Unconditional Love: ‘We Are Sometimes All the Other Has’

Welcome to the Unconditional Love series, where we bring you heartfelt stories from bloggers around the Web about all of the ways their animals have shown them unconditional love through the years. Be sure to check back each week for a different post -- and share your own story for a chance to win $50 worth of pet food.

This week, we talked to blogger Natalie Lester from Petsafe. Here’s what she said about her pet:

What does your pet’s unconditional love look like?

Emma’s love for me is displayed simply with her presence. Because we are sometimes all the other has, she tends to follow me around the house and office so we are never apart more than we have to be. Whether it’s playing with her favorite toy or snuggling up next to me on the couch after a long day, I know Emma loves me just because she chooses to be with me as much as possible.

When did you realize you loved your pet unconditionally?

I’ve always been grossed out by mothers who wipe their children’s (furry or human) noses with their bare hands or don’t think twice about the germs their children are covered in when they are sick. However, when I adopted Emma, I completely threw all of these dispositions out the window. Whether it’s getting the sleep out of her eyes in the morning, dealing with accidents or yucky health issues, I am the pet parent who doesn’t think about the dirty situations. My unconditional love for her overrides any other concern I may have.

Why is the bond between a person and her/his pet so special?

As pet ownership increases across the country, so does the meaningful relationship we have with our pets. The majority of Americans who own a pet consider the furry friend a member of their family -- just like another child or sibling. Our pets have always held us in the highest regards, but the feeling is finally mutual. Dogs have always been man’s best friend, but now they are our family too.

Was it love at first sight for you and your pet? Or did it take a while to get used to each other?

Emma is the first pet that is totally my responsibility, and I thought long and hard about what pet ownership means before I adopted her. I picked out her name before I met her, knowing I wanted a playful and sweet puppy. I wanted a companion who would enjoy both long runs at the park and sleeping in on Saturday morning. I didn’t know Emma would fit all those characteristics immediately, but I knew enough to know I loved her. In the last year, we have found a life we love, and I wouldn’t trade her for the world.

Was there a time when your pet’s unconditional love was extra important to you?

Emma’s companionship is always important to me, but I feel it most when I am really stressed out. Whether it’s work, social commitments or family pushing me to the limit, she always finds her own way to make me smile and remind me that everything will be just fine.

Have a pet that loves you? Tweet us your story now for a chance to win $50 in Iams pet food!

Exercise Gone to the Dogs

Studies show that working out with a friend increases the odds that you'll stick with a fitness regimen. And who's one of your best buddies, one that could probably use a good workout, too? That's right, your trusted canine companion, the one that that eagerly anticipates spending quality time with you. We all know how easy it is to ignore the willful inner voice that wants you to hit the gym, but it's not so easy to ignore your dog's sweet furry face, pleading whimpers and wagging tail.

Nationwide, there are many dog gyms, spas and physical therapy facilities, as well as dog-specific classes at typically humans-only sports gyms. "Many of the workouts are designed for the dog only, or are rehabilitative for dogs that are in physical therapy, such as the treadmill or water aerobics," says Gail Fisher, a long-time professional trainer and founder of All Dogs Gym and Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire. "You're there and helping the dog, but it's not necessarily an aerobic workout for you. To exercise with your dog, you have to choose activities that take into account your dog's endurance level, age and temperament. Overweight dogs need to start slow and build endurance. Puppies under twelve-to-fourteen months of age of all breeds should also start with slower or shorter-timed activities."

Yoga
Dog yoga, which comes in many names, such as Crunch Fitness' "Ruff Yoga," typically takes place outdoors and consists of a series of partner moves involving you and your dog. For example, there is tandem stretching of legs and the neck, as well as loosening of the hip flexors through massage-like poses. Your dog does the well-known yoga pose "downward facing dog" every day. That's the pose where the rear is in the air and the front paws/arms are outstretched in front. You can search for a class near you and, once you learn the many varied poses, you and your dog can simply step outside to somewhere flat and, preferably, grassy. Yoga can help the two of you to loosen joints and relieve stress.

  • Watch For:

"If your dog is not a dog that likes to be touched a lot, you may get a bite attempting yoga poses with it," says Fisher. "And remember that the activity is new to the dog, so be gentle, and go slow, and be aware that not all temperaments will allow you to stretch and hold on to them."

Dancing
Dancing with dogs is actually a competitive sport, but you don't have to get pro-level serious to enjoy a little booty-shakin' with your pooch. "It's a series of moves you do with your dog, gradually building the number of the dog's moves," says Fisher. You can find a class, or just move the furniture in your living room. You start by incorporating the "tricks" your dog already knows, and build from there. "You're working out to music, and your dog should learn to weave through your legs, spin around, and even learn to back up with you. I've seen dog dancing with really fit people and their lean Dobermans as well as heavy people with tiny lapdogs, and everything in between." Don't forget to have small, chewable treats on hand to reward your dog for participating.

