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

RUN FREE, RUN SAFE

Universal Press Syndicate

Dog runs or parks -- public, fenced areas set aside for off-leash play -- offer dogs the chance to meet others and burn off some energy.

But not all dogs are well-suited to the often rough play of a dog park. To get some tips on dog parks, we turned to Dr. Melissa Bain, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Because of disease concerns, dog parks should be off-limits to puppies less than 6 months of age, and to dogs who are extremely old, chronically ill or otherwise immune-compromised. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

Not even a healthy dog can just be thrown into a dog park. Your pet should be friendly with other dogs and with people. If your dog acts out in fear or aggression with other dogs, new environments, new people or when in a confined area, then your dog is not ready for the dog park -- and may never be.

Many dogs don't mean to be aggressive, but they will often provoke fights or fearfulness from other dogs with overly aggressive and unrelenting play. These are likely dogs who were not properly socialized as puppies and never learned to read another dog's "leave me alone" cues. Hormones can also play a role, and that's why it's usually best for dog-park play to be among spayed and neutered animals.

Even if your dog is relaxed and comfortable in new situations and is good with other dogs, you must be sure your dog will come when called before you take him to a dog park so you can extricate him from a potentially unsafe situation.

Get the scoop on the local dog park by going without your dog at first. Find out the busiest part of the day (usually right after normal work hours and on weekends), the slowest (usually early mornings and mid-afternoons), and whether any aggressive dogs frequent the park. Visit at about the time you'll usually be there and observe who else and what other dogs are regulars at that time. Your first concern is your dog's well-being and safety, and protecting him from any aggressive dogs who may visit the park is a must.

Look at the park's design as well. Parks should have a double entry, so you can go to the first gate and unleash him while watching for the right moment to enter the main park so your dog doesn't get mugged. And since even well-meaning large dogs can hurt small dogs, it's best to find a park with a separate area for smaller dogs if you want your little guy to run.

You'll also want a park with good basic rules and an engaged group of users who enforce those rules, such as children under complete supervision by an adult (little kids can be easily injured by rough-housing dogs), a limit on the number of dogs a single person can bring in (no one can manage a dozen dogs at once) and, of course, a strict policy of immediate poop pickups.

If your dog is ready and the park seems well-managed, then it's time to take your dog. Try taking your dog to the park in the least busy time of day. Letting your dog become adjusted to the surroundings with few dogs around him will help keep him from getting overwhelmed in a situation where the dog is thrown in the park with numerous others at the busiest time of day.

Watch your dog at all times. It's poor dog-park etiquette -- not to mention unsafe -- to spend your time reading or talking to other dog owners while your dog is unsupervised. Don't allow your dog to bully or be bullied. If you see a problem developing with your dog, the safest course is usually to take him home.

One of the best parts of using a dog park is getting to hang out with others who love dogs as much as you do. Since many dog parks are maintained, policed and improved by those who use them, get active and join your dog park's association. It'll make going even more fun for you and your dog.

(Mikkel Becker Shannon contributed to this article.)

Q&A

'Toweling' stops bird from biting

Q: I used to take my parrot to the veterinary hospital every couple of months to have his wings trimmed and nails clipped. The staff there was happy to take my bird in the back, and I was happy I didn't have to deal with his histrionics.

We've moved, though, so I'm not using that vet anymore. Besides, it seems this is something I can do on my own and save money. But my bird isn't very cooperative. Can you offer some suggestions to make these sessions easier? -- W.P., via e-mail

A: Have an expert show you exactly where and how much to clip those flight feathers and nails, and learn what to do if things get bloody by accident. Ideally, that should be an avian veterinarian, a veterinary technician or someone on the staff of a reputable bird shop. Are you close enough to your old vet to go back for one more visit?

As for how to get your bird and yourself through the process, you'll need a towel to restrain your bird. An old, clean hand towel is fine for small parrots such as cockatiels and budgies, while a larger bath towel is better for large parrots such as cockatoos and macaws.

Hold the towel with the ends draped over each hand, make eye contact with your bird, and approach from the front. Show your bird the towel and then gently wrap it around the bird, usually from the front. When using a towel to restrain your bird, you do not need to keep direct hold of the head, but do expect a few new holes to be chewed in the towel while you're working with your bird.

Wrap the towel tightly enough to control your bird, but not so tightly as to restrict breathing. Pet birds breathe by moving their breast bones forward and back like a bellows. You must leave the towel wrapped loosely enough for your bird to draw breath normally.

