Don’t Assume My Dog is Friendly!

July 12, 2016

Grin
It happened again. I was walking along a park trail with Bodhi, enjoying the 6 a.m. calm. That the park is largely empty at that hour is something I really enjoy. But suddenly, a man walking 3 dogs appeared, headed toward us on the path. As there was plenty of room to move over, that’s exactly what we did in hopes of avoiding them.

Upon spying us, the two cocker spaniels continued to prance along with their cockers-don’t-care attitudes, while the Lab mix acted as though Bodhi was a long lost relative who owed him money. In his over-the-top enthusiasm, the dog pulled free of the man’s grip. Flexi leash banging along behind him, he began to run toward us. Now, Bodhi is not an aggressive dog, but when I adopted him from the shelter five years ago, he was very dog reactive. I worked long and hard to teach him alternatives to lunging and barking at other dogs, and he does very well now. He’s still insecure around other dogs (which is what the behavior was really about), but now when he sees them he voluntarily places himself by my side and looks at me for further instructions. Great, right? Sure. Until despite our best efforts, another dog rushes up to Bodhi or otherwise invades his space. Then, depending on how worried he is, all bets are off and violence could ensue.

As the Lab headed toward us I called to the man, “Please grab your dog!”
“Oh,” he replied, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
“Mine might not be!” I called back.
The man looked surprised, and finally managed to get the dog back on leash.

Unfortunately, this is far from a rare occurrence. I wonder, if I were walking a 200-pound black mastiff with glowing yellow eyes, how many dogs would end up wafting our way on clouds of intended friendliness. I remember when Mojo, my soul dog who passed in 2008, was alive. Walking my very tall, handsome 120-pound, mostly-black, German shepherd-Rottweiler-Malamute-wolf mix down the street, people would often cross to get out of our path, even though Mojo was not at all aggressive towards people. I do not, however, remember dogs flying toward us and people telling us not to worry.

In this particular case, the dog pulled the leash out of the man’s hand. Mistakes happen. But more frequently, it’s a case of someone walking a dog off leash and ignorantly assuming everything will be fine. And to clarify, I’m talking here about areas where dogs are meant by law to be leashed. It’s irresponsible to put your dog in the way of potential harm by assuming that other dogs are friendly, even if they look as though they are. You wouldn’t let your child run up to every stranger you pass. Why would you possibly let your dog do the same? Do everyone a favor and don’t assume my dog—or any other dog you pass—is friendly. It’s the truly friendly thing to do.
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For my books, DVDs and seminar schedule please visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

May 31, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo — not Harambe

Chances are, you’re aware of the recent tragedy that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo when a 4-year-old boy slipped under a railing, crawled across some wires and a moat and ended up in an enclosure with 3 gorillas. The two females were lured out by zookeepers but Harambe, a male 17-year-old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) remained. The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes, and the decision was made by the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team to shoot Harambe to save the boy.

Upon hearing about this I, like so many others, was incredibly saddened and angered. I blogged about it here. Response was overwhelming, as it was across all social media where conversations and articles abound. Two main contingents have emerged: those who blame the mother (in some cases calling for there to be legal action or worse), and those who blame the zoo.

As I stated previously I’m not a parent, and I’m sure that keeping eyes glued to a 4-year-old 24/7 is difficult. Eyewitnesses stated that the boy had been telling his mother he wanted to go into the enclosure, so one could argue that extra vigilance was needed. It can’t be denied that the whole tragedy would have been avoided had her eyes been on her son at that moment, but I’m guessing kids say all kinds of strange things, and seldom act on them in this kind of dramatic way. And, as many have stated, kids can slip away from parents in the blink of an eye. I’ve been shocked at the amount of vitriol that has been aimed at the mother. Regardless of whether she’s even partly to blame, I do have empathy for both her and her son.

