Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

NO BEGGING

The easiest way to stop a dog from begging is never to let the habit start. But we all know how difficult those mournful eyes can be to turn down.

The problem starts when a new dog or puppy first comes home. Dogs learn early on that we two-leggers are the main source of food, and they're not above testing the waters to see what works when it comes to getting us to give up the goodies.

A dog's very cuteness may get us to reward the begging, especially with puppies. When we like the dog's behavior, we say we're "sharing" our food. When we don't like the behavior, we call it "begging." And we foolishly expect our dogs to see the difference.

But the truth is that we are the ones who control and shape a dog's behavior. Do you think your dog would ever have learned to beg if the first few times she tried, she got nothing for her efforts? And never got anything, no matter how cute she looked, no matter when?

If you never want your dog to stick her nose in your plate, put her head on your knee or paw at your arm, then don't ever reward her with food when she does.

What if it's too late for that? With patience and consistency, you can change your dog's behavior by never rewarding the begging again. When your dog finally becomes convinced that she will never again see another piece of food delivered from off your plate, she'll stop asking. You can also have her practice a behavior that's incompatible with having her nose on your knee -- a down-stay on the other side of the room while you're eating.

But be warned: If you're inconsistent, you'll actually make the problem worse. Rewarding a behavior occasionally is called random reinforcement, and it's a powerful motivator. In fact, it's what keeps the gambling industry afloat. Even though gamblers know the house always wins, they keep pulling the handle on those slot machines because they get a little back now and then, and because sometimes they hit the jackpot. Dog trainers use these principles to instill good behaviors in dogs, but many pet lovers inadvertently use them to teach a dog bad habits -- like begging.

Preventing a problem is always easier than fixing one. When you get a dog, think about the house rules you want, and insist on them from day one. No exceptions! If you don't mind your dog being on the furniture, then don't yell at your dog for being on the couch when you have company. If you don't want your dog begging, then don't allow it, ever.

And if you have a beggar on your hands, realize the fault is yours -- and be determined to be consistent in turning the situation around.

Q&A

Don't trust dog with mail carrier

Q: Our poodle loves everyone except the mailman. When he comes up the walk, she goes crazy. She barks, snarls and throws herself at the window and doesn't stop until he's gone.

This is really out of character for her, and I can't imagine she'd really bite him. Do you think we could let her meet him to see that he's "OK"? Would that stop this nastiness? -- G.P., via e-mail

A: Yours is certainly not a theory I'd want to test, for the safety of your mail carrier, no matter how sweet your dog or how dog-loving your mail carrier may be. The chances of your dog biting the mail carrier are pretty decent at this point.

So how does a sweet, friendly dog come to hate the mail carrier to the point of biting? It happens all the time, completely unintentionally.

It's natural for a dog to bark in warning when a stranger comes to the door. In the case of the mail carrier, that stranger comes almost every day at about the same time. The dog barks to alert the family and to tell the stranger that he is about to invade protected territory.

And then the mail carrier leaves. From the dog's point of view, it was her brave warning that sent the interloper packing. She doesn't realize the mail carrier's just going on to the next house. As the dog sees it, she barked and the interloper left.

Over time, the dog's reaction intensifies as she tries harder to send a message to the mail carrier, who just doesn't seem to learn to keep away. As the dog becomes more and more worked up over time by this routine, the potential for a bite increases. I'd recommend asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer who can set out a program to retrain your dog away from the potential for biting. If nothing else, be very certain that your dog is never in a position to slip out the door when a mail carrier or other delivery person is in the area.

Don't take a chance! The United States Postal Service reports that its carriers suffer about 3,000 dog bites a year, and carriers are encouraged to protect themselves from bites and seek payments for pain and suffering if one occurs. In the best interest of dogs and mail carriers everywhere, dog owners are well-advised to restrain or retrain their dogs to keep from adding to those bite statistics.

Do fence me in

Q: Thanks for your article about corralling cats. We have a number of furry little friends, and we'd like to add our voice to the choir about the benefits of not letting them roam. You are quite right about the reduced health care costs. I figure our veterinary bills are reduced by about 30 percent to 50 percent by keeping them home.

Would you share a compromise solution with your readers that allows a cat some room to roam? We modified our existing backyard fence with a plastic mesh "cat fence." It allows access to the back yard, but keeps them from roaming. I recommend the "keep your cats in and other cats out" configuration. It has worked great for us for more than 10 years. -- W.H. and H.H., via e-mail

A: I've written about cat fencing before and am wholeheartedly in favor of it. The nylon mesh is extended above the regular fence line and blends in so well as to be almost invisible. Cats can't get over the top of the mesh, so they stay in their owners' yards.

