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

TRICKS ARE TREATS

Universal Press Syndicate

Looking for a way to keep your dog busy on those days when the cold limits outside activity? It's easy: Exercise his mind.

Veterinarians have long been sounding the alarm on what the lack of exercise is doing to the health of our pets, triggering an obesity crisis that's echoing our own. Regular exercise means pets with fewer health and behavior problems.

But many of our dogs are also getting the short end of the stick when it comes to exercising their minds. And winter is a great time to teach your old dog a few new tricks.

What many people don't realize is that training is a way of communicating with your dog, of sharing a common language. The more words you both know the meaning of, the more you are sharing your lives.

How many words can your dog know? You'd be surprised. Consider that dogs who serve people with disabilities are routinely trained to perform dozens of different tasks. If you say your dog is not as smart as a service dog, we'll argue back that even if he's only half as smart, he can learn a couple of dozen more things than he knows now.

Besides, tricks are great fun for all dogs. While canine whiz kids such as poodles and border collies will pick up things quickly, any dog will catch on eventually, if you're patient, consistent and encouraging. You can teach tricks one at a time or a couple at once, as long as you have time to practice each one several times a day.

Some dogs are better at some tricks than others. A small, agile terrier may find jumping through hoops easier than a bulldog would. And a retriever is probably more willing to hold things in his mouth than is a Pekinese. A basset hound can probably roll over but may find begging a little hard, being a little top-heavy. So think about your dog's form and aptitudes before you start. You may notice something special your dog does that would be entertaining if you can get him to do it on command. You can. Give it a name, use that word when he's most likely to do his thing, and praise him for "obeying." He'll make the connection soon enough.

You can dress up tricks a little, too, to make them seem more than they are. We've both judged at events with prizes for pet tricks -- always a fun way to spend an afternoon. At one such event, the winner was a friendly Rottweiler who liked to jump in the air after soap bubbles. The trick itself wasn't that big a deal, really, except for the fact that the owner turned it into a crowd-pleaser with a few props.

She put a ballerina skirt around the dog's middle, with matching pink leg warmers on her back legs and a tiara on her head. She then put on "Swan Lake" in her portable stereo and starting blowing bubbles. The dog's leaps and turns were a million times funnier when choreographed, and the pair won easily.

Check trick-training books and Web sites for ideas. If your dog shows a true aptitude and is the friendly, easygoing sort, you might find that joining a pet therapy group can be something you'll both enjoy, an activity that gives your dog a job while brightening the lives of other people.

Q&A

Switch attention to approved toys

Q: Can you recommend a good, safe toy that our golden retriever Sammy could carry around with him? It's a matter of special interest to us, since Sammy will pick up anything. I thought if I could find something safe for him to carry around, it would save my glasses, lighter, scarves and dishcloths from being stolen. Any help would be appreciated. -- B.L., via e-mail

A: Retrievers were developed to carry items, and some of them take their jobs quite seriously. One of my retrievers, McKenzie, always greets me with a toy in her mouth -- and sometimes three or four, all at once. She's very proud of her natural abilities, and she makes me laugh, so I like her skills, too.

When you're dealing with behavior as natural as this, the best thing to do is go with the flow. First, the fun part: shop therapy. Get a couple of plush pet toys to start with -- some stores will even welcome your dog inside so he can choose his own. You can also save money by picking up used plush toys originally sold for children at tag sales or thrift stores. Just run them through the washer and dryer, and remove the eyes and other bits that can be chewed off and swallowed before adding to the toy mix.

Get a toy box for your growing collection -- I use a cheapie milk crate -- so the toys are always in reach. And let your dog know it's OK to take them out of there any time he pleases.

Practice retrieving games with your dog to interest him in his new toys, and encourage him to bring them to you by asking him to "go find" and then by leading him to the toy box. You can eventually make this game more challenging and fun by hiding the toys, or by asking for them by name, such as "football" or "rooster."

Teach him "leave it" to protect your things. With him sitting in front of you, hold a cookie in a closed fist and say "leave it." Keep your fist closed until he stops showing active interest and backs off. Then say "OK," open your fist, and let him have the treat. Your dog will soon learn that pawing, sniffing and whining will not get him a goodie, but leaving the treat alone when told to do so will eventually bring rewards.

