The Pets of Lincoln Downtown Businesses

Three years ago, an article appeared on the Downtown Lincoln Association’s newsletter about the pets of downtown businesses. It was the brainchild of Gabriella Martinez-Garro, marketing coordinator for DLA.

“Working for the Downtown Lincoln Association has a lot of perks,” said Martinez-Garro, “especially getting to know the ins and outs of the neighborhood.” Martinez-Garro loves meeting business owners and telling their stories through the association’s newsletter.

As a dog owner, Martinez-Garro is always looking for dog-friendly places to take her dogs, and wanted to create a list for other dog owners to easily access. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Martinez-Garro. “Many people have utilized our list and been grateful for the guide.”

Martinez-Garro’s research led her to also spotlight the pets of downtown, believing that they deserved to be profiled due to being favorites of customers. To find downtown’s furry friends, Martinez-Garro contacted businesses contacted businesses that she knew had resident pets. At the end of each interview, Martinez-Garro asked the owners if they knew of other downtown businesses with resident pets.

Although Martinez-Garro isn’t aware of any downtown businesses that welcome cats, she told me that there’s more than one business with resident cats. A Novel Idea and Trade-A-Comic are two such businesses that she included in her article. The profiles, Martinez-Garro said, have been well-received. “People loved to read about the pets they often see in their favorite downtown businesses.”

Photo from Bluestem Books

Inspired by Martinez-Garro’s article and my own visits to businesses with pets, I conducted a few of my own interviews.

Thirty-four years ago, Scott and Pat Wendt opened Bluestem Books in a former warehouse. After discovering a number of resident mice, they added a kitten that they named “Thurber” to the staff. “We don’t believe Thurber ever actually harmed a mouse,” Pat shared, “but the population decided to move on.” Over the next 17 years, Thurber made hundreds of friends—and won the “Employee of the Month” award 206 times.

Photo from Bluestem Books

A few years after Thurber died, the Wendts created a Customer Relations Department. In charge of it they put a small, fluffy puppy named Don Diego. “Like Thurber the cat, Don Diego also won hundreds of hearts during his 2005-2016 career,” Wendt said. Don Diego, a Havenese who’s named after Zorro, made sure to greet each customer who enters Bluestem and could often be seen sporting baby socks to help reduce the symptoms of his seasonal allergies.

After losing Don Diego to bladder cancer, the Wendts hadn’t planned on adding another pet to the staff, but life surprised them when Miss Maribel joined the bookstore a year ago as a trainee. Miss Maribel is a Havanese too and Don Diego’s grand niece.

Photo from Bluestem Books

Like her predecessors, Miss Maribel has brought happiness to an ever-widening circle of friends. “Well-behaved animals in the workplace can be a source of love and happiness for employees and customers,” explained Pat.

Since 1976, there’s been some kind of dog at State Printing. For 42 years, staff and customers have been treated to the presence of a cocker spaniel, black retriever, and four German Shepherd at the privately-owned company. The two current German Shepherds are nine-year-old sisters, bought from a rural breeder in Nebraska.

When I asked owner Lonnie Simpson why he brings dogs to work with him, he replied, “This isn’t being smart…. but we bring them because we can.” Simpson said most of the customers enjoy seeing the dogs and ask about them, while the rest don’t care and ignore them.

Occasionally, a customer even forgets the dogs are there. Simpson told of one long-term customer who came to the business after a long absence. He’d forgotten about the dogs. When the dogs barked, they startled him, and he said, “I need to go home and change my pants.”

Katie (L), Kirby (R)
Photo from Trade-A-Tape Comic Center: Katie (L), Kirby (R)

Trade-A-Tape Comic Center has had a resident cat in its business since 2006. Katie was found in a downtown alley in sub-zero temperatures one February. Despite being a street cat, she allowed herself to be carried and petted. Her friendliness led owner Larry Lorenz to believe she’d been abandoned by previous owners, and so he gave her a new home.

John Doan, an employee, said that Katie sleeps a lot and loves attention. “She’ll often come right up to customers begging to be petted,” said Doan.

Unknown to Lorenz at the time he rescued Katie, she was pregnant with three kittens. One of the kittens died and another was adopted by a friend, but Herbie remained at the comic book store. Doan described him as having, “a unique personality—grumpy yet needy, brave yet hiding at the oddest thing. Kirby is very affectionate with some people, and stand offish to others.”

According to Doan, most of Trade-A-Tape Comic Center’s customers love the cats. “Kids get excited upon seeing them and often rush up to pet them,” said Doan. “We always advise asking us beforehand though, for safety reasons.”

Doan added that the Trade-A-Tape Comic Center staff enjoy when a customer picks up Katie up and walks around the store with her in their arms. “Katie seems right at home then, purring and content,” said Doan.