As far as blaming the zoo, videos show Harambe, among other things, dragging the boy across water and, some say, flinging him around. In a Psychology Today online article by noted author/behaviorist Marc Bekoff, he relates the analysis of friend Jennifer Miller who had worked with gorillas. She felt that “Harambe’s hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection.” A differing opinion is held by Amanda O’Donaghue, who worked with gorillas as a zookeeper in her twenties and wrote on Facebook “I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares…I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true.” She also opined that “Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent).” Clearly the zookeepers agreed with the latter. It’s easy for those who are outraged by Harambe’s death (and believe me, I’m one of them) to blame the zoo. But when dealing with exotics, especially potentially dangerous ones, split second decisions must be made. Was there any other choice? I don’t know. I have no doubt the zookeepers cared very much for Harambe and the last thing they wanted to do was to shoot him. They did so to save the boy. For those wondering why they didn’t use a tranquilizer instead, it’s because of the time the drugs can take to be effective. Having co-run a wolf rescue, I suspect it is also because using a tranquilizer on an animal who is already agitated can have the opposite of the desired effect.

So where does all of this leave us? This was undeniably a terrible tragedy for all concerned, particularly Harambe. Nothing can be done to bring him back. But if all we do is point fingers and engage in long, hateful conversations on social media, another layer of tragedy is added. The incident should spark heated discussions, yes—but productive ones, ones about what can actually be done to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. As I said in my original blog post, whether or not zoos should exist at all is a whole other topic. But since they do, for now, let’s take all of that energy that’s being put toward condemnation and come up with some solutions. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Have highly visible signage posted around the zoo with safety information. Ticket takers should also briefly but firmly mention the rules to visitors with young children.
  2. Have a staff member or volunteer posted at every exhibit containing a potentially dangerous animal. Give that person permission to step in and take action should they see a child (or adult) on a railing, crawling under something, or in an otherwise precarious position. This person should also have a radio to signal other staff.
  3. Anyone seen engaging in the type of behavior described above should be escorted from the zoo immediately. I don’t know whether zoos are able to fine visitors, but if they are, a hefty fine should be in place. Signage/ticket takers could warn of this as well.
  4. Making enclosures safer…this one is a no-brainer, but much easier said than done. Putting too much up in the way of bars/plexiglass/other barriers detracts from people actually being able to see the animal well (ask any photographer how they feel about plexiglass—and taking photos is a large part of the zoo experience). I have heard the suggestion of hotwire just outside the exhibit. I also read a response saying that if a child has a heart condition the shock could be dangerous. I don’t know about that, but if the latter is not true, in my opinion a shock would be the lesser of two evils when the other is being ripped apart by a wild animal.
  5. I did suggest the leash/harness combo for kids under a certain age, and by the response of mothers, I see that it might not be the right answer for everyone. But certainly more moms should be made aware of the option.

As we continue to grieve the loss of Harambe, I hope that something positive in the form of change and prevention can come from something so awful. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on what can be done to better the situation.


Zoo Gorilla Shot After Child Enters Enclosure—and How These Tragedies Can be Prevented

May 29, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

 

(A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo–not Harambe)

 

My blogs are normally about dogs. As an animal lover, however, I am so angered and saddened by a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo that I can’t help but speak out. Piecing together various accounts, here’s what happened: A 4-year-old boy crawled through a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. Zookeepers quickly moved the 2 female gorillas into another area, but the 17-year old male gorilla was still inside. An eyewitness reported that the gorilla “rushed toward the boy and led him by the arm through the water in the enclosure,” and that he, “seemed protective and only alarmed by all the screaming.” The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes with no injuries. The zoo president says, “while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.” The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response team felt a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and so, with the boy between the gorilla’s legs, they shot Harambe dead. The boy was taken to a hospital where he was determined to have sustained non-life-threatening but serious injuries.

How did this happen in the first place? To reach the gorillas, the boy had to go under the safety rail, crawl through wires, and climb over the moat wall. According to one eyewitness, the boy’s mother was “tending to several other children” when he slipped away. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this type of thing has happened. In 2014, a 3-year-old boy at the Little Rock Zoo “fell into” the big cat exhibit after his grandfather put him up on the railing to see the cats. A zookeeper reported seeing a yellow jaguar with its jaws around the neck of the boy. In this case, the staff used a fire extinguisher to drive the cat back, lower a ladder, and rescue the boy. The boy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Need more? Last year at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 2-year old boy fell into a cheetah exhibit. The boy’s mother was “holding him and another child” over the railing when he fell in. Fortunately, they were able to get the boy out and the cheetah seemed more curious than anything.

