Monday, March 09, 2015

Amtrak Allows Pets: But it took a bill in Congress

For many years I've been scratching my head at the fact that Amtrak, which is ever-struggling to remain a viable form of transportation, hasn't allowed people to travel with their pets. While huge numbers of people are jetting across the country with their cats and dogs, paying a premium for pet-friendly accommodations and spending an unprecedented amount of money on their furry friends in general, Amtrak has remained clueless to a marketing opportunity of giant proportions.

Apparently it took a bill in Congress to make Amtrak do something it should have done a long time ago. No, it's not perfect. According to The Bark:
The bill specifically directs Amtrak to figure out parameters of the program within one year of its passing, which will need to include a designated pet car on each train. Traveling animals will ride in a kennel and be subject to a to fee (amount to be determined).
For now, pet kennels must fit within Amtrak's carry-on luggage size limits, 28" x 22" x 14". That's bad news for big dogs, but it is larger than the standard in-cabin size for pets traveling by plane.

Yeah, bad news for big dogs. Because little dogs can already travel in relative luxury inside cabins on airplanes while larger dogs are relegated to the cargo hold where temperatures, air pressure, oxygen and other necessities of remaining alive are not guaranteed (yes, I know many people travel with their pets in cargo and some airlines do a better job than others, but a friend had a pup nearly die from oxygen deprivation and lack of proper pressurization, so I know it does happen). This is why so many dog-loving travelers own or rent RVs and take road trips. But geez, who wants to drive an RV down Highway 1?

I've always loved road trips, but my favorite part is when someone else is driving. This is where trains come in. Traveling in places like Japan and all over Europe, my husband and I have experienced the relative luxury of train travel -- allowing someone else to do all the driving while we relax and enjoy the scenery. Those places have train systems that are efficient, cover most of the country and are usually on time. Amtrak can't quite get there, at least not in the West, where it shares many of its lines with freight trains that always seem to get precedence. But having dogs on board would be a check mark in the positive column, on balance.

I dream of a better situation here in the US for train travel. I want the train travel experience it to be like it was in the old black-and-white know, when traveling by train across the US was cool. Traveling in a sleeper car with my hubby and my dog, like Nick and Nora Charles above, would be pretty awesome. Although in one of the Thin Man movies, they ended up traveling in the baggage car because they insisted on bringing Asta with them... As I watched, I actually thought for a moment that it wouldn't be too bad traveling like they did in the baggage car if they allowed me to do it with my dog. Short trip maybe. Otherwise I would much prefer having windows...nevermind.

My idea of a pleasant, low-stress, cross-country trip would be on a train outfitted with both a pet-friendly policy and a car carrier (so I'd have my own transport when I arrive). It would be something like this:

  • Nice digs -- big seat next to a window so I can sit back and enjoy the scenery, catch up on my reading and sleep. For overnights and cross-country trips, I'll take a sleeper car.
  • Good food -- not the packaged food/snack bar variety on many trains. I want to eat the way they used to eat on trains in the old black-and-white know, when train travel in the US was cool.
  • Dog on the seat next to me. Ok I know this would bother many people who have allergies. So do peanuts. So I'll sit in the car with all the other "dog people" who want to take their furry friends with them. 
  • If I can't have the dog in the seat next to me, then a kennel car will due -- particularly if I have visiting privileges. 
  • Potty stops -- designated areas at train stations for the dogs to go relieve themselves and for the people to get some air. 
  • Dream scenario: they'd have a supervised doggy "romper room" car where you could go play with your dog and other dogs for short periods during your journey. Man, how the time would fly, even if you didn't.
I would get off at my destination and my dog and car would be there too. In the meantime, I'd feel good about having saved a lot of gas, enjoyed the ride and kept my pet with me rather than in a kennel. Almost perfect.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Happy 2nd Birthday, Remy!

Remy - 2 Years - Newport, Oregon (29 Sept. 2014)

On September 29, 2014 Remy turned two years old. He was almost my birthday puppy -- Remy's mama began delivering pups on September 28, 2012 and I had my fingers crossed for a birthday puppy. Alas, the whelping went on into the wee hours of the next morning and that is when Remy came into the world. So we share a great "24 hours" of birthday. This year we spent our birthday weekend in the coastal port town of Newport, Oregon in an apartment that overlooked the harbor, complete with NOAA ships, fishing boats and dozens of noisy sea lions on the rocks to watch (and listen to 24/7).