Photo from Downtown Lincoln Association
Photo from Downtown Lincoln Association

For this article, I also contacted Burlington Antiques. At the time of Gabriella Martinez-Garro’s article, Jeff and Diane Cunningham owned a ten-year-old dog named Max, whom they had adopted from the Capital Humane Society. They had assigned their dog Max to act as the Canine Executive Officer (CEO) of their thirty-year-old business. Martinez-Garro described Max as a friendly dog, who especially loved kids and had a fondness for customers who gave him treats. Unfortunately, Max passed away in June of this year. The Cunninghams still miss him, and haven’t gotten another dog.

As noted in her article, “For many downtown businesses that house animals, this relationship extends beyond the owner and to the customers as well … Each adds a unique element to the stores they call home.”

To read more about downtown’s furry friends, check out of Gabriella Martinez-Garro’s article, which includes additional profiles.

If you own a Lincoln business with a resident pet, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors would love to hear from you for a follow-up article.

To find dog-friendly downtown Lincoln businesses, check out the Downtown Lincoln Association’s list. For a list that includes dog-and-cat friendly places in Lincoln, see Lincoln Animal Ambassadors’ list.


Guest Post: Seniors, Loneliness, and the Pet Solution

Stock photo, Pexels
Stock photo, Pexels

Pets provide unconditional love, comfort and support, which make them the perfect companions for seniors. The loneliness problem in the senior community is real. According to a recent University of California in San Francisco survey, more than 40 percent of American seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis. The lack of social connection and emotional isolation is as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There are even connections between loneliness and the progression of cognitive decline and issues such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Taking care of a pet does more for senior than just reducing loneliness. Pets provide a sense a purpose for seniors as they know that another creature relies on them for care and affection. They also help keep seniors active as they have to get up to feed them, take them outside, bathe them, and play with them. Furthermore, pets reduce stress, anxiety, and can even ease feelings of depression.

When it comes to picking out a pet, seniors do have particular needs. It’s not typically the best idea to get an older person a young cat or dog. Kittens and puppies are needy, rambunctious and more likely to wreak havoc on a person’s home and belongings. In the end, a baby animal may actually cause stress, not reduce it. That’s why it’s best to look for an adult animal whose personality is already established and compatible with the person’s own personality.

Not picking a kitten or puppy is just the start. Consider the following with helping a senior adopt a new pet companion.

  • Purebred animals are cute, but they tend to have more health issues while also costing you a pretty penny. Adopting from a shelter, on the other hand, saves a life and your small adoption fee goes back to helping more animals in the community. Plus, shelters have adoption agents that will work with you to find the perfect pet for your situation.
  • Consider the senior’s living situation when deciding what kind of pet to adopt. A large dog needs a yard or some sort of outdoor area where he can run off leash. Cats tend to do better with smaller spaces and are perfect for people living in apartments. Of course, you can’t convince a dog person to get a cat. Luckily, there are plenty of apartment-friendly dogs out there.
  • Cats are great for people who prefer staying indoors as well as those with mobility issues as they don’t need to be walked.
  • If adopting a dog, be sure to go over dog-walking safety with the senior. Make sure they have the right kind of leash and collar. Provide reflective gear they can wear if walking the pet at night. Finally, go over training the dog and how to let him approach other animals in the street.
  • Help the senior set up their home for the new pet before its first day. Provide water and food bowls, toys, a bed, potty pads/litter box, and any other pet accessories they may need.
  • When it’s time to bring the pet home, let the new companion explore the new place. It can be exciting having a new animal in the house, but be patient.

Pets are perfect companions for seniors as they reduce loneliness, provide a sense of purpose, encourage activity, and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. When helping a senior pick out a pet, avoid a young cat or dog that will only disrupt their environment. Instead, look for an adult cat or dog well-suited for their situation, so they can reap all the benefits of pet ownership without all the headaches.

Written by Aurora James for LAA Pet Talk. Aurora believes there are no bad dogs. She created to share her dog training tips and advice to dog owners everywhere. welcomes and encourages anyone to use its infographics in their writing. It simply ask that you please cite and link to them as the source.

If you’re a pet owner with writing skills, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors would love to hear from you! We’re especially looking for content about birds, exotic animals, and horses. Content may take the form of an advice column or how-to articles. You may even simply wish to act as an expert consultant. If you’re interested, please post in the comments and we’ll be in touch.

Guest Post: Emotional Support Animals Vs Therapy Pets

Are you like me and thought you knew the difference between an emotional support animal and a therapy animal?  Upon doing some more in-depth research, I found that I did not know much if at all between the two.  Did you know that guinea pigs can be emotional support animals and therapy animals, talk about a win-win!

