When it comes to rules and laws, I'm not much of a risk taker. I'm not a speeder or a tax cheat, and when young, I never was tempted to get a fake ID.
But I am a chronic law breaker when it comes to exercising my dogs, and oh, do I wish I didn't have to be. In this, I'm not alone: A massive underground of determined dog lovers trades information on places to run our dogs off-leash with the least chance of being ticketed.
Believe me, we'd rather be legit -- so give us legal opportunities for off-leash recreation. Not just tiny fenced areas so overused the grass won't grow, but places where we can walk with our dogs and have them swim and fetch. The exercise is good for both us and our dogs, and it makes our dogs healthier and better behaved.
Although my community is slow to embrace the concept of open off-leash recreation areas, others in the region are not. Sometimes I will drive more than an hour for the privilege of visiting areas like the fabulous Point Isabel off-leash recreation area in Richmond, Calif.
Point Isabel is popular with responsible pet lovers who play by the rules and govern by peer pressure. Leave a pet mess behind? Prepare to be yelled at. Dog untrained? Prepare to be lectured. People who use areas like Point Isabel aren't about to lose them because of clueless dog owners and their ill-mannered pets.
I'd choose a dedicated off-leash open area to run my dogs in anytime. But I can't always drive out of town, so I also drive to local places where my retrievers can swim. I go at odd hours, my dogs are friendly, trained and well-socialized, and yes, I clean up after them.
Why should we dog lovers have to skulk around like this? In terms of sheer numbers, we are a larger population than tennis, soccer or softball players, all groups whose needs are recognized and addressed by those who plan public recreation facilities. Our dogs are our chosen form of recreation, and we deserve open space as much as any other group.
Exercise is one of the most important -- and least-recognized -- components of dog care, especially for large dogs. Destructive and anti-social behaviors find their roots in boredom and unspent nervous energy. How many dogs would be spared a trip to the shelter if only they had a place to be socialized and exercised on a regular basis?
Medical issues matter, too, with veterinarians reporting obesity as rampant in pets as it is in humans -- and with many of the same sad results when it comes to health and quality of life.
Off-leash recreation areas work, and they're just as good for dog haters as dog lovers. If the recreational needs of dog lovers are covered, it's perfectly fair to crack down on them elsewhere. Steep fines for off-leash dogs are justified in areas of high human use, just as long as there are alternatives elsewhere for off-leash play.
I don't like being a criminal, and I wouldn't be if my legitimate needs as a dog lover were recognized. If you feel the same way, let your elected officials know about it. Every community is capable of putting aside some open space for off-leash recreation. Don't feel like writing a letter? Clip this column and send it to the decision makers in your community. Your dogs will thank you, and so will mine.
Off-leash recreation that works
The Point Isabel Regional Shoreline Park has been open to off-leash recreation since 1987. The Point Isabel Dog Owners (PIDO) group works to keep the 21-acre site functioning smoothly for the people and dogs who use it -- an estimated 800,000 visits every year, with relatively few problems.
Point Isabel also has a retail store that offers pet supplies and dog-washing (Mudpuppy's). For people, there's a dining facility with snacks and light food and drinks (the Sit-and-Stay Cafe).
For more information, visit the PIDO Web site (www.pido.org).
Vet closest to 'miracle'
Q: I have a fairly new dog that started having seizures for the last year. He is about 2 years old. I absolutely adore this dog, and I'm afraid that I will lose him. I'm treating him with the usual medication and an enzyme vitamin. Have you heard of any miracle cures? I would appreciate any advice you may have. -- D.P., via e-mail
A: Seizures are among the most frightening things anyone can witness in a pet or other loved one, and the feelings of helplessness and fear that go with them can likewise be devastating. As tempting as it is to reach out for "miracle cures," however, your best bet when it comes to helping your dog is to find a competent and caring veterinarian to help diagnose what's causing the seizures and what medications will best treat the disease.
In chasing "miracles cures" on the Internet, you are wasting time while putting your pet's health in jeopardy. Not to mention, many of those who offer what seem to be miracles are truly interested only in the miracle of your money magically appearing in their bank accounts.
If you do not think your veterinarian is helping with the problem, then by all means ask for a second opinion or get a referral to a specialist. But before you do, ask yourself if you're truly giving your veterinarian permission to use what he or she needs to accurately treat the illness. Are there diagnostic tests you've turned down, or re-check visits you've passed up? When it comes to chronic conditions, diagnostics and re-checks can be vitally important.
You and your veterinarian need to be partners in your pet's care. Make sure your veterinarian is someone you like and respect, so you will be more inclined to work together on your pet's behalf.
As we used to say when I was running the Pet Care Forum on America Online: Get off the 'Net and call your vet. Modern medicine is miraculous in many ways, but only if you're working with a good veterinarian who can help you.
