How does pet ownership contribute to population health? An interview with Melanie Rock

Check out this interview where Dr. Melanie Rock, an anthropologist at the University of Calgary, reveals how pet ownership contributes to human health.

Dr. Rock starts out on familiar ground explaining some of the concrete human health benefits arising from companion animals. For example, simply being exposed to a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and walking a dog is good exercise. This makes sense to me, my German Shepherd Milo keeps me calm, happy, and on the move.

However, this interview really caught my attention when Dr. Rock started talking about the significance of human-animal relationships. She gave examples ranging from farm animals to pets, from rural settings to cities, and from the Global North to the Global South of how our sense of our own identities and our health, and our sense of belonging in a place are tied to our relationships with animals. This has a significant impact on human well being.

Dr. Rock says,

If it’s true that even in resource poor countries in which food is a daily concern, that people establish effective relationships with pets and relate to a dog as a friend, as a member even of the family in some cases, then those relationships are important to take into account when we are designing and delivering health services and broader population health initiatives. … so far we have not really come to grips with the fact that our society is not purely human.

 

Melanie [Rock] is an anthropologist and social worker whose research focuses on the societal and cultural dimensions of health, with an emphasis on the importance of nonhuman animals for mental, physical, and social well-being. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, where she serves as Associate Scientific Director in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Her primary appointment is in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, she has supervisory privileges in the Department of Anthropology and Archeology, Faculty of Arts and in the Faculty of Social Work. Honorary affiliations include the Institut de recherche en santé publique de l’Université de Montréal and the Human-Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney.

 

Found distractions: Proofing for our upcoming Rally Obedience Trial

Milo and my first Rally Obedience Trial is fast approaching. We’ve been training daily and can do all the exercises with cheerful and brisk focus. Our biggest challenge will be distractions around the ring during the trial.

German shepherd dog heeling beside a woman in blue jeans between a coop full of chickens and another dogLuckily the universe provided us with an outstanding set of distractions for practice. And by ‘the universe,’ I mean my brother and sister-in-law’s farm. Milo has a strong prey drive and a history of dog reactivity. So, we spent a week performing Rally exercises using Louis the Dog an obstacle and the chicken coop as a backdrop. By the end of the week, Milo could heel around the dog while the chickens were flapping and clucking toward their dinner.  Good boy!

Of course, something could still knock us off our game during the trial, but it is good to know that we worked hard and did our best to be ready.

German shepherd dog jumping in the air to catch a treat. He is almost vertical and is taller than the jeans wearing woman holding his leash

Milo’s reward for all that work was to jump for a piece of chicken…

Our first Rally trial: Wish us luck!

Crazy Tails Canine Services is hosting a Canadian Association of Rally Obedience trial later this month in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Milo and I will be in it!  It will be our first trial.

headshot of a black and tan German shepherd with bright amber eyes and a big smile

Hey guys, I’m going to a CARO trial!

It feels like this roller coaster is just about to head down that first breath-taking plunge and Milo, silly boy, is laying at my feet snoring—it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t realize just how exciting this is or he’d be pacing around looking for what’s got me all aflutter.

We have two weeks to get ready and we’ll need it. There are three organizations with sanctioned Rally trials in Canada: the Canadian Kennel Club Rally, the United Kennel Club Rally, and the Canadian Association of Rally Obedience (CARO). The rules and exercises are a little bit different for each organization, and CARO is the one I’m least familiar with. I’ll try to line up a lesson or two before the trial just to make sure that we’re on target.

By the way, Saskatoon is my home town, and there is a good chance that my family will come out and see Milo and I strut our stuff.

If you have any advice for our first trial I’d love to hear it.

 

Training outcomes July 25 – August 2: We know the novice rally signs

Milo and I spent the last week heeling through figure eights, and weaves, and spirals. I am happy to report that we can do all the Novice Rally exercises and I can read all the signs.

The biggest challenges for me will be keeping track of our left and right turns (I’m not joking) and remembering to speed up when Milo starts to lag. This feels backwards. When Milo starts to slow down my tendency is to slow down as well and tell him to hustle up. But, he catches up more quickly if I ignore him and walk faster.