Emotional Support Animals

An emotional support animal is defined as a companion animal in which a doctor sees beneficial for someone with a disability.  Most emotional support animals are dogs, but there are other animals suited for this task also.

Did you know an animal doesn’t need the training to become an emotional support animal? I’d like to add that in recent years some courtrooms have provided emotional support dogs to those who’ve been on the stand to give a testimony; the dog is right there beside them providing comfort.

Most emotional support animals help a person that has anxiety and/or depression, but they’re not limited to those specific areas. Emotional support animals has even been proven in some cases to be more helpful than medication for depression/anxiety.

Therapy Animals

A therapy animal is defined as an animal that provides treatment for a person. Therapy animals also can be used in providing medical care, behavioral, and emotional care. Therapy animals can be in a wide variety of places such as nursing homes, prisons, schools, and libraries.

The most used animal for this type of task is a dog, but other animals such as cats, birds, and horses have been certified as ones too. The most important requirements are they like meeting new people and going new places. Therapy animals teams will also need to pass an evaluation.

Guinea Pigs

These little creatures are a compact way to provide comfort either as an emotional support animal or therapy animal. Speaking from personal experience, after my husband or myself would have a stressful day, just petting our boy guinea pigs would help. Guinea pigs can be very loving and entertaining, providing an excellent source of laughter and a feeling of well-being to a person.

To serve as a therapy animal, the guinea pig should remain as calm as possible without a nibbling session. Some handlers during sessions recommend the use of veggies or fruits as an incentive for the guinea pig. For a moment, a person interacting with a therapy guinea pig can forget what’s going on and just enjoy life.

Written by Nikki Harbeston, Creative Stuff, for LAA Pet Talk. She resides in South Carolina with her husband and dog. Her blog features Diary of a Chubby Piggie and Into the Journey of Dog. Copyright August 2013-March 2014.

If you are a pet owner with writing skills, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors would love to hear from you! We’re especially looking for content about birds, exotic animals, and horses. Content may take the form of an advice column or how-to articles. You may even simply wish to act as an expert consultant. If you are interested, please post in the comments and we’ll be in touch.

More Therapy Pet Teams Needed

Rainy and I dropped in on a patient who I had been told was missing her cat. She held and petted Rainy as we talked about our cats. When the time came for us to leave, she looked up at me from her hospital bed, and with a big smile on her face, she said, “You made my day!”

Pet therapy teams bring happiness to others. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teams to meet the need.

Shaundra Montague, a State of Nebraska Certified Activities Director and Dementia Practitioner at a retirement community, said that she’d like to increase the number of therapy pet visits at the retirement community where she works. “Right now, I’m at about once a week. My residents would love more.”

Jillian Harold, in her position as a Hospice Volunteer Coordinator, utilizes pet therapy teams to enhance her patients’ quality of life, believing that pet therapy teams provide comfort, peace, and soothing companionship for those who are on their end of life journey.  “Many of our clients or their family members request therapy pets because they once had pets but are unable to care for a pet full time and miss that bond with them,” Harold said.

Studies have found that therapy pets provide a number of benefits: releases the happy endorphins, lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health, and decreases physical pain. Mental benefits include: encourages communication, increases socialization, provides comfort, lowers feelings of isolation and alienation, and lessens depression and anxiety.

At the facilities where Montague and Harold work, a variety of therapy pets are welcome.

“Any pet could be a therapy pet,” said Montague. “The residents at my facility love to learn about the animals. We have a bearded dragon that sometimes visits, and they love her!”

Harold also pointed out, “Some clients have allergies or other restrictions and being able to offer them visits from other animals is important.”

To serve as a therapy pet, a pet must be fully vetted. Facilities will need copies of all current shot and bill of health records. Proof of certification is also required.

The certification process varies dependent on the group and sometimes the species. The most important criteria are that a pet is friendly and calm, will wear a harness and leash, and enjoys meeting new people and visiting new places.

While the therapy pets are important, Montague stressed that their human handlers are an essential part of the team. “They add so much value to people’s lives. Yes, the pets get loved on, but the conversations and bonds are also real. My residents like to get to know the handlers and chat about everything.”

During a recent visit to one of our regulars, a resident clasped my hand and told me she looked forward to our visits. The feeling was mutual. I squeezed her hand, and promised to return. On our next visit, maybe we could demonstrate a few of Rainy’s tricks

If you’d like to team with your pet to bring hope and happiness to others, please don’t hesitate to contact a pet therapy group. The need is great, and the rewards are immeasurable.

Therapy Cat Series: New Therapy Adventures for Rainy and Me

Since Rainy became a certified therapy cat in May, we’ve continued to expand our training, visits, and related activities.

