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

CLICKING WITH YOUR PET

Universal Press Syndicate

When you're looking for an easy way to train your pet, it doesn't get much better than clicker training. The no-force technique works on animals of all sizes, ages and abilities. And that's true of the people who would administer clicker training, since it doesn't require strength or much coordination on the part of the trainer.

Best of all: It's fun for trainer and pet alike.

A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand -- a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it -- click-click!

The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers. What it provides is timing -- it allows a trainer working with a dog who understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward because in the early stages of training the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants, most usually a tiny treat.

Does this sound familiar? Like from a psychology class, perhaps? It should ring a bell, because the underlying principal of clicker training is scientific and is called "operant conditioning" (Pavlov's drooling dogs and all). But you can be excused if you don't want to know the ins and outs of the science and just want to cut to the chase.

After all, your pet just wants to get to the good part, too.

You start by teaching your pet that a click means a treat. Pick a time when your pet isn't sleeping (not just after a meal) and is a little hungry (a couple of hours before a meal). Choose a relatively small, quiet place you can work without too many distractions, and prepare a pouch or bowl of tiny, yummy treats (diced hot dogs are popular, as are pieces of cheese or even bits of kibble). For the next few minutes, click and treat. One click, one treat. Again, and again, and again. Eventually your pet will show you he understands that the sound means food. For example, he may look immediately to the source of the treats after hearing the click.

When that happens, you're on to the next stage. But wait until your next session, because clicker training works best with a couple of short sessions -- less than 10 minutes -- every day.

When you're all set up again, sit quietly with your clicker and treats -- and wait. Your dog should start volunteering behaviors, everything from sitting to pawing to wandering in a circle. When your pet chooses one you like, click, treat and wait again. Your dog will initially be confused but should eventually offer the behavior again. Be patient! When that moment comes, click, treat and wait again

Say you clicked your dog a couple of times because he finally got bored and sat. Soon your dog will sit to test his theory that sitting means a click-treat. When that happens, click and "jackpot" him with a handful of treats. When the pattern is firmly established, you can then give it a name ("sit") and make the food reward more random to strengthen it (this is the principal that keeps you pulling the slot machine handle).

In future sessions you'll move on from the "sit" that your dog knows, waiting for more behaviors to click, treat and name, as you build your pet's repertoire of commands. More complicated behaviors are trained by "chaining" -- training in pieces and putting them together.

One more thing: Never punish your pet for not "getting it right." Clicker training is all about the payoff, and once you get it mastered, there's no end to the things you can teach your dog to do.

SIDEBAR

Learn more about clicker training

Clicker-training pioneer Karen Pryor's books, seminars and Web site (Clickertraining.com) are highly recommended for learning more about this training method. While you're on the Internet, you can also join the ClickerSolutions e-mail group (clickersolutions.com) run by trainer and author Melissa Alexander, whose "Click for Joy" (Sunshine Books, $25) was named the dog-training book of the year when it first came out.

Many trainers also offer clicker classes, so ask around for help locally.

Clicker training isn't limited to dogs -- all animals (and even aquarium fish) can learn with this method. Check out YouTube for a video of a cat learning with a clicker to turn on a light (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vja83KLQXZs). Search for "clicker training" for more on YouTube. -- Gina Spadafori

Q&A

Seeds a bird treat, not a staple

Q: My Amazon parrot's veterinarian tells me she should eat some dry food that he recommends and sells, plus a variety of "people" food, mostly chopped vegetables and fruits. But she loves sunflower seeds, and she seems depressed and angry if they're not always available. She won't eat anything else if they are available.

I have read that sunflower seeds are addictive, which would explain my bird's behavior. My vet says that's not true, but that they're not good as a regular part of her diet. What's the truth? -- T.L., via e-mail

A: I guess the answer depends on how you define "addictive." If you mean is there a substance in the seeds that alters the body's chemistry and leads to a frantic craving, then the answer is no. There's just no evidence that sunflower seeds can exert that kind of hold on a bird.

But if you mean addiction in the more casual sense -- like my "addiction" to chocolate -- then you're probably on to something. Many birds find sunflower seeds to be the yummiest of treats.

Your vet's advice on feeding your bird is spot on. A variety of healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, pasta, cooked eggs, etc.) is key. Covering the bases with a respected commercial dry parrot food is what most avian vets would recommend.

You don't have to completely force your bird to go cold turkey on seeds, though. Since they have such a high value to your pet, use them as rewards for training. Make sure they're the unsalted kind, though. -- Gina Spadafori

Don't leave cat home alone

Q: How long can my cat stay home alone if I leave plenty of food and water? I don't have anyone to care for him while I am gone, up to four days at a time for business. -- S.W., via e-mail

A: How would you like to be left with food that's getting older by the minute, water that's developing a skin of slime and a bathroom where the toilet's backed up? That's pretty much what you're dealing with if you leave your cat unattended for more than a day.