Remy - 2 Years - Newport, Oregon (29 Sept. 2014)
While being the ripe young age of two might signify adulthood with many other dogs, Griffs maintain at least some of their gonzo puppy energy and attitude well after two. It's just part of their charm. Remy is no exception. He still has that teenage-puppy joie de vivre, that unbridled enthusiasm for all things and a playful spirit that, I hope, will never leave him.

In terms of the big things, though, he really has matured into a nice, adult dog. (Note: I am only half-jokingly knocking on wood as I type this, because making the following types of statements in the past has seemed to almost invite trouble...)

I'm pleased to report that, at this point in his young life, Remy is pretty darned trustworthy. He doesn't counter surf (thank heavens). He doesn't mess up the furniture (though I do believe, based on the mysteriously rumpled afghan and warm dent in the pillow, that he occasionally gets up on the "invitation only" sofa while we're gone...).

He no longer chews on shoes. We made an early attempt (10 mos. old) at giving him freedom to roam about the house while we were gone for short periods. We had left him inside while we were out working in the garden or on a short trip to the store and he managed to stay out of trouble, so we began to trust him. Let is suffice to say, with the humans having lost the heels and insoles on several favorite pairs of shoes and Remy having major abdominal surgery to remove an 18" long rope toy that was lodged in his gut (a discarded rope toy he pulled from a wastebasket I might add), we decided he wasn't ready for that level of responsibility.  Remy spent a few more months being crated every time we left the house.

Eventually we mustered up the courage to try again for longer and longer periods and, I'm happy to report, he has proven himself to be very trustworthy. No more chewed shoes or missing toys. No evidence of wastebasket surfing either. He doesn't like it when we go without him, I'm sure, but he gets it. When we start putting on our shoes he gets all waggly and hopeful. Then we turn on the music or the TV and puts on his best hang-dog look, walks over to the rug and lies down, usually with a big sigh. And every time we come home he greets us with that full body wag and look of pure joy.

He is learning patience. He waits for the "go" sign before rushing out the door (usually) and before diving into his food bowl (always). He doesn't jump on people (ok, there's the occasional overly-enthusiastic greeting, but he seems to know the difference between people he can jump on and people who would be horrified by such an act).  He treats my 88-year-old mother like the queen of the house. While he bounds through rooms on window deer patrol, at times running into us and stepping on our feet, with Mom he slows down and gives her space. And when she's home alone with the dogs, Kirby keeps watch by the door while Remy lays at her feet like a protector.

There's more to work on, for sure. Like consistent recall (particularly at the beach). But more on that later.  In honor of Remy's second birthday, I just want to express how very proud I am of the wonderful, responsible dog he is growing up to be!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Beach is the Best

Yesterday we went to the beach. This wasn't any ordinary trip to the beach, it was our almost-annual beach trip with some friends, two of whom are Canadians who make it a priority to visit Oregon's beautiful beaches on every trip out here.

Remy and Kirby haven't been to the beach for a while. Between work on weekdays and the whole process of packing up the final items at our former house and getting it ready to sell, we just haven't been feeling like we could take a day off for a beach trip. That's a shame. Oregon's beaches are so lovely in the summertime. They're also filled with people. So we all picked a Tuesday, hoping it would offer that perfect mix of being able to take a day off and getting the weekend tourists out of the picture.

Great strategy. We left early and when we got to Indian Beach there weren't very many people there and no other dogs. It was mostly us, a handful of intrepid early risers and a bunch of surfers taking advantage of yesterday's big waves.

After making sure there were no major obstacles to us removing the leashes, we let the dogs off. Remy, Kirby and our friends' dog Vito took off in fits of joy, chasing after thrown balls, running through the surf (though Kirby, being the terrier-type he is, wouldn't go in past his knees).

Remy's first definitive act at the beach was to storm a crumbling sand castle and claim it as his own.