There have been many similar incidents at zoos over the years. I’m not a parent (unless you count my fur-kids), and I’m sure it’s difficult to keep an eye on your child 24/7. But in each of these cases, had a parent been supervising, not to mention not doing anything incredibly stupid like standing the child up on a railing or other precarious spot, these incidents would never have occurred. I spend time photographing zoo animals, and almost every time I visit I see exactly this kind of insanity.

Regardless of how you feel about whether zoos should exist, they do, and a large part of their income comes from families with children. Instead of blaming parents or zookeepers, what about coming up with a solution? Zoos should have more secure enclosures for sure, and having zoos amp up safety would be great. But since that might not happen anytime soon, here’s my idea. It has two parts: First, any family with a child that is seen up on a railing or other precarious area must be escorted out of the zoo immediately. Highly visible signage around the zoo should warn them this will happen. Second, there are harness/leash combinations that are specifically designed for children. Children of a certain age and below should be required to wear one while on zoo grounds. This would prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again. It would also prevent children from running into other visitors (something I have experienced quite often) and from getting lost. (Parents, I defer to you on particulars and if you don’t like this idea, I would love to hear others.)

The death of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla—a critically endangered species—could have easily been prevented. So could many other similar incidents. Let’s learn from this heartbreaking tragedy and change things so it can’t happen again.


Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

May 19, 2016

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.
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You can view my books, seminar DVDs and more here. If you have an interest in checking out my photography/art, click here. You can also find me on Facebook & Twitter.


Do You Expect Your Dog to be Psychic?

April 13, 2016

Sierra fortune tellerMost mornings, my husband and I take our dogs hiking. Because I lug my camera with a ginormous lens in hopes of seeing coyotes, he handles both leashes. This morning, I was walking ahead on a narrow trail when they came running up behind me. A noise sounding something like, “Uh-uh!” came from my husband. As they got even closer, he finally said, “Duck!” This was my signal to participate in the Dance of the Leashes by ducking my head so they could pass without anyone getting tangled.

Naturally, this made me think about dogs and the way we communicate with them. I had no idea what that first sound my husband made meant. I had a notion that it was directed at me, but I didn’t know what specifically he wanted. Once he clarified, I understood. Now, if I asked100 dog owners whether they’re clear when they communicate with their dogs, the majority would answer yes. But would they be right?

I constantly hear owners telling their dogs to “Leave it!” when their dog is approaching or has a forbidden object. Sometimes, because of the tone of voice alone, the dog will momentarily freeze or back away. But how instructive or fair is it if the dog has never actually been taught what “Leave it” means? In case this is something you need to teach, here’s a simple way to begin. Use treats, but not the ones that make your dog do backflips—choose something he likes of so-so value. Hold one treat in in the palm of your hand, and another behind your back. Let your dog see the treat in your palm, then make a fist. As your dog sniffs (trust me, he will), keep your hand solidly in place. Once he backs off, even for a second, say, “Yes!” to mark the moment, then immediately reward with the treat from behind your back. (I recommend this rather than giving the treat in your palm because you don’t want your dog to learn that backing off something means he then gets that thing.) Within a few repetitions, most dogs learn that backing up is what earns them a treat. Once you can reliably predict that he will back up, say, “Leave it!” just as your dog backs up. With more practice, he’ll associate the words with the action.

Of course, there’s more training needed to help your dog generalize “Leave it” to other objects and situations, but think about a dog who has been trained this way versus one who has no idea what the words mean. Unfortunately, it’s far from just this one cue that we expect dogs to know. Many people talk to their dogs like they’re…well, people! They expect their furry family members to understand when they use full, wordy sentences. If the dog is especially talented, maybe he’ll pick out the pertinent words, but it sure makes things more difficult. Another common error is using the same cue, for example, “Down!” for different things such as lying down, getting down off the sofa, or not jumping on visitors.