Even worse, what if the water is spilled, or your cat eats all the food on day one? And what if he gets seriously sick or injured and no one's around to help?

Although there are some time-release food-dispensers that can keep a cat covered for a weekend in a pinch, your pet really should have someone check in at least once a day.

If you don't have friends, relatives or neighbors who can help, hire a pet sitter to come to your home. PetSitUSA.com, Petsitters.org and www.petsit.com all offer searchable listings, or simply ask friends and co-workers for recommendations (and check references!). -- 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

That smell? It must have been the dog

-- We just got wind of an interesting book: "Blame It on the Dog: A Modern History of the Fart" by Jim Dawson (Ten Speed Press, $10). Reviewers say it's a breezy read.

-- Higher than previously understood, about 14 percent of the U.S. population is infected with roundworms contracted from dogs and cats. That's according to the results of a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. People under age 20 are most at risk, picking up the parasites through accidental ingestion of roundworm eggs found in areas contaminated with feces of infected dogs and cats (such as play areas and sandboxes). The best protection is to keep your children's sandboxes covered, teach them to wash their hands frequently, and take your veterinarian's advice on year-round parasite control for all pets using monthly prescription products that are simple, safe and effective.

-- While the dog-related strain of the fatal rabies virus has disappeared from the United States, dogs can still become infected through tangles with raccoons, skunks or bats. So while there is some good news, don't think for a moment that rabies has been eliminated. You still need to follow your veterinarian's recommendations (and the law) regarding rabies vaccinations. Mandatory vaccinations have created what's known as "herd immunity" in U.S. dogs, and it's vital to continue this practice to protect dogs and people from the deadly virus. -- Dr. Marty Becker

PET TIP

Pet sweaters aren't just for fashion

With much of the nation in the grip of bitter cold, don't hesitate to help out your dog with a sweater.

Yes, it may look silly to some, but for older dogs, smaller dogs, those with little body fat (such as greyhounds and whippets) or sparse fur coats, the extra warmth a sweater provides is a kindness.

You don't need to make a fashion statement with a leather jacket or a fur-lined collar. A couple of easy-to-wash acrylic knits from your local pet-supply store will do the trick, and fairly economically. -- Gina Spadafori

THE SCOOP

Cat door means freedom -- for you both

Installing a cat door can end your days as a door opener. Putting one in as a gateway to a screened porch is a great way to give your cat safe access to the smells and sounds of the great (and dangerous) outdoors.

The basic cat door has a flexible plastic flap that opens as your cat pushes on it and seals shut again with gravity -- and sometimes magnets -- to keep the heat, cold and wind out after he's passed through. Although these flaps are fine for warmer climes, they may be a little drafty in areas with more severe winters. Be sure to check out window models such as those from LetMeowt.com.

To teach your cat to use the door, tape the flap up securely for a few days so that he comes to appreciate the fact that he can conveniently come and go on his own schedule through this magic portal. (And I do mean securely. If your cat gets clobbered by the flap, it'll take a long time to coax him near it again.)

Then put the flap down and put a little butter or margarine on the bottom edge of the flap and encourage him with tasty treats and praise from the other side. You can also drag toys on a string through, encouraging him to chase them.

Repeat in very short intervals over the course of several days and your cat will get the hang of it, sure enough. If you have another cat who already knows how to use the cat door, you usually don't need to do anything. Your new cat or kitten will learn from the other cat -- or even the dog. -- Gina Spadafori

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Cats vs. dogs

In terms of popularity, cats hold the upper paw. More households have dogs than have cats, but families with cats tend to have more of them -- an average of 2.2 cats per household compared to 1.7 dogs. In 2006, Americans kept:

-- 81.7 million cats

-- 72 million dogs

Source: American Veterinary Medical Association

PET BUY

Perch assortment needn't cost much

A perch is more than something to stand on for your bird. Chosen properly, it's also an important tool for helping to keep your bird physically and emotionally sound. When choosing perches, think variety, and select an array of textures. Choices you'll find at the bird store include rope, natural wood and concrete, and each should find a place in your bird's cage.

Some of the best perches around won't cost you anything more than the time it takes to trim them from your trees. Limbs from most fruit and nut trees make fine perches, as do those from ash, elm, dogwood and magnolia. Break off any pods or pieces that might harbor bugs, cut to fit the cage, scrub with detergent, rinse well, and let dry in a sunny spot before putting them in the cage. -- Gina Spadafori

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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