In our coverage of transportation issues in this city, we often write about how streets are built for cars rather than pedestrians or cyclists—and about the current efforts to make urban routes accessible for those more vulnerable groups of travelers. We’re hyperconscious about the ways in which humans move around Somerville, but here’s something we’d never considered until recently: the fact that our walkways aren’t constructed to accommodate dogs.
Melissa McCue-McGrath spends a lot of time thinking about how our four-legged friends relate to the city where they live. A Somerville resident since 2004, she’s a certified dog trainer, the co-training director of the oldest American Kennel Club obedience school in the country and a blogger for Car Talk’s new FIDO travel project. And she gets dogs. “Sidewalks are built for people,” she explains. “Us walking up to each other and shaking hands and maintaining eye contact—that’s a normal thing that people do. Dogs don’t use their eyes in that way, and when they do, it usually means ‘threat.'”
That’s just one of the pieces of wisdom that McCue-McGrath has picked up in her years as a trainer. She first started working with dogs shortly after moving to the city, when a staffer from Zen Dog Training introduced himself at a frisbee competition in which her border collie, Sadie, was competing.
But as she began learning the tricks of the trade, McCue-McGrath also started noticing that the problems faced by urban dog owners differed from those experienced by owners raising their pets in suburban or rural communities. For example: “The conventional advice for, say, a dog that’s barking and demanding and, like, ‘Pay attention to me!’ is to ignore it,” she explains. “But you can’t do that if you have a landlord that lives upstairs. Or neighbors.” Many of her clients struggled to reconcile what they heard from experts or read online with the realities of their situations, so she started finding “creative workarounds” for frustrated, confused owners and their dogs. After realizing that people needed a resource to determine if their urban canine pal was struggling and learn what steps they could take to help, she self-published the book Considerations for the City Dog earlier this year.
In working on the handbook, McCue-McGrath conducted case studies with the dogs she trains, looking to tackle the questions that her students asked most frequently. Dogs don’t come with a training manual, but her book is just that—a guide to help owners identify behavioral and training problems and to learn which experts to contact if they find they’re in over their heads. There are chapters on largely city-specific issues, like barrier frustration (the way dogs act out when they’re restrained by a leash or a fence) and broader topics like making the choice to spay or neuter your pets. (Bottom line there? Seek a specialist’s opinion. “I’m not a veterinarian,” McCue-McGrath laughs. “I use that chapter more as a point of reference. ‘Go talk to your vet, and here’s why.'”)
Considerations for the City Dog also introduces the “Hands on First” movement—the idea that no one should adopt a dog without meeting and physically touching them first. The northeast has a higher ratio of no-kill shelters than other regions, which means that many shelters and adoption services (Petfinder, specifically) will transport rescue dogs here from other locales—for a fee—in as soon as 24 hours. At that point, owners are emotionally and financially committed to their new pet. Hands on First encourages what McCue-McGrath calls “responsible rescue,” or finding a dog that’s local to your area and meeting them first. (She, herself has been looking for a rescue that’s the right fit for her family for more than five months.)
McCue-McGrath will discuss Hands on First and other considerations for new pet owners at the Somerville Public Library’s East Branch (115 Broadway) on Thursday, September 24. If you’re looking for a canine companion to explore the ‘Ville alongside you but aren’t sure where to start searching, or if you have a dog that’s been exhibiting behavioral problems, she’ll be on hand to answer your questions and provide recommendations.
One thing you should know: It’s never too late to start training or working with your dog. Her border collie, Sadie, was 11 years old when she finally passed her canine good citizen test.
You really can teach an old dog new tricks.