Then Remy noticed something...dark, human figures bobbing on the top of the waves a ways from shore. Now THIS was interesting. (We usually go to long beaches without a lot of big waves, so he had never seen surfers before.) Remy had to go investigate. He launched himself into the surf and swam out, braving the breakers, to greet the surfers.

Fortunately, the first surfers he came upon were dog-friendly and they gave him a happy greeting. Satisfied, he decided surfers were OK and he could leave them to their business. He proceeded to body surf his way back through the waves and rejoined our group. He spent the rest of the morning fetching bumpers and balls, approaching friendly people and attempting to climb barnacle-covered rocks (not cool). I think he learned that lesson pretty quickly and amazingly his paws, now sufficiently calloused, didn't seem much worse for the wear.

What was really fun was seeing just how much in common Remy, a young adult Griff, had in common with our friend Emerson, who is a tall, athletic 16-year-old. I swear, those two were like twin brothers of different species. They both had no problem braving the cold Pacific waters and spent most of the day running around, tumbling in the surf and climbing things.

At one point Remy caught sight of some small children walking up the beach with their parents. Putting on his full body wag, he approached them (Remy loves children and becomes gleeful at the sight of them or the sound of children playing.) Unfortunately, the parents were NOT friendly. They grabbed the kids and hid them behind their legs and started shooing Remy away before he even had a chance to approach the cute little child in the pink hoodie and her big brother. Remy had a toy in his mouth that, I'm sure, he intended to show the little girl in the pink hoodie, but instead, recognizing he wasn't wanted (this is progress) he gave a muffled bark and turned away.

Editorial Pause: I'm sure those people had their reasons. Perhaps the parents had had bad encounters with dogs on beaches before. I'm sure a lot of people do. I get that. But there's always a little piece of me that becomes sad when I see parents instilling fear and keeping their children from having any sort of healthy relationship with dogs. Those kids will encounter dogs their entire lives and mommy won't be there to protect them. I just hope they get over their parents some day. There are certainly unfriendly dogs in the world. But when a happy, scruffy Griff comes at you with a full body wag and a big orange toy in his mouth, that should be your cue that this dog's most likely OK. The way I see it, teaching kids that ALL dogs are scary probably isn't a wise thing if you want your children to grow into well-adjusted adults.

In any case, I have to say, I was proud of Remy for recognizing that not all people want wags and sloppy dog kisses and friendly toy-sharing. He's finally old enough to understand that. And I feel a lot better about taking him to the beach now.

I'm focusing on Remy, as Kirby is an experienced beach dog. Kirby was, of course, a little herder the whole time. At one point I had to turn back to go pick up a poopy bag I had set down and, seeing that I was leaving the pack, Kirby had to accompany me and try to guide me back to safety. He succeeded. Job done. It was a good day for Kirby.

Vito, a Lagotto (Italian Water Dog) was in heaven, of course, and he and Remy had a great time playing in the surf, stealing each other's toys and getting as wet and sandy as caninely possible.

Yes, it was a good day all around. And the people had fun too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On Gluten and Grain Intolerance

Back in 2006, after battling with allergies, skin problems and recurrent ear infections for seven years, we took our Griff, Baxter, off of ALL grain. He lived another six happy, healthy years without a single skin allergy problem or ear infection. Not one.

So we started our little dog, Kirby, on grain-free dog food the day we rescued him from the shelter; and our Griff Remy, now 2 months shy of 2 years old, has been grain-free from the day we brought him home as well. Remy has never shown any signs of allergy to anything, and we don't know if the grain-free food has anything to do with it, but we're not taking any chances. He's a healthy pup.

When Dr. Pema (the holistic vet) explained to me that dogs didn't evolve to be able to digest grain effectively, it made perfect sense. I even wrote an article about it for The Polishing Stone, a wonderful (but sadly now out-of-print) magazine. Sure, dogs are omnivores who seem to be able to eat just about anything, but they're primarily meat eaters and historically they got their grain pre-digested in the guts of the animals they ate. Industrially-processed food didn't enter into the equation until fairly recently, and grain makes a great (and cheap) filler.

