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Archive for June, 2010

Giving, and getting, at Best Friends

It’s probably the closest thing there is to heaven on earth for dogs (and a lot of other animals, too), a place where — despite abusive pasts, ill health or handicaps — dogs, cats, birds, horses, pigs and more can be rehabilitated enough to find new homes, or, if not, spend the rest of their days in the tranquil, sun-dappled canyons of southern Utah.

A lot of humans are coming to see Best Friends Animal Sanctuary as pretty close to paradise, too – they’re showing up in droves, not just for tours or visits, but to roll up their sleeves and do some work.

There’s something about Best Friends that seems to bring people who have visited once back again — myself included – and, refreshingly, they often return asking not what the animals can do for them, but what they can do for the animals.

My first visit to Best Friends was two years ago, and both the sanctuary and the terrain of southern Utah stuck with me — the way that few things, Mexican food included, do. Photos taken during that visit — while I was still a reporter for the Baltimore Sun –, helped inspire the look and color scheme of ohmidog!, the website I started after leaving the newspaper.

And the mission and staff of Best Friends inspired me as well, as they have millions of others — first with their response during Hurricane Katrina, more recently through the National Geographic Channel’s series, “Dogtown.”

Given that debt, it was only right that I — as about 100 people do every day — showed up at the sanctuary to work as a volunteer.

I was one of about 10 new volunteers going through orientation Tuesday, after making arrangements to do so — a simple matter — on the volunteer section of the Best Friends website.

I’d planned to spend one day, but I’m returning today. Most people spend longer — building a vacation around volunteering at Best Friends, or making it their entire vacation.

Such was the case with Kenzie Wolff, an 11-year-old California girl who, when offered a trip to the location of her choice by her parents as a birthday present, chose to do volunteer work at Best Friends.

She and her parents were staying at one of the guest cottages available at Best Friends (there’s an RV park, too), and she and her mom showed up bright and early to go through the quick orientation.

Kenzie said she got the urge to visit and volunteer after watching “Dogtown.”

“We were watching Dogtown and it seemed really cool, and I went on their website a lot, and all the dogs and animals were really cool. I just really like animals.”

Kenzie, who has a 12-year-old Belgian Malinois named Sophie back home in Laguna Beach — and a cat named Gypsy — was scheduled for a full day of dog duty Tuesday, planned to work with cats today, and to work with dogs and bunnies on Thursday.

She was hoping to invite two animals back to the cottage for sleepovers. Permitting volunteers to take dogs and cats overnight, on trips through the canyon, or even into town, is another unusual aspect of Best Friends volunteer program — a massive operation that seems to run amazingly smoothly and without heavy layers of bureaucracy or bossiness.

For us new volunteers, we were equipped with nametags and orange whistles to blow in case of emergency — such as a dog we’re walking getting loose — and treated to a 10-minute safety video.

The video informed us of the color-coded collar system — green ones for safe and approachable dogs, purple ones for those requiring some caution and red ones for those dogs that staff only can handle.

We were provided with some common sense basics — don’t shout or run around the dogs, don’t throw toys without permission, or engage in tug of war games. Let the dogs approach you, sniff you and get to know you.

A brief talk followed in which we warned to watch out for, and back away from, rattlesnakes, and that, it being lizard season, to make sure to hold tight to leashes, because some dogs are prone to chasing them.

After the briefing, Kenzie and her mom, Peggy, headed for puppy class, where trainer Don Bain uses the volunteers to help socialize newly arrived puppies — generally at 12 weeks of age.

The session takes place in a room set up like a house — complete with refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave and a doorbell. The setting helps increase the chances that the puppies, once adopted, will feel more at home, and decrease the chances of them being returned.

Bain says as many as one in five pups were being returned at one point, but in the past two years, only two have been. “We’re sending out very well-adjusted, socialized puppies now.”

“We try to throw as many people in their puppy faces as we possibly can,” Bain said. In the class, volunteers worked with seven puppies, picking them up, poking and prodding them and getting them used to having humans play with their paws, mouths and ears.

The pups are taught their names, and to sit and lay down. Treats and consistency are the key. “If a puppy wins once, he wins forever,” Bain says.