Next time you find yourself giving your dog a cue he hasn’t been taught, or assuming he’ll understand a full sentence, ask yourself whether you expect your dog to be psychic. And then do both of you a favor by taking the necessary steps to ensure he doesn’t have to be.
_________________________________________________________________You can find my books, DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com and can find me on Facebook.
You can also check out my photography and art here


Why the Latest Cesar Millan Incident Isn’t Just About a Pig

March 14, 2016

If you’re involved in the dog world in any way, chances are you’ve heard about the latest incident involving Cesar Millan. In a nutshell, on National Geographic’s “Cesar 911,” a dog named Simon who was a known pig killer was brought to Cesar for rehabilitation. The televised incident that has so many up in arms occurred when another man restrained a pig by the hind legs, causing it to squeal, and Simon, having been let off leash by Cesar (who previously had him on a long line), ran at the pig and bit its ear, drawing blood and, according to many reports, removing a chunk of the pig’s ear. Shortly after Cesar applied his brand of “rehabilitation,” he leashed Simon to the pig and boasted about how wonderful it was that they could be together in that way without violence. The incident was reported to Animal Control and Cesar is now under investigation.

There are so many things wrong with the pig episode that it’s difficult to know where to begin. For starters, the dog never should have been off leash in the first place. And later, when they were tethered together, the dog, who was showing avoidance behaviors, had no choice but to follow the pig. The pig had no choice, either. That’s rehabilitation? But before I address the bigger issues, I am aware that many people’s responses to the outrage over the incident has been some version of, “So what? It’s a pig!” or “Pigs are treated even worse in the meat industry, why aren’t you up in arms about THAT?” For the record I’m vegetarian, but that’s not the point. And I agree that the meat industry has some horrific practices; but that’s still not the point. This isn’t about a pig being harmed in the food industry. It’s about unnecessary pain and suffering caused to an animal in the name of training. And that is not okay, whether the injured party is a pig, a dog, or any other animal.

As a canine behavior specialist for over 20 years I, along with many of my professional colleagues, have been protesting Cesar’s methods for a very long time. His modus operandi is almost always the same: get the aggressive dog riled up to the point that he will demonstrate the aggressive behavior; punish the dog to the point that he shuts down and does not dare do it again; declare the dog rehabilitated. It certainly makes for good drama on television. But should our concern be what’s best for the animal, or for the viewing audience? Having worked with what Cesar terms “red zone dogs”—dogs with severe aggression towards dogs and/or people—for many years, I can tell you that rehabilitation does not require violence. The vast majority of dogs who are termed “aggressive” (yes, even “red zone dogs”) are displaying fear-based reactivity. Whether due to lack of early socialization, traumatic experience, or some other reason, the dog is not comfortable with other dogs. The barking, lunging and other aspects of the display certainly appear aggressive, and serve to cause the other dog or person to move away. It works, so the dog continues the behavior. But even in the small minority of cases where the cause is not fear-based reactivity, the dog already has a negative association with other dogs. So what is the answer? Should we scare or hurt the dog through harsh physical corrections every time he displays the aggressive behavior? Since dogs learn by association, although he might stop the behavior at the moment, a negative association is being strengthened. The dog’s underlying feeling about other dogs is, if anything, worsening. Any “improvement” in his behavior is due to fear of correction.

The foregoing describes setting the dog up to fail and then punishing him. The dog may no longer show aggression around other dogs, and may even display avoidance behaviors, because he knows other dogs coming around is going to be trouble. In this scenario, we have seemingly “fixed” the problem by strong-arming the dog into stopping. I wonder what the result will be when the human who did the strong-arming isn’t around, and the dog has access to another dog? And I wonder what sort of trust the dog now has in the person who choked, kicked, or otherwise punished.

Now the other side of the coin: modern, enlightened training methods. Using classical conditioning, for example, positive associations are created by pairing rewards with the appearance of another dog. At first, the training happens at a distance where he does not react. Gradual progress is made as the dog is comfortable. The dog is never pushed into a situation where he feels that he must react. It might not be scintillating action for television, but it results in a dog who is happy working with the person, and whose underlying association with other dogs changes, thereby resulting in a natural change in behavior. And for those dogs who are never going to like other dogs regardless, alternative behaviors to lunging, barking, etc. are taught. Again, the default behavior changes without causing harm to the dog or the relationship. Yes, even with “red zone” dogs.