I’ve heard people give different reasons for why this works. Some say

  • that it adds more forward energy to the exercise,
  • that the dog doesn’t want to be left behind,
  • that it makes the exercise more interesting for the dog, or
  • that the dog imitates the handler.

All that I know is that if I slow down, he slows down even more, and that if I surge ahead, he’ll break into a trot to keep up. It’s a case of do as I do, not as I say.

I wish I had video of me and Milo. In my imagination we look like this team when we go through a serpentine weave:

Aaron Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

This park was stinky. Literally. I pulled into a campsite generously decorated with dog poop. While I was cleaning up it occurred to me that I had a neighbour who either lets their, evidently large, dog run loose, or is the sort of person who watches their dog poop in someone else’s campsite and thinks, “I’m just gonna leave that sitting right there.” I was looking forward to meeting this person, and their dog. It was going to be great. I knew it.

Sure enough, on Milo and my first walk two retriever-ish looking dogs galloped toward us while their owners yelled from their camp chairs, you guessed it, “don’t worry, they’re friendly.”

I yelled back, “I’m not.” It just popped out, no mincing of words at all. And at that moment, it was true. “Those dogs need to be on leashes.”

The indignant response was, “I don’t know why you’re upset. We haven’t had any problems.”

I saw this as invitation to describe the poop, and, you know, the law, which didn’t go over so well. Who would’ve thought? The best part was when they explained to me, and my fabulous gigantic German Shepherd Milo, that if I didn’t like dogs, I probably shouldn’t go camping. Oh boy, time to walk away. That time was actually long past, but as they say, better late than never. Some people.

In case you are wondering, here are some relevant bits of law:

Domestic and other animals

6. (1) No person in control of a domestic animal shall permit the animal to be,

(a) in a provincial park unless the animal is secured on a leash that does not exceed two metres in length;  …

(4) No person shall permit a domestic animal, while in a provincial park, to

(a) make excessive noise;

(b) disturb other persons;

(c) damage Crown property or vegetation;

(d) chase or harass wild animals or birds;

(e) injure, or attempt to injure, a person or other domestic animal.  O. Reg. 347/07, s. 6 (4).

(5) The person in control of a domestic animal shall immediately dispose of excrement from the animal in such manner and at such location that it will not cause a health hazard or public inconvenience.  O. Reg. 347/07, s. 6 (5).  …

I am sure these people are not a permanent fixture at Aaron Provincial Park, but I let them colour my experience of the place more than I should’ve. Thank heavens I discovered the group campground, a grassy field with picnic tables, empty. Milo and I spent a lot of time there romping, playing tug, training, and reading magazines (Milo didn’t read magazines as much as sat there and chewed a toy).

a black and tan German shepherd dog looking up at the camera. Fis shiny black nose is the highlight of the picture.

I can’t stay mad when I look at this big happy nose. Also, notice the leash…

Aaron Provincial Park is conveniently located on the Trans Canada highway just East of Dryden, Ontario. It lacks a sanctioned off leash pet exercise area.

Training plan for the week of July 25: The novice rally signs

As I’ve said before, my goal is to earn a Novice Rally Obedience Title with Milo. In a Novice Rally trial, the judge creates a course of 10-15 obedience exercises and evaluates a dog-handler team as they work through those exercises. According to the Canadian Kennel Club

The chief objective of rally is to provide a fast-moving and motivational activity that demonstrates the competency of handler and dog in performing basic obedience exercises without requiring exact precision for success. 

This German Shepherd earned a perfect score on a novice course.

Most of these exercises Milo and I have been doing for ages. The fancier heeling patterns will need some attention, and I need to keep working on Milo’s engagement in new and distracting environments.

Also, there are signs that indicate which exercises a team needs to perform. Some of them are pretty obvious, and some aren’t. I need to study.

 

So, the plan for this week is pretty straightforward:

  1. Practice engagement in distracting spots.
  2. Work on our Figure 8 heeling pattern.
  3. Familiarize ourselves with the signs indicating various exercises.