Once he understands what's expected of him, tell him to "leave it" when you see him looking at your things and then ask him to get one of his toys instead. If you find him with something he shouldn't have, take it without comment and send him for his toy. If you're consistent, he'll make the connection soon enough and will start carrying around his toys instead of yours. -- Gina Spadafori

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.

On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or visiting PetConnection.com.

PET BUZZ

Signs of suffering may be very subtle

-- Because animals naturally hide their pain to protect themselves from predators, pets may be suffering even if they don't show obvious signs. Veterinarians recommend watching for subtle signs of discomfort such as abnormal chewing habits, drastic weight change, avoidance of affection or handling, decreased movement or exercise, excessively licking or biting himself, and uncharacteristic house-soiling. When a pet changes behavior, the problem may be medical. Time to see the vet!

-- Sybil, a black-and-white cat, recently found her way inside the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street in London. Perhaps tired of the finance minister's smaller apartment, she made her way down to more spacious quarters, where Healthy Pet magazine reports she's made herself quite comfortable. Cats have long been cherished as residents at the historic address.

-- A cat named Sugar followed his family 1,500 miles by foot, miraculously tracking them to their new house over a 14-month journey. Sugar's family had left him with neighbors when they moved from Oklahoma to California, but Sugar had other ideas.

-- The oldest living cat verified by Guinness World Records was Creme Puff, who lived to age 38. -- Dr. Marty Becker

PET TIP

Fetch is fine for tennis ball

Your dog shouldn't be given unsupervised access to tennis balls, no matter how much he likes them. Tennis balls aren't designed to stand up to chewing, and the pieces can easily be swallowed. Even worse, some dogs have managed to compress the balls and then get them lodged in the back of their mouths.

For fetch, though, tennis balls are fine. A couple of manufacturers have developed devices to help you avoid picking up a drool-covered tennis ball. These flingers take their inspiration from the game of jai alai and can even help you throw farther. Look for them in pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites. -- Gina Spadafori

THE SCOOP

Don't neglect to pick up after your pet

Of all the things that annoy people about dogs -- or, more precisely, about dog owners -- "the pile" has to be near the top of the list. Picking up after your dog is one of the most important things you can do as a dog owner, and yet it's something too many ignore.

If you're among those who look the other way while "the pile" is being deposited, it's time you thought seriously about changing your ways. The good news: It's not hard at all. All you need is a pocket and some plastic bags.

You can use the plastic bags they pack your groceries in or buy any number of inexpensive products designed for the purpose, including biodegradable ones.

The plastic bag is the world's easiest pooper-scooper.

Before heading out the door with your dog, pop a couple of plastic bags in your pocket. If the need arises, push your hand into the bottom of a bag, turning it inside out and forming a mitten that completely covers your hand. Then pick up the poop with that plastic-covered hand, pulling it into the bag as the "mitten" turns inside out again, this time with the poop in the pocket and hand outside. Flip the bag's sealer edges inward, closing the bag, or tie the handles if you're using the bigger size.

Pop the package into the nearest trash bin and you've done your civic duty, without any fuss or bother. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Pets? No thanks!

Among people who have no desire for a pet, cleaning up after the animals is one of the main reasons for lack of interest. Here are some of the top reasons why people don't want pets (multiple answers allowed):

Don't want to clean up after them 38 percent

No one home during the day 36 percent

Not enough time 33 percent

Shedding 33 percent

Too much responsibility 32 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Don't punish pet for coming to you

You walk in the door and call your dog in a friendly voice. She comes running and jumps up to lick your face.

Your tone changes from friendly to harsh as you yell at her, trying to teach her not to jump up. Confused and trying to please, she keeps jumping up. She doesn't understand it's the jumping that's the problem. And you don't understand why she doesn't get it.

When dogs don't understand our instructions, they often become anxious and less teachable. Be sure your dog knows specific words so you can shape behaviors when they are aroused. If your dog jumps on you, turn your back and say, "Sit!" When your dog sits, then crouch down quickly to praise the sit and enjoy a nice greeting instead of muddy paws on your shirt.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)

Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

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