By Julia Runk Jones
Several years ago, an old college friend living thousands of miles away called me about a problem with her dog Fred, a cheerful, seemingly uncomplicated 3-year-old shepherd mix. According to her, Fred was trying to destroy her tiny mobile home.
Every weekday morning she walked him before leaving for work. He had been fed, had access to water, and she put the radio down low on a classical music station to create a calm environment. Fred accepted this without a fuss and laid down on his pillow.
Fast forward nine hours. Fred rushed to greet her in a wonderfully happy mood. He was always so happy when she returned. Behind him, the room looked like a disaster area. There was paper everywhere — on the floor, the furniture, even the kitchen table. Some had been pulled out of the trash, most was off her desk. And the books! At least one book had a section removed. And it became the norm. If she forgot to shelve one book, it became a casualty.
She talked to friends who had experience with dogs. They all agreed Fred was angry with her and asserting dominance. They all agreed he must be punished in order to understand that these things mattered to her and that she was the dominant one. And all agreed that a water pistol full of vinegar was the humane way to do that.
Humane …. really?
That weekend everything was fine. Things were always fine on weekends. In the long quiet days, Fred sat by her on the sofa, his head in her lap as always while she read a book. When she went out, he came along too.
On Monday she went to work as usual. That night, when she came in the door, she already had the pistol in hand when Fred came running to greet her. She shot him in the face with vinegar water, then pointed at the room and said “NO!”
“It was a terrible mistake. I didn’t even know dogs could look disgusted. He stared at me, then turned around and left the room,” she said with a sigh.
How would you feel if you rushed up to someone you loved and she pulled out a pistol full of vinegar and shot you in the face.. Fred was in love and, when she was away, he was lonely. The “solution” her friends recommended was phenomenally cruel.
A kinder solution
I suggested she go to the recycling center and get a stack of clean newspapers. When she left for work, she should leave a few newspapers on the floor. She read newspapers; perhaps he would like to read them as well.
The next week she tried, leaving a neat stack of three Sunday sections. When she returned home, the newspaper was shredded and strewn around the room, but her books, personal papers and mail were untouched. Best of all, Fred seemed content. He was, of course, happy to see her, but there was no desperation attached to it. Eventually she was able to cut back on how much paper he needed to fill the empty house.
This worked because Fred wasn’t trying to be mean; dogs are not vindictive by nature. He didn’t know he was destroying her things. He felt he was doing what she did, although perhaps with more enthusiasm. She had hands to work with; the only tool he had was his mouth. Having a job — even a meaningless job like shredding a newspaper – can go a long way toward making the hours shorter.
How to fill a lonely day
Being alone all day is very difficult for a social being like a dog. Dog people find many ways to help alleviate the anxiety of a day alone. Dog walkers, drop-in visitors, playdates, days spent at doggie spas. But please, don’t put that sweet puppy outside for the day, if she is used to being in the house with you. It must feel like being banished.
Some folks rely on the radio to make their pups feel like they are not alone. (It never worked for my dogs; it might for yours.) The best cure is a companion — another dog, a cat, a parakeet, even a hamster in a cage will help. I know someone who looped a video on the tv showing the family playing with the dog. I find that choice very sad, imagining Fred all alone, watching the two of them playing and laughing on the tv.
This column will contain memorials for local dogs when they pass away from us. If you live or work in Chapel Hill and have lost a beloved friend, send a note to and perhaps a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will post them under memorials.