An Internet search on the term "cat fencing" will turn up several companies that sell kits as well as do-it-yourself directions from a couple of sources. It is indeed a compromise that both cats and neighbors can live with.

PET Rx

Vet can help fight the flea

Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common skin disease of dogs and cats. For the flea-allergic patient, 100 percent flea control is required to remain symptom-free. Even very minimal exposure may be sufficient to perpetuate itching in a hypersensitive patient -- one or two bites per week are enough!

Flea control has always been a challenge because the adult fleas cause the problems, yet the majority of the flea population (eggs, larvae and pupae) are found off the pet, in and around the home. The ideal flea-control program uses products that target the various stages of the flea life cycle, not only the adult fleas on the pet.

In recent years, some new products have been added to our flea-control arsenal. These appear to be highly effective, long-lasting and have a very low potential of harmful side effects.

Talk to your veterinarian to determine which product or combination of products will break the life cycle of the flea and relieve your pet -- and you! -- from the itchy misery of these hardy and pervasive parasites.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)

ON THE WEB

Greyhounds run into the heart

It's generally agreed that the fastest breed of dog is the greyhound. And the fastest greyhounds can run at a speed of just under 42 mph. These speedsters are notoriously quiet and could even be called lazy when not on the run, which is why various greyhound adoption groups have chosen to market the dogs with the clever slogan, "Adopt a 40 mph couch potato."

Retired racing greyhounds are quiet, sweet-natured dogs with an easy-care coat. These lean, leggy dogs love a soft bed and a coat when it's cold, but otherwise they are hardy pets who fit in well with many family arrangements.

Because the washout rate for racing dogs in training or competition is steady, there are always greyhounds available for adoption. One site to help match career-change greyhounds with new homes is Greyhound Pets of America (www.greyhoundpets.org), with links to chapters in 25 states. -- G.S.

THE SCOOP

'Disobedience' key to service dog's work

Did you ever wonder how service dogs trained to assist vision-impaired people know when it's safe to cross the street? It has nothing to do with the color or position of the walk signal, and everything to do with the teamwork between the dog and the person.

Dogs trained to assist vision-impaired people are a relative rarity amongst working dogs in that a big part of their training is learning when it's important to disobey. So explains Jane Brackman, former executive director of Guide Dogs of America and owner of the Sirius Press (www.janebrackman.com).

Think about it: Most working dogs are trained to get something reliably done, on command, every single time. They're supposed to sniff out the drugs or bombs, bite the bad guy, find missing people, round up sheep or retrieve birds. Brackman points out that when a blind person tells a service dog what to do, he often doesn't know what he's really asking because he can't see the hazards in front of him. The dog has to know when to disobey, and the owner has to support the dog's decisions.

"You're crossing Wilshire Boulevard, eight lanes, but the blind person doesn't know two of the lanes are under construction," she says. "He listens for the traffic signal changing, hears the traffic flow change, and then tells the dog, 'Forward.' If the dog feels it's not safe to proceed, she'll back up into the rigid harness, signaling to the person that it's unsafe to go forward."

Brackman says it's a partnership built on respect and trust. "Neither the dog nor the person is in total control at any time. Their lives depend on each other. Neither could cross the street safely without the other."

The only signals that really count, in other words, are from handler to dog and back again. -- G.S.

BY THE NUMBERS

Thanks for letting me in!

Fewer dogs are spending their entire lives outdoors, according to a 2004 survey of pet lovers. Where dogs hang out:

During the day

Indoors 47 percent

Outdoors 20 percent

Indoors and outdoors 33 percent

During the night

Indoors 65 percent

Outdoors 18 percent

Indoors and outdoors 17 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PET TIP

Parrot's eyes give early bite warning

Parrots often stare at something that fascinates or frightens them, using one eye and tipping the head, or using both eyes for a head-on look. When you see your bird fixated on something, follow that line of vision. A relaxed body posture accompanies a calm, curious bird's staring, and a more defensive or aggressive body language demonstrates fright.

Parrots are able to control their irises, shrinking and enlarging their pupils rapidly in a display that's called "flashing" or "pinning." Parrots may exhibit this behavior when they're excited or when they're angry.

Flashing or pinning accompanied by aggressive posturing, such as tail-fanning, signifies a bird who's bound to escalate his warnings -- and maybe even bite -- if not left alone to calm down on his own. If you must handle a parrot in an agitated state, wrap him in a towel for protection. -- G.S

Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." 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 petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.

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