In Dog We Trust

Suzanne Hansmire writer

It’s 8:40 on a friday morning and almost all the spaces are filled at the parking circle at the end of Thomas Road. It’s a gathering affectionately known as “Puppy Play Group” at Wellesley’s Perrin Park and each arriving canine leaps from its respective SUV, mini-van or sedan with an eagerness accompanied by tail wagging, frolicking and cavorting.

The scene is repeated wherever there is open space and paths for walking. Elm Bank, Weston Reservoir, Centennial Park, Wellesley College, Morses Pond and Beebe Meadow: each has its devotees, dogs—and their devoted owners—who gather to exercise and socialize on a regular basis.

Statistics tell part of the dog story that is not just confined to Wellesley and Weston; according to the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook (Sourcebook) published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) there are 43 million households that report owning a total of 72 million dogs. The 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey of the American Pet Products Manufac­turers Association (APPMA) puts their figures even higher, estimating the canine population to be 74.8 million.

Growing alongside the pet population is a booming pet industry, supplying food and treats, doggy toys, monogrammed pet clothing, Halloween costumes, Christmas presents and even jewelry. Add to that veterinary care, pet insurance, services such as boarding, grooming, day care and training and it’s clear that there is a significant dog-driven market. In 2008, it is estimated that $43.4 billion will be spent on pets in the U.S., and dog owners will undoubtedly be responsible for a large proportion of that expenditure.

When you get a dog, suddenly you become part of a new network, almost like a cult, of people with an insight into human behavior and perspectives. And on a regular basis, your e-mail box is replenished with heartwarming reminders of what dog ownership is all about that, in spite of the work, the rainy day walks, the mud tracked into the house, the chewed table legs and unanticipated expenses, dog ownership brings enough peace of mind and happiness to make it worthwhile.

And the experts agree.
Several studies have actually looked at the incidence of depression in pet owners and non-pet owners. In a 1999 UCLA study of AIDS patients, the conclusion was that the companionship of a pet seemed to alleviate the stress of the illness. Those who did not have a pet were more than twice as likely to report symptoms of depression.

South African scientists found that interaction with pets actually simulates an anti-depressant by triggering the release of endorphins and other pleasure hormones.

Consistently, studies of people under stress due to illness, tragedies and other circumstances, show that the pet-owners are able to cope with their emotions better.

Pam Bacharach and her late husband David had both heard about dogs helping people cope with stress and trauma. Pam thinks that’s why David insisted that they stop at the MSPCA one day last year when they were on the way to his radiation treatments at Boston Medical Center. The Bacharachs knew that David was terminally ill when their beloved 14-year old Dalmatian-mix, Moab, died, and with the stress of dealing with a major illness, it would have been easy to just keep life as simple as possible.

At the MSPCA they found Zeke, a 5-year old black-and-white mix of Border Collie with possibly Shepherd, or Akita, or Bernese Mountain Dog. “He had just this skinny little body, and these big paws and feet,” Pam remembers.

David passed away in March of 2007 and shortly after his death Zeke became quite ill. Pam learned that his throat was ulcerated and had swollen almost shut. He was treated with steroids to open his throat and with Pam’s tender loving care—and lots of trips to the vet—the skinny dog from the shelter began to thrive. He gained weight, his coat became sleek and shiny and on his morning jaunts to the park he was energetic, enthusiastic and playful.

It was right about that time that Pam finally got around to having work done on a bathroom project she had put off during David’s illness. One of the workers, impressed with Zeke and his story, told Pam about a family he knew of that was moving to Arizona and had decided to leave one of their dogs, a nine-year-old English Setter in poor health, in a shelter.

“I said that I would think about taking him, as long as he and Zeke could get along,” Pam says. She went to Concord for a visit and the two dogs seemed fine together. “The next morning he was on my front porch.” Pam now had a second black and white dog: Sherman. He came with a crate, a well-chewed dog toy, a winter jacket that didn’t come close to fitting, a beat up leash, a few cans of dog food that she was warned that he had trouble digesting, and an enormous dog bowl.

