention! And, yes, some cats enjoy being walked on a harness and leash.
You can train a cat. They can do just about anything a dog can do and respond very well to operant conditioning (clicker training).  This is also a way to keep your cat's mind engaged as well as exercise his body.  There is also cat agility and, perhaps, your cat would enjoy doing that. 
Frankly, you will get out of a cat what you put into it, just like any other relationship. A little love and attention will be returned more times than you can count. To quote an old TV commercial: try it, you'll like it! 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Responsible Breeders

I'm often asked to recommend a "good breeder." The breed always varies but the desire is the same. The problem is that I don't need one hand on which to count the people I personally consider to be "good," ergo "responsible and ethical" breeders. My standards are high and I see no reason why breeders shouldn't meet them. Sadly, I find that while many breeders call themselves responsible, you don't have to look far below the surface to see that they talk the talk but don't necessarily walk the walk.
I've detailed what I expect in "Small Dogs, Big Hearts." I don't think it's too much to ask to see at least one of the parents on the premises, to see clearances for health testing done before breeding for any genetic diseases that occur in the individual breed, to ask for a health guarantee to a reasonable age. All puppies should be clean and healthy and have a separate elimination place. The breeder should be properly socializing the puppies and starting their training as well as teaching them about the human-animal bond. And the breeder should be keeping the pups, preferably to at least 12 weeks while socializing the pups. If the breeder isn't socializing the puppies properly (a situation that must continue throughout the dog's life) then the earliest the pup should go to its new home is 8 or 10 weeks. The later, the better.
I have finally found a book that I can refer both breeders and potential pet owners to that details exactly what breeders should be doing and it is written by someone who walks the walk. Jerry Hope, CDBC, is a breeder, judge, trainer and behavior consultant in Georgia whose book, "The Breeder's Guide to Raising Superstar Dogs," is a must read for everyone who cares about dogs. I have a few minor differences with what should be done with Toy dogs but that's very minor. This is a book I'm happy to see available to the general public. And I hope more breeders will adopt Hope's program which includes thorough socialization, training and use of the bio-sensor program which is carefully outlined in Hope's book which is available at Amazon.
Add this one to your collection. You won't regret it. Too many dogs end up in shelters because they've had a poor start in life and have behavior problems for one reason or another. This book can go a long way in helping to prevent that.
I'd like to see what would happen if cat breeders adopted this program. Cats develop at different stages from dogs but I think this would be a worthy experiment to create better feline companions as well. It's certainly food for thought.