This past June, I attended an eight-hour hospice training session at Tabitha Health Care Services. The training introduced me to the histories of Tabitha and hospice. I also learned about other topics including: regulations, client care, communication, death and dying, bereavement, and volunteer services. Andy brought Rainy in the afternoon so that she could meet members of the hospice team.

The idea of hospice can be traced back to the fourth century AD, when religious orders opened their doors to pilgrims, the elderly, and the seriously ill. The word “hospice” itself comes from the Latin word “hospis” (meaning “host” and “guest”), and the word used to refer to a place of shelter and rest for the hungry or weary traveler.

The modern hospice movement, which focuses instead on providing specialized care to dying patients, was founded by Dame Cicely Saunders. She created the first modern hospice, St. Christopher’s Hospice, in London. Later, during a visit to Yale University in 1963, her lectures launched the development of hospice care in the U.S. The first modern hospice in the U.S. was founded in 1974. Currently, more than 1.65 million Americans and their families are in hospice care.

Tabitha Health Care began in 1886 as an orphanage. In 1907 it became a hospital in 1907. Then in the early 1960s, under the direction of Martha Maseman, Tabitha began to expand to home-based services that would eventually include hospice. Volunteers are an integral part of the latter, including animal therapy teams.

Animals have been used for therapy as far back as the 9th century. One of the first records of an established animal therapy program is of a farm in Belgium, which treated people with disabilities in part by having them work with farm animals. In the 1700s, an asylum in England recorded positive results from encouraging its residents to work on a farm on the asylum’s property. Later, in the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that animal companionship reduced anxiety and stress for both child and adult psychiatric patients. While her findings opened the door to the use of animals for therapy, Boris Levinson is considered the father of pet therapy. In 1964, after discovering that the presence of his dog had a positive effect on helping his young patients communicate, he coined the term “pet therapy” and brought the concept to the attention of the international medical community.

Today a wide variety of animals provide comfort and companionship to hospice clients. Rainy and I are proud to help meet that need, especially after hearing the statistic that 50% of people in nursing homes never have visitors.

This past July, Rainy and I started our hospice visits at Tabitha. It’s been a learning experience. Patients can interact with a therapy animal by watching the animal play with toys and perform tricks, interact with an animal by feeding and grooming it, or simply enjoy the animal’s presence while talking with a visitor or watching television.

Some patients have wanted Rainy to sit on their lap. Unfortunately, despite Rainy’s friendly personality, here’s where she struggles. Rainy loves to rub against patient as a greeting but sitting laps is another story.

Cat therapy handlers have offered me ideas for encouraging Rainy to sit on a resident’s lap. One suggestion was to use a basket, but Rainy showed no interest in the basket I bought her; it’s now been claimed by her oldest sister. Another suggestion was a cat bed. Cat therapy handlers noted that a bed would have additional perks such as extra comfort and protection. Unfortunately, the bed hasn’t increased her lap time either. A third suggestion was a blanket, and it’s with this we’ve had the greatest success. I’ve trained Rainy to stay on a blanket on the floor, and at times she’s generalized that to stay on the blanket when it’s placed on a patient’s lap. Sprinkling catnip on the blanket has helped too.

In the meantime, Rainy has learned to sit beside a patient. In this position, she’s at times been so comfortable she’s fallen asleep!

Another experience that’s been new to our therapy visits is that of meeting family members. While the patient’s happiness and comfort is the primary goal of hospice care, caring for the patient’s loved ones is also important. Sometimes family members are just as much in need of the comfort of a therapy animal as are the patients. A therapy animal can also lower anxiety levels, reduce feelings of sadness, and improve family members’ overall outlook on life. On one visit, I invited members of the patient’s to work on tricks with Rainy. They got a delight out of interacting with Rainy and watching her perform. On another visit, I encouraged family members to feed and groom Rainy. They were interested to know what I fed her and how she reacted to having her teeth cleaned and her nails trimmed. It thrilled me that Rainy was able to bring a little happiness to people who were going through such a stressful time.

This past July, I attended an afternoon R.E.A.D. training session given by Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs. R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The goal of the program is to improve the literacy skills of children by having them read to dogs—or, in Rainy’s case, a cat Three other handlers were in attendance. None of us brought our pets, although maybe we should have, because at the end we were all required to take an exam and could have benefited from the comforting presence of our pets. Thankfully, we all passed!

One in four American children grow up without learning to read, and this is one reason that the R.E.A.D. program began in 1999. Sandy Martin, a registered nurse and board member of the Intermountain Therapy Animals, was motivated to create R.E.A.D. when she learned that 21% of children who can’t read by the end of fourth grade will end up on welfare or in prison. Research shows that children with low self-esteem are more willing to interact with animals than people. Children of course find it more fun to read to animals, and animals don’t laugh at or correct a child’s mistakes The R.E.A.D. program uses registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, skills, and temperament. Teams work with children in libraries, schools, and many other settings . Although the R.E.A.D. program started with dogs, it now includes cats and other companion animals.