Kenzie worked with a chocolate ball of fluff named Nike, who came from a rescue in Page, Arizona, and probably from an Indian reservation before that. A birth defect left him without the tip of one of his front paws. It had pads, but no toes or claws. None of which seemed to slow him down a bit.

Kenzie spent the rest of the morning walking dogs, including one with a neurological problem that caused him to go in circles.

After a vegetarian buffet in a dining hall that overlooks the canyons — sweet and sour sesame tofu was the entree — Kenzie spent some time with the old dogs.

When the battery on the family’s rental car died, Best Friends maintenance staff responded within minutes, charging it up and allowing Kenzie and her mom to get to their next assignment.

It’s astounding how so many volunteers can be so calmly and smoothly dispatched to their duties — even amid the pounding of a jackhammer in the front office (more expansion was underway). And it’s all done with kindness and flexibility. Volunteers can come and go from the sanctuary as they please and pursue their individual interests as long as they sign in and out and follow a few simple rules.

As with Kenzie, and as with me (more on my experiences tomorrow), volunteers get far more than they give. I hate to use the phrase “win-win,” but that’s exactly what the situation is. Dogs can grow more social, humans can grow more compassionate. Sure, poop gets scooped and dog bowls get washed, but in Best Friends’ volunteer program, far more than daily chores are getting accomplished.

(Tomorrow: More from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.)

(To read all of “Dog’s Country, from the beginning, click here.)

Taking the road not (previously) taken

Yesterday I came to a fork in the road and, boy, did I ever make the right choice.

It was the road less traveled, except by those visiting the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. It was the road, on a previous trip, I’d not taken, in the interest of saving time.

This time, though, I took Highway 89 A, as in alternate, and it all but took my breath away, partly because we were getting up around 8,000 feet, partly because it was so stunningly beautiful.

Ace and I left Flagstaff around noon, and drove past mountainsides left charred by the still smoldering forest fire that’s being blamed on a campfire not doused.

We passed through Navajo country, resisting the urge, for now, to return to the Hopi reservation, where I once spent an unforgettable week working on a story about Native Americans and war.

In Bitter Springs, we came to the fork. We could bear right, and go up through Page, the less circuitous route and one I’d taken before, or we could take 89A, a highway that all but doubles back on itself, takes one through the Vermillion Cliffs, then winds through Kaibab National Forest.

I realized, as we headed toward Marble Canyon, that for the first time on our trip — though we’d seemed to be in the middle of nowhere several times — this time we really were. You could see almost forever in every direction. You could get out of the car, slowly turn in  a complete circle, and, other than the road you just pulled off, see only nature — no signs of man or his intrusiveness. No houses, no power lines, no telephone poles, no malls or even Indian trading posts, no gas stations, no fences.

Along the way there were only a few outposts of civilization — like Marble Canyon and Cliff Dwellers, where Ace and I stopped for lunch. Cliff Dwellers Lodge and Restaurant welcomes dogs in the lodge, and on the upper portion of the restaurant’s outside patio.

The owners of the lodge have a Newfoundland, and my waiter, who lives at the lodge part of the year, an aging Australian shepherd.

Ace helped me eat sweet potato fries and a roast beef sandwich, all while gazing out an amazing desert view.

After lunch we went back for a closer look at the strangely formed rocks we’d passed on our way into town, though it’s not really a town.

Those included the one to the left, which, in addition to bearing a striking resemblance to Dick Cheney, I think, provided shade for the Navajo women selling jewelry at a roadside stand.

From there it was up into the mountains of Kaibab National Forest, a winding, vista-laden journey, where I stopped at so many pullovers, I think it got on Ace’s nerves — for it meant the air conditioning would be turned off.

As we climbed up, the temperatures cooled, and I rolled down all the windows, sun roof included. Out of nowhere, a summer rain began to fall.

We kept the sun roof open and let the rain splatter us as an amazingly fresh scent filled the car, clearing out the doggie smell and cigarette smoke better than any air freshener ever could.

From there it was all downhill. We sailed through Fredonia and ended up a few miles later at our destination, Kanab, Utah, where today we report for volunteer duty bright and early at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

I’m sure we’ll learn much from that experience, but today’s lesson is this: Always take the winding road.

(To read all of “Dog’s Journey, from the beginning, click here.)