I watched the entire first season of The Dog Whisperer back in the day, and have seen plenty of episodes since. I have watched horrified as dogs are forced to confront things they were terrified of (flooding), put into situations where of course they were going to bite because they were scared and pushed too far (bang trimming, nail trimming episodes come to mind), and more. In the infamous Holly episode, a resource guarding dog is pushed and pushed until she finally bites Cesar. There was a huge uproar over it, and yet nothing changed. Then there was the episode where he pushed a poor wolfdog who was dog reactive so far that the dog reacted. The dog was then hung to the point that he appeared unconscious. And this is rehabilitation?

Veterinary colleges, behaviorists, and all manner of trainers have protested time and time again. The point is, it’s ultimately not just about the pig. The problem is a man pushing dogs over threshold time and time again until they react, punishing them for it, and then deeming them cured. The problem is showing the public that this is the way to train dogs. Any show that needs a “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer is clearly using methods that can be dangerous. I have personally cleaned up countless messes where people have tried those very methods and things have gotten worse. Whether these owners applied the methods correctly is debatable, but what is not debatable is that many of them were bitten by their own dogs or, at the least, the fallout was a damaged relationship. The general public should not be trying methods that can result in harm to them or their dog. In fact, no one should. Meeting violence with violence is never the answer. With all we know nowadays about the way dogs think and learn, and all the safe, effective, scientifically based rehabilitation methods, there is no excuse for these Neanderthal techniques to still exist, and certainly not to be televised. No animal should ever suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically in the name of training, period.

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You can find Nicole’s books and seminar DVDs at http://www.nicolewilde.com.


New Study Reveals Shelter Workers Often Mislabel Dogs as Pit Bulls

February 18, 2016

Bulldog
A new DNA study led by Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that many dogs who have been identified by shelter staff as “pit bulls” are actually mislabeled. “Pit bull” has long been the label given to any dog who has American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier heritage.

In the study, DNA samples were taken from 120 dogs who had been assessed by 16 shelter staffers at four shelters, including four veterinarians. The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage were correctly identified 33-75% of the time, while dogs who had none of the DNA were mislabeled as pit bulls 0-48% of the time. The study also showed that even though the staffers all had at least three years of experience, there was marked disagreement among them in their assessments.

Correctly identifying a dog’s breed heritage is tricky, and having seen DNA test results for many dogs, I can tell you they are often surprising based on the visual presentation of the dog. The thing is, if a poodle is assessed incorrectly in a shelter, that misidentification is not going to cost the dog his life. Years ago, while volunteering at a busy Los Angeles city shelter, I encountered a woman with her young child perusing the row of pens. They seemed to be enamored of one beautiful, frisky dog who was wagging his tail so hard his entire butt wiggled. He was happily licking the smiling child’s hands through the bars. When the woman asked what breed the dog was, I told her it was an American Staffordshire Terrier. With a look of concern, she asked, “Is that a pit bull?” I smiled and said yes. Aghast, she immediately stepped back from the bars, pushing her child behind her. They moved on, and that friendly, wonderful, adoptable dog was left to face the odds.

Having co-run Villalobos Rescue Center many years ago, which is now the largest pit bull rescue in the country, I can tell you that while many people absolutely adore pit bulls and know them to be the loyal, loving, tolerant companions they often are, just as many have a knee jerk reaction to hearing the very name. News stories of pit bull attacks only fuel the fire. Of course, an aggressive pit bull can do a lot of damage; you don’t often hear the headline, “Tiny Chihuahua bites man on leg!” In the pit bull’s case, the fact that the aggressive dog belonged to an irresponsible owner, or worse, was encouraged to be aggressive by the owner, never seems to be the thing people remember.

You truly can’t judge an individual dog by their breed. I’m not suggesting that shelter staffers purposely not label a pit bull as what it is, but that when that assessment is made, based on the fact that it could mean a potential death sentence, another educated staff member should lay eyes on the dog. Temperament tests are being done in more and more shelters and, assuming they are conducted correctly by experienced personnel, should be the standard of judgment regarding adoptability. The other piece is educating the public. Because so many shelters are flooded with pit bulls, and the euthanasia rate is incredibly high, having posters at shelters explaining “What is a pit bull?” and what to expect from their behavior, including facts and fallacies, would be a great start. In the meantime, let’s look beyond looks and judge dogs by the deed, not the breed.

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For Nicole’s books, blog and seminar DVDs, visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


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