Dog won't listen
Q: I feel like "wait until your father gets home" with our dog. She won't mind me at all, but she hangs on my husband's every word. I feed her, and I took her to obedience class. Why won't she mind me? -- G.W., via e-mail
A: It could be your tone of voice. A deep voice gets respect. That's true with people, and that's true with dogs.
"Most men have deeper voices than do most women," says dog trainer and award-winning author Liz Palika, who notes that canine mothers use a deep growl when correcting bad behavior in their young puppies.
Most women start out with higher-pitched voices than most men have, and when women get frustrated or angry, their pitch goes even higher. "In verbal canine language, a high-pitched voice means either play or hurt," says Palika. "Neither of these conveys authority."
Palika says women can learn to speak so their dogs will respect them. "A deep sound, such as 'acckk' or 'err-err' -- think of Tim Allen in 'Home Improvement' saying 'power tools' and 'err-err' -- is all that's needed," she says. "The sound gets the dog's attention and then other training tools and techniques do the teaching."
If you're still not getting anywhere, ask a good dog trainer to help you. Despite the fact that men seem to have an edge when it comes to getting a dog's respect, most dog trainers these days are women! Male or female, a good dog trainer will help you project the right body language and tone to get your dog's attention and respect.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Keep hounds from howling
Howling is fun. It's like group singing or picking up the microphone at a canine karaoke machine. It's a way for dogs scattered across a few miles and separated by fences to get in touch with their inner wolf and be part of something bigger ... a pack!
It used to be thought that sirens hurt the sensitive ears of dogs and that howling was a protest of pain. But now it's thought to be an instinctive group behavior. The right noise -- a siren, or even the right notes on a viola -- will get a dog lifting his nose to the sky, and once the woo-wooing/wow-wowing starts, other dogs just can't help but join in.
Some breeds are more prone to howling than others. The wolfish Northern breeds seem to take to it naturally, as do hounds such as beagles and bassets, with their distinctive baying.
Of course, no matter how much fun your dog is having, the howl-fests aren't winning you any fans with your neighbors, so when the woo-wooing starts, hush your puppy.
Glowing is good for your dog, too
If you walk or run after dark, you're probably aware that it's a good idea to wear some sort of reflective garb so drivers can see you and avoid you. But do you realize your dog needs protection, too?
If you're wearing reflective gear and your pet is not, a driver might see you but not notice your canine companion. That's why it's a good idea to have safety gear on your dog, too.
Many pet-supply stores and catalogs offer reflective collars, leashes and vests. If you can't find anything suitable, RuffWear is one of several companies offering safety vests for dogs. Its Lighted Lab Coat with "glow-in-the-park" features has a suggested retail price of $60 (www.ruffwear.com or 888-783-3932).
Cats eye a marvel of adaptation
If cats wore sunglasses or didn't evolve into creatures who have the nighttime munchies, they probably would have round pupils like ours.
But they're nocturnal hunters who can see well in very dim light. Just as we adjust our headlights from normal headlights to brights, cats' eyes adjust to different lighting conditions. In the daytime, cats have precise control over the amount of light reaching their eyes. This enables them to gaze out the window and zero in on that squirrel in the tree or a bird on the feeder.
Having eyes that reduce the pupils to slits rather than tiny circles gives cats greater and more accurate control in different types of lighting; this ability is particularly important in bright sunlight.
Vertical slits also have another advantage over horizontal slits. Because a cat's eyelids close at right angles to the vertical pupil, a cat can reduce the amount of light even further by bringing her eyelids closer and closer together. This combination of the vertical slits of the pupils and the horizontal slits of the eyelids enables the cat to make the most delicate adjustments to accommodate different lighting. And these actions, in combination, protect the eyes better than sunglasses.
It's a perfect setup for a nighttime hunter who loves to bask in the daytime sun.
This adaptation sets the domestic cat apart from her majestic relative, the lion. Because the lion hunts by day, her pupils do not have the same sensitivity to light as the domestic cat. The lion's eyes contract -- as ours do -- to tiny circles, not vertical slits.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Reptiles and amphibians are generally quiet pets, and that's one of the top reasons people cite for keeping them. Here are a few of the top reasons (multiple answers allowed):
Fun to watch 75 percent
Companionship 60 percent
Quiet 56 percent
Conversation piece 56 percent
Educational 44 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
Great reads in tales of pets
Allan Zullo and Mara Bovsun have made a career out of collecting interesting news stories and assembling them into equally interesting little books. The pair have three such offerings on pet themes: "Amazing But True Bird Tales," "Mews Items: Strange But True Cat Tales" and "Dogmania: Amazing But True Canine Tales" (each is $10 from Andrews McMeel Publishing).
I picked up the trio of pet books recently and found they're perfect for when you just want a little something light to read -- in my case, they're ideal for picking up for a few minutes just before I fall asleep. Each item is interesting enough to make you glad you opened one of the books, but not so long as to keep you from getting other things done, like napping. They're great little gift books for any pet lover, too.
Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.petconnection.com.
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