Rainy and I are proud to be one of the 3,000 R.E.A.D pet therapy teams throughout the world. As a book lover myself, I’m excited for us to have the opportunity to encourage children to discover a love of literature. As additional perks, the program will allow me to draw on both my graphic design and education background, as the R.E.A.D manual recommends that handlers create booklets and other materials such as bookmarks that feature their pets. In addition, even though the idea of the program is for the children to read to animals, the handler might still offer reading support, except to phrase it as if the animal needs help. For example, I could say, “Rainy was confused by that word. She’d like you to explain it to her.”

This past spring, Rainy and I undertook one more therapy-related venture: We created an Instagram account for her, which now as over 50 followers. Her account description says: “Follow my adventures in therapy, agility, and other fun stuff that my mom and I do together. See photos of my sisters too.”

As you can tell, I’m a proud pet mom of Rainy. This is one reason that my husband designed two cat therapy shirts for my birthday gift. Another reason is that the shirts can serve as walking advertisements for cat therapy in general, and Rainy specifically. Even though cats are the most requested therapy animal after dogs, only 3% of all therapy animals are cats, and therefore more are needed. If your cat likes people and could be trained to use a leash and visit new places, and if you can spare time to bring happiness to others who need it, please contact me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom or I-CAT.

Husker Dogfest A Success

About 400 people and 200 dogs attended Husker DogFest on Saturday, August 11, in the greenspace immediately south of Manter Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The event’s organizer, Associate Professor of Psychology Jeffrey Stevens proclaimed the event a success. “I think it was terrific!  We had a great turn out for visitors, and fabulous demonstrations, vendors, and games.”

The purpose of the festival was to showcase UNL’s new Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab, and to recruit dog owners to participate in its upcoming research studies.

The free, open-to-the-public event included lab tours, professional dog demonstrations, dog activities, pet-related vendors, and food vendors.

Registrants had the opportunity to sign their dog up for the fall studies, which will focus on dog psychology and dog-human interactions, and were also entered into a raffle to win a gift basket valued at $50.

The lab brings together associate professor of psychology Stevens’ interests in both human and animal cognition. Tours were given every thirty minutes. A mini-lab, where owners could test their dog’s smarts, was also offered at the festival.

When research begins in September, dogs will be brought in to play games for treats while researchers record data about their decision-making and cognition. The second part of the research will have participants interact with dogs to see how they influence people.

There were four dog-related demonstrators. Prairie Skies, Kansas City Disc Dogs, and UNL and Nebraska State Patrol police dogs each gave two demonstrations. Prairie Skies, operated by Jill Morstad, who has been teaching people to train their dogs since 1985, showed off obedience. Kansas City Disc Dogs is a group of owners and their dogs that enjoy playing frisbee for fun and competition and have performed for sporting events. The UNL police dogs demonstrated bomb detection work, and were tweeted about at

The festival also featured 15 other dog-related organizations including Norland Pure, which provided a watering station for dogs, and three food vendors.

Given the event’s success of this year, Stevens said he’d definitely hold another festival. He credited the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with its wonderful support of Husker DogFest and said that he couldn’t have done the event without UNL and the event’s sponsors. “I want to thank the university, sponsors, volunteers, demonstration groups, and vendors for helping create an outstanding event!” Stevens said. He added that if anyone is interested in enrolling their dog in his studies, go to UNL’s Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab website.

Why Pets Are Good for Children

According to the magazine Scientific American, people overwhelmingly believe that having pets is good for children. Three local parents I interviewed bought their family’s pets for this reason.

Amy and her husband grew up with pets. The couple have always had a wide variety of animals. “They usually found us/needed homes and it was meant to be,” Amy said.

When it came time for introductions, the couple brought home a blanket that had been used with their newborn in the hospital so that their dog and cat could smell it. “Once we got home,” Amy said, “we introduced our dog and cat to the baby sleeping in the car seat, so that they could safely sniff and explore without too much commotion.”


Lisa and her husband also grew up with pets, and continued the tradition to own pets when they married. Although they already had two cats, they opted for a dog when they decided to introduce their children to pets, and involved their children by allowing them to choose their new puppy from a litter.

One reason Tanya believes children should have pets is that animals teach us to show compassion. Tanya bought the family’s female pit bull, Marley, three years ago through Craig’s list. She met Marley’s owners in a Walmart parking lot, where Tanya said the couple had Marley sit so that Tanya could see that Marley was well-trained. “She did a great tail wagging, wanting to greet everyone, and was super friendly.” Then Tanya introduced Marley to her daughter and was pleased with how gentle she was.