At over 89 pounds, Sherman was in tough shape, with a poor coat, crippling arthritis, and feet that would bleed every time Pam tried to walk him. Pam knew that he needed a better food and exercise plan, but when she took Sherman to the vet, she learned that he also had an untreated thyroid problem.

Within just a few weeks of Sherman’s new life he began improving miraculously. His feet healed and the diet did its trick. He became more active as his health improved, and his weight dropped to a lithe 65.8 pounds.

The benefits have gone both ways. Pam explains, “Even before David died I was anxious. I was anxious when he was sick.” When asked recently about how she is feeling, and when things are the worst, she explains that first thing in the morning is when she feels the most sad and lonely. “But then I have to take the dogs out. And I’m yelling at them and getting my exercise, and it feels better. And as the day goes on it gets better and then everything is fine.”

Dogs need to walk. That’s good news and bad news. On days when the world seems to shut down because of rain, snow, sleet or high wind, dogs still require their constitutionals.

But most dog owners will admit that occasionally on a day when they would have rather stayed home they’ve actually enjoyed getting out for fresh air and some exercise. The exercise dogs provide their owners may be responsible for the health benefits studies continually point out- benefits that include lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol.

That’s a benefit Cynthia Ballantyne appreciates. Ballantyne lives across from Wellesley’s Centennial Park, which is a good thing for her lively dogs, six-year-old Cosby and three-year old Ruby. The two are Miniature Australian Shepherds, a breed Ballantyne admits is extremely energetic.

She laughs as she characterizes Ruby and Cosby as “Velcro dogs” because they are always with her. That makes them good dogs to take walking through the park every day, though. They love to run, and Ballantyne says, “they can chase a Frisbee forever,” but they never run away.

Ballantyne looks forward to the daily walks as much as her dogs do. “I love being outdoors with them every day, even under the most inclement circumstances.”

Sometimes our busy schedules don’t allow us to walk our furry friends as much as they need us to. That’s when a professional dog walker or a play group comes in handy. Wellesley resident Jeri Jarvis started Absolutely Pawsitive eight years ago combining her love of animals and what she saw as a need to help busy working people. Jarvis and her staff provide daily play groups, leash walks, and full day care for their clients. As one client recently said, “When my lab comes home after playing with her friends in the park, she is happily exhausted, and I don’t feel so guilty about leaving her while I’m at work.”

The suburban dog’s day might not seem like a particularly demanding one. But with a lot of their time spent on walks, meeting other people and dogs, and encountering new and surprising things every time they venture into the world, the pooches in our lives have to learn to be adaptable.

One way to accomplish this is through the various levels of training which have become almost de rigueur for pups. When Martha Francis’s “Dogs About Town” class is in session, the world becomes a classroom where dogs learn to obey, behave, and expect the unexpected.

“This is mainly for people whose dogs have done obedience training,” Francis explains. ”But then when they try to take them out in public, they forget everything they ever learned.”

Beginning in the spring and running through the autumn, Francis’s classroom might be the Brook Path, the sidewalk in front of Starbucks, or the Wellesley Booksmith. The groups are small- never more than six dogs with owners. The lessons begin with sitting politely for a greeting, continue through Down – Stay training by the brook or on the grass, and visits to the bookstore where the challenges involve going politely- and patiently- through the doorway, and waiting nicely for a treat. The culmination is sidewalk dining, where the dogs are taught to lie quietly and unobtrusively under the table.

Francis, who actually does most of her teaching through private lessons, says that sometimes the problems people want to correct in their dogs are actually breed specific behaviors. The herding behaviors of certain dogs, for example, can make them difficult to deal with. “They can be inclined to chase moving objects.”

The ever-popular retrievers, on the other hand, “were bred to take directions from people. In the field a hunter needs to direct a dog with whistles and hand signals to find a duck that might be a half mile away.”

Understanding the characteristics that will fit well into your personality and lifestyle and choosing the right breed can make a huge difference in a dog owner’s satisfaction and training success.

Ultimately, however, dog ownership comes back to the age-old adage: they’re known as man’s best friend for a good reason. They willingly take on tasks from leading the blind to finding lost children, from guarding property to pulling carts and sniffing out drugs. And we humans love them for their devotion.

Spring 2024