Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rex And The City

Socrates comes barrelling down the hallway, all three pounds of him, panting and ready to dart on to the elevator - after making a break from the arms of his doting owner. She's a well-heeled woman who lives on the same floor of my condo and likes to carry her fluff ball of a dog out to her car. The fluff ball has an infrequent little bark to match his size, so he makes for a quiet condo neighbour.
Dogless, and more of a cat person, would I be OK with a large breed featuring a booming bark next door? It would depend upon pet etiquette: how well the dog was trained and cared for by its owners.
Even with proper "petiquette" - including leashes or strict voice command, and immediate scooping after bathroom breaks - is a condo suitable for a rambunctious dog, big or small? No backyard to roam, just denser living quarters, elevators and concrete balconies.
"The mentality of 'belonging in the country with lots of territory to explore' stems from old stereotypes of farm dogs roaming around," says Dr. Justine Lee, a Minnesota-based veterinarian and author of It's a Dog's Life . . . But it's Your Carpet. She calls this train of thought a misconception, for a number of reasons. "Letting a dog roam around unsupervised is dangerous and obnoxious to your neighbours and their yard."
Unsupervised roaming exposes the dog to environmental dangers, such as poisons - antifreeze, rat poison, compost - and trauma, such as getting attacked by another dog or kicked by a horse, not to mention pet overpopulation if it's not neutered. You know what stray tomcats like to do for a good time.
Dr. Lee lives in an 840-square-foot single home with her rescue pit bull, J. P., and two rescue cats, Seamus and Echo. Providing a good home for dogs is not about physical space, she says. Dogs evolved from wolves, which sleep in small dens. "Because of that, I'm a huge advocate of crate-training dogs, so they should be sleeping in a small crate when the owner is away at work."
Small toy dog breeds, regal poufs such as Pomeranians and Pekingese popularized by celebrities toting doggy designer purses, have also become common pet choices among city dwellers, mostly because they can easily be kept indoors and taught to urinate on a potty pad, Dr. Lee explains. "I still don't think that's adequate."
She insists that all dogs need environmental stimulation and exercise, and couch-potato owners have their put canines on the fat list, at risk for associated health problems.
"As America grows, so do their pets. Forty to sixty per cent of pets are also obese." Studies have shown that leaner dogs live longer and people who exercise with their pets by walking benefit from weight loss.
Most important is plenty of environmental enrichment: outdoors, beyond the condo common areas. Dogs are sensory-oriented, so going for walks outside, sniffing new smells, hearing new sounds and stretching their legs are key components of a healthy lifestyle. Some breeds, such as border collies and Australian shepherds, have a high animal intelligence, so without this kind of stimulation, behavioural problems can result, like gnawing furniture and other household destruction.
In some respects, urban dogs can be better off than their rural counterparts. With city living, there is ample opportunity for environmental enrichment in the form of doggy daycare and city parks. Playtime and socialization are important to any dog, regardless of age or breed, Dr. Lee says.
The convenience of condo living is that you may find a dog lover who likes to walk your dog at lunch while you're away at work, or find a pet sitter more easily. "(Condo living) does have the benefits of allowing puppy playtime, etc., among condo pet owners."
Take Scotch, for example. She's an energetic wheaten terrier/chow mix who downsized from a house in the suburbs to a condo in downtown Toronto. She likes to be social and gives new meaning to the term "puppy-dog eyes" with her adorable, imploring looks to invite attention and a game of ball. There are about a dozen other dogs in her lower-rise building that she can meet and greet in the courtyard and hallways, and a dog park a short stroll away.
"She's a city dog now," her owner, Howard Colt, says. "She wouldn't walk over a sewer grate when we first got here because of the air coming up. But she loves it now. And she loves the park."
The only routine that's changed for Colt is that he has to get up in the morning and take his prized Scotch out for a walk, since he can't just let her out in a backyard. But that's hardly a drawback, he says, since he gets the exercise and air, too.
"She looks for squirrels first and runs the perimeter of the park," he says. There's a sense of community among the dogs and their owners at the park, as well, so there's usually some chatting and sniffing. Some of the neighbourhood businesses are dog-friendly, which is another bonus for city dogs. Tellers at the bank on the corner like to give Scotch a dog biscuit, and the cafe where Colt sits for a coffee always has water bowls refreshed.
"Not all condos are dog-friendly, so we're lucky," Colt says, although one neighbour on his floor is afraid of dogs, so, he says, you have to respect that.
"I really think there are no bad dogs, just bad owners."
Good care and training are crucial to dog ownership, especially in a condo or apartment where noise travels, Dr. Lee says.
"I used to live in (a condo) with my dog, and pet-sat for a fellow condo owner who had a black Labrador, but he took him for plenty of walks. The bad news is I could hear the dog barking all the time, which I'm sure annoyed other condo owners."
National Post
khawthorne@nationalpost.com

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