In its discussion about whether pets are good for children, Scientific American referred to a 2003 paper by developmental psychologist Gail Melson which reports that most parents acquire their family pets for the children. The three local parents I interviewed all said that they wanted their children to have the experience of owning and caring for pets.

In these three families, the children have designated responsibilities. Amy said that the couple’s five-year-old daughter lets the family dogs she lets the family dogs outside to go potty and helps put out food and water for both the dogs and cat. Lisa noted that although she’s the one responsible for taking Cinder for walks, the children “take her out as well, clean up after her, brush her, feed her, etc.” Tanya said that her daughter brushes, feeds, and helps take Marley for walks.

The Scientific American article cited other benefits of pets for families, such as a better understanding of animals, increased empathy and social adaptability, and aiding in the development of leadership roles. Much of the article’s scientific wording boils down to this: pets are great companions. Perhaps this is why 90 percent of us live with a pet at some point during our childhood. Four local parents offered examples of their pets making great companions for their kids.


Jill owns Malamutes, Pomeranians, and cats. Although she bought these pets for herself, and therefore assumes most responsibility for them, Jill does allow her daughter to feed them. Both she and her daughter enjoy when the dogs play with and snuggle with them and when the cats agree to be held and petted.

Amy said, “Watching how gentle our Rottweiler is with the kids is always a joy. Our Rottweiler is never more relaxed or calm than when she’s watching her babies.” Another special moment for Amy is when their daughter takes their Chihuahuas for a walk.

Lisa told me that there are many special moments between Cinder, the cats, and their children. She shared that after a busy day at school, the children find it relaxing to just sit and pet Cinder and cats. “It’s good stress reliever!” she explained. In addition, their son loves to play fetch with Cinder and the children love taking Cinder on vacations.

Tanya has discovered Marley is good for the whole family. She loves the pit bull temperament, goofy smile, and playful nature. “I have anxiety and depression and Marley helps me a lot with that,” said Tanya.


Finally, Tanya offered what may be the best summary of the benefit of pets to families: “In the end, [Marley] rescued us and brought us closer as a family. I don’t know what [we] would do without her.”

Cinder’s Advice: The Right Cat Toy

In December 2013, my husband and I adopted a one-year-old tortoiseshell cat from Hearts United for Animals. Cinder has taught us so much about cats that it seemed proper for her to have her own advice column.

QUESTION: My cat doesn’t play with toys. Is something wrong?

“Cinder, have you lost your mouse again?” Allison asked.

I was sitting beside the front closet door, waiting for my pet parents to fetch my mouse for me. I’ve more than a dozen toys to choose from, but will only play with my leopard-spotted gray mouse. It’s my favorite mouse of all time.

When Allison found it, she didn’t just hand it back to me. She walked over to a round wooden puzzle toy and dropped my mouse into it.

I hid behind our recliner. When Allison left the living room, I ran and pounced on the puzzle. Then I started digging into puzzle’s holes. I pushed plastic balls and other mice to the side until I found my mouse. I hooked it with my claws and pulled it out. Victory!

One of my sisters peered into the room. I gripped the mouse in my jaws and, with my head low, I growled at her and scared her away. This is my mouse!

Back and forth, I batted my mouse. It slid under a woven basket in the living room and I pulled it out by its nose. Back and forth, I batted my mouse again. It slipped underneath the recliner and I dragged it back out by its tail.

When Allison returned to the living room, she laughed at me rolling around on the floor with my mouse I was rolling around on the floor with my mouse. I stopped in mid-roll to look at Allison, and she laughed at me. Harumph. I went back to playing. I tossed the mouse in the air. I shoved it under a pillow. And then I lost it again under the front closet door. “It’s nice to see you enjoying toys again,” Allison said.

You might think your cat doesn’t like to play, but you just might need to find the right toy.

  • Some of us like plush toys that we can sink our teeth into, instead of hard plastic toys; others prefer balls that roll and can be chased.
  • Some of us like small toys because remind us of smaller prey like mice; others prefer larger toys that remind us of larger prey or other cats
  • Some of us like toys that sound or feel like real animals; there are some that making a rustling sound like a squirrel, whereas others might be made with feathers or fur.
  • Finally, while some of us don’t care what type of toy you offer as long as it’s in motion, others might be pickier because of being less mobile due to older age.

Cat toys can be divided into two broad categories: self-play and interactive.