Trying to score some grass in Flagstaff

Ace, while enjoying the wide-open West, seems less than pleased with one of its characteristics. He — and I could be wrongly reading his mind now — is tired of the blistering hot pavement and the pebbles, large and small, that most folks around here opt for when landscaping.

He was longing last night — again I’m mind reading — for a soft green carpet to do his business, which is what led me to approach my Motel 6 neighbors two doors down after seeing they had a dog. They appeared to have been there for a while, based on the clutter in their room, so I figured they knew the ropes.

Ace and I were headed out for a walk, when I spotted them. Not wanting to alarm them or trigger a bad reaction in their dog, I shouted my question from a distance.

“Do you know where I could find some grass around here?”

“What?” the neighbor responded, not able to hear me over the traffic. I shouted louder:

“Do you know where I could find some grass around here?”

The second time I said it,  the double meaning dawned on me. Fortunately, no police cars were passing by, though, who knows, the moment could have been captured for posterity by a security camera. Big Brother is pretty much everywhere these days — from Motel 6 to your more classy joints, like Howard Johnson’s.

Fortunately, too, my motel neighbor took my question with the intended meaning and pointed us down the road, past four more motels, to the Cracker Barrel.

“Cracker Barrel’s got some good grass,” she said.

She was right. Ace sniffed it for 30 minutes, watered it three times, and gently dropped a load (subsequently scooped) upon it. By then, I was ready to get back to the room, but he lay down in it, knowing it would be more hot pavement and pebbles on the way back.

I gave him a couple more minutes, for he was right, as dogs usually are when they make us slow down. There was no hurry. We lingered a bit, inhaled a few more times.

It was good stuff.

(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” from the beginning, click here.)

An unrushed Sunday in Sedona

Giving ourselves plenty of time to get to Utah, Ace and I spent an unrushed afternoon in Sedona yesterday, figuring it would be the sort of place that I could unleash not just my dog, but possibly my chakra.

Possibly, I reasoned, simply driving through its red-rocked beauty might magically re-align my life energy, and perhaps my car’s as well.

I don’t think any of those things happened, but we had an excellent lunch, which, of course, is far more important.

We started off with a short walk among the red rocks at one of the pullovers, where a group of tourists flocked to Ace’s side, and asked if they could take their picture with him.

For the next ten minutes, that’s what they did.

Later, I pulled into Tlaquepaque, an artsy-craftsy community in town. There we found the Secret Garden, which really isn’t secret at all. I learned about it, and its dog-friendliness online.

We were seated on the patio, where five other dogs — three poodles at one table, two mutts at another — barely raised an eyebrow. The humans in the restaurant were another story, many of them pointing at Ace, and commenting on his size and, of course, handsomeness, and three stopping at my table to inquire as to his breed.

The waitress brought Ace a huge bowl of water, which he was happy for, and me a portabello mushroom sandwich, with roasted red peppers and a few other vegetables on sourdough bread. I made a point of asking them to hold the chakra.

(Note: Chakra is not a vegetable — in case any of you, like me, may have once thought it was a hybrid of chard and okra. No, it’s quite different. According to Wikipedia, “Chakra is a concept referring to wheel-like vortices which, according to traditional Indian medicine, are believed to exist in the surface of the etheric double of man.” Clear enough?)

The sandwich was pretty good, even without any meat, and the restaurant had a nice relaxing vibe, which, in Sedona — the rusty-terrained land of psychics and spiritualists, hallowed rocks and the hopelessly holistic — is pretty much required.

Strolling past the art galleries afterwards, we followed the new age music and came upon a keyboard player named Robin Miller, who interrupted the song he was playing to greet Ace, then entertained him by making barking noises on his keyboard.

Ace was doted on — and deservedly so — by a few more people before we left. It’s amazing how he brings smiles to so many faces — my own included. Moreso than my chakra, I think, it is he that keeps me aligned.

From Sedona, we headed to Flagstaff (the closest affordable motels) on 89A, a winding mountain road along Oak Creek. My car seemed to putter some on the climb, leading to me to wonder if maybe there’s something to that  “Malfunction Indicator Light” after all. Possibly my car’s chakra needs work.

But we made it to Flagstaff. And yes, it’s still here. Other than a little smoke in the mountains, the fire you’ve probably heard about is burning out and not threatening the town.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue on to Kanab, Utah, where on Tuesday, we’re scheduled to do a little volunteer work at Best Friends, the animal sanctuary.