  • Watch For:

"I doubt that the dog understands a 'beat' and is actually moving to the music," says Fisher. "The value is in the company and the relationship -- you're bonding and dancing; you're a team."

Cross-Country Skiing (Skjoring)
To cross-country ski with your fit, large breed dog, you'll need a pair of cross country skis, as well as a harness and double leash for your pet. The dog is actually going to be pulling you on your skis, so skjoring is not for medium or small dogs, not to mention canines that are older or are not physically up to the task. "I used to go skjoring with my mastiff, and it was terrific fun. Your arms and mid body get a great workout, and the dog is, of course, doing a lot of work. It's great!"

  • Watch For:

"Check with your vet to make sure your dog is capable of skjoring," says Fisher. "It's not for every dog." Examine the coat under the harness to make sure there is no raw rubbing, and check your dog's paw pads to ensure ice and other terrain do not take a negative toll. Some pet stores sell dog booties, such as Ultra Paws, which can help to protect your pup's paws.

Biking
For larger breeds, and for dogs bred for endurance such as German Shepherds, a bike can provide a fabulous double workout. "You want something with wider tires, mostly for balance while you negotiate the dog," advises Fisher. "This activity requires training because you can't bike safely if your dog bolts on you. There are also devices you can get for a bike so a dog doesn't get under the tires or too close to the spokes." One such gadget, the Springer dog jogger, prevents leashes from getting tangled in the tires and has a special safety release feature that enables you to quickly separate your dog from the bike. Start with shorter distances, preferably in low-traffic, low-pedestrian areas. Talk to your dog and be in control. And if you can, work to bike with your dog off-leash, running next to you.

  • Watch For:

"Young dogs can't be on pavement for very long," explains Fisher. "Their ligaments and joints are not fully developed, and the impact of the pavement is not healthy for them at all. Also be aware of a mature or senior dog's endurance levels, as well as the temperature."

Hiking
"Hiking isn't a new activity, but I'm always surprised at how many people don't view it as a great workout, because it's maybe the best one for dogs and owners both," says Fisher. "I can't suggest dog-owner activities and not talk about hiking. I think this is the ideal dog-owner workout because you're walking in natural terrain, and (at some places) you can take the dog off leash and let the dog be a dog. It allows the dog to sniff to its heart's content, run and explore -- that's exactly what you want your dog to do." Fisher explains that even if you've never gone hiking or worked out with your dog, you can go for super short hikes, and gradually increase the time and distance.

  • Watch For:

Check in advance to determine whether your desired trail allows dogs to be off leash. Also, don't hike with puppies. "If you're going to take a long hike, your dog needs to be at least 12 to 14 months old," says Fisher. "Likewise for very small dogs. Puppies and tiny dogs can't handle long distances." Take things slow and bring extra water when temperatures are over 85 degrees. Says Fisher: "Dogs can't sweat like we do, and need more water breaks."

New Games to Play with Your Dog

There are myriad reasons to play with your dog, such as weight management or to simply have a good time -- for both of you. "If you play with your dog for five minutes a day, three times a week, you'll have a better behaved and happier dog," says trainer Ellen Poole of Just Tails, a pet training site and service in the California Bay Area.

"Dogs are like you -- you feel better when you exercise and when you spend time with people you love," says Poole. "Play time is exercise time for dogs, and being with you is what your pet wants the most. This is true for all breeds, not just natural herders or retrievers who need 'jobs.' Little dogs love to play, and should play, too."

Poole says there are so many interesting, different games that you can play with your pet that go beyond fetch or tug of war. Although your dog may be used to those classic games, and it may at first turn its nose up to new games, Poole suggests patience is in order. She advises, "Try a few games to see which ones make your dog happiest."

Treasure Hunt
Different trainers have different names for this game, but the premise of Treasure Hunt is the same: hide treats, and then let your dog find them. "You always want to be a part of the game, and you always want to be in control," says Poole. For Treasure Hunt, command the dog to wait. For some dogs, this is a "down" command, while others will respond to "stay" or "wait." Next, hide three-to-five treats -- you want the dog to be able to keep track of where you've hidden each surprise. Let your dog watch you hide the "prize." Then give the command "GO!" and allow your dog to run and find the treats. Poole says if weight is a concern, you can hide toys instead of treats. Good owner!

Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek is similar to Treasure Hunt, but instead of treats, your dog is going to find you! "What your dog wants the most is to be with you," says Poole. "And what your dog likes to do the most is play, so this game is definitely bonding." Hide and Seek could also be the easiest game to play with your dog. Simply have your dog sit and stay, and then you hide. Next, call to the dog by using a name, a whistle or a funny animal sound to get your dog revved up! When Doggie finds you, give lots of praise. And try not to think of your dog's "peeking" when you hide as cheating! Smart dog!

Toy Cleanup
Toy Cleanup is a game that reinforces "return for refund," because your dog will earn a treat for every toy placed successfully in your hands. Give a sit and stay command. Grab your dog's toy basket and scatter the toys around the room. Using verbal and physical cues, like simply pointing at an individual toy, encourage your dog to pick up one toy at a time and place it in your hand. The challenge is for your dog to not drop the toys at your feet. Then encourage your dog to put the toys in a basket, or other storage container, which your pet can access. "Even the oldest dogs can be trained with repetition and positive reinforcement," reminds Poole. Over time, your dog will clean up his own toys at your command. What was once work for you can become play for your pooch.

Go Wild and Freeze!
This is a great game for dogs with a jumping-on-visitors habit and/or canines that get a little over-excited. Take a treat and wiggle it just above your dog's nose so its head moves up toward the treat. This will naturally position your pet's rear to the ground in a "sit." Then command "GO WILD!" and jump around, clap and make sounds like a nine-year-old headed to recess. (This is a great game for children to play with the family dog.) You want your dog to get as excited as you are. Next, give the command, "Stop!" Then you stand tall without moving. Repeat the wiggle-treat-to-sit step. Wait, and resume the entire process as many times as you both desire. Over time, your dog will learn that "stop" means sit and freeze in place, a skill that can come in handy when in-laws drop by.

Nose It
Now it's time to bring toys into the mix. Poole advises that you choose toys that encourage chewing, because it's relaxing for the dog. "I like activities for dogs where they can roll a toy and nose it around," she says. For Nose It, select a toy that can be stuffed with edible treats, such as the Kong. Or, choose one of the new "monkeys in a barrel" type toys that have several little surprises inside a bigger toy. Hide-A-Squirrel and the Iqube II Cagey Cube are two examples. These toys allow your dog to "nose" and pull each of the surprises out while enjoying a good chew on the soft plush "prey." Just stuff the little toys back into the bigger toy for another round. "This keeps the dog busy, and nosing out the treat and chewing is calming for the dog," says Poole.

Your Dog Can Be a Professional Actor

Their names may not draw Brangelina-level attention, but plenty of dogs find regular work in Hollywood, on Broadway, in TV commercials, on fashion shoots and more.

What does it take to be a star? First, as with human stars, looks count. Demand for certain breeds follows trends, says Diane Haithman, whose German shepherd, Heidi, has appeared in “Desperate Housewives” and the Web series “Glen of Glenwood.” For instance, the “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” movies increased interest in Chihuahuas. “Pets get typecast too,” says Jim Leske, a Hollywood-based trainer whose 11-year-old German shepherd, Bear, appears often in police shows.

German shepherds are sought after for “tough dog” or “mean dog” roles, Haithman has found. Golden retrievers win parts for family dogs. Cute mutts also find roles. Some casting is a matter of practicality. A dog with light coloring, for example, will be easier to light on camera.

However, your dog also needs to, well, act. Behavior is a critical element in casting parts for tail-wagging actors, say the experts. Before you begin knocking on doors with 8-by-10 glossies of your best friend, consider this checklist:

  • Temperament “Evaluate your little star’s temperament before subjecting it to the limelight,” says Colleen Safford, a trainer based in New York City. “If your dog is easily startled, not overly interested in mingling with strangers, or spooks easily with different sounds, it’s unfair -- not to mention it can be dangerous -- to put him in this position. Sets are busy, unpredictable places.”
  • Obedience Your dog must have basic obedience skills. It should be able to walk gently on a leash, sit and stay, says Leske. Your dog also will be asked to hit a mark, meaning move to a location on cue. This can be taught with clicker training, offering a food treat, and sounding a clicker when your dog successfully places his front paws on the mark. “Most casting calls only require that dogs do very simple things, but they must be able to do them repetitively, reliably and among the distractions of a busy set,” explains Safford.
  • Time It is not just about your dog’s potential star-power, but it’s about the time you’re willing to invest. “Most pets you see in commercials either belong to a trainer or to a family who can afford to have a trainer on the payroll,” says Leske. For instance, Haithman did pay for some training sessions for Heidi. Also, someone needs to stay on the set or the shoot with your dog, explains Safford. You need to make sure your dog is working in short bursts, taking regular breaks.