  • Self-play toys are good if you need to leave us alone. The cheapest ones are plastic rings from milk jugs and empty toilet paper rolls. Other low-cost toys are furry mice and crinkle balls. These can be made more challenging by placing them in objects such as empty tissue boxes or by hiding them around the house.
  • Interactive toys are great for strengthening the bond between you and your cats, because they require your involvement. When using a dangler or wand with your cat, be sure to try different kinds of actions to keep your cat from getting bored. Hide the lure, make it quiver, slide it across the floor, and whip it through the air. Be creative. Your cat will appreciate the chance to practice its hunting skills. And you may find that your cat prefers some actions to others.

The year that my parents adopted me, they bought me all kinds of toys. A wand toy shaped like a snake quickly became my favorite. My parents bought three more like it and put them in storage as backups, because danglers can break.

The problem with that toy is that I can only play with it when my parents have time to play with me. They don’t leave it out because if I play with it on my own the string could become wrapped around my neck and strangle me.

I love my puzzle toy, because I don’t need my pet parents around when I’m in the mood to play. I just dig through the puzzle toy or throw around my polka-dotted play mouse.

My mouse is now so worn that the eyes are gone, the nose is faded, and the fabric is worn. But it won’t last forever. I hope my parents can get me some more.

Dear Miss Behavior: How Can I Teach My Dog to Retrieve?

Dear Miss Behavior, We adopted a Labrador Retriever from rescue. He’s three-years-old and has great house manners. The only problem is he doesn’t retrieve! We toss a toy but he grabs it and runs off. Someone said try two toys and trade one toy for another, but he just hides the first toy and then runs and gets the second. We really love the idea of playing fetch in the back yard. How do we teach him how to retrieve?


Some dogs never learn the idea of playing fetch when they’re a puppy. They don’t realize the game lasts
much longer if you bring the toy back to the human.

It’s not difficult to train dogs to retrieve. They have the instinct to chase and pick up; They just need to be taught that giving the toy back is more important that hiding it.

Start with him on leash in the house and have handy a toy that doesn’t roll away too easily and a small dish of tasty treats. Offer him the toy and let him grab it out of your hand and then present him with a treat. Most likely he’ll drop the toy for the treat.

Pick up the toy and repeat several times. Then hand him the toy and say “Give” or “Drop”. If he drops the toy, tell him what a good dog he is and give him a treat. If he doesn’t drop it, put the food on his nose so he does drop it and go back to step one for a few more repetitions.

Once he’s giving up the toy on command, gently toss the toy away from you. Remember he’s on a leash so only toss it a foot or so.

Allow him to run out and get the toy, and call him back. Use the leash to gently guide him back to you if he won’t come willingly.

Again have him give you the toy and reward him. Keep practicing this way throwing the toy a little farther and eventually dropping the leash.

If at any time he starts to run away with the toy, grab the leash and gently guide him back to you. Make sure the treats are really tasty!

Once he’s doing very well inside. Move outside. Keep him on leash until he understands he needs to
bring the toy back and get a reward. Once he’s reliably bringing the toy back for a treat, begin only
rewarding every other toss, or every third toss.

Eventually you won’t have to reward him with a treat because the game will be his reward.

marcygraybillAfter Marcy adopted her first dog in 1988, she began to research about dog care. Research took the form of checking out books and videos to learn how to train Lady. Eventually, Marcy and her sister began taking their dogs to the dog run and taking formal dog classes. For about six years, Marcy volunteered for the Capital Humane Society, where she performed a variety of jobs, and took time to watch the dogs and learn about their behaviors. Currently, she’s an obedience instructor at GLOC. “I think the most important is to keep up to date on what’s going on in the field.  I try to read articles, blogs and  new books that come out, and watch any DVDs that are available.”

UNL’s New Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab

Dog lovers take note. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln now has a Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab.

The lab is part of the Department of Psychology and Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, and will focus on understanding both dog psychology and how interaction with dogs influences human behavior and psychology. Researchers will study dog psychology by playing games with dogs, and will study dog-human interactions by having human participants take cognitive tests before and after interacting with dogs, and comparing their results to participants who are given a different “intervention” between tests. Studies are expected to start in the fall.

Anyone interested in learning more is encouraged to attend UNL DogFest from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 11th on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The event is free to attend. Attendees and their well-behaved leashed dogs will be able to tour the new Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab, participate in and watch demonstrations of dog activities, and learn about dog-related products and services.

Jeff Stevens is the director of the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab. In this role, Jeff’s duties include designing the research ideas, recruiting students to help conduct the research, writing grant proposals, soliciting private donations to help fund the lab, and reporting the lab’s research to both the scientific community and the general public. I recently talked to Jeff about his dog cognition research.

ALLISON: What interests you about psychology?

JEFF: I’m interested in understanding why humans and other animal behave the way they do. Understanding the psychology of behavior can help us improve the lives of people and animals.

ALLISON: Tell me about your background in psychology.