(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” from the beginning, click here.)

Roadside Encounters: Cutie

Name: Cutie

Breed: Shih-tzu / Pekingese

Age: 6

Encountered: Resting in the shade at Tlaquepaque, an arts and crafts village in Sedona, Arizona.

Headed: On a Sunday outing with her owner.

Travel Habits: Cutie, whose owner has lived in Sedona since 1964, seems used to going along on outings. She was settled in the shade underneath a bench, but poked her head out when Ace walked by. She has one blue eye, one brown, the only one in the litter like that, her owner said.

Chihuahua takes “World’s Ugliest Dog” title

A malformed Chihuahua took top honors at the World’s Ugliest Dog contest in Northern California on Friday.

Princess Abby Francis beat out Pabst, the boxer who won last year’s contest, and the usual slate of Chinese cresteds, to take the top prize.

With a gray, brown and black coat, an oddly curved back and legs, and a closed-up left eye, Abby, age 4, was rescued three months ago by Kathleen Francis.

Francis received a $1,000 check at the 22nd annual contest held at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma.

“I don’t think she’s ugly at all,” Francis said. “I think she’s the most beautiful dog.”

Francis adopted Princess Abby from her veterinarian, according to the Associated Press. Her deformities are most likely a result of being inbred.

Contest judges included Veterinarian Karen “Doc” Halligan, Vertical Horizon lead singer Matt Scannell, “That 70’s Show” actress Christina Moore and fair board member Brian Sobel.

Bidding farewell, for now, to Roscoe

As much as I love dogs, and love dog lovers, I have to admit — being one — that there are times many of us tend to view canine behavior anthropomorphically, interpreting what dogs are doing in terms of what we, as humans, would like to think it means.

Such was the case the other day, as I prepared to leave the home of my brother, a visit during which Ace and Roscoe, and Roscoe and I, formed a new bond.

The two big dogs — Roscoe is a yellow lab — accepted each other after some initial growliness. Ace, I think, kept a low profile, allowing Roscoe to be top dog. He stayed away from Roscoe’s toys, and, with some help, Roscoe’s food, followed him when he went outside to bark at something, or nothing, and, for a week, they peacefully coexisted. The last day, they even went so far as to share the couch, which, though Roscoe’s turf, also served as my bed.

When I went to take a quick shower before leaving, Roscoe came in, picked my t-shirt off the bathroom floor, and carried it to the bed. After my shower, I tried to get it back. He mouthed it, chewed on it, dared me to try to take it, but would not give it up. To my silly human sensibilities, it was as if he didn’t want me to leave, or at least wanted to keep a remembrance of me if I did.

That, and his tendency, especially they day I was leaving, to follow me every where I went, had me thinking Roscoe considered me as special as I considered him.

More realistically, he was probably recalling the treat or two I gave him, and the shirt theft was just a game he likes to play. He’d done the same thing with my socks, does the same thing with his toy bone, and engages in even more bizarre behavior with his pillow.

It’s a regular sized big bed pillow, designated for him, and he likes to jump in bed and get it, and carry it in his mouth, outside, back inside, around the house, until he finds a suitable spot to place it down and lay his head upon it.

Like most yellow labs, he’s a  natural born clown. Few other breeds seem so intent — keyword being seem — on entertaining us. Really, they’re just following their instincts, which include carrying things around in their mouths and, in the case of other yellow labs I’ve met, loudly and frequently voicing their opinions. They bark at things that are there, and things that are not.

Roscoe, when humans are engaged in conversation, seems to need to get his point of view across. Even when my brother is talking to somebody on the phone, Roscoe must get in his two-cents — sometimes more like $1.50 — worth. Why? I’d only be guessing, and likely anthropomorphisizing again, as much as I hate trying to spell that word and its variations.

Generally speaking, its more fun to simply enjoy a dog rather than try to analyze one.

In any event I finally got my t-shirt back. Roscoe agreed to give it up in exchange for a treat. I got packed and was on my way, though it’s likely I will take advantage of my brother’s hospitality again in a few more days. I left with only one conclusion about my brother’s big goofy dog:

Roscoe, a gracious beast, rocks.

(To go back to the beginning of Dog’s Country,” click here.)