So, after all this, I'm not sure why I didn't really give much thought to grain's effects on people. That is, not until recently, as more and more of my friends and colleagues started going "gluten free." Yes, I live in Portland, and the gluten-free craze has risen to the level of being a Portlandia send up. I fully admit I was one of those people who believed that a certain percentage of those "gluten-free" people had real problems and the rest were just jumping on the bandwagon. The fad would soon be over and everyone would find some other food to vilify. But the more I read about gluten and grain issues in people, the more I'm realizing there actually is a lot more to it. The thing is, when people get off wheat and other gluten grains, many, if not most, of them feel better. There are multiple reasons for this. But, nonetheless, I thought I'd try it and see what happened.

It DID make a significant difference in a number of ways. I'll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say I feel a lot better. This article by Dr. Mark Hyman explains a lot about why grains -- particularly wheat -- are making many of us unwell and we don't even realize to what extent. Most importantly, the wheat we (and our dogs) are eating today is NOT the wheat of our ancestors.

"This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.  It is FrankenWheat – a scientifically engineered food product developed in the last 50 years...Not only does this dwarf, FrankenWheat, contain the super starch, but it also contains super gluten which is much more likely to create inflammation in the body. And in addition to a host of inflammatory and chronic diseases caused by gluten, it causes obesity and diabetes."
 I wish I hadn't noticed significant things when I got off gluten. I LOVE bread. I love many, many things that involve flour (which, in our culture, is just about everything). I wish it were all in my head or that I was just on some fad diet. But the truth is, I, like Baxter, seem to have some pretty obvious allergic reactions when I eat gluten-y, wheat-y foods and all of those reactions go away when I stop eating them.

I would cry. But it's hard to get too bummed out when I feel so much better. I will, for a while, lament the loss of wheat and some of my other favorite grains. I may try to have it narrowed down a bit to see if maybe, just maybe, I can eat some rye or barley or other good grains that make those micro-brews I love.

For now, though, I just have one more thing in common with the dogs...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kirby Likes Gromit

Last night we dug out our DVD of Wallace & Gromit for a little light entertainment. Remy and Kirby were doing their usual evening ritual -- a little wrestling, then settling down with their chew toys. Suddenly, when Gromit (who, in case you aren't familiar with the British claymation-style animated series, is the dog) appeared on the screen, Kirby stopped what he was doing and ran up to the television. He sat in front of the TV and barked whenever Gromit appeared on the screen (this is what he does when he sees real dogs on television -- he totally ignores the people, but the second a dog comes on screen he runs over and starts barking at it).

I think what surprised me about this is that Gromit is a very stylized dog. He doesn't have a lot of the features of a real dog. He doesn't bark. He reads the newspaper and walks on two legs (sometimes) and expresses himself mostly through his eyebrows. Yet Kirby unmistakeably recognized this clay figure as a dog. He didn't bark at the clay people. He didn't bark at any of the other animals. Just Gromit.

This got me to thinking about dog facial recognition. What makes a dog a dog to another dog? I always figured it was a combination of how they look and how they smell and sound. Most dogs we see on television are barking or panting or otherwise making noise. In this case the only clues were the face and ear shape, big humanlike eyes and a round black nose.

Gromit may act like a person, but, according to Kirby, he is most definitely a dog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday, Kirby!

I can't believe our scruffy little guy is eight years old!

He's spent his life around Wirehaired Pointing Griffons and despite being 1/3 the size, I believe he thinks he is one. (He even points.) As a pup he relentlessly pestered our adult Griff, Baxter; was crushed (as we all were) when Bax passed away; then got the other end of the golden rule/dog karma when we introduced our Griff puppy, Remy, to the household a year and a half ago. Despite his diminutive size, he manages to hold his own with the big dogs. We love you, Kirby!

Monday, July 07, 2014

People and Pedigree

We have a purebred dog...Remy, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon of excellent pedigree. We also have Kirby, a little shelter dog of much less fancy and much more diverse lineage. Is one dog better than the other? No. They're just different. We mostly knew what we were in for when we brought Remy into our home. He is intelligent, athletic, obsessed with birds and is an absolute clown. He has wiry hair that doesn't shed much, never requires combing and repels burrs like teflon. He is devoted and affectionate and doesn't want to be far from his poeple. He has his own unique personality that is certainly different from our first Griff, Baxter, but he still has these characteristics that are just part of how Griffs are.