Getting Started
You can find casting calls on websites such as Craigslist, says Safford. You can approach talent agencies, but be wary about investing thousands in training on the promise of roles that might not come.

Working with a legitimate trainer can be helpful, though. Casting directors often approach trainers in big media markets, such as New York City and Los Angeles, says Safford. Networking helps. Heidi landed work through someone Haithman’s husband knew at the gym where he works out.

Most importantly, think about whether your dog will enjoy the experience. “Is it for you or for the animal?” asks Haithman. “It’s a hard life, but there are certain dogs who really take to it. Heidi enjoyed our training sessions immensely, learning to hit a mark. It makes her happy to learn something.”

Adopt a Mixed Breed or a Purebred?

The fundamental question when deciding to welcome a canine companion into your home is whether to adopt a “mutt” or a purebred dog. Mixed-breed dogs often populate animal shelters and need good homes. Purebreds can be purchased from a breeder and are sometimes available for a small fee through dog rescue organizations.

“This is a very important decision, especially for first-time dog owners,” says Lisa Peterson, communications director for the American Kennel Club (AKC). “Regardless of what you decide, you first need to look at your own lifestyle when deciding to get a dog.”

Questions to Ask Yourself
Before you select a dog, Peterson suggests asking the following questions:

  • Do you have time to walk the dog for about 30 minutes, twice a day?
  • Do you have financial resources for unexpected veterinary bills?
  • Do you have the time to train and socialize your dog?
  • How much time can you spend grooming your dog?
  • Do you have space in your home or yard for a large dog?

Now that you have a better sense of what size dog you want, what activity level you can live with and what type of temperament you seek, you can take a better look at the attributes of purebred dogs and mixed breeds.

Purebred vs. Mixed Breed
The great thing about rescuing a mutt from a shelter is that you’re giving a home to a dog that otherwise may never be adopted. Second, you don’t have to pay the $500 to $1,500 that many purebred dogs will cost. Adopting a mixed breed from an animal shelter can run at $50 or less, usually to cover the cost of vaccinations or spaying or neutering. Third, mixed breeds have more genetic diversity, which can help them avoid some of the hereditary defects that plague purebreds.

The great thing about purebreds is that they are very predictable in terms of what you can expect when a puppy grows up. These canines were developed as a result of selective breeding, meaning that dogs with certain traits or genes were bred, and other dogs with less desirable traits were not. As a result, the 161 different breeds recognized by the AKC have specific genes for physical traits, such as color, coat and size, as well as temperament. Also, you are more likely to be able to see the parents of your purebred dog and make visual assessments.

Comparison Shopping
Here’s how mixed breeds and purebreds stack up on key attributes:

  • Size Most purebreds have standard size ranges, which you can review on the AKC Web site. So if you only have space in your apartment for a small dog, you can select a breed that just grows to 20 or 30 pounds. With mixed breeds, you’re often more likely to be rolling the dice. “A mixed breed that you thought would be 20 pounds might end up at 200 pounds,” Peterson says.
  • Coat Purebreds are also predictable in terms of what type of coat to expect in your adult dog. If you have lots of time to brush and groom your dog, you may do well with a collie. But if you don’t want to be bothered by finding clumps of dog hair around your home, you may be better off with a short-haired dog, such as a Weimaraner. Unless you know for certain what your mixed breed’s parents were, it is hard to predict what type of coat a puppy will have as an adult.
  • Behavior and activity level “Purebred dogs were developed usually for a specific purpose. There are hunting dogs, pulling dogs, cattle dogs, guarding dogs and so on,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association. The Labrador retriever, for example, was bred to retrieve game for hunters, and as a result, is a very “mouthy” dog, prone to chewing in a domestic setting, Dr. Beaver says. You may not know the parentage of your mixed-breed pup and therefore you may have little idea about its likely behavior and activity level.
  • Health Because of inbreeding, certain purebreds have become subject to hereditary health defects, some of which can be crippling and potentially fatal. These defects include bone and joint disorders, eye diseases, heart disease, cancer and more. Mixed breeds have greater genetic diversity, so the chances are better that both parents did not have the same defective genes.

There may be ways of getting around the unpredictability of a mixed breed. “In terms of mutts, we see so many cute ones,” says Sophia Yin, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in San Francisco. “If you’re adopting them when they’re 6 or 8 months old, you will have a good idea of what they’re going to look like, including their size, and you can observe them a little to evaluate their temperament.

Whatever your choice is, the most important factor is making sure your lifestyle includes giving lots of love.