Cinema Dog Daze

Films fuel the fads for special pets -- then comes the fallout

Since the days when Rin-Tin-Tin was all the rage, movie mutts have influenced pet vogues -- and given shelter staffs a heads up on which breed will be showing up in about six months or years to come.

Colleen Hodges, education coordinator for Harris County Rabies/Animal Control, cringes at memories of a Disney film: "It's been how many years since that movie came out, but we still see tons of dalmatians come in."

Thanks to Men in Black II, the Hollywood hound of the moment is the pug. Frank the pug has a major role in the film, frequently upstaging his human co-stars, and that means a run on the curly-tailed, bug-eyed charmers. Mushu, the professionally trained pug who plays Frank, will always have a good home. The seven-year old animal actor enjoys the full star treatment, drinking bottled water and attending red-carpet functions.

Frank also flies in an airplane's cabin, not in cargo. The special airline treatment is only partly due to his celebrity status -- his breed is brachycephalic, and those kinds of breathing problems mean this pooch can't fly cargo.

Animal welfare activists cite the pug's health problems in explaining a sad cycle for canines caught up in media-induced fads. The wrong kinds of people rush in to get what turns out to be the wrong type of pet for them -- and wind up abandoning those animals, leaving breed rescue groups and shelters to cope with the fallout.

Fans of 101 Dalmatians saw spots in their eyes, but not the shortcomings of the breed. They figured out that expensive purebred dalmatians actually can't talk, and often have deafness and behavior problems. The lucky dogs went to the pound -- others just got dumped.

"We try to adopt them out if they're heartworm negative," Hodges said, adding that these dogs, short-coated creatures typically stored in a backyard, are generally heartworm positive.

In the case of Frank's kin, the same smashed-in face that allows Mushu to fit right in with the freakish animatronic aliens of MIIB can cause all sorts of woes for those dogs. Pugs, along with other monkey-faced breeds like the Boston terrier, boxers and Pekinese, have brachycephalic respiratory syndrome which may cause distress, or require surgery. (Roughly 25-30 percent of pugs need an operation that costs between $700 to $1,000, and anesthetizing them is risky as well.) Their oddly shaped skulls can also lead to eye problems and dental woes.

Heatstroke is a serious danger for brachycephalic dogs. A Georgia-based pug rescue group acquired the domain name frankthepug.org and uses that Web site to explain the special needs and problems of pugs. (Frequent farting is on the list, along with "getting slimed.")

Pug Rescue of Southeast Texas, a 12-year-old organization that tries to find good homes for unwanted pugs, is worried about a pug rush in the wake of Men in Black II. Hodges feels pugs have a couple of things going for them. She says, "A pug's not like a dalmatian, who has nine puppies in a litter. A pug has like three." Along with being less at risk for overbreeding, Hodges says, "Pugs are small shorthaired dogs, which is what people want, as opposed to a 60-pound dalmatian."

Two years after the last dalmatian movie, the dogs are still trotting in, to be "surrendered." If a healthy, adoptable spotty dog doesn't find a home, Hodges says, "We'll call dalmatian rescue -- there are two or three around. Usually, they're packed." (More than 20 dogs whose owners have called it quits are waiting to enter the Loving Spots dalmatian rescue program.)

While the dalmatian rescue group tries to find foster homes for their wards, Hodges says, "We have to wait, which makes us a boarding facility for a rescue group, and that's kind of hard to justify." There's always another dog needing a space at the county shelter, and breed rescue groups can only do so much, even when they're legit.

Jim Boller, chief investigator for the Houston SPCA, says he prefers the term "adoption partner" or "breed placement groups" to rescue groups, because he doesn't want it to sound like people are rescuing dogs from the SPCA. Boller also says there can be a fine line between rescue groups and hoarders. This fear of well-meaning people who will ultimately do the dogs no good is felt at all animal welfare agencies.

Hodges says whenever she gets a call from someone claiming to represent a new rescue group or boutique shelter, she wonders if she's dealing with a hoarder. Hoarders, also called collectors, range from people who accumulate more than the legal limit of dogs that are underfed and underfoot in their homes to the obvious nuts who wind up with 70 animals, dead or alive, in their hovels.

News reports occasionally feature a cash-strapped shelter founder who appears on camera with a trembling smile, begging for money, and the camera pans over a dozen adorable animals, all in need of a home right away. Sometimes the pleas work, and other times the animals from a no-kill shelter wind up at a facility with more realistic policies.

There are no statistics on the viability of grow-your-own pet shelters, but Betsy McFarland of the American Humane Association says, "I can tell you anecdotally that we get calls from individuals from all over the country who want to start a shelter." McFarland instead tries to steer these people toward joining an existing organization. In other words, picking up poop at an established institution will do more for big-eyed, slobbering critters than designing a nifty logo for their very own shelter.

Breed rescue groups, organizations that work to find homes for a particular breed, often have a better foundation than an off-the-cuff shelter. First, they're often part of a breed club that can provide support. These rescue groups typically use foster homes for their dogs, instead of building a facility, and their education programs and coordination with clients can be effective in preventing owners from returning dogs.

Jessica Logan of Loving Spots says her group has only had one dog returned since they instituted the training program. She credits the success to a requirement that all adopters go through a 12-week training program with their new dogs (this training is for the humans, not the dogs). Logan says they place approximately 100 dogs annually, mostly the glamorous speckled pups, but also mutts and purebreds from other shelter efforts. She admits to sometimes coming off as a complete bitch for her blunt warnings that many would-be do-gooders aren't as educated as they should be.

"You're not going to be able to save the world -- you're not," Logan says. Love and good food isn't enough, she says; there's still the problem of people who give up dogs because they just can't live with them.

Pet stores host adoptions each weekend and thousands of retired greyhound racers have found good homes as pets, but the math is still dismal. Hodges says that local shelters put down up to 90,000 animals a year.

The key, according to Humane officials, is that people need to carefully think about what kind of breed and dog is best suited for them, and all the costs and responsibilities associated with that decision. Thanks to relentless campaigning from animal welfare activists, and the popularity of mutt-friendly sports like flyball and dog agility, people are eager to adopt a Heinz 57 (mixed breed), and even willing to start with an older dog. (Those who insist on a purebred can still adopt one. According to McFarland, 25 percent of animals that enter shelters are purebred.)

Hodges recognizes that county animal control gets the dregs of dog society and has the hardest time finding homes. Some days, she says, it's just too much, "I have to go do filing or something; I just can't bear to look at anything furry."

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