With Kirby it has been an ever-unfolding mystery. He pounces on his toys and gives them the "terrier death shake" with aplomb. He is little, but he defends our house with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. He also herds us down the beach as well as any collie and he points at birds (granted, he might have learned the latter from living with a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon most of his life). Kirby is a sort of Renaissance dog with a little Napoleon thrown in.

When it comes to genetics, I am a bit of a mutt within the broad category of Western Europeans. When my ancestors came to seek their fortunes in America (most in the 1600s and 1700s), they had unique cultural and ethnic identities. For a few generations they stayed within their cultures. But by the time my great-grandparents came along, it must have been a lot more accepted to marry outside one's community. An Irishman married a Pennsylvania Dutch German. An Englishman married a French-Canadienne. That's my mom's side. My dad's side stuck a little closer to the "British" ethnic home with marriages among English, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Mind you, my older relatives on the Scots-Irish side were certain to emphasize the "Scots" portion of Scots-Irish -- they were fierce Protestants with a disdain for Catholics. I'm not sure they even knew why, at that point, having lived in Illinois and Iowa for generations, but somehow the old rivalries managed to get carried on along with the stubborn Scottish DNA.

I don't look like I have a pedigree of any certain origin. In North Iowa I grew up with a lot of people who were pure-blood Norwegians and Swedes (think "A Prairie Home Companion: South of the Border Edition"). Many of my friends had blue eyes, blonde hair and names that ended in -son and -sen. I was fascinated by their family traditions and foods like krumkake and lefse. The closest thing we had to a family food tradition was my mother's use of herbs and garlic (French) and my father's British range of food preferences (from brown to white).

So when I got my DNA test back from, I was a little surprised to learn that despite having no known heritage suggesting Nordic ancestry, my DNA tells another story. It says I'm 12% Scandinavian. At first I thought the DNA test must be wrong. Then I got to thinking about where the Vikings landed and my Scottish and English ancestors...(and probably a few Norman ancestors as well). Somehow, that Viking blood managed to make its way through so many generations it landed in me with absolutely no discernible Scandinavian family names as far back as I can trace my family history. How many of those fierce Campbells of Scotland (my tribe of human terriers) got some of that ferocity from the Vikings who landed there? Probably more than a few.

But does DNA matter, really?  Not unless you have some sort of family gene that indicates a susceptibility to a certain disease, and even then, as the science of epigenetics is revealing, even that is not a blueprint, as you can turn on and turn off genes through your environment, your lifestyle and the food you eat, among other things. And those genes can be passed down as well. What your father or grandfather had to eat during his lifetime might have as much or more influence on whether you get diabetes or cancer than the presence of a particular gene would indicate.

In any case, the search for DNA markers that indicate ethnic heritage is an interesting line of study, I think. It's fascinating to me that someone might have, say, an Italian last name, but no measurable amount of DNA markers associated with Italian people. The family name was carried down through the fathers, but the "Italian genes" that went with it got diluted or simply not passed along somewhere in the process of marrying out to a few non-Italians down the line.

This happened with me. Another puzzle in my DNA results was the lack of Irish DNA. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came to the US from Tipperary, Ireland. This we know. We have the records. He is my most recent connection to an old country of any kind. So you'd expect that DNA to be pretty significant in me. We had my mother's DNA tested and she came out 28% Irish. According to the DNA test results, Irish people have a pretty strong set of DNA markers -- a native Irish person has a score of 95% (some others, like English, are more admixed with other ethnicities that have overrun the country at various times...(Vikings, Normans, Romans, etc.) But Irish is one of the most pure ones in terms of recognizable DNA markers. For Mom, whose grandfather came from Ireland, a DNA match of 28% seems pretty expected.

You'd think mine would then be at least 12 to 14%, right?  Nope. 3% Irish. I have more "Iberian Peninsula" (5%) and Italian (4%) than I do Irish, and I have no known heritage from either of those regions. Apparently those Scots-Irish Campbells were so stubborn, even their DNA kicked out the Irishman in my inheritance.

I don't care. I'm still wearing a green shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, just like Grandpa told me to.