JEFF: My background is in animal behavior, and I began getting interested in animal cognition (understanding how animals ‘think’). I’ve studied this in birds, primates, fish, humans, and now dogs. I received my PhD at the University of Minnesota, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, and was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany before joining the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

ALLISON: Why did you start studying decision-making in humans and other animals?

JEFF: I started studying decision-making in other animals by applying what we know about human decision-making to them. There has been a surge recently in testing the ideas about human decision-making in other animals. Surprisingly to some (but not me!), many of the same principles of decision-making apply across humans and other animals. I started studying humans when a student I was working with completed a study on chimpanzee patience. She didn’t think that people would be as patient as the chimpanzees, so we designed a study to test people. She was right!

ALLISON: How did the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab come about?

JEFF: I have a number of colleagues who study cognition in dogs. On my sabbatical this last fall, I visited one of them (Friederike Range) who co-directs the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna, Austria. This convinced me that I wanted to open a dog cognition lab. In developing ideas for this lab, it became clear that I could combine the study of dog psychology with human psychology by studying how interacting with dogs influences human cognition. This lab brings together my interest in both human and animal cognition.

ALLISON: Why study dog psychology?

JEFF: Dogs are fascinating for several reasons. First, they evolved to interact with humans, which makes their cognition super interesting. Second, they live in millions of households, so understanding them can have direct impacts on millions of people. Third, they are used extensively as working animals, so understanding their psychology can help police officers, military personnel, farmers, cancer doctors (they can detect cancer!), and hotels/dorms (they can detect bedbugs!).

ALLISON: Why study dog-human interactions?

JEFF: Dogs can have a calming effect on people, where they decrease our stress levels. Stress is a key part of human life that can influence our emotions, cognition, and decision-making. So if interacting with dogs can reduce stress, that might improve our decision-making. Surprisingly, there is not a lot of strong evidence regarding the positive effect of dogs on human cognition.

ALLISON: How will those studies be conducted?

JEFF: For the dog cognition studies, owners will bring their dogs into the lab for an hour or so. We’ll take them in to the testing room and basically play games with them for treats. We’ll design the games in a way to ask questions about their cognition and decision-making. Owners will be able to watch the testing on a video monitor in an adjacent room.

For the dog-human interaction studies, we will have human participants experience standard cognitive tests, and, for some of the participants, we will bring in a dog for them to pet and interact with. Other participants will receive other ‘interventions’ that don’t involve interacting with a dog. Then everyone will experience the cognitive tests again. We will compare the dog interaction groups to the other groups.

ALLISON: How will results be reported to the public?

JEFF: First of all, I want to make clear that science is a slow process. It often takes 2 or more years from when data are first collected to when the final scientific article is published (I had one project that took almost 10 years!). Also, sometimes the studies just don’t work out and never get published. So don’t expect quick answers!

The primary way scientists make their work ‘public’ is by publishing scientific articles. But I will also report my work to the non-academic world by posting short summaries of the scientific articles on the CCHIL website: Also, I will present our results at future DogFests, so the public can see what we’re finding out in the lab.

ALLISON: What are the long-term goals for the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab?

JEFF: The long-term goals of CCHIL are to better understand the psychology of dogs and how dogs influence human psychology to improve their lives and their experience with and usefulness for humans.

ALLISON: What preparations are being/have been made for DogFest?

JEFF: I must say that I was not expecting the preparation for DogFest to take up as much time as it has. I have been in contact with probably 6-8 different groups within the university to get permission and organize this event. But the university has been absolutely fantastic and fully supportive of DogFest! I’ve organized sponsors, demonstrations, dog-related vendors, food vendors, volunteers, and advertising. Arnie’s Pet Food Store is our primary sponsor, and they have been fantastic in funding DogFest and getting the word out. With most of the logistics in place, I can now focus on the fun stuff for the visitors.

ALLISON: What can attendees expect to see and do?

JEFF: I think that we’re going to have a great set of events and activities. When everyone arrives, if they have a dog with them, they’ll need to sign a waiver of liability and they will receive a dog waste bag compliments of Adamz K9 Waste Removal. One of the key aims of DogFest is to recruit dog subjects, so visitors can enroll their dogs in our database, so we can contact them about being in our dog psychology studies.

Also, we’ll have a demonstration area featuring dog/handler pairs from Prairie Skies demonstrating obedience training, the Kansas City DiscDogs showing off frisbee tricks, and the UNL and Nebraska State Patrol canine units demonstrating their police dogs. We’ll have tours of the new lab, the Norland Pure watering station, dog activities (TBA), and a raffle for a gift basket generously donated by Raising Cane’s. We’ll have vendors with different pet-related products, services, and information, along with food vendors. Check out the details at and hope to see you at Husker DogFest!