When your bird is gently wrapped up in the towel, you are in control and can take care of grooming or of investigating any injuries. Attitude is everything: Always handle your bird with respect, but also with gentle firmness.

Keep in mind, too, that the towel is not supposed to terrify your bird. It's a good idea to play "towel games" now and then, covering and uncovering your bird while providing praise and special seeds for treats. That way, your bird won't come to believe the appearance of the towel is always a sign of something uncomfortable and unpleasant to come. -- 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

Put your pet on wine label

-- Promote your favorite furry friend to a spot of honor: on your wine bottle. California-based Carivintas Winery (www.dogloverswineclub.com) lets you feature your dog's portrait right on the label. But this wine doesn't just taste good -- it also does good. With each sale, 10 percent goes to a Carivintas-affiliated charity of the buyer's choice. Dog lovers and wine aficionados should both lap this up.

-- Italian researchers have discovered subtle signs of dog body language suggesting that when dogs feel good about something, they tend to wag their tails more to the right. Reported in Current Biology, the study shows that when dogs have more negative or fearful feelings, their tails wag more to the left.

-- Most people can detect more than 10,000 distinct odors. Professional smellers -- known as "noses" in the fragrance industry -- can detect 10 times that amount. But even at our best, human sniffers have nothing on dogs. Bloodhounds can detect odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans. Spirit magazine reports that if we humans had the same olfactory capabilities, we could sniff out a drop of chocolate in a city the size of Philadelphia.

-- Texas A&M University researchers are testing a new contraceptive that could be administered through baited food to control wild animal populations -- and could eventually be used in companion animals. The medication works by inhibiting maturation of the egg to prevent fertilization, but it does not inhibit the estrous cycle altogether. -- Dr. Marty Becker

PET BUY

Comparing window-mounted cat doors

When Clara joined my family last year, I was determined to keep her from roaming -- for her safety, for the safety of songbirds and out of consideration for my neighbors.

Like any cat, though, she loves fresh air, and she can get that by going into a screened area that's accessible both from my kitchen and the garage. She uses window-mounted cat doors, which gave me the opportunity to try out two different kinds.

-- The Let Meow't ($90 from pet-supply retailers, www.letmeowt.com) is more complicated to set up and to install, although a handier person than I am would have mastered it in a snap. Its lockable baffled design is energy-efficient and draft-free, although teaching a cat to get through the maze does take a while. The energy-efficiency comes at a price, though, since the unit is bulky and blocks the light. I ended up using it in the garage window, where its draft-free design doesn't really matter much, but where its room-darkening properties also don't matter.

-- The Cat Windoor ($100 from pet-supply retailers, www.petsafe.net) is a basic, lockable clear cat flap mounted in a piece of clear plastic. Installation was a snap, and it took me about 15 minutes to put in, tops. Clara figured out how to use it in about the same amount of time. I put it in the kitchen window. It's good-looking enough to have where you don't mind seeing it, and the clear plastic lets the light through. Problem is, even with the provided insulation tape, it's not very energy-efficient, and it's a little drafty.

My recommendations: Consider your application. For more visible windows in moderate climates, the Windoor is perfect. Everywhere else, the Let Meow't would be my preference. -- Gina Spadafori

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

'Natural' pet products soar

It seems pet owners are trying to reduce their animals' carbon paw print by buying products that are (or at least are marketed as) "natural." According to market-research firm Packaged Facts (www.packagedfacts.com), U.S. retail sales of "natural" pet products are climbing.

2003 sales: $558 million

2007 sales: $1.3 billion

2012 sales*: $2.5 billion

(*projected)

PET TIP

All birds need 'step up' skill

The "step up" command is basic to having a well-behaved pet parrot. Like dogs, birds are social climbers and will take advantage of the human who isn't perceived as leadership material. The bird who understands and reacts properly to "step up" is one who also knows you're in charge.

If you have a well-socialized young bird, you should be able to teach "step up" pretty easily. Start with your bird on your hand or on a T-stand perch. Ask your bird to "step up" on your finger (for small birds) or hand (for large birds) by pressing against his belly, just above the legs. Offer praise and a favorite treat (such as a seed) for complying.

Ask your bird to "step up" at least a dozen times a day -- to leave his cage, to be petted, to move from room to room -- and you'll be on your way to having a well-mannered pet. -- 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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