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

Pocket Pet Power

YOU CAN USE CLICKER-TRAINING TECHNIQUES TO TEACH TRICKS TO POCKET-SIZE PETS

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Can your ferret play basketball? Your rabbit race through weave poles? Your pot-bellied pig complete an obedience routine? Well, why not? These animals, as well as guinea pigs, rats, mice, gerbils and more, can all learn to amaze your friends and family by performing tricks and other behaviors on cue. Think it can't be done? So do most people, until they try it, says behavioral biologist and learning authority Karen Pryor of Watertown, Mass.

Using a clicker, you can teach "pocket pets" to raise a paw, go through hoops, stand up on their hind legs and put their paws on a box, put a pingpong ball in a miniature basket and play basketball, and pull on a string to turn a light on and off, Pryor says.

Clicker training involves marking a desired behavior with a sound -- made by pressing down on the clicker -- and then rewarding the animal with a favorite treat, toy or praise. Pets learn quickly that the sound of the clicker means they've done something you like and that a reward is forthcoming.

Teaching the animal to touch or follow a target, such as a wooden spoon or a chopstick, is usually the first step. Hold it out, and when the animal moves forward to sniff it, click and give a favorite treat, something the animal loves that he doesn't get on an everyday basis. Even timid animals who aren't hand-tame can be willing to approach the target.

"Click the instant they touch or sniff or even look at the target," Pryor says. "Then give them a treat. Don't make them come to you -- just drop it in a little dish so they can get it without having to come near you. It's just temporary because as soon as they figure out what they're doing is making you click, they're going to stop being afraid of you.

"As soon as they'll come to the target or follow the target, you can do anything you want with them. You can teach them to jump over your foot, go through a tunnel -- you can have an agility course on the kitchen floor. Many people have taught guinea pigs and rabbits to weave through poles," says Pryor.

Teach tricks that are appropriate for your pet. For instance, ferrets are good with their paws and can learn to pick up things, while guinea pigs and rabbits are better suited to pushing items with their noses or hopping in and out of weave poles.

Laura Bourhenne, a dog and exotic animal trainer with Animal Attraction Unlimited in Woodland Hills, Calif., says teaching a nose touch is good for all animals, especially if you can train them to do it for an extended time.

"The behavior can be used to keep the animal still during a vet exam," she says. "And if I know how an animal looks when it turns in a circle and then that behavior changes or the animal won't do it when asked for it, then that can give me a big clue when something is off in the animal's body."

Teaching tricks has other practical benefits. Your pet can learn to come when called -- very useful when a pocket pet has escaped from his cage -- to move to a specific place, making it easier to clean his cage, and to be willing to sit still for handling, which comes in handy if you need to trim his nails or take him to the veterinarian.

Q&A

Hair loss can signal

allergies or disease

Q: My Doberman is losing hair on his back, the sides of his legs and his tail. Help! -- via email

A: All dogs lose hair normally by shedding, but some health conditions cause extreme hair loss, such as patchy areas, bald spots and complete lack of regrowth. It's easy to tell the difference between normal shedding and abnormal hair loss: Normal shedding doesn't cause bald spots. In the case of your Doberman, you may be dealing with allergies or an endocrine disease such as hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone deficiency).

Dogs with allergies may itch like crazy, so much so that they literally pull their hair out from scratching or chewing at their skin (known as traumatic hair loss). They may also do this if they're itching from external parasites such as fleas or mange mites.

With hypothyroidism, which is common in Dobermans, the hair falls out spontaneously or simply fails to regrow after it has been clipped. Usually the hair loss occurs on both sides of the body, and what hair is left feels dry and brittle. Dogs with hypothyroidism may also have unusually thick, dry skin, and they become cold easily. The bad skin and hair coat occur late in the disease, though.

My colleague Jean Dodds, DVM, who has studied hypothyroidism extensively, says important early signs of hypothyroidism are unexplained weight gain and sudden behavior changes, such as unusual aggression or submissiveness.

Figuring out why your dog is losing hair requires a visit to the veterinarian for a complete physical exam and laboratory testing, which may include blood work to check for thyroid function, serum cholesterol levels and the presence of thyroglobulin autoantibodies; a skin biopsy; or allergy tests.

If your Doberman is suffering from hypothyroidism or some other endocrine disorder, he can be easily treated with medication, but treatment must continue for the rest of his life. Allergies can usually be managed with dietary changes, medication or allergy shots. -- Dr. Marty Becker

THE BUZZ

Pets need extra care

during winter chill

-- Contrary to popular belief, pets' fur coats don't make them immune to the cold. Protect pets from winter's onslaught by shortening walks in extremely cold weather and bringing them indoors when temps drop below freezing, even if they have long or thick coats. Animals who are old or arthritic are more at risk of falling on snow or ice, and pets with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or Cushing's disease may have difficulty regulating their body temperature, so it's important to protect them when they go outdoors. And cat lovers: Knock on the hood before starting your car to make sure you scare out any cats who may have sought shelter inside your vehicle when the engine was warm.

-- Live poultry and tiny turtles were the culprits in three multistate salmonella outbreaks affecting 987 people last year, the Centers for Disease Control reports. Two outbreaks were linked to contact with live chicks and one with pet turtles whose shells are smaller than the legally permitted size of four inches. Children are at higher risk than adults of salmonella infection. Of the people sickened, 70 percent were children 10 years or younger, and 31 percent were 1 year or younger. Any time you handle live poultry or turtles, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

-- Veterinarians at Colorado State University's James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital are studying a new stem-cell therapy that could provide a new treatment option for cats with chronic kidney disease. Earlier studies of the approach showed that it could decrease inflammation, promote regeneration of damaged cells, and improve kidney function. Animals participating in the study are not harmed. -- Kim Campbell Thornton and Dr. Marty Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are joined by professional dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.