A headset holding back her thick gray hair and a look of gentle amusement on her face, Marla Baer is shifting through her voicemail messages at the Dumb Friends League in Denver.
Her first regards a cat who's scratching furniture. She takes some notes and moves on to the next problem: a dog who's escaping the yard. Then a cat who's spraying the baseboards with urine.
She takes a deep breath and starts returning phone calls. Baer, a staff counselor for the league's pioneering pet behavior help line, has a real knack for her job, dispensing humor, compassion and information in equal measure. Still, she has her work cut out for her every time she picks up the phone. Some problems can be fixed, she knows, while others cannot. The hardest cases she deals with are those that can be fixed, but the pet's owner can't do what's needed -- or won't even try.
Baer herself never stops trying -- listening, cajoling, advising, telling jokes and stories. She deftly defuses the anger of one person, soothes the tears of another. Nothing out of the norm for Baer, except that on this day her phone is connected to the headsets of a half-dozen others who are here from around the country to learn how she does her job.
The eavesdroppers are all experienced shelter workers, brought to Denver to be part of a Pets For Life seminar. Every three months, about two dozen participants go through the intensive two-week course, which is designed to give shelters the information they need to help people in their own communities solve common pet behavior problems. Pets For Life is sponsored by charitable grants, administered by the Humane Society of the United States and taught by the staff of the Dumb Friends League at the organization's main Denver shelter.
"Shelter behavior programs will save as many lives as spaying and neutering," says Bob Rohde, president of the Dumb Friends League. He believes it, too: The league has been a pioneer in putting such programs into place, which is why people from other shelters come to Denver to see what the organization is doing.
The combination of pre-adoption training and post-adoption counseling at the league has reduced the number of pets who "boomerang" -- are adopted out and promptly returned because of behavior problems. The league also works to make sure potential adopters have a realistic idea of what's involved in keeping a pet, so they can cope with the responsibility and the expense.
The results overall have been promising, with a 7 percent drop in returns. There's no doubt, though, that the help line is at the heart of the shelter's behavior services. Last year, the league's staff of nine, plus about three times that many volunteers, handled 7,400 calls. The organization's Web page (www.ddfl.org) was busy as well, taking some 60,000 hits a month on its behavior pages.
Since the league's free advice is available to anyone who has a pet, not just to those who adopted an animal from the league, it's reasonable to assume that countless additional animals who were on the verge of being abandoned stayed in their homes because of the help their owners got from the help line or Web page.
These are the kind of results that have shelter workers from around the country standing in line to attend Pets For Life classes. Lessons include not only solutions to animal-behavior problems, but also reading feline and canine body language, no-punishment dog-training techniques, behavior management in a shelter setting, and counseling skills for dealing with the human half of the equation.
Back on the headsets, Baer tells her observers that the last set of skills is probably most important of all. Getting through to people is everything in this business. The help line counselor says she can't wait until there are plenty more trained just as she is -- and thanks to Pets For Life, there soon will be. And then she smiles and calls the owners of the kitty with a spraying problem as the others lean forward to listen.
PETS ON THE WEB
You don't have to be in Denver to get help from the Dumb Friends League, since the organization has put all its behavior information on its Web site. By clicking on Behavior Info from the league's home page (www.ddfl.org), you can access a library of information to help with both feline and canine misbehavior, including advice on house-training and on such destructive problems as scratching in cats and digging in dogs. The information is thorough and easy-to-follow, and has been reviewed by experienced behaviorists.
"Reel-type" leashes -- the Flexi is probably the best-known brand -- are very popular, and rightfully so. They allow dogs a little bit of freedom while keeping them technically on leash.
But if you have a strong, out-of-control dog, you shouldn't be using a Flexi. That's because this kind of leash actually encourages the dog to pull -- if he does, he gets more room. Plus, the handle on the reel-type leash is very hard to hold onto if the dog jerks against the line suddenly.
If your dog isn't well-trained, you're better off sticking with a traditional leash so you'll have the control you need in a pinch.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My two 5-year-old, spayed, female German shorthair pointers have lived all their lives thus far on fenced rural acreage where they can run, dig and chase birds to their hearts' content. Soon I will be moving to a house in the city with a medium-sized yard. What advice can you give me on how to retrain them so we can all live there contentedly? -- R.K., via e-mail
A: Your dogs will adjust fine if you pay attention to the most basic need of large, active dogs like these: exercise.
Few dogs get enough exercise, and the lack of a heart-thumping daily outing contributes to such behavior problems as digging, barking, chewing and more.
Consider that many of the most popular breeds and mixes are descended from animals who were bred to work: to herd sheep, retrieve ducks, pull sleds and so on. Is it any surprise that such animals are bored out of their heads when left alone for hours and hours at a time? A couple of short walks a week and maybe a game of fetch a few times a month will not fulfill their need to move their bodies to the point of exhaustion.
When I was living on the Florida panhandle for six months, my two retrievers had the Gulf of Mexico as their back yard. They ran the beach and swam for an hour or more each day. When we had to come home to California, we returned to our small urban cottage with a postage-stamp back yard.
They've made the adjustment well, because they are exercised daily. I take them out each morning, one at a time, to run alongside my bike for a half-hour or more. With their basic exercise needs satisfied, they are content to nap while I work. We also hit the dog park a couple of times a week.
Your dogs will be happy where you are, as long as they are a part of your life and get the exercise they need, an aerobic outing at least 20 minutes in length, preferably every day.
Q: Thanks for including the letter from the mom of Leo (the dog who was thrown into traffic and killed) in your recent column.
May we honor his memory by looking at our own speech and behavior: Stopping cruelty of all sorts begins and ends with each of us. His terrible death and the suffering of those he left behind have motivated me to be a better person. -- C.J.W., Chico, Calif.
A: I was pleased to see that the man who threw Leo into traffic received the maximum sentence allowed by law. I am grateful to the dog's owner, Sarah McBurnett, for seeing the matter through to its conclusion and for fighting so hard to see the man responsible for her dog's death brought to justice.
No animal-cruelty case has ever sparked so much discussion -- even the staid Wall Street Journal had an opinion on the case and its outcome. What I hope comes out of the matter is an increased awareness of the link between cruelty to animals and crimes against people (this case was both), and that the outcome sends a message to abusers that their crimes will no longer be taken lightly.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600